HOW GOD SPEAKS
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 10, 2014; 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15

“…after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
1 Kings 19:12b

There’s a nasty rumor going around that God has stopped speaking.

You wouldn’t think so, from reading the early chapters of the Bible. There are plenty of places, there in Genesis and Exodus, where God speaks directly to human beings. The problem is, God doesn’t seem to keep it up. The further you progress, in the story of God’s relationship with Israel, the more God seems to follow the principle, “Less is more.”

God’s Voice

You can read, for example, about how Adam and Eve hear “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” (Gen. 3:8). Think of it: the sound of God’s feet, plodding along through the moss and the fallen leaves! When God realizes Adam and Eve have gotten wise to their situation and covered their naughty bits with fig leaves, the Lord asks him — directly — why he ate the forbidden fruit. Adam passes the buck to Eve.

“What is this that you have done?” God asks Eve. “The serpent tricked me,” says she (Gen. 3:13). It’s a full-blown conversation, back and forth.

You don’t see God showing up in person very often, after that — although God does continue to speak. God not only speaks to Noah, delivering the famous instruction to build an ark. God even dictates the plans: “Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits” (Gen. 6:14-15). And on it goes, with explicit instructions about how to construct this massive ship and fill it with two of every animal. After the floodwaters recede, God even advises Noah and Mrs. Noah when it’s time to disembark (Gen. 8:16).

By the time the people are living in a city called Babel, there’s not much sign of God walking around anymore. Maybe it’s because the people miss those regular coffee klatches that they decide to build a great tower, reaching to the heavens. The Lord “comes down,” then, “to see the city and the tower which mortals had built” (Gen. 11:5). The Lord is not amused at this sacrilege, announcing a plan to confound human speech with many different languages.

A little later in the narrative, God has lots of conversations with Abraham, the patriarch: commanding him to undertake that long and perilous journey into the promised land. Later on, God shows up to physically wrestle with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. And when it’s time for the Lord to call up the fugitive Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the people go, it’s by means of a voice echoing from deep inside a burning bush.

Moses will have many meetings with God. In one of the most memorable, Moses asks to “see God’s glory.” Not a good plan, as it turns out, because, as God explains, looking upon the face of God is fatal: “ no one shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:20) God does extend to Moses a special consideration. God permits Moses to press himself into the cleft of a rock for protection, and glance, ever so briefly, at the backside of God passing by. Even this residual, trailing glory is almost too much for Moses to handle.

Silent Speaking

God speaks less and less frequently after that. The story of Samuel’s calling as a prophet begins with a disclaimer: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread” (1 Sam. 3:1). Even so, Samuel hears the Lord calling in the night, speaking out his name (1 Sam. 3:4). Whether or not the voice came to the boy in a dream, he takes it to be a voice in his ear — loud enough for him to think his master, Eli, has called him.

Yet, is it an audible voice? We can’t be so sure. The fact that this a quiet encounter in the night suggests a growing awareness that God speaks in quiet, subtle ways.

One of my favorite novels is Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry: the story of an orphan boy awakening to the presence of God in his life. Reflecting back on his days as a teenage boy in the orphanage — too old for anyone to want to adopt him — Jayber says:

“This possibility of being called began to keep me awake of a night. I had heard no voice, but probably because I was starting to respond at about that time to the distant calling of girls, I could not shake the notion that I was being called by something that I knew nothing about.

I knew the story of the boy Samuel, how he was called in the night by a voice speaking his name. I could imagine, so clearly that I could almost hear it, a voice calling out of the darkness: ‘J. Crow.’ And then I thought maybe the voice had called, and that I had almost but not quite heard it. One night I got out of bed and went to the window. The sky over the treetops was full of stars. Whispering so as not to waken my roommate, I said, ‘Speak, Lord, for they servant heareth.’ And then, so help me, I heard the silence that stretched all the way from the ground underneath my window to the farthest stars, and the hair stood up on my head, and a shiver came into me that did not pass away for a long time.”

Then there’s the incident we read this morning, of the prophet Elijah, on the run. He’s hiding out in a cave, and the Lord speaks to him, asking “What are you doing here?” (1 Kgs. 19:9). Then, the scriptures say, “the Lord passes by.” There’s earthquake, wind and fire — but (the scriptures carefully inform us) the Lord isn’t in any of those traditional godlike manifestations. The Lord comes to Elijah, instead, in a simpler, more ordinary way.

