“Naming the Unnamable: God as Silence”

1 Kings 19: 3 – 13; Psalm 46:10 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

(Silence for one minute)

That was one minute of silence. Did it feel a bit uncomfortable? We call it an “awkward silence.” It was a bit awkward for me. I was wondering, “What are you thinking?” And maybe you were wondering, “What is she doing? Did she forget that she’s up next in the service?” Of course, from the sermon title, you know that today’s sermon is on silence, so it may not have been a complete surprise, but even so silence can be awkward.

I heard of a husband and wife who were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Yes, the silence in their home was awkward. As the husband went to bed one night, he realized that the would need his wife to wake him at 5 a.m. for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and lose), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5 a.m.” He left it where he knew she would find it. The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover that it was 9 a.m. and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t awakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, “It’s 5 a.m. Wake up.”

Silence can be awkward. Silence just isn’t something that we are accustomed to – whether introvert or extrovert, we’re conditioned to connect with others, to talk, to “break” the silence. And yet, there are many times in which our voices just add to the clamor, to the distraction. What we discover through silence is one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life – “that when we choose to spend time alone we are somehow better when we are together. When we choose time for silence our words become more meaningful. When we choose to be still, more is accomplished” (Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 14). In fact, say relationship experts, it is essential to bring some stillness and silence into our close relationships.

We learn about the wonders of silence and stillness in 1 Kings.  We meet Elijah. 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!  Jezebel was a foreigner who worship the god Baal, the fertility god. She brought in temple prostitutes to Israel. Jezebel’s name actually appears in the dictionary.  Jezebel refers to a morally corrupt woman.  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.”

Elijah and Jezebel hold a contest to see whose God is more worthy of praise: Jezebel’s Baal or Elijah’s Yahweh. And who wins the contest? But Elijah. As a result, Jezebel is enflamed with anger. She wants to kill Elijah. And Elijah runs for his, literally.

He runs and runs and runs and finally lays down under the broom tree and falls asleep. Suddenly an angel touches him and says to him, “Get up and eat.” He wakes up and sees a jug of water and a cake. Some say this was the first angel food cake. Elijah was tired and depleted on every level and 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.

Then Elijah went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.  The number forty appears over and over in the Bible.  It is a spiritual number and it is the number of our Lenten days. Forty. Forty represents a period of testing, tribulation, and trial.  But it always ends with renewal, revival and restoration.

At the end of those 40 days, 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. God was in the silence. 

God whispers. God’s indoor voice is still and small. 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. Indeed, God’s first language is silence.

In silence, we discover that our circumstances many not change, but we change.

In the silence we discover stillness. In the stillness we discover inner peace which is the essence of our being. It is inner peace that will save and transform the world.

Cynthia Bourgeault, a wisdom teacher and contemplative, is often challenged in her work, by those who say this is not the time to be contemplative, this is the time for action. And she responds passionately with these words:

What is needed is for you to stay within yourself. To be grounded as a spiritual being is the best you can bring to the world. When we are committed to the practice of daily meditation and can stay within ourselves, grounded, alert, present in a pool of inner attentiveness, we are the people the world needs. Centered within is how we will know what ours is to do.

After all, wisdom operates silently. Stillness is where creativity and solutions to problems is found. I find that to be true every morning. It is amazing what emerges out of 30 minutes of silence, of prayer and meditation – more happens in that 30 minutes of stillness in my day than all the hurrying and scurrying that I do throughout the rest of the day. It’s true. Fortunately, I am blessed to lead a congregation that values silence with its annual silent retreats and monthly Sacred Saturdays. It is astonishing the creativity and deep peace that comes from our silent retreats and Sacred Saturdays. Astonishing. It takes my breath away.

Virtually, every spiritual tradition that holds a vision of human transformation at its heart also claims that a practice of intentional silence is non-negotiable. We heard it today in our scripture with Elijah, but we find it true with the meditations found un Buddhist traditions, the zikr of the Sufis, and the contemplative prayer of the Christians. There is a universal affirmation that the spiritual practice of silence is essential to spiritual awakening.  

In the stillness we discover inner peace. It is that inner peace that will save and change the world.

Rumi writes, “Secretly we spoke, That wise one and me. I said, Tell me the secrets of the world. The wise one said, Shh..Let silence tell you the secrets of the world.