THE ELUSIVE PRESENCE
April 10, 2002
Byron C. Bangert
I Kings 19:9b-18; Acts 17:22-28a
When Daphne Burt wrote me that the theme for worship in Bond Chapel this semester is "Where
Is God?", I did what any resourceful biblical preacher or exegetical scholar would do--I did a
"Google" search on the internet.
What I actually came up with, as you may imagine, were a lot of sites that had been constructed
since September 11, 2001: "Where is God in the midst of tragedy?" "Where is God in the midst
of suffering?" "Where is God when it hurts?" For religious Americans, and for religious people
around the world, this sort of question has been asked over and over again in recent months--in
anger, in bewilderment, with urgency, in despair.
The question, Where is God?, though not always born of tragedy and misfortune, seems to be
born of perplexity and pain. Sometimes the question is one of intellectual bafflement and doubt.
What room is there for God in this world presumably governed by natural laws and the all-too-predictable patterns of human mischief and misadventure? How can we even be sure there is a
God? Sometimes the question expresses a cry of spiritual anguish. It articulates what has been
called "the experience of the absence of God," the experience of meaninglessness and the abyss.
On the other hand, sometimes the question, "Where is God?" bespeaks an uneasy conscience, a
worry that God may be only too present, looking over our shoulders when we are up to no good.
And sometimes this question can sound a note of bitter or frustrated or despairing complaint in
time of need: "God, why aren't you doing something to help me out and make things better?"
The Elijah whom we encounter this morning in our text from I Kings seems to be in this latter
frame of mind. It's a bit ironic, don't you think, that this prophet of God should find himself in
such a pitiable state. After all, this account comes on the heels of Elijah's greatest moment of
glory, when he triumphs over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in their contest to get fire to
rain down from heaven. Elijah not only triumphs, he has the people slaughter all 450 prophets of
Baal by the sword. When the Queen, Jezebel, finds out, she is livid, and vows to do to Elijah just
as he has done to her prophets. So we find Elijah on the run, out in the wilderness, thinking of
himself as good as dead, and wishing for Yahweh to take his life.
First fed and then prodded by an angel of Yahweh to get moving, Elijah finds his way to Horeb, the mount of God. There the word of Yahweh comes to him as he is hiding in a cave. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah is a bit defensive, and more than a bit complaining: "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." This hardly sounds like the same guy who just slaughtered all the prophets of Baal. What did he expect--that Jezebel really wouldn't mind? And why this loss of confidence? Hadn't he just proven that God was on his side? What was there to fear? If he could summon God's fire from heaven, surely he could lay waste to Jezebel and her minions before they could lay a finger on him.
Biblical scholar Samuel Terrien, whose book THE ELUSIVE PRESENCE, inspired my sermon
title, notes that the Elijah of Mt. Carmel and the Elijah of Mt. Horeb are hardly the same. Nor is
Yahweh the same. In chapter 18, on Mt. Carmel, we see an Elijah who performs like a magician,
or like a supremely confident leader who presumes to have even God at his disposal. And we see
a God who was presumably in the fire that rained down from heaven. In chapter 19, we
encounter an Elijah who is running scared, and a God who bears a very different aspect.
The word of Yahweh comes to him, saying, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the
LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." And what happens? "(T)here was a great wind, so
strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before Yahweh, but Yahweh
was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer
silence." "A sound of sheer silence!" Not the "still small voice" of conscience, mind you. And
not the abyss of nothingness. But a silence so thick you could "cut it with a knife" (Terrien,
232). A thickness of divine presence--dense, opaque, inscrutable, yet immanently and eminently
real. Elijah shields his face.
This time an unidentified "voice" speaks to him, and asks again, "What are you doing here,
Elijah?" Elijah is still caught up in his predicament, trying to justify himself: He rehearses his
former complaint, word for word. "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." But when all is
said and done, Yahweh tells Elijah to head home, and on the way there are some important things
for him to do--anointing Hazael as king over Aram, and Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as
prophet in his place. Oh, and by the way, there are still seven thousand in Israel who have not
bowed their knees to Baal and have not kissed him. Elijah, you are not alone among those who
have remained faithful to God.
