Monday, July 1, 2013

The Sound of Silence

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on June 23, 2013. The texts were 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a and Luke 8:26-39.


It’s a loud, loud world.  Too loud, I feel. And this is coming from someone who loves his guitars electrified and his amplifiers turned up to 11.  It’s too loud, and I mean this both literally and as a metaphor.  IPods and IPhones, as wonderful as they may be, keep us tapped into a never ending stream of phone calls, YouTube videos, and music, whether those songs be the classics of Etta James or the hits of Lady Gaga.  Car radios add a soundtrack to even the most mundane journeys, turning a grocery store run into a perfectly scored, almost cinematic moment.  And the sound bite culture of the American media forces us to relive political speeches and bits of entertainment on a nearly 24 hour cycle of ‘play, rewind, repeat.’

            It’s a loud, loud world, and so we have become a people of noise, of sounds, of cacophonies that crest and crash upon our ability to be still, silent, and at rest.  Try to think back on the last time you sat in silence, pure silence.  No television, no telephone, just…silence.  Unless you’re a Buddhist monk, or a Christian mystic, I’m willing to bet you spend more time surrounded by noise than sitting in silence.  I know I do, and I am prone to meditation and silent sitting.  It’s a loud, loud world, and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to hear the still soft voice of the LORD.

            Elijah sought to hear the voice of the LORD.  Running from a tyrant queen who put a price on his head, Elijah was driven by fear into the wilderness, into the furthest place south he could go in the kingdom of Judah. Planting himself below a broom tree, he prayed to God and asked for death. He wanted an answer from the LORD.  He wanted to hear the voice of the One he served.  And a voice responded, but it wasn’t the LORD…it was just the LORD’s messenger: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” You see, Elijah was not yet at the right place, in the right moment, to hear the voice of the LORD.  There was something else for him to do, someplace else for him to go, in order to be ready to hear the voice that called creation into being. And so he ate, drank, and was led to Horeb, the mountain of God.

            It was on this very same mountain that, years before, Moses had encountered the LORD, once in a burning bush and then later in a grand cacophony of clouds, darkness, and flame.  This place was the mountain of revelation, and no one would have blamed Elijah for expecting to encounter the LORD just as Moses did…in the midst of a symphony of sound and fury.  And when the word came to Elijah that the LORD was about to pass by, he was obedient and stood on that mountain of revelation and waited for his own cacophony of clouds, darkness, and flame. And true to form, the clouds and the darkness and the flames came to him.  But God wasn’t to be found in them. There came a wind so strong, and with it the power to fracture the nearby rocks.  Was God there, in that awesome display of power? No.  An earthquake occurred, shifting the very ground beneath Elijah’s feet.  Was God there, the God who called creation into being and has the power to move both heaven and earth? No.  Then the flames.  Was God there, the God who Moses saw as a flame that burned but didn’t consume? No.  In Elijah’s moment of need, when his life was threatened and he was plunged into despair, where was God to be found?

            In a sound of sheer silence.  A better translation of the Hebrew would be “still voice, silent voice, or silent sound.” Elijah had answered the LORD’s questions with an impassioned declaration of his calamities.  “I’ve been zealous for you, LORD, while everyone else has abandoned you and killed your prophets.  And now, they want to kill me.” He has declared to God his danger and is answered by nothing but silence, sheer silence…the still voice of God.  I can only imagine the surprise, perhaps even the disappointment Elijah must have faced.  Longing for a shout, Elijah got only a whisper.  Was he satisfied with this divine manifestation? Could you, or I, be truly satisfied with meeting God in a silent voice when what we want, and what we might need, is a shout from Heaven?

            And though we might feel as if a silent sound from God isn’t worth much, isn’t helpful, isn’t really much of a sound at all, what do we make of Jesus’ liberation of the Gerasene demoniac? Here we have another man driven into the wilderness, not by fear, but by the force and power of his demons.  A man who couldn’t be contained by shackles and chains, who went about naked and ashamed, who dwelt with death in the tombs on the outskirts of town.  A man for whom the very presence of Jesus seemed to torment him with pain.  This is a man who lived with a cacophony of voices that plagued him and gave him no peace.

