Sermon for Ordinary 18 Year A
The sound of silence
By The Rev Dr Joan Crossley
In the last few days of my time here I have been turning over the past six years in my head. It has been a really fun and busy time with the setting up of Storybox and Storybox plus. Working with preschool and the community centre. Do you remember the Fun Run, the Poetry and Music for Christmas evenings, the wonderful Harvest lunches. I have thought the most though about the conversations I have had with people about their lives, the relationships and their faith. In spite of the fact that I am paid to teach about the faith, I have learned more from you the congregation than I could ever teach.
Some of the best conversations have been about faith and about hearing and understanding God’s voice. I don’t think I have ever preached on how we hear God before because it is a difficult thing to quantify and to describe. But in the reading from 1 Kings this morning we get really wonderful example. As you can remind yourself from the Bible Notes in Partnership News, Elijah had a rip-roaring life story! His career was the sort which is perfect for an epic: the encounters with the mad, bad king Ahab and the deadly pagan queen Jezebel. You can just imagine Charlton Heston, or for younger members of the congregation, perhaps Russell Crowe, presiding over the great confrontation with the priests of Baal. You will recall that the pagan priests and Elijah were in a competition to see which god could light the offering pyre. And Elijah triumphed but was forced to flee. It was one of several occasions when Elijah had to fly for his very life, and today’s short passage comes from this point. Elijah was in despair: he was physically low from hiding out in the desert , feeling that his great triumph over the priests of Baal had only caused the slaughter of his fellow prophets and he was deeply lonely. And God spoke to him.
In fact if you read the story of Elijah all the way through, you find that he was always taking to God. Right at the start of his epic career as a prophet, when he first got on the wrong side of King Ahab, God warned him to flee. So God speaking to the prophet had happened many times. We must conclude that the still small voice that Elijah heard after the storm and the earthquake was different. Perhaps the other times were like hearing a prompting in your head which you feel comes from God and this occasion was more like a physical sound.
All of us, who believe in God, hear him speak to us, in one way or another. I suppose to atheists the idea of conversing with a timeless deity that we cannot see seems odd. But I have heard God, in my head, all my life since being about eight. I remember being quite astonished on finding out that most people didn’t have a dialogue with God! But only twice in my life have I heard equivalent of Elijah’s still small voice. Once was an amazing occasion when my dear Gran had accidentally left the gas on in another part of the house and a voice twice told me to get up and go through to that kitchen. The second time was in about 1991 when I was sitting up in bed one morning drinking my tea and listening to discussions on the Today programme about the possibility of there being women priests. And a voice as clear as bell said to me “You could do that!”. I remember thinking I don’t want to do that! But once you have heard that voice, the memory of it never goes away. Now on neither occasion was I surprised by hearing a voice when there was no person. I wasn’t wanting or expecting to hear what the voice said. Strangely enough, nor did I think I was going mad. It was just like hearing a person speaking but without the actual sound.
I suppose a sense of God being real to us is what makes us believers. And it stops our faith being a set of rules that you obey without any emotional engagement. We feel God, we know that God is and we, for want of any good way to express such a profound experience, say that we hear God. I suspect that many of you here will “Hear” God in different ways. For some people, God speaks through reading and meditating upon scripture. As they read the Bible, some the words become real to them. Other people hear God speaking to them through the words of hymns, when they are listening to a preacher or talking with friends. It is as though, in the midst of an ordinary experience, an idea or thought, detaches itself from the rest and kind of sparkles, resonates, echoes in your mind as having special meaning.
But, as I have said many times before, such spiritual listening is really hard. Hard in that it is a discipline which we need to work on, and hard practically because we are surrounded by noise. If we do not create special times or have special places where we can make space to listen it is hard to hear. So you need to think about times and situations where you feel able to leave a space for God. Now I wonder if it is a bit different from actual praying, which is something we do ourselves, and can do loudly and sometimes monotonously, as though we are reminding God of his duties. I am speaking of trying to create space in our spiritual lives when we can leave ourselves open to hearing God’s voice .
When I was at General Synod in York a few weeks ago the atmosphere was very tense and and there was a lot of talking. As well as that, I had taken an issue with me, which I hadn’t been able to get any perspective on. When I woke up on the Sunday, I couldn’t face all the noise and grandeur of the Minister, where Synod was supposed to go and worship. So I took myself off to a Quaker Meeting House, and spent about three hours that morning in an almost trance like state of silent reflection. Now for me to be quiet for three minutes is an achievement. But it did give me a chance to find an answer to a problem that had been eluding me but I also got to go down deeper, to a place of communion with God which didn’t have any words.
This morning at Putnoe we will be baptising two little girls and praying for them to have Christian lives. Now we know that for many people a spiritual life isn’t a great priority and the pressures of modern family life are such that spiritual life doesn’t take place in a church setting . But what we are hoping for, praying for, is that these children, all our young people will have a spiritual awareness of the force for good in the world, which we call God. We hope that they will learn about Jesus and see what love and hopes that God has for humanity. We hope that they will have a reservoir of stories about Jesus so that they will be able to frame their lives on his precious example. But more than anything we pray that they, and we, may know God’s presence, feel God in our minds, truly experience the reality of God within us.
rev Dr Joan Crossley