Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
The silence is preceded by wind, earthquake, and fire, not unlike the thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, and trumpet blasts that Moses met on this same mountain. Elijah almost certainly expected… to receive a Moses conclusion in which “God would answer him in thunder” (Exod. 19:19). But instead of thunder, Yahweh met Elijah in a quiet, inarticulate breathing – God’s breath. God’s life.
Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 118.
Elijah – his name means “My God is Yahweh.” He is only in six chapters of the Old Testament, about nine stories. Yet he is one of the heroes of the Bible, one of the two or three greatest people in the Old Testament – Moses, maybe David, and Elijah. Among all the prophets who spoke God’s word, Elijah is the model of what it means to be a prophet. Yet Elijah knew what it was like to struggle. Specifically, he struggled with depression
Two weeks ago we heard the story of Elijah prophesying that God was going to cause a drought. For three years there was no rain. During that time God provided for Elijah. Last week we heard the story of Elijah’s battle against the 450 prophets of Baal. They built two altars on top of Mount Carmel, with wood and a bull on top. The prophets of Baal prayed, asking their god to light the fire on the altar. Nothing happened. Elijah prayed and Yahweh sent a fire that burned up the altar. It was an overwhelming victory. After that the prophets of Baal were killed. Then Elijah prayed and it rained.
Ahab went back and told his wife, Jezebel, what had happened, how Yahweh had defeated Baal and all the prophets had been killed. Jezebel was never one to let facts get in the way of what she believed. In spite of the evidence that Yahweh was God she was furious at what had happened and promised to kill Elijah. He ran away, out into the wilderness.
He found a small broom tree. It wasn’t much, but it was the only protection there was out in the desert. He sat down and prayed. “God, I give up! I’m a failure. You might as well take my life. It isn’t worth living.” Then he went to sleep, hoping that he would never wake up. An angel woke him up. Told him to eat some food which God provided. He fell asleep again, probably still hoping not to wake up. The angel woke him up a second time. Told him to eat so that he would have enough strength to journey down to Mount Horeb, the mountain where Moses received the 10 Commandments.
When he got to the mountain he went into a cave and slept again. Then God spoke to him. This part of the passage always surprises me. When I hear the phrase “the word of the LORD” I expect a great truth, some sort of spiritual or theological proclamation. God commands us to do something. God comforts us or encourages us. Instead, the word of God to Elijah was a question! “What are you doing here?” God really wants to know. God is curious about your experience. God wants to hear your story. At that point Elijah complained. He poured out his heart to God. “I’ve worked so hard, and look what it has gotten me. I’ve spoken your word and done these great deeds, and the people still are worshiping other gods. And now they even want to kill me.” Elijah is depressed.
God responded by revealing himself to Elijah. He told him to stand at the edge of the cave where he would see God pass by. A hurricane force wind blew by. Imagine a wind that could take boulders and fling them through the air – but it wasn’t God. An earthquake shook the mountain – but it wasn’t God. Then there was a fire – but it wasn’t God.
After the fire came “the sound of sheer silence.” Or, if prefer the King James version, “a still, small voice.” Biblical scholars aren’t sure how to translate these words. The Hebrew words suggest something like “a voice that is a silent whisper.” Even though we don’t have an exact translation, the message is simple. God is powerful and majestic. Even if God wasn’t in the wind and the earthquake and the fire, God caused them. However, God’s word to us is often a quiet, subtle, whisper.
God asked Elijah a second time what he was doing. Again, Elijah complained. Then God gave Elijah a new job, three new jobs. Elijah is told to anoint two new kings and to anoint Elisha as the next prophet, Elijah’s successor.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been depressed. It is a horrible feeling. It’s like living in darkness. There is a sense of hopelessness, a sense that nothing really matters. Sometimes depression is connected to the circumstances of life – the death of a loved one, a crisis at work, an illness or a family problem. Some people struggle with depression that isn’t connected to a particular situation. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. Some people become depressed after a major victory.
