God in the Quiet

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on 1 Kings 19:9-18.


Sometimes, if you want to hear God speaking to you, you need to shut up first. Sometimes, if you want to know the presence of God, you need to enter a deep quiet to know it.

That’s what Elijah learns in his experience of theophany in his cave on Mt Horeb.

At this point in Elijah’s life, he is anything but quiet. Elijah is there in that cave because he is on the run for his life. Elijah has opposed King Ahab and his Canaanite wife Jezebel and their introduction of the worship of the Canaanite gods Baal and Asherah, and their requirement that all Israelites worship these foreign gods. Elijah has opposed Ahab and Jezebel so much that he’s actually attacked some of the priests of Baal and had them killed – sectarian violence is, sadly, nothing new in our world – and now Elijah knows full well that Ahab and Jezebel have their soldiers out looking for him to pay him back for his insurrection.

That’s why he’s hiding in that cave. That’s why he complains to God “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.” That’s why he feels abandoned and assumes that, wherever God may be, God cannot be here.

And that’s when God tells Elijah to go out from the cave and look again. And Elijah looks, and Elijah sees a tornado, and an earthquake, and a firestorm.

Now all of those things were traditional stock symbols for the powerful presence of God. Psalm 104 says God “makes the winds his messengers,” and Exodus says when God appeared on Mt Sinai it was in clouds and lightning and thick darkness. Psalm 144 says God touches the earth and it trembles, God touches the mountains and they smoke. And Elijah himself witnessed the connection between God and fire: Elijah called fire from God to consume his sacrifice, and the altar-stones themselves, when he showed the priests of Baal whose god was really God; and later on God sent chariots and horses of fire to take Elijah up into heaven. Elijah knew very well the work of God in fire.

Wind and earthquake and fire are big, active, noisy, traditional signs of God.

And because Elijah has been so big and active and noisy for God, Elijah expects God to come back to him in a big and active and noisy way. But the text is very clear: God is not “in” any of those big, active, noisy things.

Instead, Elijah hears a sound of sheer silence, a pregnant pause, an expectant emptiness. Older translations say “a still, small voice” – but I don’t think that quite does justice to the Hebrew words and their connotation of something that is paradoxically empty and full at the same time: a sound of sheer silence.

Elijah hears God as silence – and in that hearing Elijah realizes that God is there, God has always been there, God will always be there. Even when there’s nothing big or active or noisy, nothing spectacular or triumphant or miraculous to show it, God is still there. Even when it seems like everything is going wrong and God’s will is being thwarted at every turn, God is still there.

Like the silence out of which all speech comes and into which all speech returns, like the air we breathe without being conscious that we’re breathing it, like the light that illuminates all things for our view even when we’re paying more attention to the things than we are to the light that enables us to see the things, like the ground of being that lets all beings be – God is still there.

What has changed for Elijah in this visionary moment is that now he is being attentive to that sounding silence, now he is being attentive to that sight-giving light, now he’s being attentive to God there, and he knows that nothing Ahab or Jezebel or anyone else can do can stop God’s silence from speaking, can stop God’s will from working.

And if God cannot be stopped from working, then Elijah cannot be stopped from working in God, either. And that means that Elijah must come out of his cave and down from his mountain, and anoint kings and prophets, in spite of the danger, to do what must be done to do God’s work in the world. Because Elijah has experienced the paradox of God who is present even in absence, now he knows that he will never be apart from God, now he knows that sounding silence and that shining light will surround him and strengthen him and never let him go. 

Sometimes, if you want to hear God speaking to you, you need to shut up first. Sometimes, if you want to know the presence of God, you need to enter a deep quiet to know it.

And if that was good enough for Elijah, then it’s good enough for us. If we want to do the work God gives us to do, then from time to time we need to take some time to step back from our work and listen, to make sure we really know that God is with and God is guiding us and God is sustaining us. Being grounded in the quiet is the only way we can engage the hard work of peacemaking, especially in the face of the kind of white supremacist hatred we saw in Charlottesville yesterday. We can only build up right-relationships of shared well-being in God if we come from the place of God’s own Peace. 

Now of course finding God in the quiet is very much on my mind right now, because after today I am quite literally stepping back from work, stepping away from the job, leaving the busy-ness of Trinity for some sabbatical quiet. I’m not running in fear of my life, no, and I won’t be going to hide out in a cave. But like Elijah I will be looking for the pregnant pause, the expectant emptiness, when time to read and think and write, without the pressure of schedules and calendars and assignments, might help me know a little more deeply the living presence of God.

And I hope you all will find some of that pregnant pause as well. I’m going away; you’re staying here; but for all of us, this sabbatical time will bring a change, an alteration in our ordinariness – and that means an opportunity for a new perspective, a slightly different take on how Trinity functions as a community of mission in Christ. I hope in the midst of all of this you will find some quiet, some pause from the ordinary busy-ness, both parochial and personal, that will refresh your attentiveness to the presence of God.

And in December we’ll all come back together, like Elijah coming out of the cave, coming out of the silence, and we will all be renewed and reenergized and reinvigorated to do the work God gives us to do.

May these next months be for you a time of discovery, a time of engagement, a time to learn again how Christ is with you, a time when you may know a little more deeply God in the quiet. Amen.


  1. May you have a full-filling sabbatical Paul!