Be Still…and Know (1 Kings 19:8-12a; Psalm 46; John 16:12-15)
Today, we’re about halfway through the Christian Year. We began with Advent and longing for a new relationship with God in the world, and we discovered it, as Christians, in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, at Christmas (the shortest season of the Christian Year, only 12 days long). Christmas was followed by Epiphany, when we’re supposed to think about how this little baby that was born in a particular time and place (that is, long ago and far away) has meaning for the whole world with all its diversity and chaos. This was followed by Lent, as we prepared for the fact that God in Jesus identified with humanity all the way to death, and that, because God has plans for humanity that extend beyond what death can end, in the new life that we celebrated at Easter. When Jesus left his disciples physically in the act we call the ascension, Christians believe he entered into the direct presence of God in a remarkable way. Let me just say a word about this. As God had embedded Godself in humanity at Jesus’ incarnation (when the word became flesh), so classic Christianity has taught that Jesus embedded his human nature in the Godhead at the ascension so that God is forever changed by the incorporation of Jesus’ humanity. (No kidding, that’s what standard Protestant Christian theology has taught, although many miss out on that.) Last of all, the Spirit of this great God came upon disciples like a mighty rushing wind at Pentecost. We have thought about and celebrated all that in the first half of the Christian Year.
Today, we come to the second part of it, called Ordinary Time, in which we simply number the Sundays and weeks in order. In this half of the year, we think about what we have learned from the first half of the year, so as to put it to work in daily life. We emphasize Jesus’ life and teachings here for our Christian practice. The first day of this second half of the year is Trinity Sunday (today). We call it that, because the Trinity was intended to be a way in which Christians reflected on their experience of God, as seen in Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. It can be a day for insisting on the classical way in which the Trinity has been expressed, but I think that reflecting on the experience of God is more important, not to mention more interesting, for living our lives, than dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of ancient church dogma.
Two of the three passages today are not the Lectionary readings, but are my own choice. Let me start with the one passage that is from the Lectionary, the Gospel from John chapter 16. I believe that this short passage is poorly translated and understood (not all scholars agree with me here, by the way, some never mention any problem at all). The normal translation is that “the spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.” That’s not what the best Greek manuscripts read. They say that “the spirit of truth will guide you along the road in all truth.” The text says, not that God will turn us from falsehood to truth (at least it doesn’t say that here), but that God will guide us in the truth in which we are already walking. Now, what about “truth”?
Back a couple of chapters, in John chapter 14, Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” We need to remember this statement whenever we see this word “truth” in John’s Gospel, because we, as heirs of the Enlightenment, want to define truth as accuracy, factuality, precision; whereas, in the words of this text it is none of those things primarily. It is a totally different category: truth is the person of Jesus. Coming out of the Old Testament, truth did not mean something faultless or correct, it meant something steadfast and sure, something that could be depended on. The Gospel writer here adds to that the category of “the personal.” If you want to know what is steadfast and sure in this life – look at Jesus and who he was and what he taught. He is the truth. In all the contingencies of life as we experience it, imitating Jesus is the key to true life. In this passage Jesus promises that the Spirit guides Jesus’ followers in the whole realm of what is true – what is dependable and will get you there. God is concerned to lead and guide us through the active presence of the spirit in the world witnessing to the person of Jesus. As we think about the experience of God today, one of the things we need to remember is that God is concerned to guide us along in truth as a personal relationship.
The two other passages (from the Old Testament) are those I have selected this morning as two things that are important to remember about our experience of God together. One of these passages is part of a story (1 Kings 19), the other is a poem (Psalm 46). In the traditional English translations of both these texts the word “still” occurs: “the still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19:12 and “be still and know that I am God” in Psalm 46:10. Let me just quickly say that the Hebrew word is different in the two passages, carrying a different meaning altogether.
In the first passage, we find part of the story of Elijah on Mt. Horeb with God. He’s just had an experience on another mountain (Mt. Carmel) with the prophets of the Canaanite fertility god Baal in which he has challenged them to a duel of deities, in which his God has won the day, and he has slaughtered over 400 prophets in what I find a very troubling way to deal with our opponents (although I suspect it might yet be suggested in this year’s presidential campaigns). In any case, in both the 18th and 19th chapters of 1 Kings (and really before this as well) Elijah has been in one struggle after another, until what was going on outside of Elijah, worked its way into him, and he has become a mass of struggle and jangled nerves on the inside, leading up to that slaughter of those who opposed him and God.
