Lay Reader = 1 Kings 19:9-13
9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”10He answered, “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.” 11He 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;12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When 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?”
We are still looking at how our spirituality can be life-giving. Last week we looked at life-giving celebration – choosing to fill our mind with the excellent things in life makes our hearts more joyful. This week we are looking at life-giving solitude.
We live in an era where you can be connected with other people at all times. I once saw a cartoon that was satirizing this. A person was telling a friend that they were going to give up Facebook for a while, that it was just too much to keep up with. And then later that night the person is writing about how well it’s going…by posting on Facebook.
So in this ever-connected age, how can we find life-giving solitude?
36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
I was in 8th grade, and our basketball coach was actually a football coach. That’s the way of Texas – hire as many football coaches as you can afford, but make them the token leader of the other sports as well. But at least he had played basketball, which was more than I could say about the new tennis coach we got in high school.
Our 8th grade team wasn’t very good. We had one guy who was very athletic but not particularly skilled, and some of his athleticism came from failing two grades and still playing against the younger kids. But what really irked me was the playcalling. We had one play. Not even variations on one play. Just one play.
If we ever deviated from the plan, we were taken out of the game. And so, after about a quarter of seeing the same thing like a bad case of déjà vu, even our 8th grade opponents knew what was going to happen. In case you’re wondering, having your opponent know exactly what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it is NOT a recipe for success.
So my painfully shy, introverted, awkward, 8th grade self cautiously approached the football, I mean basketball coach, and suggested that we learn a new play in practice today. I was told to run laps for my insolence. On the plus side, at least it was different than running that same play again!
We desperately needed a new plan!
When I was in high school, my best friend received a treasure trove of old computer parts. So we resolved to piece together a few fully functioning computers out of the parts. We didn’t have a purpose for them, it was really just a challenge. We scavenged some cases, carefully assembled the motherboard, mounted it to the case, connected the hard drive and floppy drive – you remember those, right? And we wired up the power, plugged it in, turned it on, and *POP*! We didn’t think it was supposed to pop like that, and it wasn’t showing anything on the screen…curious.
So we took it apart and tried again – we assembled everything with the care of a heart surgeon this time, wired it up, turned it on, and *POP*! Nothing on the screen.
We were down to our last set of parts, so we decided to take a step back. We took apart one of his family’s fully functioning computers and analyzed how the professionals did it. And that’s when we noticed a very small black thing – a little rubber spacer. You see, we were accidentally running electricity through the entire metal case whenever we pushed power, instantly frying the electronics. That was the *POP*. We desperately needed a new plan! And with that new plan, we at least got ONE fully functioning computer out of enough parts to make three. If you ever want to know how I learned so much about computers, it was by frying, crashing and exploding so many of them. Just don’t tell my mom about the exploding ones.
Have you ever needed a new plan in your life? Have you been running the same play over and over with the same disappointing results? Have you been hearing a disconcerting *POP* that tells you something is wrong, but you don’t know what? Do you need to take a step back and figure out a new way forward?
In our first text today, the greatest Old Testament prophet – Elijah – is running away. He just had one of his greatest victories over the prophets of Baal, but he offended the queen along the way and she wants to kill him. So he runs away. Far, far away. His complaint? He says he is all alone. He says, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
And God has two interesting responses. First, he tells Elijah that he’s not alone because God is with him. He shows Elijah his presence – and it’s not in the earthquake or the mighty wind or the towering inferno. God’s presence is found in the sound of sheer silence. Solitude.
And once Elijah finds that sheer silence, that solitude, that ability to finally listen, God also says something interesting. We didn’t read it, but God tells Elijah about the allies he didn’t know he had. God tells Elijah there are others who are still faithful. It takes solitude for Elijah to realize that his one man against the world approach wasn’t working. It takes solitude for Elijah to find a new plan – to gather allies. Solitude – listening in that sheer silence – that’s what Elijah needed to hear God’s new plan.
