Loud claps of thunder seize our attention on muggy summer days.
Heads often snap up from other pursuits to search clouded skies for
additional flashes of lightning nearby. We are programmed to respond to loud
noises. A shrieking siren, an unexpected crash, a sudden swell from a
cheering or jeering crowd, or an exclamatory outcry all produce a similar
response. We strain to hear and to understand what is going on. Loud sounds
garner our immediate attention.
God’s presence and power are often revealed amidst an arresting
and overwhelming cacophony recorded in the Bible. In Genesis 1:6-8 the
Hebrew word translated “firmament ” (KJV) or “expanse” or “sky” (RSV or NIV)
derives from a word meaning “hammered out,” as in the ancient process of
pounding sheets of metal into the form of a bowl. God’s activity in creation
was immensely noisy, as recognized even in the scientific notion of the “Big
Bang!” Exodus 11:6 and 12:30 tell of the great cry arising throughout Egypt
as the firstborn in all houses not marked by God’s people with sacrificial
blood are struck by the plague of death, revealing God’s plan of salvation.
Later as God’s freed people entered the land God promised them, Joshua
6:5-6, 20 recalls the blasts of the trumpets and shouts of the people as the
walls of Jericho fell with a mighty crash, just the way God said they would.
God’s deliverance continues in the tumultuous noise of Gideon’s 100 men
shouting, blowing their horns, and smashing their jars disclosing their
torch lights to rout the Midianites at night. (Judges 7:16-22) More
trumpets, celebratory music, shouts of joy, and David’s frenetic dancing
accompany the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant containing God’s
commandments in Jerusalem as noted in 2 Samuel 6:14-15 and 1 Chronicles
Loud demonstrations of God’s activity continue into the New
Testament. Acts 2:1-11 tells the story of the Holy Spirit’s arrival amid a
“rushing, mighty wind” and the ringing, multi-lingual preaching of the
gospel on the day of Pentecost. God’s continuing presence and provision for
his messengers was evident as Paul and Silas held amid night hymn fest in
the prison in Philippi when an earthquake truly rocked the place shaking
their shackles free. (Acts 16:25-28) In the jarring aftershocks, the jailer
exclaimed, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul explained to him and his
family the way of Jesus.
With all the clamor associated with experiences of God’s
revelation we may be tempted to pay attention and seek for evidence of God’s
presence only when loud outbursts take us away from our daily routines.
Splashy music, or thundering preaching, or events designed to compete with
noisy secular media have become the venues we are trained to expect to hear
the voice of God, if anywhere.
But not all of the incidences of God making him known in
scripture are loud events. In Genesis 1 and 2 God simply speaks – does not
bellow or shout – and all of creation happens. When Elijah was locked in a
boisterous battle with the prophets of Baal to see whose God would show up,
God responded with roaring fire and consuming presence to lap up Elijah’s
offering. But when Elijah fled from Baal’S naysayers who wanted to do away
with him,, the prophet found himself hiding in a cave desperate to hear from
God. In response to Elijah’s pleas God agreed to reveal himself. Elijah
stood at the mouth of the cave in rock-splitting wind, roaring fire, and a
deeply rumbling earthquake – but God was in none of them. Then he heard a
still, small voice – God’s voice – quietly giving him gifts of clear
instructions and assurance of God’s presence and care.
Quiet words in the New Testament also offer God’s nurture and
presence. When Jesus’ arms were stretched out and nailed to the cross in a
position that stressed his body to the point of suffocation, his voice would
have been barely audible as he breathed, “Father, forgive them. They do not
know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:33-34) On the third day after this, Mary
cried in agony at a man she assumed to be a gardener to ask what had been
done with the body from the now empty tomb. The man said quietly, “Mary,”
and she immediately recognized the resurrected Jesus. He went on the give
her a vital message for her own faith and a message to share with the other
disciples. (John 20:16-18) These soft words were entirely consistent with
the intimate, quiet counsel Jesus gave for individuals speaking with God and
God’s response. When Jesus was teaching his followers about prayer he toled
them not to think that they are heard because of lots of words delivered as
if over a loudspeaker. Instead, he told them (and us) to go into a quiet
closet and God already knows the words we will say to him there. Prayer is a
time for simply communing with God. Matthew 6 :6-8)
Reviewing these quiet encounters with God brought to my mind two
wonderful hymns. We may hear one of them more clearly without the noisy
distractions of its usual setting. The second is simply a hymn that should
be part of our prayer and worship life:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
(“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks, Christmas Eve, 1865)
Open my ears, that I may hear Voices of truth Thou sendest clear;
And while the wave notes fall on my ear, Everything false will
Silently now I wait for Thee, Ready my God, Thy will to see,
Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit divine!
(“Open My Eyes that I May See,” Clara H. Scott, 1895)
Shhh! In the quiet, what do you and God have to say to one
– J. Edward Culpepper