Listening to the Sounds of Silence
August 6, 2012
Updated June 30, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: 1 Kings 19:9-18
Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Before refrigerators were invented, people used ice houses to preserve their food. During the winter, people cut large blocks of ice from the frozen lakes and streams. They hauled them to the ice houses and covered them with sawdust so the ice wouldn’t melt.
The story is told of one man who lost a valuable watch while working in an ice house. He searched diligently for it by carefully raking through the sawdust. But he didn’t find it. Other people also looked for the watch, but they didn’t find it either.
One day a small boy slipped into the ice house during the noon hour. After a few minutes, he came back out with the watch in his hand. Amazed, the men asked him how he found it. “It was simple,” the boy replied. “I just closed the door, lay down in the sawdust, and kept very still. Soon I heard the watch ticking.”
Like the men who couldn’t find the watch because they weren’t listening, many of us fail to hear God speak because we aren’t listening. Or we’re only listening for the things we want to hear and we ignore the rest. Or maybe we are listening, but the voice of Satan is so loud that we cannot hear the voice of God even though we want to. In any of these situations, we can expect that the Lord will somehow confront us.
Our text takes place just after the prophet Elijah faced all the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah proposed a test to identify the one and only true God. Elijah and the prophets of Baal would each build an altar and place a bull on top of it. Then each would pray to their own God. Elijah would pray to the Lord. The prophets of Baal would pray to Baal. The God who answered with fire – he was the true God.
The prophets of Baal prayed to him all day long, but no fire came. Then Elijah prepared his altar. He dug a trench around the altar and poured water on the altar so that it ran down and filled the trench. Then Elijah prayed to the Lord. And the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
Everyone began to shout, “The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!” Then Elijah had all of the prophets of Baal killed. When King Ahab told his wife Jezebel all that had happened, Jezebel sent a message to Elijah. She promised with an oath that in 24 hours, Elijah would be a dead man.
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. Up until this time, whenever Elijah went somewhere, it was because the word of the Lord came to him and told him what to do and where to go. But this was Elijah’s own decision. He was afraid. And so he ran.
Elijah fled a distance of about 100 miles to Beersheba. Beersheba was the southernmost city in Judah. Elijah then traveled another day’s journey into the wilderness and prayed that he might die. Elijah thought that his life was not worth living. He had lost his confidence in the power that the Lord displayed at Mount Carmel. Elijah had had enough.
But then, the angel of the Lord strengthened Elijah, and Elijah continued traveling south for another 250 miles. It was not a pleasant trip. About 60 miles south of Beersheba, the Negev desert begins. The rolling hills become parched and eroded sandstone. Vegetation is sparse or nonexistent in many parts of the Negev. There are no rivers or lakes. Only after a heavy desert storm can water be found and even this water is soon absorbed by the desert sands.
Elijah traveled on. 40 days later, he found himself at Mount Horeb. This mountain is thought to be the same as Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments. It was called the mountain of God, because that is where God established his covenant with his people Israel. That is where God appeared in fire, smoke, and thunder. And perhaps Elijah slept in the same cave, or cleft of a rock, in which Moses was hidden when God passed by before him and displayed his glory.
It was at this mountain that the word of the Lord came again to Elijah. The Lord confronted Elijah with a probing question. “What are you doing here?” the Lord asked. Elijah was a mighty man and a courageous prophet! He had just confronted the King and Queen of Israel and the prophets of Baal in spectacular and dramatic fashion. What reason did Elijah have for being there?
Furthermore, God had called Elijah for a specific purpose. And this confrontational question implied that Elijah had deserted his post. This question implied that Elijah had come to the mountain of the Lord for his own misguided reasons and not because the Lord had sent him there.
Elijah had, in fact, left the land of Judah in fear. He left the land of Judah because he didn’t trust in the Lord’s protection. The angel of the Lord had enabled Elijah to make the journey. And yet, Elijah really should not have been there.
Elijah thought that he had been completely devoted to the Lord, the almighty God. Elijah was convinced that he had been entirely focused on the things of God. And yet, Elijah felt that he was standing completely alone and defenseless against the ungodly forces that threatened to overpower him. His zeal for the Lord just didn’t seem to pay off.
Elijah had good reasons to be frustrated and discouraged. The Israelites just didn’t seem to be listening to the word of the Lord. They rejected God’s covenant and put many of God’s prophets to death. And now, they were rejecting Elijah too.
Our text shows us another side of Elijah’s character. On Mount Carmel we saw Elijah as a great spiritual leader and as a bold and courageous man of God. On Mount Horeb we see him altogether more human, frail and fallible. We see him weak, mistaken, and in need of God’s correction.
