A Zealot meets the Sound of Sheer Silence

Proper 14B/Ordinary 19B/Pentecost 11
12, 2012

1 Kings 19:1-15

Psalm 130

John 6: 35-51

Few symbols of overzealousness are better than the Looney Tunes cartoon figure Wile E. Coyote.  Poor Wile E.  His obsession with catching the Road Runner is so out of control, that the lengths he goes to catch the bird far outweigh any benefits that the bird might provide as a meal.  From his elaborate traps involving 2-ton weights to Acme rocket-powered roller-skates, Wile E Coyote is a study in overkill.  And, of course, all his outlandish schemes end up backfiring hilariously.  My favorite image of Wile E  Coyote is when he pursues the Road Runner right off a cliff, then realizes in mid-air that there is no ground underneath him.  Then, he blinks helplessly and waves “Bye-bye” right before he plummets.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Elijah Kills the Prophets of Ba’al”, c.1866

The Hebrew Bible reading this week provides another study in the consequences of overzealousness.  The Prophet Elijah was nothing if not zealous.  In the passage leading up to this week’s reading, the prophet holds a prophetic show-down between him and the 450 prophets of the pagan god Ba’al.  He challenges the prophets of Ba’al to pray to their god to send fire to ignite a pile of wood with pieces of a slaughtered ox on it.  They fail.  Elijah then prays for YHWH to send fire to his pile of wood with ox-meat on it – but he dumps four jars of water on the wood four times over, just to make things interesting.  After calling on YHWH, “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38).  After the assembly of Israelites testifies that “The Lord is indeed God,” Elijah follows up by slaughtering of all the prophets of Ba’al: “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’  Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there” (vv.40).  NOTE: YHWH had not commanded Elijah to commit this act.  The prophet did it completely on his own initiative, in his zeal to enforce the death penalty for violating the first two Commandments: Worshiping other gods than YHWH, and the making and worshiping of idols.

Marc Chagall, “Elijah on Mt. Carmel”, 1931-1939

Elijah’s zeal then backfires very badly.  He receives word from a messenger that Queen Jezebel – who supported the prophets of Ba’al and worshiped their idols – has sworn to kill Elijah by the next day.  Afraid, Elijah “fled for this life” (i Kings 19:3) and ultimately came to rest in a cave in Horeb, the mount of God.  When the Lord asks him what he is doing there, Elijah complains: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (vv.10).  All that zealousness, and what does he get?

The Lord then commands Elijah to “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (vv.11).  As he stands on the mountain, Elijah witnesses “a great wind” that splits mountains (“but the Lord was not in the wind”), then an earthquake (“but the Lord was not in the earthquake”), and then a fire (“but the Lord was not in the fire”) (vv.11-12).  Finally, Elijah hears “A sound of sheer silence” (vv.12), which in the King James Version is translated as “a still, small voice”.  At that  point, Elijah wraps his face in his mantle and goes to stand outside the cave, where the Lord asks him again what he is doing here.  It is very interesting that, for the overzealous prophet of God, YHWH does not appear in any of the “over the top” guises that a zealot might expect – causing the elements themselves to dance at His bidding – but in sheer silence.  After Elijah then makes the same complaint again, the Lord commands Elijah to go forth and anoint Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and “Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place” (vv.16).  After all that, the Lord basically lets Elijah know that he is being replaced.  It’s about as humiliating as getting your butt kicked by a road-runner.

There are many zealots in the world today who are more than ready to hear the voice of God in any natural disaster that appears, and to proclaim that disaster as God’s judgment on an unbelieving world.  It is far more difficult, however, to hear YHWH speaking in silence – first, because that would mean having to actually shut up.  Second, it would mean that YHWH appears in a medium that is not easily guessable.  Silence is mysterious – it does not divulge its messages readily.  Americans like God to speak plainly and directly (a friend of mine once complained, “I want God to send me e-mail”).  As an extroverted culture, we are not comfortable with silence.  It can mean far too many things, most of them (we guess) ominous.  But when we can put our egos aside and wait (at least temporarily) in silence, we can take the world as it really is, without imposing our own agendas on it.  Our egos may not like it, but that is where YHWH speaks – in the cracks of the ego.  And while we are waiting in silence, we are also much less likely to blow ourselves up with our Acme rocket-propelled roller skates …

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