2-18-18 “Finding Your Cave: Listening Spaces”
Message written by Rev. Jay Anderson and presented by Rev. April Casperson
Two Caves - one in which Elijah hides in fear, one out of which Lazarus emerges alive.
In one, a prophet encounters God directly. In the other, God is encountered through the work of a prophet.
In the first story, Elijah is running to escape from the evil queen Jezebel. He just defeated and destroyed all of her priests of Baal and she’s not happy about that, so she has threatened to do away with Elijah. So Elijah heads for the hills, seeking refuge in the wilderness. And it is there that God provides food and water for him. And it is there that God is revealed to Elijah through the world around him.
In the second story, life, or as it were, death has caught up to Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus. Word had come to Jesus that Lazarus was ill, and according to John, Jesus knew that Lazarus would die. That Jesus delays his departure, ensuring that he will arrive too late to prevent this death seems heartless; the pain it causes seems unnecessary. But Jesus knows that it is in showing the power of God over death that God will be revealed to the world around him.
These two amazing stories help us to better understand how God makes God’s self known to those who seek God out. Like Elijah, we often think that a God as powerful as Yahweh will be revealed in the power of the world around us, or in some great Exodus-like “crossing-the-Red-Sea” miracle. So when an earthquake occurred Elijah assumed the voice of God would be heard in the earthquake, but that didn’t happen. And when a fire appeared Elijah thought that God’s voice would be heard in the midst of the raging conflagration, but that’s not how it worked either. Elijah needed to hear from God, he needed God’s assurance that God would care for him in the midst of this threat to his very survival.
Mary and Martha trusted that if Jesus were there, he could save Lazarus - they knew he had that kind of power. But when Jesus didn’t come, when Lazarus died, their faith died with him.
“If only Jesus had been there…” they lamented, “he could have been saved.” If only, we lament with them, if only. If only I could get that job… If only I had more time… If only he/she loved me…If only I could win the lottery. If only everybody believed like we believe… If only everybody saw the world the way I do… If only…THEN everything would be okay we pray. If only…
If you’ve experienced worship in other Protestant churches you might have noticed that, regardless of the worship style, worship services are often pretty noisy. Words and liturgy are sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, prayers in some are shared quietly and in other churches spoken aloud by everyone in worship all at the same time. Music, whether from an organ or praise band, might rock the rafters, or might softly sooth the souls of those seeking peace. During rare moments of silence, we hear muffled coughing, not-so-quiet whispering, paper rustling, and the occasional stray hymnal hitting the floor. Rarely is a moment of pure silence found in most Protestant worship service.
But silence is essential for the spiritual life. Learning to experience silence is one of the first steps toward a deeper relationship with God. The Desert Fathers were early Christian disciples who sought silence and separation for their faith growth by moving and living in the desert, away from society. There is a story that is told of the Desert Father, Abbot Arsenius, who, when seeking salvation, prayed to the Lord, “Lead me to salvation.” A voice answered him, “Be silent.” Silence is a critical, though often ignored component of contemporary Christian spiritual practice.
Samantha Tidball shares the story of “a 16-year-old Indian-American, Mukund Venkatakrishnan, created a hearing device that aims to help those with mild to moderate hearing loss and costs only $60. When Mukund visited his grandparents in India, he began setting up appointments for his grandfather who suffered from hearing loss. After his family spent over $2,000 on appointments and hearing aids, Mukund realized hearing was a luxury that most people in developing countries cannot afford. For two years Mukund worked diligently at developing a device that tests a person’s hearing and serves as a hearing aid. It can be used with even the cheapest set of headphones. There are roughly 360 million people around the world who suffer from hearing loss, so Mukund’s device will help many people hear who cannot afford it otherwise.”
And relaying that story prompted Tidball to ask, “How’s your hearing?” We don’t often think about hearing as a luxury - or at least most of us don’t. If you are one of the 360 million who suffer from some sort of hearing loss, maybe you do. Regardless, thinking of it that way, would, I hope, remind us to appreciate our ability to hear the sounds God has created in the world around us. Our cars are so soundproof any more that the sound of a wailing siren coming up from behind us, that twenty years ago we could hear over our car radios, don’t get our attention until the ambulance or fire truck are right on our tails. So many of us are so busy, so distracted by technology and lost in our personal worries that we don’t take time to listen to what’s going on around us. But God is constantly trying to get our attention. Certainly God could “yell,” as it were, louder, God could be dropping earthquakes and monsoons all over the place to cry out, “Listen to me!” but that would only add to the cacophony of noise that already drowns out God’s still small voice. It’s hard to hear the voice of our Creator when we are never still, or quiet.
We all go through times of loneliness and despair. Perhaps it is because of our ill health or due to circumstances that are beyond our control and we think that no one cares or understands what we are enduring. We may even think that God doesn’t care for us because we have not recognized God around us in a long time. We may think that God only speaks through something dramatic in our lives and expect it to happen in a thunderstorm as the lightning flashes or when the skies are threatening. Those circumstances could speak to us but more often God speaks to us in the quiet moments of life when we have the time to really listen for God's voice.
God's voice is often heard in the quiet working out of history such as when the wall of Communism fell in 1989 and suddenly people who had been held captive by an oppressive society experienced personal freedom for the first time in many years.
God's voice is often heard in the daily lives of ordinary people as we are around them. People quietly doing their jobs in the world often have something to say that encourages us and lifts our spirits, perhaps in the way they smile at us or say something cheerful to us.
