Pentecost +2C - With a whisper
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 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.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 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, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came 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; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He 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. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”
Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
As we begin today, we need to get a little bit reoriented to our texts.
We have now transitioned into the church season of “Time after Pentecost,” something that we call “Ordinary Time,” because there’s not a festival day in sight for months and months. Another name for this season is, “that looooong green season that takes up all of the summer and most of the fall.”
During Ordinary Time, we get back to regularly scheduled programming with our texts. After taking detours into Acts and John during the Easter season, we now return to the gospel of Luke for the rest of the summer and deep into the fall. If you remember, the author of Luke particularly concerned with the lifting of oppression, for the unbinding of captives, and for relief for those burdened by poverty or illness. And he tells the story of Jesus accordingly.
During Ordinary Time this year, our Our Old Testament readings will focus on the prophets, beginning in these first few weeks with Elijah and his successor Elisha, and then moving through Amos and Hosea and Isaiah, and then a whole series of weeks with Jeremiah, plus a quick cameo from the prophet Haggai, a guy who you might be scratching your head and thinking, “Who?”
A common theme holding our prophetic readings and our Luke readings together this season is the idea of discovering and proclaiming the truth about God.
Prophets are called to speak truth about God to people unwilling or unable to bear it. They put God back into the sight-lines of kinds and rules, and back into the consciousness of God’s faithful people who have strayed from God’s ways.
Jesus, in Luke and in all our gospels, challenges his disciples, the religious leaders and all his hearers to discover the truth about who he claims to be, the son of God, the Messiah. Everyone who encounters Jesus is called to discern the truth of God in what Jesus says and does, and then to discern the claim that faith in Jesus will have on their lives.
As we navigate these texts this summer, we, too, will be opening our hearts to discover and rediscover truths about God-in-Christ. We begin today with two texts that start us in a most fundamental place: the question of where and how we encounter the power of God.
We first have Elijah, on the run, escaping to the wilderness to protect his life. He’s miserable and despairing, he wishes himself dead. He takes nourishment from an angel and ends up in a cave, where he spends the night hidden and safe. The voice of the Lord tells Elijah to stand at the mouth of the cave, that he might be blessed to see God pass by. The wind blows, the earth shakes, fires rage. God is not to be found in any of those displays of might.
Finally, there remains only the sound of sheer silence. Or translated from the Hebrew a different way, the sound of a still small voice. And there, we read, Elijah experiences the unveiled power and presence of God.
Then we have a man, in Luke’s gospel, who has been tormented for years and years by demons who possess his mind and body and spirit. A legion of demons, six thousand of them, or at least it feels that way. Like Elijah, this man has taken up refuge in the wilderness, in dark caves and tombs.
Jesus comes to this man, crossing the sea from Galilee to get there, calming the storming wind and waves on the way. He gets off the boat and passes by, and using his voice, he bargains with the demons and sends them out and away and over the cliff to the watery deep.
There are more than a few parallels in these two stories today, and places where you might recognize yourself:
You might find yourself in these stories in the despair that grips Elijah and the demon-possessed man. Consider how each of us are held bound and captive by things in our lives, very real things that remove from us our hope, our health, or our freedom to love and breathe and flourish as God created us to be. Maybe you, with these two men, know the crippling power of fear or death or grief. Maybe you, with these two men, know the isolating power of anxiety and depression. Maybe you, with these two men, are questioning your purpose, your calling, or your very existence on this earth.
For the characters in our stories today, their places of safety and refuge are caves or tombs, places that shelter them, places that hide them, metaphorical places of death and burial.
And this is where they meet God. Not because they climb out of their pain and despair and make it back to the temple or synagogue. But because God comes to the tombs to find them. God’s presence comes to the mouth of the cave. Jesus crosses the sea and heads to the tombs. Seeing God and encountering Jesus is not something reserved for those who can dig themselves out of despair. Access to God isn’t a privilege for those who are hopeful and happy and centered and cleaned up.
God comes to us, even when we are in the depths of despair. Jesus comes to us, even when we are hiding in our tombs. (This is not the last time he will do that, of course. He will go to the tomb to call Lazarus out from death, and he will to his own tomb to bring our world, once and for all, from death to the promise of resurrection.)