A more academic interpretation of this text might discuss it as a dramatization of the transition in Israelite religion from the thaumaturgical and the theophanic to the prophetic and epiphanic. What I would simply claim is that it intimates an understanding of God, and of the presence and power of God, that moves us away from notions of physically dramatic, disruptive, meteorological, cosmic, and supernatural interventions and toward the potential apprehension of the ultimacy of the divine in the immediacy of human experience. God does not come to Elijah in a demonstration of overwhelming power, in the upheaval of nature, in the manner of Zeus or Thor casting thunderbolts from the sky. In the midst of all that threatens to unhinge us and our world, God's presence is to be discerned in the deepest intimacies of our being. Elijah receives his commission out of the depths, in the thick silence, in the awesome sanctuary of his own vulnerability and loneliness and faintness of heart. And the commission that Elijah receives in this encounter reveals that it is through the faithfulness of quite ordinary human beings, of whom there are 7,000 besides Elijah, that God's purposes will continue to be fulfilled. Here is a God who meets us in the depths, where the demands of life have outrun our merely human powers. Here is a God who nonetheless confronts us with the continuing challenges of engaging in the political and communal life of our world ("What are you doing here?"), and who assures us that we are not alone in our calling (there are yet 7,000 more who have not bowed to Baal).
There is another facet to the question, Where is God?, that I want to touch on this morning.
Many people, especially in a university, are quick to concede that God is not to be identified with
mighty acts of supernatural intervention. The old idea of a God who contravenes the laws of
nature and disrupts the normal course of events has long gone out the window. Most of what
happens in our world, even most of what people do, seems readily explainable without reference
to God at all. The fact is that--except in the midst of personal extremity--most modern people
find little intellectual need or room for God.
For some the result has been a God who is seldom invoked except to "fill in the gaps" in our
understanding, in our ability to make sense of the world. God becomes a kind of place-holder, an
unknown quantity "X", for that which we cannot otherwise explain. For others, God becomes an
abstraction, perhaps necessary, but beyond all knowing. Our situation is not unlike what Paul is
said to have encountered in Athens--where he observes a multitude of altars to all the known
gods, and one to an unknown God. The Athenians apparently loved to hedge their bets, and so
do we. We're not ready to rule God out of the picture, we just don't know how to fit God in.
All I can say here this morning is that the God whom Elijah is said to have encountered at Horeb
seems to me very much like the God of whom Paul speaks in his words to the Athenians. This
God is not confined to human habitations, and is not limited to particular times or places. This
God, indeed, is not far from each one of us, and yet not readily at our disposal. Rather, this God
is One for whom we are to search, and perhaps grope and find. This is no "God of the gaps," but
a God who encompasses the whole of our existence. There is nothing that can really be fathomed
apart from this God, who indeed made the world and everything in it, and is so intimately related
to the world that the world has no existence apart from God. We do not so much we have this
God in us as we have ourselves, and all things, in God. "In God we live and move and have our
In my college years some theologians were suggesting that we need to stop talking about God. Some were even claiming the "death of God." God did not exactly die, God did not even go into hiding. But perhaps in some ways God has become increasingly elusive. And if so, that is perhaps a good thing. It is too easy, and too dangerous, to think of God as One whom we can readily locate, claim, define, and enlist. Where is God? These days, too many say too quickly, "God is on our side!" But how foolish to suppose that God will continue to rain fire from heaven--at anyone's command! The God who is real is the God who meets us in the depths of our being--the depths of fear, the depths of suffering, the depths of awe and wonder and joy-- because it is in those depths that we come to the indisputable conviction that we are not our own, that we do not have what it takes, but that we are not alone. For there is a presence and a power that bears us up and beckons us on, because our lives are in God. AMEN.
Copyright 2002 by Byron C. Bangert