Seeking God in the Silence
June 21, 2009
I Kings 19:9-13a
As I prepared for this sermon, I was thinking about the desert experiences that I’ve been through in my life. One that came to mind was the topic of vocation or calling. It’s been one of those ongoing struggles.
I went to college at EMU in Hburg, VA. I remember needing to pick a major during my sophomore year, and having no idea what I wanted to major in. I loved music and playing piano, but teaching didn’t appeal to me, and neither did practicing piano 5 hours a day in order to be a piano performance major! Ministry was an area of interest, but I really didn’t know much about what you could do with that. So I decided to be a Liberal Arts major and minor in music and youth ministry, which for me meant I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to “be when I grew up.”
After I graduated from EMU I still didn’t know what type of “career” I wanted or what God wanted for me. I volunteered at a Christian ranch in CO for a month and then moved back to Hburg and worked at a grocery store. After a year I married Patrick and started working as a church secretary. During the first couple years of our marriage, Patrick and I both struggled with feeling like God didn’t have a call on our lives. Neither one of us liked our jobs and we wanted some vocational direction, badly. We felt hopeless at times, extremely discouraged. We cried out to God about the whole situation many times, but didn’t hear an answer. We even took a weekend to get away and intentionally spend time in silence and solitude before God about this situation. We wanted to hear from God. So we journaled, we prayed, we listened, but we didn’t hear much of anything. Talk about frustrating!! Where was God? And what in the world was he doing? Like Elijah, we were in the middle of the wilderness—exhausted and thirsty for a word from God.
All of us experience times of wilderness in our lives, when we feel like we’re wandering through a dry land. We feel tired, in need of refreshing water. We are thirsty for something more. Being in the wilderness is lonely. It’s full of struggle, an extremely difficult place to be. We wonder what God is doing, where God is and why God is not making himself obvious to us. When we’re in the wilderness, we have to search hard and long to find a source of water for our weary souls.
When I was at the Mennonite convention in San Jose two summers ago, I heard Shane Hipps, a Mennonite pastor from AZ speak. He talked about aquifers under the surface of the desert—how this dry area had a huge source of water hidden underneath. The desert he was referring to is the Chihuahuan Desert, which is the largest North American desert. There are several water sources for the plants and animals that inhabit this desert—the Rio Grande, lakes, streams, and water underneath the surface of the desert. At some places there are large amounts of water in an aquifer only 15-20 feet below the surface. But in other places, you would have to dig down 200-700 feet to reach water! That is some deep digging! But, IT IS WORTH IT. That water deep underneath is a life source.
There’s a book by Chuck Swindoll titled “Intimacy with the Almighty” in which he writes about disciplines that help us go deeper with God. He says, “Deep things are intriguing. Deep jungles. Deep water. Deep caves and canyons. Deep thoughts and conversations. There is nothing like depth to make us dissatisfied with superficial, shallow things. God invites us to go deeper rather than to be content with surface matters. Some of God’s best truths, like priceless treasures, are hidden in depths most folks never take the time to search out.”
In our own lives, it’s easy to stay on the surface—there’s countless activities to be involved in and lots of responsibilities. Sometimes the most important things get pushed aside. We begin to feel dry and empty when we expend a lot of energy on friendships, studies, jobs, and the everyday struggles of life, but don’t take the time to dig after the water that is deep below the surface.
As followers of Christ, we must not be content with what is on the surface. As Paul says, we regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. We need to dig down deep, and as we do, we will learn more of God and see God in unexpected places. Learning to dig down deep takes time and commitment, but it changes us.
I love the passage that was read about Elijah. God makes himself known to Elijah in a new way—an unexpected way that gets his attention. Elijah is having a desert experience. This experience is quite different than the one he had in the chapter previous. Elijah had just had an incredible victory in his career as prophet of the Lord. The land of Israel had been in a 3 year drought because the king worshiped Baal instead of God. So, Elijah summons the prophets of Baal to a mountain and challenges them to a competition between him and his God and them and their god. They each have to cut up a bull and put it on the wood of the altar, without lighting it on fire. Then they will call on the name of their god, and whichever one’s god answers with fire is the true god. The prophets of Baal go first—calling out to Baal, dancing, and cutting themselves—but nothing happens. Then it’s Elijah’s turn. He digs a trench around the altar and has people douse the bull, the wood, and the altar with water until it fills up the trench. He prays to God and fire comes down and consumes everything—the bull, wood, stones, dust, and even the water in the trench is dried up completely! The prophets of Baal are then killed and the drought comes to an end. So there’s this amazing display of God’s power, amazing proof that he is the one true God, and Elijah gets to be a part of that!