That’s what happened to Elijah. He won on Mount Carmel. Then Jezebel threatened him and he went into the depths of depression. He was afraid for his life, mad at God and felt terrible about himself. He wasn’t thinking clearly and felt all alone. Some of you have probably been there. It isn’t a fun place. Elijah’s story shows us three gifts that God gives to us when we are depressed.
When a person is depressed they often feel exhausted but may not be able to sleep. Some people stop eating when they are depressed. Others eat too much, but not necessarily good food. They often don’t get the exercise they need. All of that leads to our bodies needing rest and nourishment. There is a strong connection between our physical, emotional and spiritual health.
The first gift God gives to Elijah is physical rest and nourishment. God cared for his body. Elijah had spent all of his inner resources on Mount Carmel. Now he needed to rest and recuperate. He slept. Sleep is a gift from God. Then God provided food for Elijah and then he went back to sleep. When he woke up there was more food to strengthen his body. God provides for us the rest and nourishment we need. [10:00]
The second gift that God gives to Elijah is a revelation of himself. The theological word for this is theophany. “Theo” is the Greek word for God. “Phany” is the Greek word that means to show up or appear. A theophany is God revealing himself, God showing up.
Traditionally, theophanies involve some sort of overwhelming and unmistakable experience. The fire that came out of heaven on Mount Carmel was certainly that. Isaiah has a theophany when he had his glorious vision of God’s throne in heaven and the seraphim singing “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). These majestic revelations are intended to show God’s power, to overwhelm anyone who might think of him or herself as important. However, in our passage, God isn’t in the wind, earthquake or fire. God is in the sound of sheer silence, the voice of a quiet whisper.
When Tanya and I were in seminary we went to church one Sunday, and a thunderstorm came right over the church where we were. It was so loud that we couldn’t hear the pastor’s sermon, even with the microphone turned up. I remember thinking “I’d rather listen to the thunderstorm than the pastor. Maybe God is trying to tell us something.” I’ve been a pastor almost 29 years and I’ve waited for a thunderstorm to interrupt worship. It hasn’t happened, but I know what I will do. I have it written in the front of my Bible.
After waiting out the storm I’ll read a passage from Job 37. “Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth… God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend.” (Job 37:2, 5). Then I’ll read a couple verses from Psalm 18. “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth” (Psalm 18:7-8a). Then I’ll turn to 1 Kings 19. “There was a great wind… but the LORD wasn’t in the wind; 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 (1 Kings 19:11b-12” And in that silence came a quiet whisper that promises “Come to me, all of you that are weary and tired, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). A whisper that proclaims “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). A whisper that says “No longer do I call you servants… Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Listen to God’s whisper to you. “You are my beloved child.”
The third gift that God gives to Elijah is a mission, a purpose for life. Even after rest and physical nourishment, even after experiencing something of God’s power and God’s tender love, Elijah was still discouraged and depressed. After the sound of sheer silence God asked him what he was doing and Elijah repeated his complaint. God didn’t argue with Elijah and try to convince him that everything was going to be okay. Instead, God gave him three jobs. “Go out and anoint two kings and anoint Elisha.”
When I’m feeling down and have the sense that I’m sliding into a depression I find that the best thing I can do is to get busy with my job. And the best of the best things is going to visit people who are also struggling. By focusing on my calling as a pastor and listening to other people I usually am able to get through my own difficult times.
What is God calling you to do? What is your mission, your purpose in life? Where is God calling you to serve?
I hope no one thinks that I’m downplaying depression or suggesting that it is no big deal. I know how devastating and difficult depression can be. There may be physical issues involved. Getting medical and psychological help is a good idea. I’m certainly not saying that “You just need more faith to get over your depression.” It isn’t a lack of faith to be depressed. Elijah had incredible faith and yet he struggled with depression.
What I want you to hear is that when you are depressed there is hope. God is with you in your depression and will give you gifts to help you through your depression. God is at work in your life, bringing you physical rest and nourishment. God is at work in your life, revealing himself to you, even if it is in a deafening silence or a quiet whisper of love. God is at work in your life, giving you a purpose, a mission for your life.