SLOWING DOWN TOO FAST
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 23, 2013; 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
1 Kings 19:1-15a,18; 1 Timothy 1:6-12
“…and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
1 Kings 19:12b
What would you say is the definition of the word, “hero”?
Some would say it’s a person who saves someone else’s life. Mayor Corey Booker of Newark was called a hero after he pushed his way past his security detail, rushed into a neighbor’s burning house and led her to safety. The same has been said of soldiers who save the life of a comrade in battle, or lifeguards who dive into the surf and pull a drowning person back to dry land.
But what would you call a person who saved over 20,000 lives? A super-hero?
Well, this superhero didn’t wear a cape or fly through the air. He drove a car. Sometimes into the side of his own house.
This hero is named Carl C. Clark. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him. He was a scientist who worked for NASA. His specialty was getting space capsules back to earth safely.
Clark designed a device called an air bag. It turned out to be not much use for cushioning a returning spacecraft — they travel way too fast — but Carl figured his invention could come in handy in cars.
He had a hard time, at first, getting the auto manufacturers to give him the time of day. The official line, back then, was that anybody involved in a high-speed car crash was a goner anyway, so the best you could do was educate drivers to obey the rules of the road.
But Carl persisted. One of the things he did was get behind the wheel of the family car — which he’d equipped with an early prototype of an air bag — and drive it into the foundation of his own house. He crawled out of the smashed car unscathed: although his wife, they say, was not amused.
Stunts like these led the auto manufacturers to finally give the air bag a try — and you know what happened. It proved to be such a good idea that some form of air bag is now standard equipment on every new car today.
The National Transportation Safety Board estimates that, since the first air bags came out in 1987, well over 20,000 lives have been saved. Which, I suppose does make Carl C. Clark — that guy you’ve never heard of — a super-hero.
What he did, technically speaking, was help people survive the stress of sudden deceleration. It’s like the old joke about the guy who’s lying on the sidewalk in a heap, after falling out of a window. “What happened to you?” asks a passerby. “Did you fall?”
“Yeah, I did,” says the guy on the sidewalk. “But, the fall was fine. It was hitting the ground that was the problem!”
Sudden deceleration. That was Elijah’s problem, too. We read, this morning, in the 19th chapter of 1 Kings, about how this mighty prophet went, in the space of just a few days, from being on top of the world to the bottom of the heap.
Last week, we heard about how Elijah defeated the evil Queen Jezebel. This week’s story dates from just before that time, when Jezebel was still a force to be reckoned with.
Just a short time before today’s events, Elijah has challenged Jezebel’s favorite religious leaders — the prophets of Baal — to a sort of religious duel. He invites them up to the top of Mount Carmel and there he issues this challenge: “Let’s all build an altar out of stones, gather some sticks and lay them on top. Then, let each of us slay a bull and lay it on top of the sticks — but don’t light the sacrificial fire. Let’s each of us call upon our God to send fire from heaven. Whoever has a successful barbecue is the winner.”
The person who wrote this story down had a great deal of fun telling it, even adding some comic details. Elijah lets the Baal-prophets go first. There are 450 of them, to Elijah’s one. They build their altar, they pile up their wood, they slay the bull and lay the carcass on top of it: and then they start to work their Baal-prophet mojo.
Early in the morning, they start marching around their altar, chanting and singing and calling out, “O Baal, answer us!” They keep this up most of the day. Eventually they resort to cutting themselves with knives, and letting the blood flow out upon the altar: a further invocation of their fierce god.
“Are you finished?” asks Elijah, at last. “Have a seat. Let me show you how it’s done.”
Elijah builds his altar, piles the sticks, slays the bull and lays it on top. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he pulls out a shovel and digs a deep trench around his altar.
Next, he calls for huge, clay jars of water, four of them. He directs that the water be poured over his altar. Then, he sends the water-bearers back to the stream three times, until the wood upon the altar is drenched, and the trench around it is overflowing with water.
Ever the showman, Elijah steps back a ways, and begins his prayer to Yahweh, God of Israel. After just a few lines, a powerful lightning-bolt crashes down from the heavens and incinerates everything on his altar. Not only that, the heat of this conflagration dries up every drop of water in the trench.
Whereupon Elijah calls upon the people to seize all 450 prophets of Baal and tie them up. He executes every one them, on the spot. A prophecy contest, in that day and age, was serious business. You could say it gives new meaning to the phrase, “Sudden death playoff.”
Well, after that, you’d think Elijah would be cruising along the Israel Freeway at a hundred miles an hour with the top down. He is, for a while. Until he crashes.
Queen Jezebel’s furious at what he’s done to her favorite prophets. She sends out an all-points bulletin calling for his arrest. She hangs up posters with Elijah’s picture on them, that say “Public enemy number one.” One day, he’s the biggest celebrity in the land. The next, he’s on the wanted list. If they’d had 24-hour news back then, the helicopters would have been tracking him, filming the slow-motion escape of his white Ford Bronco.
Sudden deceleration. Elijah’s running for his life. He gives his pursuers the slip, and holes up in a miserable little cave, cut into the side of a mountain. It’s cold, dark, dank and filled with bat guano.
