11 [God said] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Kings 19:11-13
When it comes to describing God, people struggle. Even biblical people. Even people who wrote down the inspired Word of God. There are not too many places where it is attempted.
In Exodus, when Moses and the elders went up to the top of Sinai, “they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” (Exodus 24:10) In Revelation there is a richer description which says “behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. 3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. 4 And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. 5 And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. 6 And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal.” (Revelation 4:2-5)
God’s presence was described much less exuberantly when He appeared to Abraham before the destruction of Sodom. In that scene, God and a couple of angels dropped in for a meal. There are many other scenes in which people encounter God, and the descriptions vary widely.
There is a reason for the wide variation, a reason that transcends any deficit in an individual’s powers of description. The real reason is that God is indescribable. No matter how we try to put him in words, he always transcends and overwhelms them. In the creation story, even though God is never really described, only quoted, we almost see him as a being so much like humans that Adam and Eve felt comfortable walking with him in the beautiful garden that was their home. Yet after they acquired the knowledge of good and evil that they so earnestly yearned for, they felt shamed in God’s presence. So he couldn’t have looked exactly like them.
Isaiah wrote about an experience that was profound and overwhelming, saying that God’s glory filled the temple where he had gone for worship, yet he, too, was stymied in an attempt to say what God was like. We only know that like Adam and Eve, Isaiah felt deeply ashamed in the presence of God, humbled, and unworthy even to serve, let alone approach, God.
This kind of thing is almost certainly what Elijah hoped for when he thought he would see God. He may have remembered that when Moses wanted to see God’s face, God permitted him only to see that God had passed by. Still, Elijah had traveled a long way under adverse conditions. He had arrived at God’s mountain, Horeb. He may even have been thinking about the fact that this is the mountain where Moses had met God. Elijah had been God’s spokesman in a dramatic defeat of Baal and Baal’s prophets, and like a weary child running to his mother, Elijah ran and ran and ran till he arrived at God’s mountain. He was drained. He took refuge in a cave, high on the mountain, and fell asleep.
He was jolted awake by God’s powerful voice, calling out, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah whined a little. He was exhausted. He wanted a little sympathy. After all, the king was searching everywhere for him in order to kill him. God thought his perspective was a bit warped. God said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
It is hard to guess what Elijah felt as he got up and went to the opening of the cave. He saw that a terrible wind was blowing across the mountain, a wind that dislodged rockslides and split the mountain itself, but the wind was not God. Next he felt the ground shudder and probably felt a little sick at his stomach as an earthquake jolted him. The earthquake wasn’t God, either. After that a fire raged on the mountainside. Elijah was expecting the Lord, and he almost certainly thought that God would surely be in the midst of fire and flame, but he was disappointed again.
We are all like Elijah. Remember when Naaman went to Elisha, Elijah’s successor, for healing from leprosy? Naaman was an important military officer in the army of Aram. When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house, he sent his servant to bring Elisha into his presence to do the healing. But Elisha wasn’t Naaman’s servant; he was God’s servant. Elisha was able to respond to Naaman’s request, but like today’s employees who work remotely as if they were in the office, Elisha did not need to be present to take care of the problem. He could send a message by a servant and continue doing whatever else occupied him at the moment.
Naaman took offense. He didn’t just want healing. He was a needy man who needed for Elisha to recognize how important Naaman was. He said, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Naaman wanted to be noticed. He wanted a show. How dare this miserable little man send a miserable little servant to send Naaman, confidant to the king of Aram, away to wash in some miserable little river as if he were some simple, filthy peasant.
Lots of people feel that way about God and the things God does. They reject God’s very existence, because God doesn’t meet their standards. He doesn’t act the way they want him to act. He doesn’t do the things they want done. It was completely predictable that when some people expressed their prayers for the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook, others took the occasion to express their scorn and rejection of God, making God, not the shooter, responsible for the deaths. After the bombing of the Boston Marathon, gleeful atheists proclaimed, “You surely can’t continue to trust a god like this. If he is everything you say, he would have stopped these guys.” And after the terrible tornado at Moore, Oklahoma, unbelievers paraded themselves, saying, “Why didn’t you pray God to save those innocent children?” In other words, they thought that God should put on a show for them and feed their need for attention and do just what they thought he should do.
Sometimes, God must stop us in our tracks and let us know what he is not. He is not a windup toy that we can cling to and play with when we feel like it. He is not a trained seal who puts on a performance at our command. He is not Santa Claus, obligated to bring us toys. He is not a genie we let out of the bottle when we want wish-fulfillment.
God stopped Elijah in his tracks. God came to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence. God revealed to Elijah that He, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, was nothing that Elijah thought he was. God revealed himself by telling Elijah what he was not. A blogger wrote about this kind of experience and compared it to the moment after the end of magnificent symphonic performance. The music has been so phenomenal that the audience is completely transported. The last note dies away in an awe-filled silence that soon erupts in thunderous applause. The blogger speaks of being in that place as “living well in stunned silence.”
This is where Elijah found himself on that mountain. And this is where each of us must come to our senses eventually, maybe more than once. We pray and read the Bible. We worship, and sing and give, even sacrificially. We serve and meet and plan good works. We do all the things that shout a testimony to Christ in our daily lives. We are the wind and the earthquake and the fire, but none of that is God. We can be so deep into all these godly things that we hardly even know God is around. That is when God draws near to us in sheer silence. Stunned silence.
That sort of silence prevails in the room where a child has died. It can fill a house that is suddenly empty because a marriage has collapsed. It can overwhelm one who has reached a professional pinnacle and earned professional accolades in the dark hours of the night when he asks, “Now what?”
God speaks to us most profoundly when we finally breathe out and let go and stop talking and running and planning and thinking and doing. That is where Elijah was. The wind had left his sails. His life balloon was completely deflated. He literally could not envision even one more step forward in this life.
Some people call this “bottoming out.” Some talk of when you must look up to see the bottom. Whatever you call it, it is a time when all the images of God and ideas about God that may have sustained you in your busyness simply don’t do the trick any more. You are living in stunned silence. Sheer silence. And then God speaks, and then you hear, and then you can listen at last, because you are not listening to anybody else at the same time. We can’t really know God if we are multi-tasking our faith – believing God when that works and taking it all on ourselves when it doesn’t. God wants our full attention, and there are times when the only way to get our full attention is to bring the symphony of life to a complete halt.
Once Elijah had been absorbed by God’s sheer silence, God spoke. He had words of comfort. He had words of mission. He had words of life. God’s silence was a wake-up call for Elijah, and when he truly woke up from his self-centered whining about not being rewarded and honored for doing God’s work, God sent him on his way again to do God’s work.
I had a wake-up call like this one day. Like Elijah, I thought I had done something great, and like Elijah, what I thought would earn me a reward simply made me a target. I had to stop whining and stop creating expectations for God and be willing to shut up and listen. I was stunned into silence. It was a moment that turned my life in a new direction and led to rewards I could never have imagined if I had received the rewards I thought I had earned.
When have you been stunned into silence and found God in sheer silence?