As a little boy I remember so well the long trips we would take in the family station wagon. We had no car seats, no shoulder belts; no seat belts that weren t forever unreachably wedged under the backseat along with the gum wrappers and the lollipop sticks. We had no video games or DVD players, no ipods or CD players. (And for those of you wondering, yes, we did walk ten miles to school in the snow.) We usually road in the way back as it was called, banging around with the luggage and the dog. We read books, if reading while lying down looking backwards didn t make you throw-up. Most of the time we just laid around looking out the window occasionally asking Dad is we were there yet.
However, if we were traveling South, as was often the case, then not long after you crossed the Virginia State line you began to see what for a kid were the most wonderful signs. Big and gaudy and sometimes moving, these signs, we all know them, led the way to road trip Mecca South of the Border. I loved these signs they were always fun and creative. Recently I read that between New Jersey and Florida there are over 200 signs for South of the Border. All of them were different and each one told you just how many miles remained until you got there. A typical sign read, “You Never Sausage a Place!” and had a picture of a giant tacked-on pink sausage above the words South of the Border. As an impatient little boy watching for these signs kept me sane, they gave me something to look at, something to do when otherwise the only entertainment was poking my brother and then yelling to my parents He s picking on me again!
As an adult I have often thought how nice it would be if the journey of life came with some kind of signage, some big flashing sign that says DON T TAKE THAT JOB, or THIS IS NOT A GOOD NIGHT TO BE DRVING, or TRIP TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM IN 2.4 DAYS. Some kind of warning, some kind of display that lets you know you are coming to a major life destination or getting ready to pass through one of life s important crossroads. I have often wished that God should give me a loud heads-up from time to time so that the twists and turns of life wouldn t catch me off guard, so that I wouldn t miss any of the important sights.
After all, isn t this what the disciples got when they climbed Mount Tabor that day with Jesus? There, in a dazzling display of divine theatrics involving visions of Moses and Elijah; Peter, James and John were told to look up and pay attention because their master and friend was far more than an ordinary man. Now, I am not trying to compare our Lord s transfiguration with Pedro and South of the Boarder – but in our Gospel for today there was nothing subtle about the message God sent those three disciples, a message that included the words, This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! As we travel down the road of life why can t all of us have holy encounters as clear and unambiguous as that one?
I wish I could say there have been times in my spiritual life when I have been knocked sideways by God the way Paul was literally knocked from his horse on the road to Damascus, or that I have had divine dreams and visions like Mary, Joseph and so many others. I know folks who have but I have not. No, my experience of the Holy has always been much more like that of Elijah, much more subtle, much more easily missed if you aren t paying attention.
In our lesson from 1 Kings for this morning, God tells a depressed and despondent Elijah that He will reveal himself to the old prophet and that Elijah should go out and stand on Mount Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai) and wait. There Elijah witnesses the force of nature in all its glory wind so strong that it splits rock, a terrible earthquake and a consuming fire. But as the aging prophet watches and waits he discovers that as awesome as these displays are God is not in any of them. The incredible exhibition he witnesses is powerful but it is not holy. However, after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire there is a calm, a hush. Our translation calls it, a sound of sheer silence. Other translations record the Hebrew as saying it was a still small voice, a gentle whisper, or a sound of fine silence. Whatever the case, it was here in this quiet space following the big show that Elijah encounters God, or what theologians call the numinous. In some way God was in this silence or God was this silence and Elijah is so struck by what he experiences that he covers his face because he knows he is in the presence of the Almighty.
The writer Alice Walker once said that, the experience of God, or in any case the possibility of experiencing God, is innate, and I think she is right. Whether it is the grand vision or the gentle whisper, all of us have the innate potential to experience God just like all of us have the innate potential to love another human being. We are hard wired for it the way a baby is hard wired to respond to her mother s voice. The problem is most of time God doesn t give us the big gaudy signs like South of the Boarder. Instead God speaks with the still small voice that we can easily miss if we aren t paying attention. And if is there is a Satan then his biggest success to date has been to fill our lives with so much noise that most of us don t even know anymore what it means to hear the voice of God.
My very favorite author Frederick Buechner once famously said, Listen to your life. See it as the fathomless mystery that it is . . . touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all the moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. Listen to your life how many of us ever do this? How many of us ever stop and pay attention to the quiet silence between the events and the conversations to hear the God who calls to us like a loving mother? Late at night when the worries of the world have us staring at the ceiling God is there lying as close as the beating of our hearts or the rhythms of our breathing. In the silence that punctuates the gaps in our worst arguments God is there whispering truths of love that we are often too consumed to hear. Annie Lamott says that whenever there is suffering Jesus always draws near and she is right. In the aftermath of any trauma or tragedy God is ever so close promising that no matter what there is always grace and hope.
Listen to your life. There is no better advice I can give you or me on this last Sunday before Lent as we stand on the cusp of the most penitential time of the year. Listen to the God that seeks to fill the gaps in the noise of your life. Because as C.S. Lewis says, one day when this existence comes to an end and we see the face of God we shall know that we have always known it. God has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within all our earthly experiences. God has been, is, and will be always with us we just aren t very good at seeing the signs. Amen.