Remember the commercials that used to run after big sports events in which the winner was asked what he was going to do next? "Hey, Victorious Quarterback! You just single-handedly engineered a 45 point comeback in the last two minutes and made the game-saving tackle coming off the bench to play defense! What are you going to do next?"
"I'm going to Disneyland!" Probably not, actually. He was probably going to sit in a whirlpool tub for awhile and then see a chiropractor to try to ease the effects of 300-pound linemen playing whackamole with his face. But the idea was that he was going to celebrate his win and the only way it could get any better than the win itself would be celebrate it at Disneyland.
So, Prophet Elijah! You just pwned 500 prophets of Baal and watched your God send down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice of bulls that you'd doused with so much water they grew gills. You've conclusively demonstrated that the God you serve is real and the gods the others served are false idols! What are you going to do next?
"I'm going to run and hide!" Wait, what? Run and hide, really? Just because Queen Jezebel, whose priest ranks have quite a few new openings these days, threatened you? You watched God do this absolutely amazing thing and you're going to run away from one queen? Was Elijah a coward? Did he not have very much faith? Was he not too bright and missed the connection that if the power of God could consume a sacrifice it might protect a prophet? We don't know. All we know is that Elijah ran and hid. Just before the passage we read, in fact, we see him go out in the wilderness to just lay down and give up. God has to use an angel to get him to rouse long enough to eat and set out to Mount Horeb, which is where he is now.
When God asks him why he's there, Elijah says he's the last God-follower in all of Israel and he heard the queen was going to have him killed. God tells him to go out and stand in front of the cave, because God was going to pass by. When Elijah is in place, we first see a mighty wind, so strong it was actually splitting rocks in half. Then we see an earthquake, and then a huge fire, which may have been a volcanic eruption. But God is not in any of these things. After all the ruckus subsides, there is nothing but silence, and it is then that Elijah knows the Lord is passing by so he covers his face and they repeat their conversation from earlier about why Elijah is here.
This time God gives him instructions about anointing a couple of kings and about who Elijah's own successor will be. And by the way, God says, I've got seven thousand followers in Israel, so let's can the poor pitiful me routine, eh?
I'd like to draw some attention to how God actually showed up and maybe offer a couple of reasons why it's important. He's not in the big 'splodey stuff but in the silence that follows, and that's interesting to me. Sound, as we may remember from science class, is just vibration. Something happens, and it starts vibrations through the air that reach our eardrums and get converted into recognizable sounds by our brains. It works like the ripples in a pond after a rock gets thrown into it.
Now, continuing the sounds requires continuing disturbances -- things have to keep happening in order for us to keep hearing them. Once the rock sinks beneath the surface of the pond, its ripples stop and eventually everything is smooth again. Once whatever produces the sound stops happening, the sound fades. If you want to see it this way, silence is the natural state and sound is what happens that disturbs it. When the disturbance is over, silence returns because it's always there.
The metaphor I see is that God is like the silence in that he's always there. Whatever disturbs our focus or causes vibrations or ripples in our lives will fade away, and God will remain. Once the disturbing force runs out of energy -- because they always will -- then God's presence will reassert itself.
Can you see why Elijah needed to hear this? God could of course have been in the wind or the quake or the fire and demonstrated his awesome power. "Afraid of one little ol' queen? Really? Trust me, Elijah, ain't no queen or king want to mess with wind and fire here!" But Elijah has seen God's awesome power demonstrated and is still scared. If I'm right, I think what he needs now is an assurance that God is still there even when the high-profile stuff is done. God is in the storm, but is God in the silence? God is there in the battle, but is God there when the battle's over? God is there in power, but is God there in the weakness?
And now you can probably see one of the reasons Christians attach such importance to the cross. It's the ultimate defeat, even more that Elijah running away. And yet God is there in it and afterwards. It takes no faith to see the all-powerful God in the might of a storm -- his force is clear and plainly visible.
But to see God in the silence? That does indeed take faith. And God strengthens that faith so that we can come to trust him in storm and in silence, knowing he is always there.