Text: 1 Kings 19:1-15a
Seldom has a character fallen so far so fast as Elijah in Chapter 19 of 1 Kings. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah was a tower of strength and determination against a massive army of Baal prophets. Four hundred-fifty of them were killed after Elijah called down fire from heaven. His prayers produced astonishing miracles. He even outran Ahab’s chariot in a 17-mile race. But the king’s wife Jezebel, a fanatical follower of Baal, was so unhappy about the outcome of Elijah’s miracles that she threatened to kill him. So despite his decisive albeit violent victory over the Baal priests and their gods, Elijah is on the run when our story begins.
Now he is hungry, exhausted, scared, and even suicidal. Where does he go? Into the wilderness. Where does he take shelter? Under a tree. What does he say? “I’ve had enough.” Then he falls into an exhausted sleep. Eventually an angel wakes him up with instructions to eat the meal that has been prepared for him: a cake baked on hot stones and a jug of water, which is pretty good service in the middle of the wilderness. He eats, goes back to sleep, and then repeats the meal. It is in his spirit of helplessness that God sends an angel to sustain Elijah, ministering to him for 40 days and 40 nights at Horeb. The angel provides the basic sustenance of food and water, but more importantly, this provision allows space for Elijah to recover after the frantic flight from Jezebel. At this point in the tale, we should know that something important is about to occur because Mount Horeb is also known as Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. Echoes of Moses are everywhere in this story. So on God’s mountain the prophet finds a cave where he spends the night.
In the morning a dialogue between Elijah and God begins. God: “What are you doing here?” Elijah: “I’ve been faithful. The Israelites have been unfaithful. I’m the only good one left and they want to kill me.” God: “Go out and stand on the mountain, for I am going to pass by.” Then comes the familiar part of the story. A rock-splitting wind comes, but God is not in the wind. A powerful earthquake occurs, but God is not in the earthquake. A roaring fire blazes, but God is not in the fire. After all of this, there is, literally translated, “a sound of fine silence.” The King James calls it “a still small voice.” The New International Version calls it “a gentle whisper.” Some suggest it was “the calm after storm.” Then Elijah hears God’s voice again, and this time it’s clearly an audible sound. And it asks the same question as before: “What are you doing here?” Elijah’s answer is also the same: “I’m faithful. They are not and they want to take my life.” Finally God gives specific direction to the prophet: “Go to the wilderness of Damascus.” There Elijah will anoint several new kings and Elisha as his own successor.
Countless preachers have addressed this text over the years as have a number of hymn writers. The King James description of “the still small voice” has made its way into our faith language and is deeply entrenched in the way some Christians speak about how God communicates with us. And that’s a very good thing I think. Having grown up hearing my share of dramatic conversion stories in church, it’s really helpful that there is this other, well-celebrated mode of Holy communication. You see, I’m a “still small voice” person myself. I’ve never experienced the thunderbolts others describe when they talk about faith. Being zapped by a bright light like Paul on the road to Damascus is not part of my faith history. My guess is that many of you are like me in this regard. You can actually start feeling guilty listening to those dramatic conversion stories if you’ve not been zapped yourself. It can make you question whether what you sensed or heard in a hardly-detectable whisper or even just a feeling was really the Holy One and not your own mind or ego or a remnant of last night’s activities.
But this morning in this Creation Season, I want to focus on another aspect of the story. I want us to consider the location of all of this activity: in the wilderness, under a tree, in a cave.
Some of you recall that during my study leave last fall, Felicia and I spent a week in an Anglican Benedictine abbey. It was a wonderful place to which I’d love to return one day. In the Lenten meditations you read that our breakfast and supper were consumed in silence. However, during dinner, which was served Southern-style in the middle of the day, Sister Mary John read to us while we ate. I knew this going in, but fully expected for her to read scripture. So, I was surprised on the first day when she began reading from a book by English Catholic abbot Christopher Jamison called, “Finding Sanctuary.”
On the surface it looks like one of many books about how to deepen one’s spirituality in the midst of a busy life, and in some sense it is. But I have found Abbot Jamison’s angle on this topic a bit different and very helpful. He notes that the word sanctuary has two meanings: “the primary meaning comes from the Latin root word sanctus, meaning holy. So the first meaning of sanctuary is ‘a sacred space,’ and deriving from this comes the secondary meaning: ‘a place of refuge,’ a place where someone on the run can escape to.” The abbot argues that “vacation packages and relaxation techniques may provide the secondary meaning of sanctuary, namely, a refuge; but they certainly cannot provide the primary meaning: a sacred space.” Now I think the lines between these two aspects of sanctuary are more blurred than he suggests. He does have a point about our desperate attempts to “get away.” Yet I think the prophet Elijah demonstrates that we can go looking for one and find the other if we begin in the right place.
In today’s text, Elijah does what many of us do. Nature is often where we go when we feel attacked, fearful, or depleted. If you’re lucky as we are to live near something that is not made of steel or concrete, you tend to look for refuge in places where chaotic civilization and hard, human-made structures are not – beaches, mountains, deserts, forests, or perhaps your backyard, a park down the street, or a favorite garden. It’s amazing how we are drawn to Nature when we need a place to get away from all that is hard and hurtful in life. Like Elijah, it is not uncommon for us to be among trees when we say to ourselves or to the world, “I’ve had enough.” I think this is because God is present in Nature in a unique way. We breathe more deeply; see more vividly; discern more clearly.
