Spiritual writer Maggie Ross raises a relevant question for preaching: "What is the quality of silence in this text, experience, or person?"1
Her question is important for two key moments in the preaching task. For a sermon to invite hearers into a richer experience of God's presence, we must ask about the quality of silence: 1) at the moment of entry into text, and 2) in shaping and sharing the sermon message. Elijah's story (I Kings 19) helps us think about the quality of silence in each of these moments.
Entering the text in search of the presence of God
After demonstrating the Lord's power among the prophets of Baal, Elijah is in a tough spot. When Queen Jezebel threatens his life, he has little choice but flee to the wilderness where he collapses in terror and exhaustion. His last words before a deep sleep are in effect: Just kill me now, Lord. I can't take any more! Given the demands of the pastoral life and the expectations of a culture that overrates busyness and productivity, it is no wonder that some of us show up to the sermon text feeling like Elijah: besieged, alone, afraid, and exhausted.
After food and rest Elijah decides that it is time for a change. He needs some time away. So he heads off into the wilderness for forty days. He sets up camp in a cave and begins to pray. The conversation goes something like this:
"What are you doing here?" asks God.
Elijah rehearses his answer. "I've been faithful. The people have failed you. Now they are trying to kill me."
God says, "I don't think you're really listening."
Then he instructs Elijah to go out of his cave, stand still, and listen closely.
Shaping and sharing a message out of stillness and silence
The first thing Elijah hears is great wind. Hard to imagine standing still in the face of a hurricane! Then an earthquake upends the earth. Who can be still in that? And then a fire. No way to stand still with a fire raging nearby. Yet God was in none of these.
Becoming still before a text to be preached may be nearly as disconcerting as Elijah's moment. First, there is real difficulty in stilling the body. You grasp after most any distraction. You think of fires that need to be put out. You feel the earth tremble. Even the softest breeze unsettles you.
To sit without moving is a major challenge for those of us who launch through life at full throttle. And becoming still may lead to sleep, a sign of the body's need for rest. So it will take practice for most preachers to sit in stillness and sink into silence. And that is just the outward experience.
Inwardly, stillness is even more challenging. Our minds are never completely still. They are busy scanning the senses, thinking and feeling, and performing multiple operations. The busyness and noise of our minds is by far the greatest barrier to stillness which invites God's presence. It will also take disciplined practice.
What was the sound of God's presence exactly? Attempts by modern interpreters to capture that moment in the story belie the mystery of it. They render that moment a "still small voice" (KJV), a "gentle breeze" (CEV), even a "low whisper" (ESV). In fact, the idea may also be translated "sheer silence."2
There is a great, deep, vast, and unfathomable silence which underlies every corner of the universe and every particle of matter and every word and thought of the human enterprise. If we can tune ourselves in to that silence by practicing stillness in body, mind and heart, we may find ourselves in the presence of the holy.
Elijah responded to the holy by covering his face and stepping out to the edge of the mountain cave. In this encounter he was awed, transformed, and moved to a new place. Something shifts in Elijah, and God's word to him clarifies. He is moved not only to step onto a precipice, but to return to the people with a new purpose and task. Out of the sheer silence comes a new word.
If we enter the moment of silence in the text itself, and that experience opens up a new word from God for us, then in the process we are also transformed. God was not in the places where the prophet expected him to be, nor is God always in the places we expect to see him. To experience God in the silence and stillness, we must go there and stay for a season. We must cultivate the practice. And, like Elijah, we may find ourselves able to speak a new word which emerges from coming face to face with the deep unfathomable presence of God.
Consider Maggie Ross's question an invitation to enter with stillness the text to be preached, to experience the presence of the holy in that moment, and to see what word arises. In this practice together we may all be changed and find ourselves moving to a new place.
1Maggie Ross, "Practical Adoration." Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life March/April 2008, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, 18.
2M. Pierce Matheney, Jr. and Roy L Honeycutt, Jr. ,"1-2 Kings" The Broadman Bible Commentary Vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1970); Thomas G. Smothers, "First and Second Kings" Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995).