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Listening to the Dark

While hiding in a cave, Elijah learns that God doesn't always speak to us in loud ways; sometimes he whispers in the dark.

Elijah is on the run, running for his life. He's on the run not because he's been a horrible failure, but because he's been an outstanding success.

You remember what happened before this passage, how he set up a contest with Ahab. He said, "You gather your 450 prophets together, I'll be there. We'll set up couple of altars. Bring some wood—everything that's needed—and a bull for each of us. We won't light the fire, we'll let God light the fire."

That seemed fair enough. So they gathered early in the morning, and Elijah said, "You go first."

They danced and they pranced and they cut themselves as liturgical practice would have it. They did everything that was necessary to call down Baal to ignite the sacrificial altar wood. But nothing happened. Nine o'clock came, ten o'clock came; they were getting bloody by this time. Eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock.

By this time Elijah decides to mock them. He says, "I think your god is out to lunch. It's not working is it? Well, I'll give you a little more time."

They take a little more time. They get the frenzy going, everything is in motion except the fire. By three o'clock, Elijah says, "I think you've had all the time you ought to have. It's my turn."

He puts his bull on the altar. He places the wood on the altar, puts a trench around it and covers everything with water—just to make sure they get the point when the fire starts. And Yahweh did the trick.

Then Elijah said to the people, "Those 450 prophets—I don't think we need them any more." So they killed them. Hey, it's in the book—I wouldn't make that up.

The word soon gets to Jezebel. She is furious. She said, "I can't believe it!" She said to her messenger, "You take this message to Elijah: tell him within 24 hours he's going to be as dead as they are. Or may the Lord do worse to me."

Elijah makes his way to a cave and waits for the Lord to speak to him.

So Elijah's on the run. He runs at least one day away. He wants to run further but he is tired. He sits under a broom tree and begins to pray.

He said, "O Lord, take my life. I am no better than my ancestors."

It's a strange thing for him to say, for two reasons.

First, what is he doing? He is running for his life because Jezebel wants him dead. He is running so he can stay alive. So he gets tired, plops under the tree and says, "Take my life." I say, "Make up your mind."

Then he says, "I'm worthless. I'm no better than my ancestors." Just a little further on, he's going to say he's the only righteous one left. Now, which is it? Is he the one who is the righteous one? Or is he worthless? Does he want to live? Or does he want to die? I would say he is a little confused. Finally he finds his way to a cave. He's worried; he's nervous; he's scared to death. He's waiting, waiting, waiting so that the Lord will speak to him. He listens, and nothing happens.

A few things did happen about that time. First of all, a big wind began to stir. Elijah went to the entrance of the cave to watch all the wind, and he said, "Ah ha! This is it! The Lord is going to speak here. This is going to be a manifestation of God in the great Hebrew tradition. Yes, it's going to happen." But it didn't happen. There was no voice.

Then, all of a sudden, there is an earthquake. How would you like to be in the middle of a cave when an earthquake happens? No thanks. Elijah says, "This is it. God will speak." But God didn't.

Then a raging fire begins. "This one is it. Finally! Third time is the charm." Nothing happens.

Elijah is waiting for the voice of God.

We join him there, don't we? Anybody who attempts to follow the gospel is constantly having to wait for a word, and sometimes the things that seem most obvious, that ought to speak of God's will for our lives, don't seem to do the trick. We wait for the voice, but sometimes it doesn't seem to come.

You say, "But don't you know that the place to wait for it isn't wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but in a still, small voice?" But this solution won't work for us. This is the bad news I bring to you. It doesn't work that way, because wherever we think the voice is, it's not. It just doesn't happen.

If you're a preacher, you understand the cave. It happens every week. It's early in the week, and you sit down to think about next Sunday's sermon (I hope it is early in the week). You say, "Well, Sunday's coming. Sunday's coming, and I've got to do something." It's incredible how the study turns dark. It's as though there is a power failure in the universe, because everything is dark as in a cave.

You say, "Where is the word? Where is the voice?" The hymn had it exactly right: "Lord, speak to me that I may speak." But nothing happens. You imagine the congregation next Sunday looking with expectant eyes for the word. How can you speak the word when you haven't received the word?

You turn to a passage in the Old Testament. There is a lot of wind there, but no voice.

You turn to one of the gospels: lots of rumbling going on there; some might even call it the shaking of the foundations. But for you on that day, as you read, as you look, as you listen, there is no voice.

You turn to one of Paul's letters, maybe Galatians. You read how Paul is spewing fire out of his mouth toward the Galatians: "Stupid idiots of Galatia!" The fire is there. But you're waiting for the word. And the word won't happen.

Your mind revisits the congregation that will be there Sunday, and not only do you see expectant eyes, now you notice they brought their caves with them. You know that no little word will do here. Still, you're waiting for a voice, but the voice won't come.

Illustration: I didn't first learn this in the text; the text named it for me. I didn't first learn this when I started preaching and was a pastor of a church. I learned this when I was about 10 years old.

The folks would be gone for an evening and left me home alone with my oppressive older brother, Ralph. He is four years older than me. Sometimes I would go down to the rec. room to play, and you know what would do? He would come down the stairs quietly, slip in the door of the rec. room, quietly shut it, and all of a sudden turn off the light.

Oh, it was utterly dark in there. Then he would not say anything. It was a little game; I guess he derived great pleasure from it. Meanwhile, it's all dark in there, and I braced myself for—I don't know what!

I'd say, "Ralph?" Nothing. "Ralph? Ralph?"