But Elijah doesn’t just find the wilderness to be a place of safety and protection where he can vent his fear and frustration. It’s not just the refuge version of sanctuary. It is also where God provides nourishment and instruction. So for Elijah, the wilderness moves from being a place to hide to a truly sacred space. This transition isn’t immediate. Twice Elijah answers God’s inquiries from a place of self-pity. He seems to have quickly forgotten the positive response of the people to his miracles and that he was given the power to perform these amazing feats. More importantly, he wasn’t even close to the only faithful person left in spite of his “woe is me” complaints. But he complains nonetheless, and that’s not altogether different from how we behave when we are feeling sorry for ourselves. So God does what the Holy often does by providing not only nourishment, but also instruction in the wilderness.
“Go out and stand on the mountain,” Elijah is told, “for God is about to pass by.” But ironically, God doesn’t speak through stereotypical drama – the fierce wind, the rumbling earthquake, or even the raging fire, Moses’ burning bush experience notwithstanding. Elijah himself had called fire down from heaven, but the Holy voice doesn’t come in any of these familiar signs. As he stands on the side of a mountain, God comes to Elijah in the silence. Like Simon and Garfunkel, the writer of our text uses an oxymoron here: the “sound” of silence. It was in the experience of silence in the wilderness, on God’s mountain, that the Holy came near to the prophet.
Born in 1838 in Scotland, naturalist John Muir came to the United States as a child. In describing his early years with seven siblings, he named his favorite pursuits as fighting, literally and in play-acting, and hunting bird’s nests. He was a restless spirit who was often punished because of his harsh Presbyterian father’s core belief: anything that distracted one from Bible study was frivolous and punishable. By age 11, Muir could recite all of the New Testament and most of the Old by heart. But as a young adult, he experienced a second conversion through, in his words, the “primary source for understanding God: the Book of Nature.” As a result, Muir left his father’s harsh theology behind, but remained a deeply spiritual man, writing, “We all flow from one fountain – Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but (God) flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all…”
It was while standing under a towering black locust tree on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison as he took his first lesson in botany that John Muir discovered his love for plants. A winding path took him from college, from which he never graduated, to Canada to avoid the Civil War draft to a sawmill on the shores of Lake Huron to Cuba where he studied seashells and flowers. Then he visited Yosemite in 1868. “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us,” Muir wrote. “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite… the grandest of all special temples of Nature.”
Like Elijah, God spoke to John Muir through the still, small voice of Nature. “My fire was in all its glory about midnight, and, having made a bark shed to shelter me from the rain and partially dry my clothing, I had nothing to do but look and listen and join the trees in their hymns and prayers,” he said. Of another day he wrote, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Because of his experience of the wilderness, Muir urged others to view Nature as a sacred place. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves…Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
Elijah went into the wilderness where its riches – trees, caves, mountains – became a refuge where he could recover from the stressfulness of his life. In time, his refuge became a truly sacred place where God’s nurture and care surrounded him – where he could actually hear a sacred voice. His experience can be ours as well if we are intentional in seeking solace in Nature. But Elijah’s sojourn in the wilderness reminds us that even when nature is the setting for powerful experiences of God, at some point we have to go back to the real world. After nourishing him with food and rest and listening to his complaining, God’s instruction to Elijah was simple: “Go to Damascus.” That is, “Get back to work.” If we’re both disciplined and lucky, our real world can include opportunities to surround ourselves in creation’s glory. But even if it does, like Elijah, the work and relationships and challenging issues we face in our daily lives place demands on us. Elijah still had work to do. He had kings to anoint and his own successor to appoint so the prophetic ministry to which he had committed his life would go on. This is true for all of us.
It was also true for John Muir. His love affair with Nature wasn’t just a private possession held for his own benefit. His devotion to the glorious beauty of Yosemite led him to work for decades to get the United States to make Yosemite a national park as it had with Yellowstone. He co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and spent the rest of his life writing and advocating for the preservation – not the conservation – of America’s wild places. In fact, he found himself in the middle of this controversy – protecting nature for its own sake rather than conserving it for the sake of timbering its trees, mining its depths, or grazing cattle or sheep on its land. Muir even lost a cherished friendship when he opposed the use of the wilderness for economic gain.
Today, thanks to people like John Muir and others, we have millions of acres of America that are preserved and protected. But these national treasures are at risk. And in our day, global climate change, fracking, air and water pollution, and all manner of threats to God’s creation are at our doorstep. It feeds our souls when we spend time in the wilderness, however loosely you define that term. But we must go to the beach or the mountains or the forests remembering that our lives and especially the lives of our children and grandchildren are at risk in these critical times. Even more so are the poor and the creatures who live in threatened locations all over the globe. Nature is generous, always sharing its wealth even with those who are greedy and do not have its interests at heart. So we must commit ourselves to not only seek personal nurture in wild, sacred places but also to love those wild places as our Creator does. We must resist their exploitation.
Fundamentally, what we humans call “God” is everywhere at all times. But this grand Holiness seems to reach us more fully in sacred wilderness. This was true for Elijah. It was true for John Muir. It can be true for us and all humans that come after us. In Muir’s words, “All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love.” May it be so. May we do our part so that it will always be so.