When it was all over, he began to realize how exhausted he was inside, how dried up his spirit really was, how out of gas he was. So he fled to Mt. Horeb (another name for Mt. Sinai), which is, of course, where Moses received the Torah, and so the place at the heart of the tradition about Elijah’s own experience of God – you know Moses and the stone tablets and all that. And there he met God who wondered why he was there and not in the “real world” where he should have been. I often wonder whether God is surprised to find us going back to the places where we used to find God again and again, rather than taking our place in the world where the work (and God) is. Sometimes we just have to go to Mt. Horeb, though. So there he was. And, God said, “OK, stand out on the mountain before God, for God is about to pass by.” And he went and stood there. There was a huge wind that smashed rocks together so that they were like dust. There was a powerful earthquake that rocked the whole place. There followed a horrendous fire (I think of the recent Ft. McMurray fire in Alberta). Winds, earthquakes, and fires, were all signs of the presence of a deity in the ancient Near East. But note, three times: the same words: “The LORD was not in the wind, the LORD was not in the earthquake, the LORD was not in the fire.” None of the violence or traditional power stuff that had traditionally marked the presence of deity contained anything at all but the same uproar with which Elijah was already full to overflowing. God brought something completely different. Enter the “still small voice.” Or, “the sound of a quiet whisper.” The murmur of Shalom. God is found, not in what we already have, but in what we really need. Wholeness, comfort, silence, peace. The longer I live the more I hear God in silence, rather than in display and bombast. There’s an old song we used to sing, the first stanza of which is:
Speak, Lord, in the stillness, while we wait on thee;
Hushed our hearts to listen, in expectancy.
On this day when we think about our experience of God, let’s remember the murmur of Shalom that is the voice of God that brings wholeness to our tired and churning hearts, and helps us bring it to the world.
Last of all, let’s turn to the 46th Psalm. This was the text that Martin Luther used for his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Both the hymn and the psalm reflect on the sure confidence God’s people can have of God’s help because God has chosen to be with them. Luther reflected on these Hebrew words in a Christian way. The Psalm itself is sure of God’s presence in God’s city (a spatial metaphor), the hymn is sure of God’s presence through Christ (a personal metaphor). The first verse and the twice told refrain anchor the whole piece:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…The LORD of hosts (or armies) is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge (v. 7, repeated in v. 11).
God here is not portrayed in terms of a quiet whisper, but of a mighty power that is able to tame the chaos of the sea (a metaphor for the chaos of the world – whatever that means for the reader), and the chaos brought about by enemies. God has the power to be the rock, the stability, in the midst of all the destruction the world can muster. (I sometimes wonder whether the real God of the Bible is even the rock, that can stabilize us in the midst of the railing, violent, shamefulness, foisted on God’s own self by religious people?) Listen to what this text says right at the end of it (we’ve read it before, as the first words we sang):
Be still and know that I am God;
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted upon the earth.
What we might think here is that God is saying to all those loud-mouthed exponents of power in the world “Shut up and realize who’s in charge here.” This word translated “be still” is not the same one that was used for the “still small voice.” It doesn’t have to do with volume. The word here is an interesting choice. It is a word that means “to relax” or “to let go,” or even “to sink down.” It is used of letting the temper cool down, and of letting the hands unclench and drop to the side.
Maxine and I have one of those beds that we can adjust to our “sleep number.” It amounts to an adjustable air mattress. One of the last things we do before we go to sleep at night is to adjust our bed down to a comfortable level. I love to feel myself sinking down into the mattress, which fits itself around me and kind of snuggles up. That’s kind of the thought of the verb here. “Relax, sink down, let yourself be encompassed by God.” It doesn’t depend upon keeping control, or keeping muscle tone, or certainly keeping the clenched fist. Relax and realize who God is and that you are surrounded by the presence of the one who keeps your every step.
As we think about God going into the everyday life of ordinary time, let us remember that this is the God in whose presence we can “be still,” relax and let go. That’s when we will know the God who is the ruler over all, who has taken the form of a servant, and who has sent the Spirit to guide us along the path of all truth.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.