Have you ever felt like Elijah? Have you ever felt like giving up? It’s easy to become discouraged when things in our church just aren’t what we would like them to be. It’s easy to become discouraged in our ministry when it seems like there are so many challenges and obstacles in our way.
Many of us, at one time or another, may have wondered if it’s really worth it. We pour ourselves into a particular task or ministry week after week with little or no tangible results. We burn up a great deal of energy in performing the work of the church and it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Like Elijah, we’ve had enough.
Sometimes it seems as if people just don’t care about the Lord’s work. Sometimes it seems as if other committee members or even the leaders of the church don’t support our work and their encouragement is absent. And we feel as if we might as well just quit and put away our aspirations and drop our dreams and resign ourselves to the status quo. We may as well let our vision fall by the wayside. Like Elijah, we’ve had enough.
Satan tends to work the hardest after a mountaintop experience. Satan works hard to make a major accomplishment look insignificant. Satan works hard to turn a significant spiritual break-through into feelings of doubt and despair. Satan works hard to cause our zeal and enthusiasm for God’s work to turn into apathy. Satan works hard to use unkind words, bickering and complaining, or false accusations to reduce our level of motivation to do God’s work. We just don’t have the strength and energy to carry on. We feel hurt and rejected. Like Elijah, we’ve had enough.
We might be surprised that God did not rebuke Elijah for his complaints. Instead, God said to him, “Go stand in my presence, and I will reveal myself and my ways to you.” God’s answer to Elijah was not like an idea or proposition. God’s answer to Elijah was not like the conclusion of a theorem. God’s answer to Elijah was God himself.
Elijah had to learn to walk by faith. This meant obeying God’s Word no matter how he felt, what he saw, or what others might do to him. God never promised Elijah an easy job, but God did promise Elijah everything he needed to do his work faithfully.
As Elijah stood on the mountainside outside the cave, he witnessed what Moses had seen in these mountains many years before. He witnessed what he himself had seen on Mount Carmel only a few weeks earlier. Elijah saw a spectacular demonstration of the power of God. And Elijah heard God speak.
Elijah saw the power of God in a great and powerful wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But the Lord was not in any of these. These were not the Lord’s instruments of his self-revelation. God was going to pass by and reveal himself to Elijah in an entirely different way. God was going to speak through some other means.
Our text says that Elijah heard a gentle whisper. Other translations indicate that Elijah heard a still small voice. What Elijah really heard, however, was a brief sound of silence. Elijah recognized that this sound of silence was none other than the voice of the Lord. And so, Elijah covered his face. Elijah knew that he was standing in the presence of the Lord.
Elijah probably expected God to give him words of encouragement. Perhaps Elijah expected God to reassure him during this time of frustration and discouragement. Maybe Elijah was waiting for God to strengthen him and revitalize him for the task he was called to do. Perhaps Elijah expected God to perform some mighty act which would simply eliminate the difficulties that he was experiencing.
Instead, God asked the same question he asked earlier. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” We might think that Elijah would respond to this question in a way that demonstrated that he had been illuminated by the presence of God in that brief sound of silence. We might think that Elijah would respond to this question in a way that indicated that he had experienced an “Ah-ha” moment. We might think that after experiencing the presence of God in that brief sound of silence, Elijah would respond in a way that gave evidence of his repentance and faith.
But that was not the case. Elijah responded with the exact same words he spoke earlier. “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty,” Elijah repeated. “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Nevertheless, God taught Elijah an important lesson. The spectacular and dramatic have their place in God’s order of things. But more often than not, the divine program is carried forward through the brief sound of silence in which God speaks to the hearts of his people. Elijah learned that sometimes he needed to be still and listen. Sometimes he needed to be quiet and let the Holy Spirit speak.
That is a lesson for all of us. When we are discouraged and frustrated, when things don’t go our way, when our efforts seem useless, when we’ve had enough, then it’s time to listen. Rather than becoming angry at the way things worked out, we need to be still. Rather than complaining about our circumstances and expecting God to change them, we need to be quiet. Rather than blaming someone else for our misfortunes, we need to shut our mouths and open our ears. Rather than accusing others of stifling our efforts and good intentions, we need to hear what God is saying to us. We need to listen to the sound of silence.
But when we’re facing life’s uncertainties or when we’ve just had enough, it’s not always easy to listen to the sound of silence, is it? Some of us may wish that God would just spell everything out for us, that he would tell us exactly where to go and what to do, and that he would reveal his plan and purpose for our lives ahead of time.