The Hebrew is almost impossible to translate. The King James version and the Revised Standard Version render it “a still small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12). Our New Revised Standard Version translates it, “a sound of sheer silence.” The Hebrew word is akin to a hush, or a whisper: certainly not the bold, booming voice of God on Mount Sinai.

Later on in this passage, God returns to back-and-forth conversation with the prophet, giving him very specific instructions on where he is to go, and what he is to do — although you have the sense, reading it (at least I do) that this is probably not an auditory conversation. More likely, it’s something Elijah comes to realize, deep within his heart. It’s his call: what the Lord wants him to do.

The revelation of God to Elijah as a hush, a whisper, a sound of sheer silence is something unprecedented in the scriptures, up to this point, It’s almost as though the biblical writer is saying to us, “Yes, I know earlier sacred writings tell of God speaking to people directly, as a resounding voice in their ears, but that’s not how it really is. That’s creative storytelling. It’s poetry. In truth, when God speaks to us, it’s in the smallest whisper you could imagine, a sound so low and so subtle, it’s not even a sound at all.”

You won’t hear God in earthquake, wind or fire. You’ll hear a still, small voice. A sound of sheer silence.

A Voice Out of Time

On the subject of God communicating with us, Frederick Buechner makes the very fascinating point that, if God truly is the creator of all, then we can hardly expect God to speak to us in the audible voice of a creature. God is no creature. God created all creatures — even space and time themselves.

God is outside of space. For that reason, we can hardly expect to hear God’s footfalls crunching on the dry leaves strewn across the garden path, or behold God’s glory passing by.

God is also outside of time. Human conversation happens in time: you say one thing, and moments later, I say another in reply. How can we expect a being who is outside of time to speak to us audibly, in time?

Listen to what Buechner has to say about this, in his book, Wishful Thinking:

“If I can’t see you for some reason but can only hear you, you don’t exist for me in space, which is where seeing happens, but in time, which is where hearing happens. Your words follow one after another…. When I have only the sound of you to go by, I don’t experience you as an object the way I would if you stood before me — something that I can walk around, inspect from all angles, more or less define. I experience you more the way I experience the beating of my own heart or the flow of my own thoughts. A deaf [person] coming upon me listening to you would think that nothing of importance was going on. But something of extraordinary importance is going on. I am taking you more fully into myself than I can any other way. Hearing you speak brings me by the most direct of all routes something of the innermost secret of who you are.

It is no surprise that the Bible uses hearing, not seeing, as the predominant image for the way human beings know God. They can’t walk around God and take God in like a cathedral or an artichoke. They can only listen to time for the sound of God — to the good times and bad times of their own lives for the words God is addressing to, of all people, them.”

I don’t expect God to show up here — or any other geographic location on this earth. Nor do I expect God to speak to you or me — this fine day, or any other — as a literal voice sounding in our ears. I do believe, though, God does speak to the likes of us. It happens in a spiritual way, deep within. We simply have no words to describe it, other than words like “call” and “voice” — so I suppose those words will have to suffice, however inadequate they may be. We hear God, without hearing at all.

“God’s call,” says Carlo Carretto, “is mysterious; it comes in the darkness of faith. It is so fine, so subtle, that it is only with the deepest silence within us that we can hear it.”

Listening To God

No one can predict when God will speak. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say “when we will hear God speaking” — because I think God (who’s outside of time) is speaking to us more often than not, it’s just that you and I aren’t the best of listeners.

There are a few things we can do, to make ourselves more receptive to what God is saying.

First, we’ve got to stop. That may seem perfectly obvious in this hectic world of ours, but still it needs to be said. From sunup to sundown and far into the night, most of us are constantly on the move. I don’t mean just in a physical sense (thought that’s true often enough). Our spirits are restless, pulled in every different direction. Many of us are troubled with obsessive, anxious thoughts that come to us unbidden, that we find hard to dismiss from our minds. Many more of us live by our electronic devices — those smartphones and tablets we carry around, guaranteeing (at least, as long as they are turned on) that we are not completely masters of our own time. If you’re a multitasker, and proud of it, that’s a wonderful thing — a useful skill for living in the digital age. But, I’ll tell you this: you’ll never hear the voice of God in your life if you try to make that one of your multitude of tasks!

