I Kings 19:1-18 August 22, 2004
Mark 4:35-41 Byron C. Bangert
One of the psalmists gives this voice to God: "Be still, and know that I am God" [46:10]. In Isaiah 30 the
prophet declares: "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength"
[30:15]. In the familiar 23rd Psalm, God leads "beside still waters," and thereby "restores [the psalmist's] soul."
It is not often that we are silent. It is not often that we are stilled. But there are some discoveries that can only
be made in stillness. There are some truths that can only be known in silence.
For a number of years our family of four spent at least a night or two camping during our summer vacation.
We camped in the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota, on the eastern shore of Lake Huron and the
north rim of the Grand Canyon, and various other places. On one occasion years ago when all of us were
headed to Rapid City to visit my parents we camped at Lake McBride State Park in Iowa. It was the peak night
for a meteor shower, the air was calm, the sky was clear. Andrew, Nathan, and I walked over to a clearing and
spent maybe 20-30 minutes on our backs gazing up at the stars. Then, as we settled down to go to sleep, we
found ourselves serenaded by the chatter and blare of a top-40 hit parade of "oldies but goodies" coming from
our neighbor campers' radio. We might not have minded in some other place, at some other time. Finally I
went over and asked them to turn it down so our children could go to sleep, but even at lower volume Hayden
and I still heard it playing well into the night.
At other times I have found myself wondering about all these physically fit looking people jogging through our
neighborhoods with Sony Walkmans strapped to their bodies and headsets covering their ears. Is this some
form of mental therapy? Are these folks trying to block out the normal sounds of people and birds and cars and
things? Does the headset provide auditory pleasure to mask the bodily pain of exercise? Or is it mental
stimulation for the intellectually dull routine? Nowadays, of course, there is also the ubiquitous cell phone that
is attached to the ear of every other person on the street. I don't have one, but almost everybody around me
does. I see and hear students who seem unable to walk a few blocks between classes without checking in with
their friends. I notice adults who keep their ringers on virtually everywhere they go, as if some disaster might
befall them if they were to miss a call.
Russell Baker used to complain about all the noise that intrudes into our day. He satirized the piped-in Muzak
intended, I suppose, to lubricate our social exchanges, lower our blood pressure and our defenses, and ease the
pain--the pain of waiting on hold, of staring at the ceiling from the dentist's chair, of standing eyeball to earlobe
in the elevator, and of all those occasions we have to part with our money.
It appears that most people do not find such noise an intrusion at all. Our neighbor campers wanted their radio
on, those ear-muffed joggers pay hard money to equip themselves with portable sound, and people with cell
phones seem to covet being summoned by a ring or buzz. Perhaps the most convincing evidence that we
choose this noise, however, is found is what we do with our leisure time. We spend more of that time watching
television, or at least having it on, than in any other way. Often the television functions less as entertainment
than as background noise, occasionally garnering our undivided attention, otherwise there to keep us company.
Why anyone should choose to live this way is not altogether clear. Is it for relief of boredom? Is it for escape?
Is it for distraction? Is it an anesthetic of daily existence? It is clear only that we seldom choose to be quiet,
to sit still, to be un-entertained.
I suspect that this is symptomatic of our general approach to life. We believe in keeping busy. We want our
minds to be occupied. We strive for productivity and accomplishment, on the court or the jogging path no less
than in the office. We admire those people who always take along their book, their newspaper, or their knitting,
so that no moment of waiting for something to happen is wasted in inactivity. We keep lists and schedules, and
we feel guilty if we do not have something to do. Even watching television is a way of filling up time. As
Scottish preacher George Morrison once put it, "We have been taught the art of being strenuous, and we have
lost the art of being still."(1)
Being still is not easy. One of the first things an infant in our culture learns is that the best way to mobilize the
household is to let out a good cry. If you want anything to happen, you have got to let people know! So we
learn from an early age that noise and activity go together, and that being still is no way to get things done. The
parents of young children--and of older children--have a terrible time getting them to "be quiet" and "hold still,"
especially when they have something important to say to them. But what we recognize as sometimes necessary
for our children we often fail to value for ourselves.
"Being still" seems to us an imposition, a limit upon our freedom, a restriction of our being. Most of us, by our
lifestyles, declare our commitment to engagement with the world. We are people on the go, with work to do.
We listen to the news, read our newspapers, and discuss the problems of the world. We seek out opportunities
for useful service. This is nothing to be ashamed about. It is to be celebrated. But it does sometimes leave us
at wit's end. It does sometimes wear us down. If our days are filled only with the movements and sounds of
our own activity, then where is the direction, where the center?--What is the point of it all? If all our attention
is consumed by the hustle and bustle and the noise, then everything else will be crowded out. There are times
when what is most needed and most essential to our existence is not anything that we can say, or anything that
we can do: Granted, in Ecclesiastes we read, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might" (Eccl.
1:10). "And yet the Bible never says to us, 'Be strenuous, and know that I am God.' It says, 'Be still, and know
that I am God'."(2)
"Be still, and know that I am God." Not activity, but receptivity. Not talking, but listening. Not being
strenuous, but becoming quiet.
The prophet Elijah found himself overwhelmed by the circumstances of his day. He was at wit's end trying to
save Israel from Queen Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. He had defeated and slain those prophets on Mount
Carmel, only to despair of his life and flee into the mountains away from the queen. There we find him,
wishing that Yahweh would take his life and end his fearful circumstance. He seems to have forgotten that it
was Yahweh who secured for him the victory on Mount Carmel. All he can see is his own frustrated effort to
be zealous for his God: All Israel has forsaken this God. He alone has been faithful. He alone is left. He does
not know that there are 7,000 others who have not bowed their knees to Baal.
