Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood
According to the ancients, you don’t need to be a saint or spiritual master to experience profound awakening. You don’t even have to be “above average”. All you really need to be is struggling.

I Kings 19:11-13
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?’

Earth, Wind, and Fire, Hearts of Fire
Hearts of fire creates love desire
Take you high and higher to the world you belong
Hearts of fire creates love desire
High and higher to your place on the throne

We come together on this special day
Sing our message loud and clear
Looking back, we’ve touched on sorrowful days,
Future pass, they disappear
You will find peace of mind
If you look way down in your heart and soul
Don’t hesitate ’cause the world seems cold
Stay young at heart, ’cause you’re never, never old

That’s the way of the world,
Plant your flower and you grow a pearl
Child is born with a heart of gold
Way of the world makes his heart so cold

Hearts of fire create love desire take you
High and higher to the world you belong

elijah-cave
I have always enjoyed this scene from the Bible of Elijah in the cave. The Bible is a very strange book. I don’t say that by way of mocking or dismissing it. The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, loved the Bible a great deal, in fact created a huge set of books about it called Church Dogmatics. As the name, Church Dogmatics, indicates, they are imposing thick books with black covers. Before the dogmatics, Karl Barth wrote a little book entitled, The Word of God and the Word of Man. The second chapter of this book he named, “The Strange New World Within the Bible.”

Barth’s theology was shaped in the crucible of German philosophy and politics between the two world wars. He rejected the German Christian church and its acquiescence to German nationalism. He was the primary force behind the Delcaration of Barmen that Presbyterians have in our Book of Confessions. Written in 1934 it was a condemnation of the German church and of any theology that would allow itself to be co-opted by it.

Barth determined that revelation trumps reason. God comes to us from the outside in the revelation of Jesus as the Christ. The Bible for Barth is strange, in a sense, not of this world. It provided an alternative world, an alternative way of being in the world. For Barth, the Bible and God were “other.” For Barth, God and God’s Word, the Bible, come to us from the outside, from revelation.

I resonate with his contemporary, Paul Tillich more than Barth. Tillich also opposed the Nazis, of course. But Tillich sought to correlate theological symbols with natural philosophy, with science and reason. Barth would have none of that. He wanted theology protected from any naturalistic philosophy.

Barth did resist Nazi ideology. Barth did have a great deal of influence on several generations of preachers, particularly Presbyterians. At the time, his Christ-centered theology that comes exclusively from the outside provided an important voice. I don’t think his approach has staying power. We must ultimately converse with science, other religious traditions, historical criticism and so forth, and not just stay in the Bible.

That said, there is a sense in which I can suspend my disbelief in the Bible and Christ as the sole revelation and with Barth enter this strange, new world of the Bible now and then.

The scene of Elijah in the cave is one of those times.

This is certainly a “God as other” text.

Elijah is metaphorically within the Dark Wood, and literally, within a dark cave. He is hiding out. He is on the run. According to the tale, Elijah had finished his contest with the prophets of Baal. Remember that story? Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal have a contest to see whose god is the real thing.

They set up two altars, one for the prophets of Baal and one for Elijah the prophet of YHWH. They each kill a bull and put it on the altar. The contest will be to see which god can light the fire. The prophets of Baal do their thing. They dance and shout and cut themselves and bleed from morning to noon, but no fire. Elijah mocks them. “Maybe Baal has gone out relieve himself,” he says laughing.

When the prophets of Baal can’t get the job done, Elijah tells the people watching to come close. He digs a big trench around the altar and fills it with water and pours water all over the bull and the wood. Then Elijah prays that YHWH would do his thing and show who’s boss. A fire comes down, burns up the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and “even licked up the water in the trench.”

Then the part we mostly skip over in the children’s version, Elijah has the prophets of Baal seized and he personally executes all 450 of them.