God's voice may be heard in the birth of a child or a wedding or even at a funeral. God is present in joy and in sorrow and there at times that those events make us slow down enough to listen for God to speak to us.
God is still speaking, even in the midst of tragedy. In the case of Lazarus, we may wonder, though, to whom God was speaking. See what you think. When Martha questions Jesus about his delayed arrival and Jesus assures her, in turn, that her brother will rise again, Martha answers with an assertion about the resurrection at the last day. And in that, she is absolutely correct.
But Jesus pushes her to go deeper, to think differently, so that her understanding reaches not only forward into the distant future but backward into the immediate and concrete present. “I am the resurrection,” Jesus says, “and the life.” Not, I “will be’ in the future. The import and consequences of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension have immediate implications.
So also the promises of God we announce are not only about life eternal with God in the sweet by and by, or even about God’s forgiveness at the last day. Rather, the Gospel should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future. So in this moment, Mary and Martha must quiet themselves and what they think they know in order to listen to what Jesus is actually saying to them.
It’s also significant in hearing this story to recognize that after Jesus calls Lazarus by name to come out, and even after Lazarus, a dead man, mind you, does indeed hear Jesus’ voice and come out, this sign is not over. For after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd as well: “unbind him and let him go.” The community, in other words, is commanded to participate in God’s action, to bring it to its desired end and outcome, to join in completing God’s redemptive act.
Isn’t that astounding when you think about it? That the community of faith gathered around Lazarus is invited to participate in God’s redemptive work? Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.
So in the first story, Elijah must listen in order to hear the voice of God in the silence. In this story, Mary and Martha need to listen to Jesus to understand what he’s talking about. Lazarus, a dead man, must listens to Jesus in order to come out of the cave to literally have new life. The people who witness all of this must also listen to Jesus and engage in the “unbinding” of Lazarus or his resurrection is for nothing.
Sometimes, we have to go into caves of our own, our listening spaces, in order to be able to hear Jesus calling to us, but he also calls us out of our caves to “unbind” others, even in small ways.
God chose to speak to people in the Bible in some crazy ways. The Lord spoke through a burning bush, an audible voice from the sky, a talking donkey, written law, the prophets, angels and so on. God still speaks to us today in a variety of ways, but mostly through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit whispers God’s words of truth to our hearts, nudging us towards Christ. God also speaks to us through Scripture, nature, other people, books, sermons, music, poetry, silence, metaphors/analogies and so on. As Christians, it’s important to tune into God’s voice by tuning out other distractions. We need to learn to recognize God’s voice, believe the truth it speaks, and follow God’s direction.
So, if finding silence in order to hear God speak into our lives is so important, why do we make so little time for corporate silence in worship? And when we do, why do so many struggle with it?
Sometimes we forget that worship is not about us, it is about God. In our forgetfulness, we tend to fill the silence with our creations, our words, our music, and our needs. Perhaps another reason we do not include the practice of silence in worship is because silence feels much like doing nothing, and we are a culture of “doers.” Like the prophet Elijah, we are unaccustomed to inactivity. In our media-savvy culture, there is increasing pressure for worship to entertain, and silence is sometimes viewed as empty airtime. Nothing could be further from the truth. Silence is pregnant with the living presence of God, but we must be taught to recognize the divine presence.
Silence is not easy; it is not part of contemporary culture. Attempting to minimize environmental sounds quickly reveals the difficulty of this practice. We live in a world crammed with noise. From mp3 players to airplanes, from elevator music to car stereos that rattle window, our lives are filled to the brim with noise that alienates us from the deep refreshment found in silence. If we are successful at silencing the external sounds, we soon learn how much babble occurs in our minds.
How can we hear God’s Word to us amidst the noise of our lives? Hearing requires silence. Some of us may be afraid of what we will hear if we become still. Silence has the ability to reveal to us our deeper selves, warts, wrinkles, and all. For this reason we may avoid silence, not wanting to hear our deeper cries and longings. However, it is precisely our deeper selves (our true selves) with whom God desires to be in relationship. God loves us as we are and yearns to relate to us at the core of our being. God waits patiently for us to hear and respond to the invitation to move deeper into relationship with the one who created us. God wants our whole self to show up for worship.
But how can we expect to hear God speak to us if we don’t listen? How can we dream God’s dreams and live into God’s plans if we don’t quiet ourselves enough to hear God’s still small voice. In little ways and big, God is inviting us to make a difference in this world right here, right now. God, in other words, is beckoning us to claim Christ’s resurrection power now by participating in and completing the fantastic work God is doing all over the place.
So what if we spend a few moments looking at the week to come - both the challenges and opportunities -- and think about where we might claim God’s resurrection promise and power now, making a difference in someone’s life now, giving ourselves to a worthy cause or purpose now. It doesn’t have to be huge (though it might be). It doesn’t have to take a long time (although it could). It doesn’t have to be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be). Opportunities to unbind and let go abound, but we need to first listen, and then look for them so that we might hear Jesus calling us by name to make a difference to those around us.
So I invite you to find the silence of your own cave, that you might hear Jesus calling to you. And then claim your faith as a present-tense invitation to live the promised salvation now. Why? Because Jesus is still talking, God is still talking, and they’re trying to tell us that the resurrection and the life God has promised to give us, is not just more life later on, but life in all its abundance, here and now. Amen..