Today we would say that Elijah was burned out. Often this text has been preached as a call for renewed
activity, for re-engagement with the world. That is its eventual outcome. But at the heart of this text is Elijah's
encounter with God. God commands Elijah to go forth from the cave in which he is hiding "and stand upon
the mount." Then Yahweh passes by. But first the wind, and Yahweh is not in the wind. Then the earthquake,
but Yahweh is not in the earthquake. Then the fire, but Yahweh is not in the fire. "And after the fire a still
The "still small voice," as scholars point out, is more accurately rendered as "stillness" or the "sound of sheer
silence." It is not in the flurry of earthquake, wind, and fire, but in the calm and quiet that the world-weary
prophet hears the voice of God, knows the presence of God. The height of activity is answered by the depth
of silence. The tumult is answered by the stillness.
Our New Testament text proclaims a similar message in a different way. The disciples of Jesus find themselves
in the midst of a great storm of wind on the Sea of Galilee. The situation looks desperate. They are helpless
to avert disaster. They do not know what to do. The artist Rembrandt gave expression to this dramatic scene
in his painting "Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee." The little boat is being wildly tossed about, the
forces of wind and water clashing fiercely. The disciples are frightened. One is hanging onto the mast for dear
life. Another is leaning over the side of the boat. Another is clutching a rope. But at the stern of the boat, in
the shadow, is a center of calm. Christ is fast asleep, a subdued radiance about his face. He is the picture of
calm 'midst the storm.
At issue in both our texts is whether, at the heart of our existence, there is a Reality that is not shaken by the
troubles and tumults of our world. Is there a God who remains steadfast, providentially at work, despite all
appearance and circumstance? If "yes," then how is this God to be known?
Somehow it does not seem likely that this God will be discovered in the chatter of a blaring radio, the brain-wave modulations of Muzak, or the sensory overload of portable sounds. Nor is this God likely to be known
in the busy, harried preoccupations of our over-extended and under-funded lifestyle. To know God we must
pay attention to something other than our own striving. We must recognize that not every moment demands
from us some input, some word, some deed. We must spend some time being un-preoccupied and un-entertained.
Increasingly, it is widely noted, Sunday worship services are designed to entertain. Churches are marketing themselves to a consumer-oriented society. Of course we need to be in touch with contemporary culture. But from what I've seen, most people desperately need some quiet time in their lives, some time for meditation, reflection, and prayer. Churches are missing the boat when they fail to address this largely unspoken need. Worship needs to be engaging, but not entertaining. It is a time for being in closer touch with God.
As a pastor I have usually structured some period of silence during Sunday worship. At first people get restless
if it is very long. How ironic!--we get rest-less when we are called to rest, to be still! But it is possible to learn
to dwell in the silence. The Sabbath, of all times, should be a day when time is set apart for such silence, for
inactivity and rest. If we cannot be still in worship, how can we be still during any other part of the day? If we
cannot learn to rest on the Sabbath, and let God be God, how can we do so in our everyday lives?
Keeping people busy, I have discovered, does not necessarily keep them out of trouble. More often, people get
into trouble because they are not listening. Or they are not taking care of themselves. Or they are trying to do
too much. They are too preoccupied. Sabbath worship should be a time for restoring some sanity and peace
and quiet to our lives. It should offer a time of rest, in which we are able to recognize our need for a day of rest.
Churches are also under pressure to increase their activity levels on Sundays, as well as weekdays. More power
to the church that can sustain a vital program of ministry and mission 24/7. But more power also to the church
that recognizes the need for Sabbath rest. It is not necessary to fill up all of every Sunday with church activities.
People also need to be encouraged to spend time at home with family, and to spend time together with friends.
The stresses and strains of our busy world take their toll on many families. They make it difficult to sustain
meaningful friendships. Too often, we hardly know our neighbors--we just don't have the time or energy to
spend with them. What greater gifts in life are there than family and friends, yet we hardly know how to receive
these gifts! This, too, should be part of our Sabbath-keeping.
In Noel Coward's play, Design for Living, one character complains that with all the inventions of this modern
age, nothing has been invented "to create quiet and calm."(3) Yet there remain those circumstances in our lives
that leave us quiet, calm, subdued--times when we are left at a loss for words and for deeds. Sometimes it is
the demands of life outrunning our powers. Sin and suffering and death can leave us stunned, stuck dumb with
grief and loss. Sometimes it is the bliss of life that reduces us to silence and awe. We are overwhelmed by a
goodness and mercy in the world that we neither fathom nor deserve. In such instances we are unwittingly
confronted with that Reality beyond all thought, which we cannot grasp, cannot control, of which we can hardly
even speak, and yet which we know silently upholds and sustains us.
It seems to me that our deepest relationships are those that sometimes permit us, invite us, even demand of us,
to be silent. There are times when we need to turn one of the familiar rules of life upon its head: Don't just do
something, stand there! "Hold still!" "Be quiet!" "Let be!" "Cease from striving." There is one whose Spirit
and whose Power are manifest in the quiet and the calm. "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness
and in trust shall be your strength." "Be still, and know that I am God. Let us keep silence . . . . .
1. William Alan Sadler, Jr., editor, Master Sermons Through the Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 144.
3. Cited in The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 7, 710.