Pretty soon there was a rustling of some paper on one side of the room. I'd turn that way. About then, there was a shift of some piece of furniture over here. I'd look over there—well, I say I looked. I couldn't see! I looked but I did not see. How could he see in the dark when I couldn't see in the dark?

"Hey, Ralph! Ralph!" Ralph said not a word. I felt out of control. Do you know what I mean—out of control?

You say, "That is no big deal. You knew there was a light switch just inside the door. You could have just walked over to the switch and turned the light on."

Well, that's easier said than done when you're 10 years old and you have a hunch that somewhere between you and the light switch is your brother. I never knew what he might do. I had a problem, and I was out of control.

Elijah was confronted not just with a problem, but also with a mystery.

There is great difference between our basement and Elijah's cave: in the cave, there is no light switch on the wall. Elijah is confronted not just with a problem. He's confronted with a mystery. God is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be evoked. He was confronted with the mystery beyond all mysteries.

And that's what we [pastors] face on Tuesday morning while looking at texts and wondering what we're going to do for Sunday. We're confronted with the Mystery beyond all mysteries.

That's pretty heavy stuff, and most of us who would rather not have to face it. Well, we don't have to face it. There is a way out. It's cheap: you've seen the ads. They come in the mail to you; sermon sets you can buy. 52 S of sermons you can buy in binders so you don't even have to recopy them. You just pull it out of the binder and take it to the pulpit. One of them contains a nice little margin at the right just in case you might want to say something of your own.

I used to call it ''borrowed sweat"—until I read a few of them and discovered there was no sweat at the other end, either. I remember one ad said, "Only thirteen cents a Sunday." I say, "Worth every penny." By mail you receive a package. You avoid the mystery.

Then there are those who don't even need the sermon sets. It comes even easier than that, because they missed a course in seminary: Transcendence 101. They say, "Hey, it's no big deal. Just have a little talk with Jesus. That's all." It's like a walk in the park with a dog on a leash: "Here, Spot. Heel, Spot. Speak, Spot. Fetch, Spot." But God is not a dog on a leash. I worry about people who know too much, too quickly.

R.E.C. Brown said what matters are not the words, because what is important to communicate is that which is not containable in words. You must find the best words you can find "and gesture toward the ultimate."

So the real issue in preaching is not learning how to talk. It's learning how to listen.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that he wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity that exists on this side of complexity. But he would give the world for the simplicity that exists on the other side of complexity.

What lies between the simplicities? A cave, every time, where we learn how to listen.

I try to teach my students how to trick themselves into hearing. You have to be out of control. When you're in the driver's seat, it doesn't work. It doesn't matter where I open this thing up, I already have my theology. I just superimpose it. I don't tell the folks I do; I just do it so automatically I don't even notice. So you have to trick yourself to get out of control.

One of the things I tell my students at Saint Paul is sometimes to take a text that you're hoping to use in a sermon, underline all the important parts, and then look at what you did not underline. That's where God may speak.

If it's a narrative with several characters, find out with whom you're identifying. Then put yourself in somebody else's shoes, and see if the Lord might speak.

Don't open a text or start first working on your notes—"What's the theme? What are the points I can make?" Don't start looking for points. Start looking for questions. Look for trouble. In the confusion of trouble is where the Lord may speak a new word. If we don't hear that word, how will anybody else hear it through us? That's why the cave is the right place. It's just dark enough to be the spot.

Let's go back to the basement. In the basement, Ralph wouldn't say anything. I was always scared as a little kid when he'd do that. I think if he'd do it again, I'd be scared again. One thing I knew, though: in that rec. room in our basement, I was not alone. His presence was larger than life. It seemed he was standing to my left and to my right, and ahead of me and behind me. I couldn't see him, but Ralph was there!

For Elijah, in the midst of the darkness of the cave, God finally whispered.

That's exactly what happened to Elijah. In the midst of the darkness of the cave finally came a voice. The voice came up close to his ear and whispered. The voice said, "What are you doing here?"

That's one of the most remarkable passages in all of Scripture. What do you mean, "What are you doing here?" Did you notice what the voice did not say? It did not say, "What are you doing there?"— as though God were distant and aloof, looking on to the scene of the cave saying, Why are you there?" We're not talking there, we're talking here.

God is in the dark. In fact, God is bigger than the dark. That's the promise. It is God's dark. God is the Creator of the dark. The promise is that God will be present.

Later on, Jesus says, "Lo, I am with you always." I think he meant, "I am with you inside caves." He didn't mean, "I am with you then," but, "I am with you now." "I'm with you—not there—I am with you here."

With the confidence of children of the Most High God revealed in Christ, we may dare to endure the dark. We can trust the dark because it is God's dark. At God's good pleasure, you'll hear the voice. It may be a still, small voice. It may be louder than that. It may say, "Adam, where art thou?" Or it may be kindlier; the voice in the cave may say, "Who touched the hem of my garment?"

In whatever form—loud, soft, short, long—the voice will come. One way or another that voice will say, "Boo!" It will scare you out of your wits. It ought to.

Eugene Lowry is the William K. McElvaney Professor of Preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. In addition to his responsibilities as a professor and pastor, Dr. Lowry is a professional jazz pianist.

(c) Eugene Lowry

Preaching Today Tape # 125


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Elijah makes his way to a cave and waits for the Lord to speak to him

II. Elijah was confronted not just with a problem, but also with a mystery

III. In the midst of the darkness of the cave, God finally whispered to Elijah