And the most amazing part about how God meets us when we are in shadow and chaos is that God meets us not in the shaking of the earth, but in the sound of stillness, quiet, and soft voices. The unveiled, unmediated power of God that calls us out from despair to hope, fear to love, death to life: this power does not show up in the quaking of the earth. God shows up in the power of profound quiet. In the sound of a whisper. In the voice of Jesus.
Last week at Synod Assembly, I found myself with about half an hour to spare between sessions. I crossed the Wartburg campus in search of an unoccupied bench, someplace to hide away and busy myself with something - reading part of my book, perhaps, or knitting a few rows of the sweater I’m working on, maybe making a quick phone call home. I sought a space to be alone and busy. As I walked, however, I felt a pull on my heart toward the chapel, the Spirit nudging me to a holy space, where I needed to sit, at least for a few moments, before finding a place to be busy, that I might quiet my heart and listen. I don’t often feel the Spirit move quite like this, so I decided to listen, and be led into the chapel, a beautiful, airy space of sky blues and cloud whites. I ducked in, trying not to be seen. I sat. I got quiet. I let my eyes drift upward to a series of windows through which I could see only sky and the tops of a few trees.
I expected the Spirit to have led me here because God needed to say something to me. I stayed quiet. I listened. I waited. I stayed until it felt like I’d been there as long as had been asked of me, and then I left, quietly, finally finding a place to sit and knit before the rain started up.
I might have felt disappointed, that the strong pull of the Spirit led me into nothing but stillness and quiet. And yet…the silence was holy. And I had to remember that sometimes, a message from God can be found not in the words that I want to hear, but in the gift of stillness around me. The gift of holy rest. Of God coming close to me to give me a few moments’ unburdened rest.
As we think about what these two stories today have to offer us - and what mysteries they still leave unanswered - I might urge you to linger longest on this question of how God comes to you through moments of holy silence and quiet, still voices.
I do not know the despairs that plague you. I do not know what those things are that take hold of your spirit, that possess you, that hold you bound. I cannot tell you that sitting and waiting in a cave is an appropriate or responsible treatment for depression or anxiety or other mental illnesses that hang over you like a dark cloud; I cannot offer up solitude and prayer as an alternative to seeking the help and support that you might need.
I can only offer this:
In every dark night, where your anxious thoughts keep you awake, there is some flicker, however brief, of pause, a small space between two racing thoughts, one quick and nearly imperceptible moment where your mind forgets to be afraid. In that pause, there is God.
In every time of deep sorrow, where grief closes in around you like the stone walls of a tomb, where your heart sinks to your toes, where your mind is always somewhere else, captive to memories or fears or what-ifs, there is some moment where your eye catches brightness and beauty, where something makes you laugh, where your regular routines burst in, and a small voice tells you that maybe, just maybe, there is normal life to be found, even if it is a new normal. In that voice, there is God.
In every cave of isolation, where you find yourself cut off from the community, against your will or by choice, every place where you are miserable and beg God to wipe out your life or the lives of your enemies or the whole world, into these places, a hand is extended, a phone call or text from a friend comes to find you, a meal is offered, a hug is given at just the right moment, the scent of a flower floats past your nose, the sight of a soaring bird captures your eye, something reminds you that there is yet compassion and beauty, even in a small and fleeting way. In those moments of saving breath, there is God.
Those moments of pause in the midst of chaos are moments where God passes by. Moments where Jesus is speaking, even if it is so soft that we cannot make out a word. There is still healing to be done after these moments of encounter - memories to reconcile, relationships to restore, intrusive thoughts to be banished, physical ailments to be remedied.
But these moments of encounter with God in the silence, God in the rest, God in the small sights and voices of hope - these moments reconnect us with the truth of God’s power. A power that is always seeking out and lifting up. A power that moves on earth to find us in our tombs. A power that would rather die for the sake of love and liberation than remain far-off.
The poet T.S. Elliot writes, This is the way the world ends; Not with a bang but with a whimper.
For those of us who seek God, however, this is not how the world ends, but how new life begins. Not with a bang. But with a whisper.
God is here. God comes to find you. God calls you out from death. And in the sound of deep quiet, you know that resurrection is beginning.
Thanks be to God.