A Still, Small Voice

John I. Carney
Jun 23 · 12 min read

First UMC Shelbyville
June 23, 2019

1 Kings 19:1–16 (CEB)

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”

Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush.

Then suddenly a messenger tapped him and said to him, “Get up! Eat something!” Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. The Lord’s messenger returned a second time and tapped him. “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

The Lord’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”

The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”

The Lord said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet.”

In the 17th and 18th chapters of 1st Kings, just prior to today’s passage, God provides for the prophet Elijah in several remarkable ways. Elijah had prophesied against the evil King Ahab, and as a result he was a wanted man. Truth-tellers are often sort of unpopular, as we sometimes find out in the newspaper business.

Elijah was on the run. But God provided for him. At one point, ravens bring him bread and meat in the mornings and the evenings. Then, a few verses later, he takes shelter with a widow and her young son. She doesn’t have enough food, because there’s a drought, and a resulting famine, in the land — a famine that Elijah himself had prophesied as punishment for Ahab’s evil deeds. Miraculously, the small amount of flour and oil in this widow’s pantry lasts until the rains come and the famine ends. Then the little boy dies, and Elijah prays, and God brings the little boy back to life.

Then, Elijah then arranges a demonstration, a contest, between himself and the prophets of Baal, the pagan god whom Ahab’s wife Jezebel worshipped. God sends fire down to burn up Elijah’s offering, but the prophets of Baal can’t arrange anything similar. The people, at Elijah’s prodding, rise up and kill the prophets of Baal.

When Jezebel finds out about this, she’s furious, and vows to have Elijah killed. Now, you would think that Elijah, this prophet of God, having just witnessed, not one, but a series of miracles, up to and including the resurrection of the dead, would be defiant and declare himself to be under God’s protection. But that’s not what happens. In fact, the Bible tells us that he’s terrified! He longs for death, and prays for God to take him home.

Reading that on the page, it just sounds so, so stupid. But try looking in the mirror. How often has God protected me? How often has God helped me get through some perceived crisis? How often have I worried, and worried, and worried about something, and in the end God gets me through it and my worries were all for nothing?

Maybe God doesn’t act in the exact way I imagined, maybe the solution is not without some pain, but God gets me through whatever the situation is.

And then, the next crisis comes along, and I forget all about what God did for me last time, and I start worrying again, just like Elijah. I’m done, I’m over it, I’m through, just take me home.

And Elijah has this same sort of faithlessness, this amnesia that keeps him from remembering what God has done for him in the past. But God sends a messenger, who brings Elijah food and drink, telling Elijah to eat something, because he has a difficult road ahead of him. Difficult — but, with God’s help, not impossible.

Elijah travels for 40 days and nights until he arrives at Mount Horeb. Now, Mount Horeb is thought, by some scholars, to be the same as Mount Sinai. One possible explanation for the dual name is that perhaps it was one mountain with two different peaks at the top, and the two peaks had different names. But in any case, it’s the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.

Elijah gets to Mount Horeb and hides in a cave. And in the cave, a voice asks him why he’s there. He gives this sort of self-pitying account — the people have fallen away from God, and they’ve murdered the prophets, and now, says Elijah, “they want to take my life too.”

The voice tells Elijah to step outside the cave — God is passing by.

So Elijah steps outside. And there’s a strong wind, but God isn’t in the wind. And there’s a great earthquake, but God isn’t in the earthquake. And there’s a fire, but God isn’t in the fire.

Then, according to the Common English Bible, my go-to translation, there is a thin, quiet sound. Other translations, more familiar to us, call it a “still, small voice.”

When we think about Mount Sinai, we tend to think about a movie. You know the movie I’m talking about. It starred Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, and Edward G. Robinson, and it was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and ABC shows it on broadcast television every Easter. The only three golden-era movies that still get shown on traditional network TV are “It’s A Wonderful Life,” every Christmas, “The Wizard Of Oz,” every now and then, and, of course, “The Ten Commandments.” The networks probably would still show “Gone With The Wind,” if they could get the rights to it, but the Turner cable networks hold on to that one pretty closely.

In “The Ten Commandments,” God speaks with a great, booming voice, and sends down fingers of fire to engrave the commandments on stone tablets. It’s a very impressive display, especially for the day and time in which the movie was created, before computers or CGI.

But in today’s scripture, the fire is just … fire. The wind is just … wind. The earthquake is just … an earthquake. God doesn’t speak to Elijah through any of these phenomena of nature.

There’s a TV evangelist in Virginia who has a habit, whenever there’s a bad hurricane or some other natural disaster, of blaming the people of that area, either because they aren’t Christians, or because they passed some law or elected some candidate that this TV evangelist disagrees with, or what have you. That’s terrible theology. The big, dramatic, Cecil B. DeMille-like stories of the Old Testament sometimes seem to depict God meting out punishment with that kind of broad brush.

But even some of the Old Testament prophets back away from that view of God. Ezekiel quotes an old proverb that “the fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The people to whom Ezekiel were speaking were in exile, and it was easy for them to blame their own misfortune on the sins of their parents. But Ezekiel tells them that’s a bad proverb and they should stop using it and take responsibility for their own situation.

New Testament theology, and the teachings of Jesus, complete the thought. We have individual responsibility, and we have individual access to God’s grace. Sins have consequences, and due to the fallen nature of the world in which we live, innocent people get caught up in those consequences. That’s not the same thing as punishment. God does not punish the children for the sins of the father, and God doesn’t use hurricanes to punish anyone.

Disasters of all sorts happen: natural disasters, wars, terrorism. And in those disasters, innocent people are killed. That is not the vengeance of God. It is the nature of a fallen and chaotic world, waiting on God’s ultimate redemption.