Jesus is looking for something similar in the Garden of Gethsemane in our second text today. He left his disciples, but took Peter, James, and John with him before telling them to remain close but not right with him. And then Jesus says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” He’s looking for another way. Another plan.
Elijah got a new plan. Jesus didn’t. But both used solitude to listen to God in sheer silence. There’s no guarantee what God will say. He might give you a comforting word. He might give you a challenging word. He might give you a new plan. He might tell you to stay the course. But the best way to hear a fresh word from God is in solitude – listening to God in sheer silence.
It’s kind of like Santa Claus. Santa only comes when you’re sleeping, right? Well God does his best work on our souls when we are listening in sheer silence.
Things You Do Not Know
Now solitude is a little different from the other spiritual practices we’ve looked at. If you remember when we talked about fasting, I encouraged you to pick a question to think about or have a goal in mind. Solitude is different. Solitude is less about answering a question and more about hearing something new from God. Solitude is listening when you don’t even know the right question to ask. Something’s wrong, you need a new plan, you need a new play, but you don’t know what it is.
God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” Do you want God to tell you things you don’t know? That requires solitude – listening to God in sheer silence.
Vacation Bible School is coming up soon, and I’m leading the large group time. And I get to pull out all my geeky stuff – my 3D printer, my robotic mill, my drone. It’s going to be a blast!
But I remember when I first got my 3D printer several years ago. I was ecstatic when the box arrived! Like a kid in a candy store, I giddily unwrapped the package. I whipped out the instructions and got it connected to my computer. I connected everything, turned it on. And then…I scratched my head. I was so focused on getting the 3D printer that I hadn’t thought about what I wanted to make with it. I had the tool, but I didn’t have the idea. It was a bit of a letdown. I had to go online and search for the ten best starter projects for a 3D printer! Nine of which were stupid! But that tenth one was pretty cool…
Solitude is like doing that search for a new idea. When you don’t know what to do, when you don’t know where to go, when you don’t know the question to ask. Seek God in the sheer silence. Listen to God in solitude.
I spent a year studying the science of creativity, and one researcher made an interesting point. He said that having an objective or a goal in mind limits your creativity. If you have a clear path, objectives are great – when you need lunch, having a goal to make a BLT is a great choice. But if are trying to create something new – if you need a new idea, a new plan, a new play, a new direction, then having a goal or objective can stand in your way. Solitude – listening to God in sheer silence – is about listening to God without an objective in mind. It’s Elijah standing on the mountain asking for God to say something – anything! It’s Jesus in the Garden asking God if there’s another way, but “not my will but thine be done.”
Putting It Into Practice
If you’re feeling like you need a new plan, a new play, a new direction, a new question to ask, how can you give solitude a try? Well solitude is more of a state of mind than a place, but certain places can help. TS Eliot wrote, “Where shall the world be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.” Where can you find silence? This doesn’t necessarily have to be literal silence as measured in decibels. I sometimes have a better connection with God at Panera where I can be a cocoon of thought in a sea of noise. I think the energy in the room helps me stay focused – unless someone’s on their phone next to me, then no dice. That’s when I wish I had a portable microwave I could turn on and mess up their phone signal.
Where can you form your own cocoon of thought? I have two young kids, I know how hard that is. But without that solitude it’s very hard to hear that new word from God.
Sometimes for me walking the dog is a way to gain some solitude. Actually, the American Psychological Association had a study where they found that walking leads to more creative thinking, more imagination. As a philosopher once said, “Never trust an idea that didn’t come by walking.”
Sisters and brothers, if you want to hear something new from God, something you don’t understand, some new direction, some new plan, some new play, find some solitude to listen to God in sheer silence. Sometimes we have a question that we need answered, and there are other life-giving spiritual practices that can help with that.
But if you don’t even know the question to ask, just listen to God in silence, or in your own cocoon of thought. Don’t even try to speak – for the person who speaks loses the ability to hear the whispered word. How can you find some solitude, and what might God tell you? Amen.