Sermon: Sunday 10 August 2014
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
Elijah in the Cave
I have quite a few ikons in my study at home. To be honest, I don’t use them much: but the one of Elijah in his cave, hanging in quite a prominent position, is certainly precious to me. Why? Because it is intensely real. Here is Elijah, scriptural giant, one of the ‘greats’, mature and successful, effectively indulging in an adolescent strop! Silent sulk and then, ‘I did what you said and now look what’s happened!’
He’s been on a roller coaster of energy and emotion – utterly defeating the prophets of Baal with his pyrotechnical abilities and then, as a result, fleeing for his life. It’s not surprising that he’s exhausted. The kaleidoscopic effect and the cacophony of all that is now crowding all else out: he’s in a fix, at the end of his tether, not thinking clearly. Amid all the jangle and discord in his head he can’t find God, neither within nor in the primeval spectacle raging outside his cave, and the more he looks, the more he doesn’t find.
A familiar scene? Head in bits, thoughts tumbling around, looping endlessly through the current preoccupations… tiredness, low mood, discordant sounds, pressures… It’s difficult to find God in our crowded lives – in busy offices and pressurised meetings, in unruly classrooms and less than peaceful homes, in prisons, waiting rooms, buses and supermarkets… And so we don’t, and all too quickly accuse God of not being there anyway, or confined to particular holy places only. How do we encounter God?
Biblical tradition teaches us that Moses had special access to God, and others heard God, or encountered God’s angels. In the Gospels, the disciples lived alongside God in the person of Jesus Christ, walking, talking, arguing… Subsequently we’ve come not to expect to encounter God directly, partly because we’ve since had the Enlightenment, rationalism and modernism and expect to reason things out. People no longer shout at the wind and rain and they go away (much as they might like to!). We think we’re more likely to expect to meet a ghost than an angel of God; and we don’t expect voices from heaven or even a whisper in our ears. And so we don’t lift our eyes and ears heavenward, unlike William Blake who saw flaming angels and visions amid his bleak, grey, urban landscape and wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a flower.
So how do we encounter God? And how do we deal with an all too familiar sense of the absence of God? Theology and spiritual discourse over the centuries have wrestled with these problems. Poisonous ideologies and the horrors of warfare over the last hundred years remind us that there are no facile answers. And that whereas in the past warring factions claimed God for their champion, in reality many struggle with even the concept of God in the face of pogroms and slaughter. Where is God for Iraqi Christians or Palestinians in Gaza, for example?
It’s a perennnial question, and one for which there are no easy answers. The story of the Jews in Auschwitz putting God on trial may or may not be apocryphal, but that they then went to pray resonates hugely with our deepest human instincts. We do not know how and who God is, and, in extremis, may easily doubt him: but nonetheless we reach out. Read the psalms – it’s all there!
In his misery Elijah couldn’t find God either; and yet when he least expected it, God popped up – in the silence. There is something in there about the contradiction of encounter in emptiness (where the connection with Buddhist thinking is unmistakeable) and the concept of losing self in finding God, epitomised in the words of Christ himself, ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
God in the silence? Some of us on volunteer training the other day talked about how we organise ourselves here while we have workmen around. The question came up – where might the candle stands be best located for personal prayer, given the current hustle and bustle and noise? Then someone made the point that it isn’t silence people need, and that already candles are lit amid our busyness. People can stand there in their own private space blocking out the world around, but it’s the provision of that private space, the time out which really matters. Prayer requests flood in and this place is both recognised and used for spiritual refreshment, where God may be encountered.
But if, like Elijah, we think he’s playing a kind of hide and seek, we may, like Alice Through The Looking Glass, only find him when we’re going the opposite directly, actually actively not searching.
Elijah’s story demonstrates that God is to be found in the silence: our Gospel story illustrates that God is to be found amid the sheer physical power of a storm. But even in that moment, God in Jesus is more like at the eye of the storm – that stillness in the centre. God is where God chooses to reveal Godself, nowhere else, and we can’t influence that.
What does all this do for us in practical terms? Well, I think there is a health warning about trying to too earnestly to pray or encounter God. That sounds odd, coming from a priest. Of course we should pray and read our Bible, but perhaps sitting a little lightly on what we expect as an outcome. Religious disciple, necessary and commendable though it is, is not a means to an end, where we automatically expect that God will reward us with at least a whisper in the ear. Let’s just pray for praying’s sake, not over trying to perfect our technique, but just delighting in the stillness of the Spirit. Let’s go about our daily business doing the best we possibly can in what we have to do, and in what we believe God calls us to do. As the famous hymn goes – ‘who sweeps a room as for Thy laws makes that and the action fine.’ But let’s also be attentive to the possibility of encounter, probably when least expected. Moses chanced upon the burning bush – he didn’t go looking for it. The disciples were fishing: Jesus called them. Elijah finally encountered God in the silence – not what he expected at all!
My grandson used to sing a song which went, ‘I’m alive, alert, awake, enthusiastic.’ We should be so – receptive and tuned in. But the encounter will still probably come on us by stealth, very possibly outside of this building, in the difficult meeting, the corridor conversation, or through the least likely person. One of my most vivid encounters with God was in the eyes of a convicted robber and thug, reaching out to another in gentleness, love and rough-hewn prayer, fulfilling that person’s needs at a moment of deep crisis in a very unholy place. ‘The wind blows where it chooses’. God is not a tame God and he will challenge all our preconceptions.
It is tempting to see today’s Old Testament story as one about Elijah – his exploits and his personal dilemmas. But actually it is a story about God: indeed the whole Bible is God’s narrative – the story of God’s interaction with God’s people. The challenge is to see our own lives through the same lens.
© The Revd Alison Adams