1 Kings 19:1-4, 9-13
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘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.’ 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?’
What does this all mean for us?
At 11.00am on Sunday we keep two minutes of silence. I wonder where your mind goes during those two minutes. Some of you have fought in combat to preserve this country. In that silence maybe you remembered some of your fallen comrades, people who didn’t make it as far as the end of the war; people who haven’t been lucky enough to have lived long and full lives like you have.
Maybe some of you remember the faces of the people you killed, or the knowledge of what it must have been like for the families of those on the other side whose lives were changed by the actions your country demanded of you. Perhaps some of you were wondering with hope what will happen to world peace as a result of the US election.
Maybe you read the same newspaper article that I did about how a group of senior Israelis conducted a war game to decide what would happen if they launched a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But how many of you noticed peace? How many of you felt real, utter stillness? Because peace is what this is all about; the parades, the poppies, the uniforms, the medals, this is all about remembering the fallen and wanting there to be peace, and here we are, sixty seven years after the guns of world war two were silenced, and where’s the peace? Where’s the real peace? I want peace; you want peace; the politicians say they want peace, so where is it?
Tess Ward puts it like this:
We pray for peace in the world, but there can be none without peace in the nations.
We pray for peace in the nations, but there can be none without peace in the communities.
We pray for peace in the communities, but there can be none without peace between neighbours.
We pray for peace between neighbours, but there can be none without peace in the home.
We pray for peace in the home, but there can be none without peace in the heart.
When the fighting of this world overwhelms me, let me know that peace... begins... with... me.
Peace begins with me. It doesn’t start by me saying, ‘Peace begins with you.’ No. Every single one of us must first take responsibility for saying, ‘Peace begins with me.’ Forget everyone else. Forget how they live their lives. If we want peace in the world, if we want peace for our younger people, that they may inherit a world free of strife, then it will only begin if every one of us learns how to say, ‘Peace begins with me.’
So when was the last time you felt peaceful? Or let me put it another way. When was the last time that you felt that utter peace that comes from encountering the Divine, the Holy One? I’m beginning to lose track of the number of people who have said to me over the years, ‘God never speaks to me. I’ve never felt his peace.’ The question I have to ask, over and over again is, ‘How hard did you search for it?’
We live in a world of such technological noise that it is no wonder that we never hear God. We can barely hear ourselves think. Those of us who spend hours on the computer, playing games or whatever, are we aware that scientific studies have conclusively proved that we are physically altering our brains by doing so? If we are allowing ourselves to become a species that is better at communicating with machines than with each other, how on earth can we expect to communicate with God?! If peace begins with me, then it requires that I, every one of us, searches for peace.
The American Theologian, Rob Bell, has done some research on the level of technological noise that intrudes on our lives. He tells of a recording engineer called Bernie Krause, who records nature sounds for films and television. Apparently back in 1968, in order to get one hour of natural sound, with no aircraft or car noise, it took him fifteen hours of recording time.
That was in 1968. Now, in our current time, to get the same one hour of recorded natural sounds with no intrusions from technological sounds takes him two thousand hours of recording time. Two thousand hours!
If peace in the world begins with peace in me, in you, how often do we turn off our mobile phones? How many hours do we spend watching TV? How long into the night were we on Facebook? When was the last time you allowed your house to be completely silent; no TV, no radio, no stereo, no computer?
If peace begins with me, with each of us, do we actually look like people who search for peace?
In the above reading the prophet Elijah was in difficulty. He had been on the winning side of a great battle, but now he was struck with depression because the leader of the other side, a woman named Jezebel, said she was going to come and kill him for what he had done to them. So Elijah fled into the wilderness.
And there, in the depths of his depression, an angel speaks to him. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Why have you run away? Why are you so depressed? Why can’t you see how things really are rather than how you think they are? Those of you who have suffered with depression will know how hard it can be to see true reality through the sense of utter desperation you feel.
Elijah felt alone, threatened and worthless. What he needed was peace. And so the angel said to him, ‘Go and stand in a cave on the mountainside for the Lord God is about to pass by. Elijah did as he was told. As the Lord approaches there is a mighty wind, beyond hurricane force, but God is not in the wind. And as God draws nearer, the ground responds with a huge earthquake, such is the response of nature to the unhidden presence of God, but God is not in the earthquake.
