Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Soul Surviving: God’s Silence

Sunday, January 30, 2005





Rev. Dean Snyder

Dean Snyder, Senior Minister, is a preacher, writer and activist who coordinates a talented ministerial and lay staff. He has previously served congregations in Philadelphia as well as a director of communications, editor, specialist in congregational development and new church starts, campus minister and college instructor. A graduate of Boston University School of Theology and Albright College, his articles have appeared in dozens of publications.



We are studying this Epiphany season the inner life of the Prophet Elijah.


We learn from the life of Elijah that there are two great spiritual temptations of the prophetic life…and – by implication – the life of the prophetic church. The first temptation is isolation – becoming disconnected from the larger community of which we are part, but which we stand over against in our call for justice and compassion. We stop talking to and relating to the people we hope to influence. Read the story of the prophet Elijah, and you will see that he kept isolating himself, planting himself in a wadi or under a broom tree, disconnected from others. The first spiritual danger for the prophetic church is isolation. 


The second great spiritual temptation is discouragement. Here’s why Elijah became discouraged. In the 18th chapter of I Kings, he staged a public showdown between himself and the false prophets who had waylaid the people Israel.


He built an altar, put a sacrifice on it, and challenged the false prophets to pray to their god for fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice. The false prophets prayed and prayed, hooped and hollered and beat their chests, and nothing happened. The false prophets and their god are impotent, incompetent and ineffectual.


Then Elijah told them to drench the altar with water: one time, two times, three times until it was soaking wet ... sitting in a pool of water. Elijah prayed a short simple prayer and fire fell like that (snap) from heaven and consumed the sacrifice.


In the 18th Chapter of I Kings, Elijah had a great symbolic victory. He had demonstrated that he was right.


In the beginning of the 19th Chapter of I Kings, Elijah gets a message from the queen. This is the message from the queen to Elijah: she says to Elijah, You may be right, but I am still the queen ...  and you aren’t. This is when Elijah realizes that even though he is right and his message is right, it hasn’t changed anything. The power structures are still the same. Injustice is still on the throne. Corruption is still normative. Compassion is still just a slogan and not a program or policy. Elijah may be right but the queen is still queen.


Elijah is right, but it has made no difference. Discouragement ... to know you are right, and for it to not make any difference in the real world. The queen is still queen.


So, in the scripture lesson we heard this morning from I King 19, Elijah is in a cave of isolation and discouragement. It is a cave I have visited from time to time, and still do. Isolation and discouragement.


I am amazed at how little we in the churches are talking about the war in Iraq. Before the war started, there was a few prayer services. Then, after the war began, it seems like we just stopped studying and discussing and debating and praying. Where are the Quakers, for heaven’s sake? Where are the peace churches?


We Methodists have different opinions. Fine. Why aren’t we talking with each other? I have heard more talk about issues of morality as they apply to this war from the military and from retired military officers than I have from the churches. We are in a cave, I think, … isolation and discouragement. We have become convinced, I suspect, that it is not worth talking about because it wouldn’t make any difference.


Celeste Zappala was part of the program on the cost of war that our Peace with Justice Mission sponsored Thursday morning a week ago. Jane and I have known Celeste for years. Her son died in Iraq as part of the Pennsylvania National Guard. He joined the guard during a flood in Wilkes-Barre, because he saw the guard providing community service. “Don’t worry,” he told his mother, “the national guard does community service, it doesn’t go to war.” But he went to Iraq when he was called up. He died during an explosion while providing security for the detail that was searching for weapons of mass destruction ... that sometime later we just stopped looking for. What happens when we can’t find weapons of mass destruction, and it makes absolutely no difference ... the queen is still the queen.  


Within our denominations, churches like Foundry and Dumbarton and First Germantown, and dozens of others, pastors like Beth Stroud and dozens of others, fire has fallen from heaven and we have demonstrated that we are right, but still the queen sends us a message reminding us that, while we might be right, she is still the queen.


The great spiritual temptation for the church when it seeks to be faithful in fulfilling its prophetic mandate, like Elijah, is the cave of isolation and discouragement. DISS – discouragement and isolation, side by side.


So Elijah is in his cave waiting for God to fix things. You do something God. Send a hurricane, God, to fix things, but God was not in the hurricane. Send an earthquake, God, but God was not in the earthquake. Send more fire, God, but God was not in the fire. Send a tsunami, God, but God was not in the tsunami.


So where is God if God isn’t in the hurricane or the earthquake or the fire or the tsunami. I Kings Chapter 19 says that Elijah encounters God in sheer silence.


The old King James translation of the Bible said that after the hurricane, after the earthquake and after the fire, God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice, but that was a mistranslation. It was a Protestant cover-up because we couldn’t stand the idea of God being silent.


We Protestants feel like God’s got to be talking to us all the time. God is supposed to jabber at us.


But Elijah encountered God in sheer silence, that’s the accurate translation. You might translate it “stone silence.”


I King 19 says – The Lord was not in the wind … the Lord was not in the earthquake … the Lord was not in the fire, and after the wind, the earthquake, the fire there was a sound of sheer silence.


God does Elijah the great courtesy of not rescuing him, not telling him what to do, not doing it for him, not helping, not fixing. God is just silent.


Because Elijah already knows what he has to do. There is nothing more God can do to help him. Matter of fact, anything God tries to do is probably just going to keep Elijah in his cave.


We know everything we need to know – What does the Lord require of you, O Mortal, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Nothing more that God might have to say is going to help us. Most of our efforts to get God to talk to us are just ways of avoiding doing what we already know to do. 


In God’s sheer silence, Elijah hears everything he needs to hear. What he hears is these words: “Get thine butt out of the cave, Elijah.” (The Snyder translation.)


Go talk to people, connect, and you will find 7,000 Israelites who have not bowed their knees to Baal. There are a lot more open people out there than we imagine hunkering here in our cave of discouragement and isolation … a lot more open people. And there are Hazael and Elisha, the next generation whom you need to be teaching and mentoring, because no really significant change happens in one generation ... nothing really worth achieving can be accomplished in one lifetime.


This is my favorite quote from the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:


“Nothing that is worth doing can be completely achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we must be saved by love.”


“Get thine butt out of the cave, Elijah.”


This is why Elijah must return before the messiah, according to Jewish lore and Christian apologetics. There will no new word from God until we do what we already know to do. God will do us the courtesy of not jabbering at us … not sending hurricanes, or earthquakes, or fire, or tsunamis.


God will be stone silent until we get out of our caves and do what we already know to do, trusting that we will be saved, perhaps not in this one lifetime, perhaps not according to our own limited understanding, perhaps not by our own power; but we will be saved by hope, and by faith, and by love.