Sometimes we have religious experiences; sometimes we don’t.
Elijah’s experiences were dramatic – like himself.
He was the original action hero – dispensing justice
with lots of violence, explosions, and drama.
His God was a lot like himself.
Not surprising in those days.
The human race was still primitive.
Their idea of God was primitive.
So Elijah’s God was an action hero too – pretty explosive.
In today’s lesson, things had been tough for Elijah.
So, like most of us, that’s when he went looking for God.
Elijah looked where God lived -- Mt. Horeb.
In Elijah’s time, God had an address.
It was Mt. Horeb, 89406.
Greek gods lived on Mt. Olympus.
Yahweh lived on Mt. Horeb,
which I hear is s one awesome and mysterious place.
Elijah’s even more primitive ancestors worshiped a mountain,
before they worshiped El Shaddai, the God of the Mountain.
They also worshiped powerful forces of nature like the desert storm,
the earthquake, and the forest fire.
So Israel experienced God in those natural dramas.
Psalm 97 says:
“Clouds and thick darkness surround him . . . .
Fire goes before him . . . .
His lightning lights up the world.
The earth sees and trembles.”
That’s what a religious experience was – God doing dramatic stuff.
When nothing spectacular was happening, they felt cut off.
So they prayed in Psalm 83:
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God, be not still.”
A silent God was an absent God – a God who did not care.
That was Elijah’s religion when he went looking for God on Horeb.
And the dramatic stuff happened.
There was a windstorm, then an earthquake, and a fire.
But this time, Elijah just wasn’t feeling it.
The wind was just wind; the earthquake, just an earthquake;
the fire, just a fire.
And Elijah thought, “Is that all there is?”
A powerful emotional religious experience is a great thing.
God can be in it.
That’s why religions have a whole panoply of different techniques
designed to give us different experiences.
We have born again catharsis, baptism of the spirit ecstasy,
Cursillo intimacy, contemplative union, or we go to a beautiful spot
in nature and say “isn’t it all so beautiful!”
We feel a certain way and call it “spiritual.”
That’s all good at the time it’s happening.
But we can get stuck in it.
We can keep trying to have the same experience.
We keep going to the same event, trying to feel that way again,
pretending that we do, but inwardly
-- no matter how loud we shout “hallelujah” --
it just ain’t happening for us.
That’s how it was for Elijah who had always found God
in wind, fire, and earthquake.
But this time, God wasn’t there.
Then after the powerful forces of nature passed,
there was a silence, a profound palpable silence
-- like the silence of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley.
It was precisely the silence that, in Elijah’s religion,
meant God was absent.
But instead of praying,
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God,”
Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle as a sign of reverence,
because he knew God was there.
Precisely in the absence of religious experience,
Elijah believed in God’s presence.
Different cultures, different faith traditions,
and different people define religious experience differently.
So which one is right?
Is God really in the wind, in the earthquake, or in the fire?
Is God really in the born again catharsis,
the baptism in the Spirit ecstasy,
or the mystical experience of unity?
And where is God when we are not having whatever kind of feeling
we think of as spiritual?
God is infinitely greater than our capacity for religious experience.
God is in our religious experience. We do meet God there.
But God is vastly bigger than our feelings.
Theologians from Dionysius in the 6th Century
to Karl Barth in the 20th Century to John Hick today
caution us not to limit God to what we think of
as religion or spirituality.
At those times when God seems utterly silent, totally absent
– at those times we do not feel the least bit spiritual
and have no sense of God whatsoever --
God is there.
St. St. John of the Cross was the greatest spiritual master
to base his teaching on Elijah.
He taught that as long as our religion is just about spiritual experiences,
we don’t love God.
We just love the way we feel.
Faith comes when we love the God
who is unseen, unheard, and unfelt
– but utterly and absolutely real.
Spiritual experiences are not false or bad.
We all start there, but faith outgrows feeling.
Carl Jung had these words inscribed over his door
and on his tombstone,
“Bidden or unbidden God is present.”
The great Baptist preacher, Carlyle Marney, told the story
of a little boy was trapped by a fire
in his second story bedroom.
In the yard below, his father called to him,
“Jump son, jump. I’ll catch you.”
The child shouted back, “Daddy, I’m afraid to jump. I can’t see you.”
“That’s alright,” the father answered.
“Go ahead and jump. I can see you.”
The silent God is present – watching, caring.
The very silence of God is our invitation to faith.
The very absence of spiritual experience,
invites us to a deeper encounter with God
– just as Elijah met God more profoundly
in the silence than in the storm.
Theologian, Francis Fiorenza, once asked our class,
“Do you want to have a religious experience,
or do you want to experience everything religiously?”//
I have been pondering that question for over a decade,
and it has finally begun to form into an insight.
So when we aren’t having a religious experience,
how do we experience all of life religiously?
We intentionally look at everything through God’s eyes.
We just watch without judging.
We observe the world around us with a serene compassion.
We do the same with the world inside us.
We watch the thoughts rushing through our minds,
the emotions passing through our hearts,
the very physical sensations of our bodies.
We meet God -- not by seeing God --
but by seeing everything as God sees it.
God is light -- pure and perfect light.
We don’t really see full spectrum light.
In itself, full spectrum light is invisible.
Instead, we see things illumined by the light.
Just so, we don’t see God.
We see the world differently because God illumines it.
We see ourselves differently in the light of God’s grace.
Religious experiences are the divine light refracted into various colors.
That’s why we have different experiences – all valid.
But the rest of the time, God is still with us
– not as storm, quake, or fire, but silently watching.
We can know God by joining him in the watch
– by doing nothing – dropping our efforts to be action heroes-- just watching with God’s infinite compassionate patience.