And that’s where today’s passage begins. The prophet begins to sing his “woe is me” song. Isn’t there something comforting in the fact that a mighty man of God like Elijah can sink as low as any one of us?
After a time, Elijah hears the voice of God: “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
Elijah utters a whole long litany of complaints, by way of response. Everyone’s deserted him, he’s the only faithful believer left in the land, soon The Man’s gonna show up and haul him away, yada, yada.
“Elijah,” says God. “Enough of that. Step outside. We’ve gotta talk.”
For a while, it’s Mount Carmel all over again: earthquake, wind and fire. Crashing thunder, lightning splitting rocks, trees on fire, earthquakes setting off mini-avalanches. All Elijah can do is hunker down and hope for the best.
It’s here that the narrator injects a little theological commentary. There’s a hurricane-force wind: but the Lord was not in the wind. There’s a terrifying earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake… something utterly new and revolutionary in the world of spirituality.
The scholars who translate the Hebrew scriptures differ on what comes next. The translation I grew up with says: “a still, small voice.” Our New Revised Standard version calls it: “a sound of sheer silence.”
What does that mean?
Your guess is as good as mine. What on earth is the sound of silence, anyway?
I have a feeling it’s one of those clever religious paradoxes. You know, like that famous Zen koan, or riddle: “Listen for the sound of one hand clapping.”
It’s a spiritual experience, but nothing on the order of fire falling down from heaven and roasting a bull.
There are many Bible scholars who think — and I agree with them — that this mention of the sound of sheer silence is something wholly new in the relationship between God and God’s people.
There are some who view the Bible one-dimensionally. They see it is a single, coherent, unvarying narrative. To them, the God who says “Let there be light” in the first chapter of Genesis is the same in every respect as God in Jesus Christ, who says in Revelation 22: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Theologically speaking, God doesn’t change — but, anyone who looks at the Bible honestly and thoughtfully has to admit that our human comprehension of what God is all about goes through one transformation in the scriptures after another.
I was talking to someone just the other day who was saying she doesn’t much like the God of the Old Testament. “I guess you could say I’m a New Testament kind of person,” she explained. She resonates much more strongly with Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount — “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and all that — as opposed to, well, Elijah slicing up his defeated and humiliated enemies, the prophets of Baal, with a sword. Remember, there were 450 dismembered, mutilated bodies lying there, in the Wadi Kishon. A wadi is a dry stream-bed. Surely, that day, it ran red with blood.
The important thing about a story like this, though, is that it may begin with the predictable slaughter of the enemies of God — a common theme elsewhere in the Old Testament — but it doesn’t end there. There’s something new. God gives up talking, for a moment. Instead, there’s the sound of sheer silence.
“Behold, I am doing a new thing,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” Again and again, in these ancient documents we call scriptures, God shakes up the established order, presenting the human race with something altogether new.
The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is another example. When I look at that gruesome story — a father taking his little boy out into the wilderness to tie him to an altar and plunge a knife through his heart — I want to say: “No, that’s not right! What sort of God calls what sort of man to journey into the unknown, commanding him to murder his own son for the sake of religion?”
But the story doesn’t end that way. It ends with the gift of a ram in a thicket: an alternate sacrifice, one that teaches this man of God that the tradition of human sacrifice belonging to the cultures all around him is not what the Lord desires for the human race — and never was. It’s why that ancient story was told — and continues to be told, to this day. It’s not about the human sacrifice, in the end. It’s about the people of God shunning such ancient practices, adopting instead an ethic of love and compassion.
But, what of this “sound of sheer silence?”
It’s a bit of deep wisdom — sage advice for those who, like Elijah, find that the pain and shock of sudden deceleration are simply too much to bear.
There are plenty of people around here who are still feeling that sort of disorientation and depression — feelings that seem to grow all the more formidable with each month that passes, since the hurricane.
The old ways of coping will no longer do. The furious, frenetic activity that kept so many going through the winter months and into the spring is simply impossible to keep up. Who would have imagined, back in those days when the challenge of life was simple and direct — finding some hot food to eat, or a live outlet to plug in a cell phone — that they would eventually be puzzling over “A” and “V” flood zones, and how to get enough cash from the insurance company to pay a contractor?
As I move through this community, I’m seeing people all around who are simply weary, run down, tired — so tired — of waiting.
Where’s the fire from heaven? Where’s the spectacular divine rescue? When is God finally going to send an insurance agent to the front door with a check for the full amount of the loss in hand?
In times of great struggle or difficulty — Sandy-related, or otherwise — you can continue to hold out for the God of earthquake, wind and fire if you want. But I suspect you’re going to be waiting a very long time, if you do.
Listen, instead, for the sound of sheer silence. Slow down, but not too fast. Cease your striving, if only for a little while. Find yourself a quiet place, a place of sabbath — not so much any physical place, but deep within your heart.
Find a way to spend some quiet time with God. Relax your body. Breathe in, breathe out. Empty your mind of all that clutter.
You will know the sound of sheer silence when you hear it. It will come to you unbidden, in God’s good time. It will speak to you of love unknown. It will teach you how deeply you are loved: and how, in time, you will find all you are seeking.
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.