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When God appears: Silence

29 November 2019

In this year’s Advent series, Amy Scott Robinson reflects on some of the ways in which God, who is invisible, reveals himself in scripture and in the person of Jesus

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Elijah wraps his cloak over his face, Magdalena van de Passe, Crispijn van de Passe (1617-34)

Elijah wraps his cloak over his face, Magdalena van de Passe, Crispijn van de Passe (1617-34)

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

1 Kings 19.11-13

IN THE days when I still counted as “youth”, I loved to make a regular pilgrimage to Taizé. It’s an ecumenical community in Burgundy, France, where about 100 Brothers welcome thousands of young people from all over Europe and beyond. It’s an extraordinary place where, as a visitor, you can put up a tent and spend a week or so sharing in the simple life, food, work, and prayer of the Brothers, besides meeting all sorts of fascinating people from other countries and denominations on the same adventure of faith.

Three times a day, the Taizé bells ring to invite people to prayer. In a church whose walls can open out to accommodate 5000 worshippers, the pilgrims gather for a service of basic chants — mainly verses of scripture in various languages so that everyone can join in — and silence. The chanted prayer builds to a silence lasting about ten minutes, and there is nothing on earth quite like the sound of 5000 people all being absolutely quiet together.

There’s an apocryphal story, told by some of the Taizé Brothers, of a woman who came straight into the time of prayer when she first arrived, and hadn’t been warned about the silence. After a few confused minutes, she leaned across to the Brother praying next to her and asked, “What are we waiting for?” He pondered this for a moment, and then whispered back, “The Kingdom of God.”

In this passage, up the mountain Elijah is waiting for God. The interesting thing is that he is not waiting for God in quite the same way we do. He is not waiting out of years of silence, out of doubt, or because he lacks guidance. He is not waiting for a hidden, forgotten God, or for a God whom he has never really seen act. On the contrary, not so long ago he witnessed God’s fire appearing in power and consuming the altar along with the sacrifice. God has fed Elijah in the wilderness by sending ravens to him with bread. God has performed miracles for him by multiplying a widow’s oil and flour to make daily food during the famine. God has even raised the same widow’s son from the dead.

With all this in his recent past, Elijah is still waiting for God. He has positioned himself in a cave up a mountain, in the same hiding-place on the same mountain from which Moses had been allowed to witness God’s glory retreating, and perhaps he is thinking of that story as he waits. Even while he is waiting, God speaks to him and asks him what he’s doing there, and Elijah replies with a list of all he’s done for God, despite which his life is still in danger. He is talking with God, but still waiting for him, because it’s not God’s voice that he is waiting for; it’s God himself.

Peter Horree/AlamyPeter Horree/Alamy

I wonder whether Elijah, like Moses before him, is simply longing to know God more intimately in this moment. Has the awesome and terrifying display of fire actually put a little distance between God and his prophet? Or is it that, in the same situation as Moses was, feeling like the only one left while the whole of Israel has once again forsaken God, Elijah thinks that the logical next step is to go where Moses was and wait to be blessed in exactly the same way that Moses was?

Whatever Elijah is waiting for, God responds instead with what he actually needs. First, though, to drive the point home, God offers three displays of power and doesn’t show up in any of them. Wind, earthquake, and fire may be the kinds of displays that the prophets of Baal might have expected to represent a deity, but — unlike the consuming fire in which God was instantly recognisable — it’s also possible for him not to be involved with any of those things. Finally, he shows Elijah something far more real: a low whisper, a light breeze or, as the NRSV tantalisingly translates it, “a sound of sheer silence”. At that point, Elijah wraps his face in his cloak and comes out of the cave, knowing that his wait is over.

Strangely, Elijah and God then have exactly the same conversation they had a few moments ago, but this time, I imagine, in a very different tone of voice. After that, it’s back to work for Elijah: another wilderness to walk through, two kings and a prophet to anoint.

I don’t know about you, but silence is a precious commodity for me these days, especially given that, whenever it takes me by surprise, I am apt to fill it straight away with my phone, or my work, or by binge-watching sitcoms online. If you find yourself in silence at some point today, take a moment to listen to it. The God who is silence does not answer all our questions. He does not instantly solve all our problems, or change our direction to something new and exciting. He does not come as we’re expecting. He does not give us what we’re looking for. He gives us what we need.

This is an extract from The Bible Reading Fellowship’s Advent book, Image of the Invisible: Daily Bible readings from Advent to Epiphany by Amy Scott Robinson (BRF £8.99; CT Bookshop £8.10).

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