Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our first reading today is part of the sprawling narrative of the prophet Elijah. The Elijah narrative has some truly awful characters. Especially Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. Many Christians have some stereotypes of the Old Testament, and of the God of the Old Testament. And the Elijah narrative supports many of those stereotypes. Consider these words of God from today’s first reading: You shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Unpronounceable names! And divine wrath, and violent slaughter. Unfortunately confirming the worst stereotypes about the Old Testament.
In today’s first reading, the voice of God is contrasted with what we might jokingly call a California summer. A wind storm, an earthquake, and a fire. Forces of nature that continue to disrupt and destroy life in the 21st century. Perhaps even more disruption and destruction than in the ninth century B.C., which is the time frame for our first reading. But today’s first reading says that God was not in the wind storm. God was not in the earthquake. God was not in the fire. And then, after the fire, the narrative tells us that there was a sound of sheer silence. Or, at least according to the translation that we are using: “a sound of sheer silence.” Other translations use the phrase a “still small voice” or “a gentle whisper.” This a very rich text about the presence of God. It echoes a very similar story in Exodus, in which Moses is on this same mountain (Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai) and God passes by Moses while Moses is hiding in a crack in the mountainside.
So it’s a rich text, with a lot of important context, and there are translation issues. Even so, nevertheless, this story tells us plainly that “the Lord was not in the wind.” And “the Lord was not in the earthquake.” And “the Lord was not in the fire.” The Lord was in something more quiet, something more subdued. Our ancient story says three times where the Lord was not.
By sheer coincidence, our second reading comes from the Apostle Paul. And he says, “the word is near you.” Paul is actually quoting a passage from the Old Testament, from Deuteronomy, from the so-called farewell address of Moses. The last will and testament of Moses. You don’t have to climb up to heaven. You don’t have to cross the sea. God’s word is near. That was a farewell message of Moses in his final days. Which Paul borrowed for this great letter to the Romans. So the thing that our piece of the Elijah story has in common with our reading from Romans is that both are saying where the presence of God, where the word of God, is NOT. And it’s not in the extraordinary or in the extremes. It is near to you, on your lips and in your heart. Not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. Not by ascending to heaven, not by descending into the abyss. The still small voice is near you, on your lips and in your heart. Not in the extraordinary.
The career of the prophet Elijah and the career of Jeremiah were both troubled by false prophets. Elijah and Jeremiah were in competition with others who claimed to represent God. And the others told the kings and told the masses what they wanted to hear. Elijah and Jeremiah were sent by God with truth that was hard to hear. The false prophets were often grandiose in their pronouncements. God’s truth was simple and plain. (It had the advantage of being true.)
So isn’t it conceivable that God is near to you and speaking to you in a quiet way? I think it’s quite conceivable. Not only do I think it’s conceivable, I think it’s normal. The challenge for most of us is the noise. Sometimes the noise is more comfortable than the quiet voice. So we turn up the volume on the noise.
For example, for the most part, I think God talks to me through other people. Or to say it with greater precision, I need to attend to what other people are saying. I need to listen. Listen between the lines. Monitor their emotions while I monitor my own. What is this person really concerned with? How am I reacting to this person? The great architect once said “God is in the details.” Truly, in our connections to each other, God is in the details.
I don’t mean to say that the other person is some kind of unwitting angel or some kind of unwitting prophet sent by God with special instructions. I’m talking about listening between the lines. Listening to the soul. Their soul. And my own. I’m talking about that prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. God is in that. The word is very near to you, says Moses. It is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
By the way, I also think that small talk is beautiful. There is nothing small about small talk. There may be more human connection and more human understanding established in small talk than in all the other kinds of discussion. It’s the connection that matters. Not the words. God is in the details.
I promise that if you listen between the lines, if you just try to listen between the lines, you’ll hear from God. 90% of what goes on in my head is self-justification. Left to my own devices, my mind is always trying to explain myself, compare myself to others, rationalize my behavior, claim that I deserve good things. I don’t even need a conversation partner. I can just talk to myself. Self-justification. When somebody asks me what my hobby is, I say cooking. But I ought to say: self-justification.
It’s a good think I’m a Lutheran. Because the Lutheran spin on Christianity is that God justifies us. Through the Word and the Sacraments of Jesus Christ. When I receive God’s justification through faith Then the self-justification goes away. The noise of self-justification goes away. God’s grace puts a gag on my inner voice of self-justification. And then I can listen to my neighbor. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. I can listen to another person. And I can listen to my own soul. And I may be able to hear God calling me in ways that I could not when I was in the echo chamber of self-justification. (It’s good to be a Lutheran.)
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” After the wind storm, after the earthquake, after the fire. God speaks to Elijah. And it’s a question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Essentially, Elijah has run away from a threat. A threat by Jezebel that she would kill him. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah’s response is self-justification. It’s a good self-justification. I’m very knowledgeable about self-justification, so I can spot good work when I see it.
But there is something going on here between the lines. In our reading, verse ten and verse 14 are identical. God’s question to Elijah is posed twice in this story. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Twice, in the exact same words. And Elijah’s response is given twice in this story, in the exact same words. Verse ten and verse 14 are identical. The repetition is telling us something. It’s telling us about the relationship between God and Elijah. Elijah is afraid, and in his fear he is essentially disobedient. And God and Elijah are essentially having a conversation about this. God and Elijah are kind of like a married couple. Going over the same ground again and again. God and Elijah are sort of like God and Steve. Going over the same ground. Because Steve has been afraid and disobedient. Even without Jezebel threatening my life.
The word is very near to you, says Moses. It is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. I think there is a lot of noise in our lives. And frankly, sometimes I think we prefer it that way. Because God may be asking us questions that we don’t want to think about. And there are plenty of false prophets who will tell us what we want to hear, and won’t trouble us with the things we don’t want to think about. Those numerous false prophets are at our fingertips, a click away. But God is very near, and his voice is very near. Our challenge is to attend to it with reverence, to be assured by it with faith, to follow it with obedience. Amen.