The voice of God was not in the earthquake, or the fire, or the wind. God was not speaking in those things. God spoke through a small, thin voice. It was in the last place Elijah would have thought to look for it or listen for it. It was in the last place we would think to look for it or listen for it.

It was in the silence.

I’m with you this week and next because we are in transition. Lanita has moved on to her new appointment. But Paul hasn’t yet completed his appointment at Ripley. That leaves a two-week gap, and that’s why you’re stuck with me.

The itinerancy is a great, old Methodist tradition, and John Wesley was a big believer in it. He felt that each minister, and that each of the lay preachers who aided in the spread of the Methodist movement, had different strengths and weaknesses, and that it was good for both the congregation and the minister to change things up on a regular basis.

But the itinerancy, the unexpected change in pastoral leadership, can still be a painful experience. I’ve been through it as a parishoner, and for several years growing up I went through it from the other side, as a preacher’s kid. Several others among us had that same experience, seeing the itinerancy for the other side, either as preachers or the family of preachers.

Lanita was a powerful force for good in this congregation and this community. Paul, I trust, will also be a force for good in this congregation and this community. We honor both of them, and we wait anxiously to see what God has in store for us in the months to come.

But the voice of God doesn’t just come from the pulpit. It doesn’t just come from your Sunday School quarterly or the Upper Room. Sometimes, the voice of God comes to you when you least expect it.

The principle known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral states that we know God in four ways — scripture, first and foremost; church tradition; reason; and experience.

Experience is listed last, because we don’t want to fall into the trap of people designing their own belief systems. We are here to seek the truth and to follow God, not to invent the truth and be our own gods. We need to filter our own experience, and our own reason, through scripture, just as we need to evaluate our church traditions in terms of scripture.

But experience is definitely a part of the quadrilateral, that four-legged stool, as it’s often described. God speaks to us. God tugs at our hearts. God shows us how to interpret the scripture, how to apply the scripture, and sometimes, if we’re dug into supporting a bad interpretation of scripture that was handed down to us by previous generations, God has to pull us back onto the right path.

Jesus’ 12 disciples were all Jewish, and after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension they saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the worship of Jesus as part of Judaism. But in Acts 10, we find Peter on the roof of a house, praying. And he sees a vision of all sorts of animals which were forbidden under Jewish dietary law, the laws of Moses that Peter had been taught since he was a boy. God tells Peter, “kill and eat,” and Peter initially refuses, but then God says, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This exchange happens three different times.

This had to be a very troubling thing for Peter. God seemed to be telling Peter to reject what Peter had understood to be the scripture. Sometimes, we confuse our own understanding and our own interpretations and our own traditions with God’s truth. And when someone challenges us, we accuse them of going against God when really they’re only correcting our human mistakes.

After seeing this troubling vision of the unclean animals, Peter is summoned to the home of a Gentile, a centurion named Cornelius. There were rules against Jews fellowshipping with Gentiles, but Peter immediately recognized the metaphor of the vision God had shown him. This wasn’t about food; it was about the Gentiles. Peter goes to Cornelius’ home and preaches the Gospel to him, opening the floodgates for the good news to be shared with the Gentiles, meaning the entire world.

God speaks to us. In Peter’s case, it was a dramatic rooftop vision. But more often, we hear from God in that thin, quiet sound, that still, small voice. Two weeks ago, we celebrated Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and it’s that Holy Spirit that speaks to us, about what we need to do, about how we need to live our lives and treat other people. We refer in the Methodist tradition to three kinds of grace — prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. Prevenient grace prepares us for salvation. Justifying grace occurs as we are being saved, but sanctifying grace is the power of God that enables us to live transformed lives and to be in relationship with God as Christians. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

How do we know if it’s really the Holy Spirit?

We have to be quiet, and listen. You can’t hear a still, small voice if you’re making noise. You have to set aside time for talking to God, and you can’t let the demands of this world distract you from hearing God’s voice.

I live by myself, and I have a bad habit of always wanting noise when I’m at home. I have the TV on, not because I specifically want to watch program X on the TV, but just for the background noise. Or I have my nose in some screen. I don’t have enough silence in my life, and I suspect some of you are the same way.

After I had written this sermon, we had some bad storms Friday night, and I got more than two hours of enforced silence in the form of a power outage. It reminded me even more how much I crave the noise.

But silence can be important. Silence can be when God speaks to us.
“Can be” — doesn’t have to be. You have to be prepared for God to speak to you in the noise or in the silence. As Elijah discovered, not everything is God’s voice, and God’s voice may not manifest itself in the way we expect.

God’s voice may not always tell us what we want to hear. When Elijah hears that still, small voice of God, he complains about being afraid for his life. In fact, he repeats, word for word, the same thing that he said to the voice inside the cave. And God, in this case, pushes past Elijah’s insecurities and, instead of speaking words of comfort, just starts giving him instructions: Go back, anoint a new king of Syria, anoint a new king of Israel, and anoint Elisha to take your own place as prophet. Just follow and obey. Implied, although not stated in this account, is that obedience to God tends to be accompanied by God’s protection.

When we listen, truly listen, for God’s voice, we must submit ourselves to what we hear, even if it challenges us, even if it pushes us out of our comfort zones, even if it calls us to move, or to change, or to speak, or to remain silent, or — worst of all, sometimes — to wait. That’s what makes it God’s voice, and not our own.

Right now, we’re waiting to see what the next chapter is for our church. Maybe some of you are also waiting to see what the next chapter is in your life. Now, while we’re waiting, in the silence, might be a good chance to listen for the still, small voice of God.

John I. Carney

Written by

Small-town journalist; United Methodist layspeaker; lover of old movies and new comedy. http://lakeneuron.com