Elijah is on a high, but it doesn’t last long. We turn the page and read that Queen Jezebel sends Elijah a message to let him know that she is going to kill him. This sends Elijah into despair. He is, understandably, very scared, and flees for his life. He ends up in the wilderness. How fitting. He goes from a mountaintop experience—this great victory on Mount Carmel—to a desert experience in the wilderness of Judea. It is here that he asks God to take away his life. He feels hopeless. He’s tired of dealing with God’s people who seem to care less about following God, his life is in danger, he is exhausted in every way, and he is questioning God’s call on his life.
But God has not given up on Elijah. An angel comes to Elijah, gives him food and water, and sends him on a journey to Mount Horeb (also known as Mt. Sinai). This is the same mountain that Moses and the Israelites are at when God gives the 10 commandments. At that event there is thunder and lightening, a thick cloud over the mt., and a loud trumpet blast. God descends on the mountain in fire and it is covered with smoke. The whole mountain shakes violently. As the blast of the trumpet grows louder and louder, Moses speaks and God answers him in thunder.
So here Elijah stands, on that same mountain. He is in a cave when God tells him to go out and stand on the mountain because God is going to meet him there. We’re going to take a couple minutes to put ourselves with Elijah in the cave on the mountain.
For those of you who need help visualizing things, here is a present-day picture of the view from the top of Mt. Sinai—the mountain Elijah was standing on.
Now I want you to close your eyes, and try to picture yourself with Elijah in the cave. If a different image than the one on the screen comes to you, that’s fine.
You’re standing beside Elijah, waiting for God to meet you.
You begin to hear an incredibly powerful wind blowing.
You feel the earth shaking violently.
Now it’s on fire.
The mountains in front of you are being split apart!
and then suddenly……………it’s completely quiet.
“When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantel and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” Now wait a minute…if you look at verse 11, God had told Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain at that point, but apparently Elijah had not moved. He was still in the cave, until he heard the sound of sheer silence. The silence caught his attention. Unlike before, this time God is not in the spectacular displays of nature, not in the noise, but in the quietness…in the silence.
Yes, God reveals himself in amazing, obvious and powerful ways. But God also reveals himself in simple, hidden, and quiet ways. The way God has come to us before might not be the way he comes to us when we’re in the midst of the desert. God may reveal himself to us in a new way to get our attention and to make us dig deeper. We may want to hold on to our past experiences of God—feelings of excitement about God, experiences of God coming to us in amazing ways, or even just familiar ways. Those experiences of God are valid, but when we try to hold on to them, we miss seeing God when he comes to us in other ways. Elijah heard the sound of silence and went out to meet God in the silence and listen to what God had to say. We too need to be listening and pursuing God in the silence.
Learning to be silent before God is not easy. It’s uncomfortable. We’re used to noise and action. Our minds wander and it’s hard to focus. Maybe we’re afraid of being still before God because God shows us things about ourselves that can be quite painful to acknowledge. But being silent before God is an important practice as we seek to go deeper with God.
It’s like Patrick talked about in his sermon last week. We can own all the right running gear and have a desire to be a runner, but if we don’t actually get out and put our feet to the ground, we’re not runners. In the same way, we have to make the effort and practice the disciplines that help us go deeper with God. We don’t just become deeper people; we need to actively seek after and listen to God.
My initial experience of seminary was a lonely one. I was learning many new things about God, about faith, about ways of viewing the world, so many big, theological words were being thrown at me and so many challenges to how I had believed all my life. And none of my close friends were going through that. I felt like my beliefs and thoughts were changing in so many ways in such a short amount of time. I didn’t know how to even put into words what was happening inside of me. I felt like my whole world was being turned upside down.
It was difficult to experience that, but it put me in a place of greater dependence on God for what I needed. I realized that nobody could fill the emptiness I was feeling inside. My relationship with God was also changing during this time and that was confusing. Like the psalmist, I felt like I was in a dry and weary land with no water, and even though I couldn’t explain what was happening in my relationship with God, I knew my soul was thirsting after God and my body longing for God. And I knew I needed to do the hard work of digging deeper than I had before.
It is those times of listening to God and learning to recognize God in the silence that draw us deeper into God and sustain us through the rough times.
I encourage you, as you dig deeper, to ask others to help you do that digging. Find a friend, mentor, spiritual director, family member…someone who is willing to help you dig down deep, to check in with you and see how it’s going, to ask the hard questions.
Commit yourself to regularly spend some time being silent before God. Read a short passage of scripture and meditate on it. We’re going to do this together after I sit down. The first verse of Psalm 63 will be up on the screen. We’ll take a few minutes to be silent and focus on that verse. Notice what stands out to you. What might God be saying to you through it?
May your souls thirst for God.
May you take time to search out the depths of God.
May you find God in the silence more and more, and as you seek God there, you will find the source of Life and you will be filled and overflow with the living water of Jesus Christ.