Trinity 4    27 June 2010

The story of Elijah and what happens at Horeb is one of the great moments in the Old Testament; the great prophet, heroic and faithful is all alone and meets God and we all know the way of that famous rendering of the ‘still small voice’ which is heard after the great storm and the earthquake.

Yet Elijah, if we read the story carefully, is not that heroic, not that faithful and he certainly hears no still small voice. The God of Israel has been vindicated in dramatic fashion in the contest with the priests of Baal and their nice all age inclusive worship has received its comeuppance but Elijah does not stay but runs away, away from Jezebel who is still a power.

It is not only from Jezebel he runs. Elijah is running away from his calling. As we hear, he wishes to cease being a prophet and the self-pity is terrible in his voice. It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers. I am the only prophet left. However jealous he has indeed been for the Lord of hosts, he is not the only prophet left. That is simply untrue.

So he comes to Sinai and it described in terms which suggest Moses; he is forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, God passes by him. If he has fled, he has also withdrawn to go back to the origins of the covenant, to that greater mountain, Sinai, to the greatest of the prophets, Moses.

Very grand but Elijah has been chased there by God and, whereas Moses goes out onto the mountain, Elijah remains in the cave and does not meet God face to face. He hears the crashing of the wind, the earthquake, the crackle of the fire and then nothing; the sound of sheer silence. If Elijah is a model, he is not perfect.

God will not let this figure go, this self-important, self-pitying, obstinate, cajoled, cake eating figure. He understands his God well when he is up front and when he can offer the most glorious of Masses and getting stuck in to the priests of Baal. When it is under challenge and when the challenge is under his skin, self-pity and false self-picture, he is as feckless as any in scripture, certainly as feckless as the disciples in the garden.

Yet God chases him, with an angel, with hot cakes and drink, with the senses of sight and sound, taste and smell. God will not let him go; not because, I suggest, he has done good work, offered a good Mass and done a nice retreat but because he is out of where he is safe, with no hole of his own to lie in or a nest to get warm in. God leads him, although to Elijah it is as much like being chased. Elijah continues to pray in his wonted way and, however obscurely to him, the Lord replies.

It is a strange conversation and some find the practice of prayer as conversation something which comes natural; fine but one of the features of the exchanges in the scriptures is how often the mutuality between God and His faithful servant is not like a chat. In the Elijah account we see how the conversation often means that God speaks to his servant through his speaking to God and that God makes Himself known, when something quite unlike chat is there, the sound of sheer silence, where the model of conversation breaks down.

Yet is not this a deeper communication? There has been a long run of often wacky thinkers, who have argued that God is as much nothing as He is anything, thinkers going back to John the Scot, so called because he was Irish and often regarded with caution. Yet this is a true reflection of that unity beyond the paradoxes which is God, in His coming to his feckless followers, chasing, cajoling, crashing, crackling until nothing is left.

When that comes in Christ, it may be thought that may be left behind – poor Elijah, poor dear. No, Christ says that you may have it easy but that is not the way with true God, with the Son of Man. Foxes have holes – you may have all age worship and rest in the senses of the age – birds of the air have nests – you may cover the fashionable view with holy water and do the great Mass but to follow the way of the Son of Man, to be with Him, is not a comfortable or natural place to be, though joy cometh of the Lord. Not a masochistic way either.

Silence on Horeb is full, that which communicates even as it cannot be said. Elijah has been fed for this, so he can hear and obey the God who comes, so the immensity of God can be always near. Being feckless is no barrier to this. No but it is, as some of you know, only something that can be found out by doing and failing. We had a little while back that book for reading by Sara Maitland on silence: 'A friend to be broken' (Janet Batsleer). Sara Maitland is convinced that this is false, arguing that ‘all silence is the place of death, nothingness. All silence is waiting'. However, she ‘cannot pin down why this is wrong’ (A Book of Silence p277).  Perhaps that is right but I wonder. It is not to be pinned down, rather God will have us rather like Elijah or the disciples and will have us with Him, as we go on, feckless often, full of crackles, full of our self-pity and self-importance but as long as we are on the way, that fullness will find us, empty will find us, with nowhere to lay our head but find us He will, to be sure.       

Thomas Seville CR