Originally preached July 19, 2008, at the Almaty English Adventist Church in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
There is a story in Acts 17. While sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom in distant reaches, Paul experiences many trials: Hunger, beatings, the elements of cold and heat, mockery, misunderstanding. But his reception in one city is most unusual.
Athens was a city of brilliant philosophers and pseudo intellectuals. People came from far and wide- aspiring writers, restless poets. I imagine misfit Athenian teenagers gathering in the places of debate with eyes and ears wide open to the thinkers of the day. Verse 21 tells us that “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except the telling or hearing something new.”
His message is what made Paul so interesting to the gathered crowds. Dualism caused many Greeks to view the material world with suspicion and mistrust. So when they heard Paul talking about Christ’s bodily resurrection, it must have sounded absurd. Who had ever heard of Truth taking on flesh and living among humanity, being killed and raised to save us, because he loved us? Christianity was a compassionate idea, but not at all palatable.
The Athenians wanted to hear more, so they took Paul by the arm and stood him in the midst of the people. Paul was a clever man, and by the power of wit or the Holy Spirit, he already knew what to say. He had noticed, coming into Athens, the many temples and altars- one for every creed preached, each philosophy embodied in a deity. But there was one altar that caught Paul’s evangelistic opportunism more than any other. It was dedicated to the “Unknown God.”
The Unknown God. This was the god who was not revealed. In the sea of speculation and religious noise that was Athens, here was an altar to a god bigger than philosophy, beyond comprehension. Here was a mysterious god, not subject to human ownership or manipulation. He didn’t shout in the same predictable ways as the other gods. Beyond all critique, this god was Unknown. Silent.
I’m wondering today how many of us also cherish an altar to a silent god? How many have grown tired of the noise of religious certainty, of human idols, of the elaborate ceremonies we create as if somehow to trick God from his majesty?
How many of you have experienced him tangibly, unmistakably, so you knew he was leading you, revealing himself as the Known? And then suddenly the speaking stopped. You wondered where he went and why so suddenly he fell silent. You said, in essence, “Where is God, anyway? He is Unknown to me.”
There is a story of one such man recorded in 1 Kings 18. Elijah was a prophet of God during a very difficult period of Israel’s history, when King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, had many noisy and known false gods. During a face-off at Mount Carmel, Elijah’s invisible deity beats Baal with mysterious fire from heaven. In desperation, the other prophets try to invoke a response from their god through restless self-affliction, but it is not to be.
The astonishing twist, after the slaughter of the false prophets, is Elijah’s terrified flight to the wilderness. He fears Jezebel (after all, God did not call down fire on her). He runs and runs till he falls exhausted beneath a bush. And while an angel is preparing to feed him with its own hands, Elijah says, “It is enough; now, oh Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
Elijah has just experienced God in a most unmistakable way: Fire from heaven. Talk about noise! But when he learns about the plot for his life, he freezes up. “If God won’t call fire from heaven to slay my enemy like last time,” he asks himself, “How will he protect me now?” Elijah thinks God only has one way of revealing himself: Fire- dominance, unmistakable authority. His god is uncreative and predictable, and because he does not recognize the Unknown, Elijah falls into depression. Heavenly fingers are on his lips, and he only sees Evil at the door: “They seek my life, to take it away.” (Vs. 10.)
There have been other times in scripture when God’s nearness has shattered the expectations of his people. They show us that God cannot be contained to small ways of loving us. Some stories, though strange, are unmistakably Spirit-charged, like Elijah’s Mount Carmel fire. Others, in their obscurity, are marked only by pregnant silence.
The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night
The angry thunder of Sinai
The Babylonian captivity
The anguished life of Job, when God spoke “from the whirlwind”
In a burning coal unlocking holy speech (Isaiah 6)
In a parable of unfaithfulness (I wonder how Hosea must have felt)
In the belly of a whale
In the belly of Mary, in a stable, in a helpless child
In “the least of these”
In a procrastinated second coming
In the cross
St. Seraphim of Sarov wrote that “Silence is the cross on which we must crucify our ego.” God’s ways are so often unknown to us. If we understood them, it would be the surest evidence of false worship. The real God is not the one we would know, but only an image, like the idols of Athens.
And so we come back to our depressed brother in the wilderness, to whom the God of many voices is still blessedly unknown. In 1 Kings 19:9 we pick up the story. Elijah journeys on until he comes to a cave at Horeb, the mountain of God. He stands there and waits for God to pass by in wind, in earthquake, and in familiar fire. But God isn’t in those things this time.
He is in “the sound of sheer silence.”
Later in the chapter God rebukes Elijah and says, “So you think you’re the only one who hears my voice, poor, deaf, beloved child of mine? I still have 7,000 in Israel that you don’t know about, none of whom have kissed or bowed to Baal."
Ours is a God of surprises. He is like the wind in John 3, which goes where it wills as it pleases. But faith tells us he is present in the silence of our understanding. We try to control him by our expectations, to keep him at our whim so we do not have to place ourselves at his. We would rather he call down fire from heaven so that we might recognize him on our terms, in our way. But he says, “Not a chance, kid. You will not have me the same way twice. I am God, after all.” After running and sleeping and waiting and weeping, the Lord surprises Elijah with a new experience, different from anything he has ever had before. And the prophet bows his head in a posture of listening humility.
What is God saying to him in the silence? What is he saying to us? “I am near. Trust. Know me, the Unknown, who has not forsaken you in silence. I am silence. I am making my home in you.”
We are left, finally, with Paul. He is standing in Athens preaching about this great and glorious God. “Men of Athens,” he says. “Readers and hearers of this word, listen!” God wants to be known, but on his terms. He longs to be trusted- as God. Do you sense it? In your own life, where God is hard to find, where you cannot recognize his voice- can you receive the silence? In a noisy world where false idols scream at us- work, worry, conflict, crises and closed creeds- do you have space for the Unknown God? Have you kept his altar burning in your heart? As Paul recognized, silence may be the most profound evidence of God's presence in our lives.
My challenge for us all is to do as Elijah did. Today, let us stand at the edge of the cave, the edges of our lives, and listen in humble expectation.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2228