Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 10:30am serviceadmin | 11 July 2010
“And after the fire a still small voice”
God was not in the wind. He was not in the earthquake. He was not in the fire. But, “after the fire a still small voice.” It is a powerful image. The text does not explicitly say that God was “a still small voice.” All it says, with economy and eloquence, is that the Lord passed by Elijah, not in the wind of storm and tempest, not in the earthquake and fire, but “after the fire a still small voice.”
We confront the mystery and the wonder of Revelation. Elijah is in despair; a prophet who has endured persecution and who contemplates the radical disobedience of the people of Israel who have “forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword.” He complains to God that “I, only I am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” Jezebel, the notorious, indeed, nefarious queen of Ahab, king of Israel, is determined to have Elijah killed; he is, from their standpoint the “troubler of Israel.” “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest,” another King would say more than a millennium later about Thomas à Becket. It has been, too, we might say, the recurring complaint of many an authority within and without the Church by kings and bishops alike.
“What makes this rage and spite?” Samuel Crossman asks about Christ’s crucifixion in his lovely hymn, My Song is Love Unknown. Somehow we are meant to consider and contemplate the meaning of persecution, of enmity and hatred, by way of the Cross. Somehow that is part and parcel of the Christian blessing. “Blessed are ye, when men revile you and persecute you,” “for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you,” as Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes. Strange, isn’t it, that blessings are to be found in the hardest and most disturbing of things? And yet, isn’t that precisely the wonder and the miracle of the Christian gospel? But, if the Beatitudes are not puzzling enough, there is Jesus’ equally strange commandment in the Eucharistic Gospel for today, to “love your enemies.” Love those who seek your hurt. Amazing.
This is high wisdom. And totally impossible merely on human terms. That is why we need the word from on high, the Word of God which comes to us in our distress and despair. Such is the Word of God to Elijah. Through the “still small voice,” Elijah is reminded of God’s providence which has not only already fed him in the wilderness, but now speaks to him and proclaims his purpose. God tells Elijah that there will be a successor to him in his prophetic role; the mantle of Elijah will fall upon Elisha. And God tells Elijah, too, that no, he is not the only one who is true to God; there are seven thousand in Israel, that have not bowed the knee to Baal, that is to say, to the gods and interests of this world.
It is, I think, a powerful message. But what about this “still small voice?” A marvelous phrase, it speaks directly to us about the miracle of translation and interpretation, particularly in English. Tyndale’s version had “a small still voice” and Coverdale’s “a still soft hissing.” But Lancelot Andrewes, one of the chief figures in the creation of the King James Version of the English Bible, took Tyndale’s words and Coverdale’s phrasing to achieve the memorable and quiet eloquence of “a still small voice.” The phrase introduces us to a wonderful conversation between God and Elijah. God speaks to our conscience, to our inner being, to awaken us to something more and greater than what belongs to our griefs and sorrows, our anger and wrath, our despair and disillusionment.
Nowhere is that sensibility more wonderfully captured than in the Collect for this day which, in a way, speaks to us like “a still small voice” reminding us that “God … hast prepared for them that love [him] such good things as pass man’s understanding.” On the basis of that realization, one which has been made known to us by Revelation, we can pray to God to “pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire.” The last phrase is key. The promises of God, the good things which God seeks for us, “exceed all that we can desire.”
And so, even in the face of enmity and strife, in the face of persecution and hatred, something else is known and understood; “a still, small voice” reminds us of God’s greater will and purpose for our humanity. The effects of this are astounding.
In a way, they are illustrated for us in the second lesson from The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which might equally be called the Acts of Paul, so taken up it is with the journeys and the accounts of Paul’s encounters with the early Christian communities and with religious and civil authorities bent on persecution. In Miletus, Paul tells the elders from Ephesus, that he is “going to Jerusalem.” Like Jesus before him, going to Jerusalem will be fraught with consequence. In Paul’s case, it will lead to persecution at the hands of the Jews and his being arrested by the Roman authorities. It will ultimately lead to his appealing to Caesar and hence his martyrdom in Rome. His friends from Ephesus all sense the seriousness of his decision to go to Jerusalem. They weep, “sorrowing most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they should see his face no more.”
And yet, they know that he must go regardless of the afflictions that await him. There is something more that “God has prepared for them that love him.” Something more that “exceeds all that we can desire.” How is that conceivable, let alone believable? Because of the “still small voice” that speaks to our souls. Because of the Revelation of God in the witness of the Scriptures.
It requires translation and interpretation, of course. That, too, belongs to the power of the “still small voice.” The whole point of translation is to open out to us the high things of God. “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place….” as Miles Smith puts it in his Preface to the King James Version. Through the “still small voice,” we catch a glimpse of the grandeur of God in spite of all our adversities and even our adversaries. It is meant as well to draw us into the divine fellowship, into the mystery of our incorporation and participation in the life of Christ. After all, he has borne all our “rage and spite” that we might know the depths of the divine love that seeks our good and blessedness.
The Preface to the King James Version concludes on this note. “Ye are brought unto fountains of living water which ye digged not; do not cast earth into them…. If light be come into the world, love not darkness more than light; if food, if clothing be offered, goe not naked, starve not yourselves… It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God: but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when he setteth his word before us, to read it; when he stretcheth out his hand and calleth, to answer, Here am I”.
Here he speaks “after the fire a still small voice.” Listen and take heart.
“And after the fire a still small voice”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity VI, 2010
Morning Prayer (Year II), 10:30am