06/30/2019: SHOWDOWN WITH THE DIVINE
I Kings 19: 1-3, 9-12
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
June 30, 2019
Her name was Angie, short for angel. She had not reached her second birthday when she drowned a week ago today, grasping her father as they tried to cross to freedom. Whatever we may think of the current administration, that picture was heart-breaking and maddening. For some, the picture alone may have prompted what I am calling a showdown with the divine. A showdown is a moment of confrontation that forces an issue to a conclusion. It happens with everyone in this room…eventually.
When we confront the harsh realities of life we come face to face with a fundamental question: is there a God who cares, or is there nothing out there and we are absolutely alone in the universe? How do we come to resolve this fundamental question?
In the first place, resolution comes only to those who are willing to struggle with their doubt. I know this may come as a shock to some people, but good Christians still struggle with doubt. The gospels are full of doubt. The disciples are constantly struggling with doubt. At one point, a father brings a small boy to Jesus for healing, and Jesus tells him sternly that he will only heal those who believe. Lord, I believe, the father quickly says, but on further thought he adds, Help my unbelief. Frederick Buechner refers to doubt as “the ants in the pants of faith; they keep it alive and moving!”
Faith can be hard! Perhaps it is harder for some than for others, but nevertheless Christian faith calls us to believe in a loving God who is uniquely made known in a human being named Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago in a culture far different than ours. We are called upon to study his life and his words and apply them to our lives in the 21st century. It is a challenge! The bumps and bruises of life, to say nothing of the unexpected tragedies of life, sometimes make it difficult to believe in a good and powerful God who cares about us. Many Christians struggle with the thought that it might all be a sham.
All the great Christian thinkers struggled. St. Augustine, the great fourth century theologian whose writings helped shape western Christianity, wrestled with doubt; Martin Luther at one point threw an inkwell at the wall in frustration over his doubt; Mother Teresa wrote letters about it; and these are not lightweight thinkers! Anyone who takes faith seriously must contend with doubt!
Even the Apostle Paul, in his most famous passage, spoke of faith as seeing through a glass, darkly…. This is the reason Kierkegaard, the profound Danish Christian, could describe faith as a leap in the dark, and Blaise Pascal, the great French physicist and theologian, called it the great wager! Because we are human, subject to all the limitations of being human, we must choose a life of faith in God in the face of uncertainty and tragedy. That takes not only struggle, but also courage.
This is the place where I want to hold up this ancient story about the prophet Elijah as helpful in our day. This depiction of the prophet on the mountain searching for some sign of the reality of God is the picture of a showdown with the divine. It could be a blockbuster movie script! Elijah, in his view, had done everything right. He had stood up for God when it was unpopular. He had done everything he had been taught from childhood as the right thing to do. But doing the right things did not keep him from feeling isolated, alone, and in danger: I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.
His life had taken a turn that left him feeling betrayed by God. Why should he face such a predicament when, as he said himself, I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts….? He had done what he believed was right; he had risked it all for God; now his very life was in danger.
It is not surprising that in his anger and sense of betrayal by God, he traveled to the one place where he believed he could have a showdown with God: Mt. Horeb. It is the same as Mt. Sinai, and you know what that means. That was the traditional place where Moses encountered God. He reasoned that if God could be known by Moses, he could be known by Elijah. It was there that Elijah trudged in order to voice his complaint.
Then we get the revealing picture of the frustrated prophet on the mountainside looking for God in all the wrong places. He looks for God in the great wind, in the earthquake, in the fire. He is like Lieutenant Dan in “Forest Gump,” shaking his fist toward God in the worst of storms. But God is not in any of the expected places of awesome power. Yet eventually God does show up, but in the most surprising way: in that still, small voice.
They are obscure words in the Hebrew language, subject to a number of translations. Some modern Bibles translate it the sound of sheer silence. Sheer silence! Frustrating, maddening, perplexing, infuriating silence! God came to him in silence, yet in that silence God was real for Elijah.
Elijah has our name written all over him, for he discovered the eternal truth that we will never see God with mere human eyes, and we will never hear the voice of God with mere human ears. Such faith is not founded on physical evidence or scientific conclusions; it is founded on courageous faith in the face of human uncertainty about the divine. Just when we are wondering where God is in all the storminess of life, God comes in silence, the last place we would expect.
That silence calls us to pause. Apparently Elijah did not come to terms with God in a dramatic showdown. It happened in silence, a calm centering of himself, an internal experience of peace that came flooding in upon him in silence. And that flood of peace turned all his anger and hurt and frustration over to God.
The old war-horse, so adept at dramatic encounters with his enemies, was caught by surprise. He thought he knew just where to look for God, but God came in the back door of his heart and gave him a new start.
That fear, that anger, and that sense of divine betrayal can hit any one of us at any time. But God has a way of slipping into our lives in surprising ways with the assurance that we are not alone after all.
The airwaves and social media are full of noise—angry noise, frustrated noise, bitter noise—like wind and earthquake and fire. Let the silence open our hearts to the voice of the divine. As a psalm writer wrote long years ago: For God alone my soul waits in silence….