Ash Wednesday – Be Still

Scripture: 1 Kings 19:4-13b; Psalm 46:1-3, 10-11
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

I confess I am a speed addict.  No, not the drug.  I am referring to the inner pace of my life.  I am the person who looks for the fastest moving lane on the freeway.  I am the person who looks for the shortest line at the check-out stand.  I live a hurried life.  It is a reflection of our culture.  But a hurried life takes place not only in the world but in the church, too – which I why I was so grateful for the Silent Retreat that a group of us went on from the church in Big Sur.  It was a 4 day silent retreat (the 2016 instant version of the 40 day wilderness experience).  It was such a deeply fulfilling experience.  I emerged from our time of silence and solitude ever aware that when we spend time apart, we are much better when we come together.  When we spend time in silence, our words are more meaningful when we speak.  When we choose to be still, more is accomplished.   In our scripture passage this evening, Elijah goes on an unexpected Silent Retreat.

Some background to this story.  In the Old Testament, Elijah is the greatest miracle-worker since Moses.  Elijah is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  Ahab is the current king of Israel.  And Ahab is not a good king.  In fact, the Bible says that “Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.”  Why was Ahab seen as such an evil man?  He was married to Jezebel!  How many of you have heard of the name Jezebel?  Jezebel’s name actually appears in the dictionary.  Jezebel refers to a morally corrupt woman.   No other woman’s name has become as commonly accepted as a synonym for wickedness. During the 16th century in England, the term Jezebel was used when women painted their faces, which was taken as evidence of loose morals. So women who wore make-up were told, “You, Jezebel, you.”

Jezebel is from a foreign country and only moves to Israel to marry King Ahaz in order to form a political alliance.  So Jezebel does not worship the God of Israel, Yahweh.  And Jezebel introduces temples of prostitution into Israel.  Ahab turns his back on Yahweh and embraces his wife’s religion.  Elijah, the prophet, powerfully speaks out on this and Elijah becomes Jezebel’s strongest enemy. Jezebel is in enflamed with anger!  She wants to destroy Elijah!  And Elijah runs for his life, literally.

Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life and came to Beer-Sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.  Our hero of faith heads south.  He goes as far south as he can go into Judah and he begins to wander in the wilderness.  I believe this is not just a geographical wilderness but a metaphorical wilderness too.

Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  He looked and there at his head was a cake, baked on hot stones (some say this was the first angel food cake), and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and lay down again.  The angel of the Lord came to him a second time, touched him and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.  He got up and ate and drank.  Elijah was tired and depleted on every level and so God first addresses Elijah’s physical weariness.  Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit; therefore, our bodies need rest; they need food.  God does not say to Elijah, “Run faster; try harder; snap out of it and get going.”  No, God attends to Elijah’s physical needs of rest and food.  There may be some among us today who are in desperate need of rest.  God wants you to take care of yourself.  One of my favorite parts of the Silent Retreat were long naps in the middle of the day.

Then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.  There is that number forty again. Interestingly, Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights at Mount Horeb which is a synonym for Mount Sinai.  Moses spent that same amount of time on the very same mountain when he encountered God.  So, this verse gives us a clue that Elijah is about to have a God experience.

God said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  I like to look at this passage metaphorically for the inner chaos that we often face.  The voice of the Lord was not in the winds of adversity; not in the earthquakes of upheaval, not in the fires that burn our soul.  Rather, Elijah experienced the presence of God in the sound of sheer silence.

“God has an indoor voice.  It’s still and small.  And only patience perceives it.   (Yet) time is the one thing many of us are convinced we don’t have.  Time is too scarce to squander on attentive prayer, scripture reading, discernment, (and silent retreats).  Depth is a luxury we can’t afford.  

“Yet, many of our anxious efforts have short shelf lives.  Like earthquake, wind and fire, they announce themselves with energetic fury, but they do not stay.  God, however, is in the silent deep, waiting for us to hear that still, small voice” (Mary Luti, “Indoor Voice”, Still Speaking Devotional, January 9, 2016).

What did Elijah do when he experience the whisper of God’s love?  He wrapped his face in his mantle – which is a sign of absolute reverence – and he went out and just stood in that sacred Presence of God.  He let that presence wash over him.  I can think of no better response.

As we begin our Lenten journey, may we take time to be still for Holy Silence is more dear than life itself.  It is a prayer beyond prayers.  There is nothing that fills us like the love that is God.  There is nothing that transforms us like the presence that is God.  When we are centered in God’s love, our circumstances may not change, but we change.  

May we all take time to stop in the name of love, to rest in the arms of the Divine, and to listen to the still, small voice of the Sacred.  May we be still and know that God is God.