Some of us may read God’s Word and wish that it would give us step-by-step instructions on how to live in every situation. Some of us may listen to God’s Word being proclaimed and wish that there was one specific application for all of us. And some of us, even now, may be sitting back passively hoping that God will reveal himself without having to engage ourselves.
The lesson we learn from Elijah is that sometimes we need to be still and listen. Sometimes we need to be quiet and let the Holy Spirit speak instead of having someone else tell us what to do. Sometimes we need to be quiet and let the Holy Spirit stimulate our minds instead of relying on someone else to spoon-feed us the gospel. Sometimes we need to be quiet and let the Holy Spirit activate our hearts and wills instead of passively listening to only what we want to hear.
God doesn’t always speak to us by every wind of teaching that blows here and there. God doesn’t always speak to us through earth-shaking experiences. God doesn’t always speak to us by means of the emotional fires that burn within us. Sometimes God speaks to us through the sound of silence. Are we listening? Are we really listening?
Elijah felt that he was standing completely alone and defenseless against the ungodly forces that threatened to overpower him. The Israelites just didn’t seem to be listening to the word of the Lord. They rejected God’s covenant and put many of God’s prophets to death. And now, they were rejecting Elijah too. His zeal for the Lord just didn’t seem to pay off.
But in the sound of silence, the Lord revealed himself to Elijah. And once more, the Lord spoke to him. “Go back the way you came,” the Lord said. “I have some work for you to do yet.” The Lord commissioned Elijah for a task. Elijah was to anoint Hazael to be king over Aram. Elijah was to anoint Jehu to be king over Israel. And Elijah was to anoint Elisha to be his own successor.
Those three men would carry out God’s purpose. Through those three men, God would completely remove any worship of Baal that remained in the land. Those three men would be God’s agents of judgment upon Israel. Through those three men, God’s justice would triumph over evil. And the purifying work that God had begun in Israel with Elijah would be carried forward by the three men whom Elijah was commissioned to anoint.
God also has work left for us to do. And just as God commissioned Elijah for a task, God commissions us to carry on the work that he has called us to do. Even in our frustration and discouragement, even when our efforts seem useless, even when we feel like we have had enough, God still desires to use us.
We do not need to worry about an economy that makes us wonder if we will have the financial resources to do the Lord’s work. We do not need to be afraid that the wickedness of society will overtake and eliminate all forms of good. We do not need to despair when newspapers and television describe the corruption of our society. We do not need to fear those who promote evil. We just need to listen and then we need to obey.
God speaks to us in the sound of silence. But he also commissions us through his Word. Are we listening? Are we willing to obey? It is not appropriate to blame God for the troubles that we experience or for the effects of sin on the world. It is not our place to ask God why he commands us to confront evil. It is not for us to question God’s will for our lives. We must not wonder whether our meager efforts are capable of the tasks God calls us to perform.
We must simply obey his voice. If God calls us to perform a particular duty he will also equip us for the task. He will provide the means to accomplish his purpose. He will provide us with exactly what we need.
God has commissioned this church to do his work in this sad and evil world. That work is to go and tell the world the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That work is to go and tell the world the message of the cross. That work is to look at God’s creation and understand how God intends each part of it to function. And when we see that a part of God’s creation has been damaged, our task is to set out to redeem or transform that part of creation as best we can. Above all, our task is to live all areas of our lives in a way that brings glory to God.
Sometimes that means we must boldly stand up for what we believe. Sometimes it means saying “No” and refusing to participate in those things that go against God’s Word. Sometimes that means making our values known among members of our communities. Or speaking out in public. Or writing letters to our government representatives. Or actively getting involved in other ways to change our society.
God has also commissioned us to do his work within this church. We are to build each other up through prayer. We are to love and forgive each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Parents, not pastors or teachers, are to take primary responsibility to train up our children in the way they should go. Leaders are to be servants. All of us are to show kindness and hospitality to one another. All of us are to use our gifts in order to contribute to the body’s well-being. And we are to strive for unity and harmony, even when we disagree.
It’s easy to become discouraged when things in our church just aren’t what we would like them to be. It’s easy to become discouraged in our ministry when it seems like there are so many challenges and obstacles in our way. God speaks to us in the sound of silence. He commissions us to do his work. And he corrects our faulty thinking and reminds us that we are not alone.
Throughout the history of Israel, there was always a remnant of faithful people who trusted God, obeyed His will, and prayed for God to fulfill His promises. This remnant of people was God’s lifeline to maintain the ministry of Israel in the world. This remnant of people kept the light of faith and hope burning in the land. And because of them, God was able to fulfill his promise and bring the Savior into the world.
