Ours is a city, a country, a world built on noise.
And the noise is especially loud these days. There’s the noise in Charlottesville, to be sure, but it doesn’t start and stop with the abhorrent noise of white supremacy to the south of us.
As if this plague is limited by an international border, as if this plague doesn’t also infect us here on these unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tseil-Waututh Nations.
The noise is everywhere. It surrounds us. It’s within us. There are days the noise is so loud, I can barely hear myself think. And there are days the noise of this world is so loud I fear I’ve lost the ability to hear the stillness of the voice of God.
And so, tonight we read and engage with scripture to listen once again for God’s voice.
Tonight’s Old Testament reading picks up after a firefight in the streets between the forces of oppression and the forces of liberation.
As a bit of a refresher, Ahab and Jezebel are ruling Israel, and they’re not doing so well. The record puts it this way: “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before them” (1 Kings 16:30). There were some sad kings before him, but this king was incredibly SAD.
He was a real estate baron who would stop at nothing to get the choicest of properties. He even started his own wine label, that time he had Naboth killed to steal his vineyard.
And even though he was mortgaged up to his eyeballs and indebted to some mean characters, it didn’t seem to matter. He seemed unstoppable, in no small part because he had some serious henchmen (and women) by his side willing to execute his plans with a vengeance.
His was an administration of narcissism, of power, and control. His was an administration proclaiming the superiority and supremacy of one over the other, rather than submitting to the call of YHWH dictating that the people and their king ought to embody justice, peace, and shalom.
That’s why YHWH sent the prophets. And that’s why Elijah was such a thorn in Ahab and Jezebel’s side. He demanded the oppression stop.
But King Ahab didn’t take too kindly to this. Jezebel neither.
To keep their administration in power, they developed a program of silencing and disappearing anyone who didn’t agree. They tracked down and killed the prophets who dared remind them of YHWH’s covenant with Israel, and the King’s responsibility to lead the people in the way of shalom.
Elijah, afraid though he was, entered into the fray, calling the people back to covenant, back to God. Back to the self-giving Creator of all, in whose image all people are made, and through whom all life has been given.
Elijah, the last of the prophets, shows up to meet the king unannounced. The insecure ruler who had spent millions seeking to destroy every last prophet in the land now has the chief of prophets in his living room.
Elijah presents the king, and his prophets of war and destruction with a challenge. They accept. They lose. In the end, Elijah wins victory in this battle against the prophets of Baal.
Or to be more accurate, YHWH wins victory in a firefight against Baal, leaving Ahab and Jezebel in a venomous rage. Their empire of power and control has been embarrassed on the world stage, their power shown to be a sham, and they’re clinging to anything that will keep them on top. Throw the Security Director and special advisors under the bus. Fire the press secretary (again).
Whatever it takes.
And Elijah vanishes. He’s followed God into this confrontation with the powers of oppression, participated in the victory – God’s victory, not his – and despite it all remains afraid.
Reading a commentary on our this week’s lections, these words stood out:
“As we look at the texts for this week, we can see the frailty of our human fear laid bare to us in the lives of some bold Biblical ancestors.”
Even as we walk faithfully in step with God, we can be plagued by fear. Elijah participates in God’s stunning victory, yet instead of elation, he is afraid. He is afraid of what Ahab and Jezebel might do. He is afraid for his life.
If I were to put myself in his shoes, I would be sick of the whole business. Who wouldn’t get sick of the prophetic task, constantly reminding an unjust world, and unjust leaders, and neighbours, of the kind of world God is calling us to (and that this is not it).
God is calling us to become communities of reconciliation. And that life of resistance is hard work. Reconciliation is a journey that never ends. It’s nothing we can do on our own. We need God. We need others. We need to be able to hear God beyond the noise that crowds out the voice of God’s sheer silence.
Together, as a community, our lives are meant to be lived in response to the very same God who calls Elijah up to, and meets Elijah on the mountaintop. It’s this very same God who calls Peter out into the storm, inviting him, and inviting us into a bold faithfulness. A new way of seeing. A new way of hearing the cries of our neighbours, and responding to them with self-giving love. And then we get distracted by the noise. And then we fixate on the waves. And we stumble.
To move forward with God, we need to move beyond the noise. Empires operate on bluster and wind, shock and awe, explosions and fire. But God is present in the gap between sentences.
God is present in the silence between breaths. God is not found in showy demonstrations of absolute power or vindictive tweets, but as Elijah discovered on Mount Horeb, God is present in the sound of sheer silence.
Acoustic Ecologist Gordon Hempton, speaking of today’s world observes, “silence is so endangered, we even need another word for it. Silence is on the verge of extinction.” So much of that is self-imposed. And I am guilty as anyone on that front.
There are few places in our world that would be able to compare with mountain where Elijah heard God’s deep and profound silence, the same mountain where Moses encountered God in the burning bush.
But there are still altars in our world. And there’s a reason we gather here week in and week out. To listen, receive, to come face-to-face with God’s paradoxical presence in the silence, and to move out into the world together to embody God’s shalom: God’s justice and holistic peace. We gather to cultivate practices of listening in the midst of this frenzied world so we can resist the forces of a world hellbent on its own destruction.
In the midst of fear and frenzy, we come together to find the centre, where God meets us personally, and communally.
Even in the midst of our fear, God is steadfast, faithful, present. God calls us by name, and calls us beloved. And God invites us – you, me, all of us – to respond to this love with heart, mind, soul and strength.
As we respond, I pray that we might become, with God’s help, the place where steadfast love and faithfulness meet, where justice and peace will kiss.