To hear God’s voice you need attention. You need focus. You can’t tune in unless you first turn off or set aside all those devices, and banish from your mind the distracting thoughts that rush in, clamoring for your attention. To do this takes discipline. It’s hard work. And it’s not achieved lightly or easily.

After you stop, you need to be still. “Be still, and know that I am God,” says the psalm. Find a place of quiet, a place of peace. Visit that place often — whether it’s a physical place, a location like a woodland path or a deserted beach, or a quiet place within your mind. Some people find that a repetitive, mindless activity is helpful: like walking, or doing something simple with your hands — something you don’t have to think about. From time to time, try to get away for a longer period of time — a vacation or retreat. The important thing is that you pause to discover that still point within you, and — when you do get up and return to the daily grind, that you leave a trail of breadcrumbs so you can find your way back again.

Another helpful thing to do is read. The Bible is best for this purpose, but there are also devotional writings that can help you along the way. The goal here is not to take in huge amounts of text, but rather to read slowly and meditatively, sometimes going through that portion of text several times. If you sense the need to linger in one spot, do so — remember, this is no contest to see how much you can read, how many words you can digest. It’s a deep dive, an exploration, a slow journey of discovery.

For heaven’s sake, don’t try that old game of opening up the Bible at random, pointing at one place, and reading whatever’s there. That’s little better than fortune-telling. It’s making the Bible do all the work. No, if you read the Bible, seek to read with understanding. Don’t jump around all over the place, but stick with one biblical book at a time, keeping at it until you understand it on a deep level. (We’ve got an excellent opportunity to do just that, beginning in September, with the Covenant Bible Study series. You can read more about that in the bulletin. I hope a great many of you will take advantage of the Covenant program, either the Monday-morning group Linda will be leading, or my Wednesday-evening group.)

Of course, it’s immensely helpful to pray. Again, as with the devotional reading, this is not a matter of assembling flowery words. Somehow a great many of us have gotten the idea that prayer is a formal and very erudite speech to God — one that requires a seminary education to perfect. Believe me, it’s not that way. Less is more, when it comes to the act of prayer.

Anthony de Mello tells a little parable of a spiritual seeker who journeys to a far country, to sit at the feet of a renowned teacher. He says to one of the Master’s disciples, “I have traveled a great distance to listen to the Master, but I find his words quite ordinary.”

“Don’t listen to his words,” replies the disciple. “Listen to his message.”

“How do I do that?”

“Take hold of a sentence that he says. Shake it well till all the words drop off. What is left will set your heart on fire.”

Finally, I encourage you to share your experience of spiritual discernment with others. Stopping, being still, listening, reading and praying are all solitary activities, but we’re not meant to remain in solitude all the time. God has created us for community.

One of the deepest principles of our Presbyterian expression of Christianity is that God is more likely to be active in inspiring groups than in inspiring individuals. That’s why individuals make very few decisions in Presbyterian governance. It’s all about groups.

We Presbyterians have a healthy skepticism about claims of individual inspiration. If an individual were to show up here and say, “God has told me what the mission of this church needs to be,” our typical procedure will be to refer the matter to the Session, or some other group, for collective discernment. We Presbyterians believe that, if God has indeed spoken to an individual a word of guidance and direction, then that same word of guidance and direction will show up again in the collective mind of this congregation’s leadership.

God Still Speaks

The last word, my friends, is this. God still speaks. That “nasty rumor” I told you about, at the beginning — that God once came to earth to walk and talk with people, but gradually pulled back until there is very little of the divine in this world — is completely and utterly false. God continues to be as familiar to us as breathing, as near to us as prayer.

The Letter to the Hebrews explains how God does this. The very first line of that book is this: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…”

God is eager to be in relationship with us, through Jesus Christ, who — by the Holy Spirit — is God’s active, personal presence in the world today.

You and I have a choice. We can live as though God were impossibly distant, unconcerned with the joys and the struggles of our daily lives. Or, we can choose to live a different way: open and expectant, listening for that sound of sheer silence that is the harbinger of God’s presence in our daily lives.

May you know the deep and abiding joy of this kind of listening: and, in the fertile silence, may you come to hear!