This has been a season where we are keenly aware of our need for prayer. Not only as a church, but as a community as well. And yet, I have found that we often get frustrated when we don’t get the answers we are expecting, or we maybe don’t get a perceivable answer at all. Recently, I reflected on the story of Elijah and saw some interesting correlations with his journey of prayer and ours.
“The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his faceand went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” – 1 Kings 19:11-14
Expectations are all around us, whether we realize it or not.
Think about the last movie you went to see. Think about the way your expectations were formed. You maybe saw a trailer, or some type of advertisement. This would give particular insight into what the film might entail, even if it was just a movie poster in the theater itself. Or maybe you went at the recommendation of a friend, a critic, or even a website. Whatever it was, you went to that movie with some sense of what to expect; narratively, tonally, thematically.
Despite the old saying, we often judge books by their covers. We are constantly making expectations in our relationships, entertainment choices, our religion, restaurants, and so on. We can know this whenever we feel a ping of disappointment because something or someone didn’t match up to our preconceived notions. On the flipside though, sometimes this works to our benefit. There are beautifully rare circumstances where our expectations are exceeded, or even just completely flipped.
For example, look at Elijah, who after fleeing the treachery of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, encounters God in an unusual way.
Elijah was a prophet of God. He has had run-ins with God in the past. He has been given messages to share with the people of his day, and yet here in 1 Kings 19, he is dumbfounded. God told Elijah to wait for him to appear, and Elijah was expecting something powerful and loud. And yet, God appears to him in a soft whisper.
There is something powerful about this imagery. God speaks to Elijah, but in a way that makes him have to quiet himself and be conscious to listen. He has to listen through the noise of the fire, the earthquake, and the wind to hear the whisper.
Elijah had an expectation of who God was and how God communicated, and yet, at every turn, God continues to exceed his expectations and to turn them upside down.
In an ancient world, perception was everything. Power had a perceived manifestation.
Fire was powerful. It destroys with its blaze, embers, and ash. It is consuming. Earthquakes were powerful. It shakes the earth at is very foundations, testing the pillars that keep us afloat. Wind was powerful. Blowing by with its vortex, sucking the very air from your lungs. Like when you were a kid and would stick your head out of the car window; it’s difficult to breathe in an onslaught of wind.
These images and manifestations are chosen very specifically, because this was where a person or prophet would expect to meet with and experience God.
And yet, God appears and speaks in the whisper. Something so mundane, it might be mistaken as dainty and weak. And yet, it is in the whisper that Elijah hears the voice of God.
There are two things that we can learn from this. First, to hear a whisper, you must be close to the person whispering. Take a moment, find a friend or family member who is in self-quarantine with you, and test this out. Have your friend stand across the room, and without raising their voice, have them whisper something to you. It’s difficult to hear, if not completely lost in the space of the room.
Try it again but have them stand in another room. Try it one last time but have them stand across the street. You begin to see my point. A whisper is only discernable if you are close to the person whispering, otherwise it is lost to the vastness of space.
What we can learn from this is that to hear the whispers of God, we must be close to him. There are many different ways that we can do this, and many books and sermons that delve deeply into this topic. But for today, start with one basic step. Read about who God is, how God interacts, learn more about his personality and characteristics, and the best way to do this is to read your Bible. Read stories about Jesus.
Elijah was prepared. So when the gentle whisper breezed through the mountain, he was ready. In the gospel of John, Jesus says this of his followers, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27-28) Elijah knew what he was listening for. Do you know the voice of the shepherd? A good place to start is learning more about who the shepherd is and what he sounds like.
Second, to hear a whisper we must be quiet. There is so much noise in our world today. It is a noisy time to be alive. We are constantly distracted by technology and media. The world seems to become more and more divided and fragmented. And if all else fails, fear surrounds us and drowns out much of what remains.
I believe that much of the difficulty in our prayers are due to the noise that we are constantly engulfed in. Elijah leaves the noise of his life, the distractions, fear, and political strife, even for a moment. Elijah is told to go prepare himself to hear from God. I think there is a lot to be said about this approach.
Sometimes, to pray well and to hear a whisper, we must be willing to make time to find a reprieve from the noise and quiet ourselves. Otherwise we might miss the whisper altogether. Elijah could have just as easily missed hearing God. He could have been so caught up in everything else going on; the turmoil back home, or the wind, earthquake, and fire. Or even his own anxiety and fears.
Although he was ready and prepared, so when the “gentle whisper” breezed through the mountain he heard it. We must quiet ourselves. To make time and find places where we can “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
I wonder, for us, in this season, what it would look like to slow down. Make space. To set aside time to “be still.” I wonder what it would look like if we gave up our expectations of what prayer should be, what it should sound like, and what answers we should receive, and instead just talked with God and prepared ourselves for the “gentle whisper.”
This week, remember; Be safe. Be wise. Be Jesus. And be open to the gentle whisper.