In Romans 11, Paul declares that if God reserved for himself a remnant even in Elijah’s day, he will always preserve a remnant of people who keep themselves pure and have not given themselves over to idols. God will always preserve a remnant of people who remain faithful to him and who desire to obey his will. God will always preserve a remnant of people who are ready, willing, and able to complete God’s work in the world and in his church.
That remnant was chosen by God’s grace. Through Jesus Christ, God gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a people – a people who have been chosen by God, a people who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and a people who have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus Christ, God builds his church. And the gates of hell will never prevail against it.
Do we belong to those members of God’s church whose knees have not bowed down to the Baals of pride, selfishness, and power? Do we belong to those members of God’s church whose mouths have not kissed the Baals of anger, resentment, hatred, and blame?
Sometimes we may find ourselves facing various obstacles and opposition. We may wonder what in the world we are doing here. But God enables us to see the invisible, hear the inaudible, believe the incredible, and think the unthinkable.
God promises to bless us when we put our faith and trust in him. God gives us the grace to look beyond our current situation with hope and expectation. God preserves for himself a people, a church, who possess a faith that anticipates the future and who possess a faith that overcomes the challenges we face.
Satan often works harder inside the church than he does outside the church. Satan works hard to discourage us. He works hard to attack our self-esteem. He works hard to destroy our enthusiasm. He works hard to cause conflict and disagreement.
But God comes to us in the sound of silence. He speaks to us and instructs us through his Word and Spirit. And he encourages us and equips us for the tasks which lie before us. Are we listening? Are we really listening?
Order of Worship
We Gather in the Presence of God
Call to Worship – Selected Verses from Psalm 118:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. We were pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped us. The Lord is our strength and our song; he has become our salvation. Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” We will give him thanks, for he answered us; he has become our salvation. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. He is our God, and we will give him thanks; he is our God, and we will exalt him. Let us give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
*God’s Greeting - Revelation 1:4-5
*We Greet One Another:
*Song of Praise: “Now Thank We All Our God” (PH # 316)
We Are Renewed in the Grace of God
Call to Confession – Psalm 34:8, 15, 17-18, 22 (Responsively):
Leader: Taste and see that the Lord is good;
People: Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
Leader: The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry;
People: The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.
Leader: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
People: The Lord redeems his servants; no one will be condemned who takes refuge in him.
Prayer of Confession
Lord, we confess that it is hard for us to focus on all that you are and all that you have done for us. Forgive us when we fail to see your goodness and grace. Help us to recognize your goodness and grace in our worship, in our fellowship, and in our service. Lord, we confess that we often feel powerless to accomplish the work you have given us to do. We think others are out to get us. We feel as if you have forsaken us. Forgive us when we lose heart and become discouraged. Strengthen and encourage us in the tasks and ministries that you have placed before us. Lord, we confess that we don’t always acknowledge your presence with us or put our trust in you. Forgive us when we go our own way and when we rely only on ourselves to accomplish your plan for our lives. Help us to find our strength and courage in you. Help us to see you at work within our lives and within our church. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
While it is true that we have sinned, it is a greater truth that we are forgiven through God’s love in Jesus Christ. If we repent and believe in God’s redeeming mercy, our sins are forgiven. There is no sin so terrible that God cannot forgive. There is no hurt so painful that God cannot heal. There is no doubt so great that God cannot remove. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Song of Praise: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (PH # 408, vs. 1 & 3)
God’s Will for Our Lives – Psalm 37:1-11
WE BRING OUR PRAYERS AND OFFERINGS
WE GATHER AROUND THE WORD OF GOD
*Song of Preparation: “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength” (PH # 84, vs. 1-3 & 5)
Prayer for Illumination:
Scripture – 1 Kings 19:9-18
Sermon: Listening to the Sound of Silence
Prayer for Application
Lord God, we thank you that you are with us and that you strengthen and encourage us in the work you have for us to do. Help us to boldly do what you want us to do and to go where you want us to go. Lead us by your Holy Spirit. Help us to listen to his voice. And help us to see you at work. Amen.
*Song of Application: “He Leadeth Me” (PH # 463)
WE LEAVE TO SERVE GOD WITH THANKFUL HEARTS
May the Lord be within you to strengthen you; without you, to keep you;
May he be above you, to protect you; beneath you, to uphold you;
May he be before you, to direct you; behind you, to keep you from straying;
And may he be round about you, to defend you. Amen
*Doxology: “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow” (PH # 493)
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