Since the prophets of Baal were Jezebel’s prophets, she is not pleased and vows to kill this “disturber of the people.” Elijah runs. After a day he stops by a “solitary broom tree.” He is despairing. He asks YHWH to take his life. “I am no better than my ancestors,” he says. He goes to sleep and an angel wakes him up and sitting on a hot stone is a cake freshly baked and a jar of water. The angel says, “Eat up.” He does and goes back to sleep. Later the angel wakes him. More hot cakes and water. “Eat up. You will need your strength.”

On the strength of that food he journeys for forty days and forty nights and makes his way to Mount Horeb where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. There he finds a cave and spends the night. YHWH comes to him and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says, “I have been very zealous for YHWH, 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.”

Then we get to the text we read for today. YHWH tells Elijah to go out to the entrance of the cave and wait for YHWH to pass by. Again, the text:

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?’

My question is why? Why all the earth, wind, and fire stuff? What is the storyteller trying to convey with this strange scene? After the big show, YHWH asks Elijah the same thing, “What are you doing here?” Elijah gives the same answer he gave previously. They are after me and they want to kill me.

Then, YHWH gives Elijah his next instructions.

Why this scene?
Why the wind, earthquake, fire, and silence?
How is it that Elijah knows that YHWH is not in the earthquake, fire, and wind?
How does Elijah hear sheer silence?
How does he know that YHWH is there?

This is beautiful stuff.

This is what I mean about the strange, new world of the Bible. This is where the text gets strange and holy.

It is sometimes hard to read the Bible because it is filled with a lot of fanciful tales and if we don’t take the time, we can easily dismiss it. I suggest that there is some wisdom here that can be surprising.

Let me put it this way:
Have you ever heard the sound of sheer silence?
What does the sound of sheer silence sound like?

You can’t hear sheer silence.
You can’t see absolute darkness.
You can’t touch no thing.
You can’t smell no odor.
You can’t taste tastelessness.

What does absolute darkness look like?
What does no thing feel like?
What is the smell of odorlessness?
How does tastelessness taste?

How does Elijah hear the sound of sheer silence?

This is the heart of the via negativa. This is the path of no thing. Absolute absence.

Have you ever heard the sound of sheer silence?

I can’t really talk about the sound of sheer silence. Not because I am not skilled. No, it is because it isn’t possible. We can talk around it. We can talk perhaps about the effects on us. We can’t really describe it, though.

It is the words we want to say when there are no words.

Sometimes I confess, I wonder what church is about. What is the point of this thing we do at ten o’clock on Sunday morning? What is this worship? We kind of stumble about. We don’t do it right or so we say. We have judgments: we like this, we don’t like that. We can splash around in the shallow end of the pool and offer a critique of the form.

But what is it?

What are you doing here?

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” says the Lord.

In the Dark Wood we hear the sound of sheer silence.

It is a place of revelation. I give a nod to Karl Barth. There is an otherness to life.

Not in the usual ways we might think. The ancients thought the thunder, earthquakes, fire and lightning were communications from the gods. How do we know? How did Elijah know that YHWH was not in the earthquake, wind, and fire?

The same way you know when you are able to listen.

It comes. It directs. It summons.

Sometimes it is when we are at the bottom. When perhaps like Elijah, we don’t even know why we are alive. All the answers that we have relied on in the past sound hollow.

It is not a matter of being mystical or spiritual or prayerful. As Eric Elnes put it in his book, The Gift of the Dark Wood:

According to the ancients, you don’t need to be a saint or spiritual master to experience profound awakening. You don’t even have to be “above average”. All you really need to be is struggling.

Then we may hear the sound of sheer silence.

Some call it an “Aha” moment.

A lightless light, a touchless touch, a soundless sound.

Corporate worship is that, when it is that.

What are you doing here we ask ourselves. In the sheer silence we are named.

We know then to wrap our faces in our mantles and walk out of the dark cave into the world, the cold world that is filled with uncertainty and violence. We go out nonetheless because the sheer silence beckons us.

There we are named. There we are asked to name our experience in that holy silence. As we name it in the presence of the holy, we are freed.

Freed to be. Freed to serve. Free to carry on.
Amen.