Following the earthquake there is a fire, sweeping across the landscape before him. But the Lord is not in the fire. And then... what? Well actually it’s very difficult to translate the words from Hebrew of what happens next. But our translation comes very close. The sound of God was the sound of sheer silence. The sound of stillness. The sound of peace.
Peace begins with me. Peace begins with you. But the sound of God is not found in the TV, on the radio, in the sound of traffic or computer games. The sound of silence is not to be found in the background noise of the daily lives that we have got so used to. If God is not in the earthquake, the wind or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, is it any wonder that we don’t have peace? It’s simply because we have no silence, so we don’t hear the sound of God’s voice.
Because if we did, we might hear God say to us, ‘What are you doing.... here?’
It would be unfair of me to write this without telling you a story of what finding this peace can be like, so let me tell you a true story of something that happened to my wife, Ali, and I a few weeks back.
Over on the other side of Kidderminster from us there’s the Wyre Forest. Right back at the beginning of this year we went for a long walk there, and we just stumbled upon this amazing sight. In the midst of all the oaks there was a yew tree. That’s not hugely unusual. But what was strange was that there was an oak growing within the expanse of its branches.
Yews are sometimes called, ‘The Death Tree’ because it is so poisonous, yet here, remarkably, was this amazing phenomenon of a yew tree embracing an oak with her limbs, branches wrapped around each other as if in a lovers’ embrace. We subsequently found out that this almost unique pairing, this emblem of peace between two trees that would normally tolerate each other, was well known in the area. But there are no signs to it.
Three weeks ago we decided we wanted to go and find this remarkable pairing again. The way that God speaks in nature has become increasingly important to us in our spiritual journeys so we returned for another look. But the Wyre Forest is a big forest with lots of trees. It’s not so much like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s more like looking for a specific piece of hay in a haystack. Nevertheless, off we went.
Not far into the trees we came to a place where the path branched at a crossroads. So we stood in silence, and by this time we were far enough away that it was that technological silence: no cars. And there were no people nearby. Just us. And we were silent, just listening. And we were silent for a while. And in the sound of sheer silence there was a beckoning... ‘This way.’
There were no words, no sounds, just a perception in the sheer silence of nature, which is not at all quiet. It was very gentle, and to me felt distinctly feminine, but the sound of sheer silence beckoned us in a definite direction. It was perceptible, but we had to listen very hard, and for some time.
And so we walked, and we walked, for some time, and just before we arrived in the right place, though we didn’t yet know it was the right place, a young black stag ran across our path, and we stopped. And sure enough, there to our left, off the path, we found the yew and the oak, still locked in their embrace, reminding us of how there can be peace, peace even where nature would normally expect death. Even there, there can be peace.
When we look at the life of Jesus we find that time after time he leaves everyone and goes away on his own up a mountain where he is silent. It is only when we are silent and listen that we hear God speak in the sound of sheer silence, just as Elijah did. Hearing that doesn’t make us any more special than anyone else. It doesn’t make us more holy, and we don’t have to be holy to listen. God knows I’m not, yet in the sound of sheer silence, there was the voice. ‘Come this way.’
And once Elijah heard the voice of God he was changed by it. He was able to return and start again, to be courageous in the face of adversity. When we hear God speak in the silence, we cannot help but be changed by it.
Peace begins with me. Peace begins with you. God wants to speak to each one of us. Look back at the story of Adam and Eve and you find God walking in the garden with them as the day drew to a close. One of God’s favourite things is walking with us, but we block him out continually with the noise we subject ourselves to.
If we want peace in this world, it doesn’t start with someone else. It doesn’t start with the politicians. It starts with each one of us taking responsibility for saying, ‘Peace begins with me’, and then doing something about it. That means getting off our backsides, switching off the phones, the tv, the radio, the iPod, the car, the DS, and simply getting away from the technological noise and learning how to listen to the sound of sheer silence.
And as we learn to hear the voice of God, so we will learn peace. And slowly, bit by bit, we can change the world. But first it starts with me and it starts with you. Simply learn to listen to the sound of sheer silence, and you will hear the voice of God. Amen.