1Kings 19.1-15; Luke 8.26-39
‘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.’
A sound of sheer silence. The Authorised Version famously translated this moment of meeting between God and Elijah as ‘a still, small voice’ – the translation picked up in our gradual hymn and that wonderfully evocative final line, ‘O still small voice of calm.’ That’s certainly one way to understand this moment – a moment of calm, a voice of calm, after the noise and fury of the earthquake, wind and fire. But ‘a sound of sheer silence’ suggests other possibilities too, possibilities rooted in our own experience of silence.
A literal translation of the original Hebrew, I’m told, would be ‘voice of thin silence’, voice of thin silence. This is not quite nonsense, but you can see the difficulties that translators are confronted with, especially when the uniqueness of this passage means that we have no idea what the Hebrew would have meant to its original listeners – there is nothing else quite like it, to compare it to. A certain incomprehensibility is all to the good, for this is speech about an encounter with God, and what ever else we go on to say, our words about God should begin with an admission of their inadequacy. God begins and ends in mystery – any adequate response to a moment of encounter is wonder and awe. Any translation, while remaining faithful to the original, needs to help us into that moment of stillness and encounter, beyond the raging wind, and earthquake and fire, to meet the living, indescribable, God.
A sound of sheer silence. I’m immediately reminded of that moment at the end of the performance of some pieces of music; when as part of an audience you are profoundly aware of the silence; you want that moment to last, for you have been carried to a place of stillness and silence. After the noise and fury of what has gone before – sorry that doesn’t sound very complimentary to the music, but you know what I am driving at – after all that has gone on before, that silence is a moment of transcendence and community; it is larger than any one individual, and I stretches out, until the dam bursts and applause can be held back no longer. The silence is dependent and in contrast to what has gone before, but it is very much a communal experience. In our passage from 1Kings, Elijah is alone, downcast. This moment of encounter turns him around.
A sound of sheer silence. Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46 exhorts us. There’s clearly a long tradition of an encounter with God beginning in silence. The practice and discipline of maintaining silence, of being still and letting God be God, is hard, however; often difficult to sustain. In our busy, noise-filled lives, we long for silence, and yet for many of us, I suspect, it remains at that level of longing. We protest loudly that ‘all I want is some peace and quiet’, but given an unexpected hour of space, we often go looking for something to fill it. And perhaps that is because actually sheer silence is unnerving – the encounter with the silence of God uncomfortable.
A sound of sheer silence. Does it make any sense to speak of that silence being the place of encounter with God? For the atheist, that silence is vindication of the absence of God. The silence is the silence of nothingness, of meaninglessness. As Pascal famously noted, ‘the eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me.’ And to enter silence can be to enter that place of doubt, that abyss: be still and know the pain of the lack of God’s presence, of the loss of meaning. To enter into silence is to risk finding the world meaningless – no wonder we prefer the temporary comfort of busy-ness, and noise. Entering silence involves a stripping bare, but that is where, at times, our true hope lies. For that may not be simply meaningless. Elijah, in the cave at Horeb, is at the end of his tether – desperate, alone. The earthquake, wind and fire are in that sense outward manifestations of what is going on internally – noise and confusion and terror. It is a sound of sheer silence that reveals something new, turns him around, moves him out of his self-obsession, and gives him a new task.
For silence, rather than betokening meaninglessness; silence is where God can be at work in us.
A sound of sheer silence. This is where prayer begins. And where it ends. Silence is where, to take our cue from today’s gospel, our demons have to be wrestled with. In silence we become aware of both the distractions our minds are capable of throwing up, and the evasions our ego demands. No wonder silence involves a stripping bare. The silence calls us to a simplicity of life before the living God, beyond our usual mess of competing desires, complicated ruses and evasions. Our lives are all too often, like the Gerasene demoniac of Luke’s gospel, filled with clamour; lived amongst tombs of the past, ready at any moment to return to haunt us. The Gerasene reaches the point of stillness, sat at the feet of Christ, clothed and in his right mind, through the confrontation of those demons. The surrounding crowd are unnerved at such healing, at such arrival into stillness and silence. They too have demons. For most of us, such healing involves a lifetime – a continual returning to that uncomfortable silence of God in which our evasions, our demons and fears, are named and redeemed. For the silence is the silence of suffering love, of love that knows all things, bears all things, redeems all things. Prayer begins by entering that silence of the eternal God, and seeing what happens to us there. We might find that like Elijah on Mount Horeb, we are told to stop being so self-piyting and return to our prophetic duties; like the Gerasene demoniac, we might begin to be healed and sent out to declare the good works of God, like Paul we might become clothed with Christ, given a new identity beyond the markers that so easily divide us. A sound of sheer silence. Where God can be God. Amen.