            He could not find peace because, as Luke says, ‘many demons had entered him.’ No peace because within him dwelt a legion of demons.  In the days of the Roman Empire, a legion was a squad of nearly 5,000 soldiers, a military unit that squashed any rebellions and kept Roman territories under the oppressive power of the Empire.  The symbolism, then, shouldn’t be lost.  This poor Gerasene man was suffering under the power of a Legion of demons.  Perhaps Luke’s phrase “many demons had entered him” is a bit of an understatement.  Driven to and fro by the force of this legion, the man could find no place of rest and could not even bear to hear the voice of Jesus or feel his presence near him.

            But the presence of Jesus couldn’t be so easily ignored, or tossed aside, and in a show of great compassion and mercy, Jesus set this man free and sent them demons to their doom.  And in perhaps the first moment of rest this man has ever experienced, he was able to sit at the feet of Jesus, perhaps in silence, no longer subject to the thousands of dark voices that plagued him from within.  “They found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” In a very real sense, divine silence became his saving grace.  No longer subject to a cacophony of sound and fury, his mind was cleared and he could sit at the Master’s feet, in the presence of the one who once caused him torment.  He could sit, and know that he was loved by the man who radiated only love and grace.

            Elijah suffered from a cacophony outside of himself.  Voices calling for his death.  Earthquakes and winds that raged with no discernible purpose.  The Gerasene man suffered from a cacophony inside of himself.  Thousands of demons confusing his sense of identity, tormenting him at every moment. And both of these men were saved and set free by the opportunity to rest in silence before the LORD.  And though most of us don’t have bounties on our heads, or suffer from the voices of 5,000 demons, perhaps we can in some way relate to how the voices of pain and anguish in the world and in our hearts, or the experiences we suffer and the wounds we bear, can cause great pain and anxiety, preventing us from truly hearing the voice of the LORD.  From my own experience, when I’m suffering from something painful, or find myself in a moment of anxiety or fear, I long for a show of great power from the LORD, perhaps to remind me that there is something much greater than me working for my good and my benefit.  Flames, thunder, booming voices and a show of strength would be so nice, so wonderful to experience in a moment of doubt, a crisis of identity, or when dwelling in the depths of sorrow.  But is that what we truly need?  We may feel as if we deserve such shows of power, such proofs of God’s love and protection, but is it what we truly need?

            Imagine, for a moment, the freedom Elijah and the Gerasene man must have felt once the noise, the cacophony, the storms and the Legion were gone…when they could finally hear the LORD’s voice, rest in his presence, and finally understand the mission God was calling them to.  When Elijah encountered the sound of sheer silence, he covered his face in his mantle and stood at the mouth of the cave.  He declared his danger to the LORD once again but this time received a response.  In fact, he received a mission: “Go, and anoint Hazael as king over Aram.” Likewise, it was after the Legion had been dispelled and the Gerasene man could sit at the feet of the Master that he received his mission: “Declare how much God has done for you.” Freedom comes to them coupled with a mission, and this freedom is rooted in their experiences of God that were either unexpected, in Elijah’s case, or unwanted, in the case of the Gerasene man.

            And God certainly has a habit of confounding our expectations and coming to us when we least expect it, or when we don’t desire it at all.  So for those of us living in a loud, voluminous culture, accustomed to instant access and satisfaction, how can we find the peace and freedom brought by the stillness of God’s voice? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can offer a guidepost.  There is freedom in simplicity and stillness, in letting go of the control we seek and taking time to pause, breathe deeply, and drink in the beauty of the world…of nature…of the reality that exists right alongside the noise, the entertainment, the televisions and the cell phones.  Those things that keep us instantly connected but simultaneously distracted and perhaps even isolated.  In your own way, at your own pace, find time to pause, breathe, and pray.  And there you just might hear the sound of sheer silence, and be set free to sit at the feet of the Master.

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