I’m so excited to share a heartfelt and thought-provoking guest post with you today. I’d like you to meet my amazing sister and best girlfriend, Rev. Christina Hildebrand. She is married to her high school sweetheart and is the mother to three of the most compassionate children I know. She currently serves as the Minister of Children & Family Ministries at her church. She oversees various programs and services for well over a 100 children each week.
Her own children have grown up serving right alongside her, learning to live like Christ by serving His people. They work in their church’s community garden, play with little ones in the respite ministry for children with special needs, serve as acolytes in the worship service, minister through music, assist with many VBS-related tasks, and much much more. These young people probably have more practical experience and knowledge about leading an effective children’s ministry than most average adults.
Christina has a tender spirit toward the things of God and is a gifted communicator of His heart to His people. She has graciously given me permission to share with you a sermon she preached recently to her home congregation about the whispers of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. I hope you are as blessed by her message as I have been.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
In his book, Jesus, Continued…Why the Spirit Inside You Is Better than Jesus Beside You, J. D. Greear writes…
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we kinda fall into one of two extremes.
Some seem obsessed, relating to him in strange, mystical ways. Their experiences with the Spirit always seem to coincide with an emotionally ecstatic moment created by the swell of music in a worship service or a confluence of events: “I was praying about whether to ask Rachel out, and suddenly I saw a billboard whose background was the same color as her eyes, and I got goose bumps—I knew it was the Holy Spirit!”
Other Christians neglect the ministry of the Holy Spirit altogether. They believe in the Holy Spirit, but they relate to it in the same way I relate to my pituitary gland: I’m really grateful it’s in there; I know it’s essential for something; I would never want to lose it . . . but I don’t really interact with it. For these Christians, the Holy Spirit is not a moving, dynamic person. He’s more of a theory.
Most Christians can probably give a quick and accurate description of who God and Jesus are, but what about the Holy Spirit? This part of the trinity is perhaps a little more difficult to explain.
Theologian Alister McGrath once identified the Holy Spirit as “the Cinderella of the Trinity. That while the other two sisters,” he said, “may have gone to the theological ball; the Holy Spirit gets left behind every time”
What is the Holy Spirit? Is it your conscience? Is it karma? Is it those goosebumps you get during a good worship song? Or is it something more?
There is truly more to say about the Holy Spirit than we have time for here today. We could, and should, devote an entire sermon series on the Holy Spirit. But for today, we will encounter God’s spirit through the experience of the prophet Elijah.
Elijah the Prophet
And so a brief synopsis of Elijah’s life up to this point might be helpful in our understanding of his encounter with the Spirit of God:
Elijah first comes on the scene out of nowhere in 1 Kings 17, when he walks into the court of King Ahab, and announces that there’s going to be a drought. It’s not going to rain until Elijah says it will he boldly proclaims.
That declaration is followed by three years of severe drought and hardship for the nation of Israel. Elijah spends those years in hiding, and for those three years, Ahab and his wife Jezebel are in search of Elijah to take his life.
Then finally, God tells Elijah it’s time to come out of hiding and end the drought, and so Elijah sets up this public showdown on Mt. Carmel—Elijah alone against the 450 prophets of Baal.
All the religious leaders in the entire land of Israel against one true prophet, Elijah. And Elijah proposes a contest: “You set up an altar with your sacrifice; I’ll set up an altar with my sacrifice, and whichever God answers with fire—that is the true God.”
So the Baal-prophets built an altar, and they began to pray to their deity. And when nothing happens, they get more and more agitated and before long their ritual becomes this bloody, horrific, frightening spectacle. And when it’s clear that no answer is coming from their god, they finally give up in despair and exhaustion.
So Elijah digs a trench around his offering and douses his altar with barrel after barrel of seawater—just to prove he isn’t using trickery. When he is done, that trench is full of seawater. Then after a simple one-sentence prayer, fire comes down from Heaven and burns up not only the offering but, the scriptures tell us… “When the fire of the LORD fell it consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.”
Elijah slaughters all 450 of the exhausted Baal-prophets, and skies open up and the rains shower the earth, ending the drought.
That was the most triumphant day of Elijah’s life. It was the greatest public victory of his entire life and the culmination and vindication of his prophetic ministry up to that point. Ahab had set himself against God, so Elijah had set himself against Ahab. And Ahab utterly failed.
When Jezebel gets wind of this event on Mount Carmel, and curses Elijah and sets out to destroy him. She is more determined than ever to kill him.
With her edict, the prophet descends from the spiritual high point of his life, immediately to the spiritual low point…where we encounter Elijah today in the reading from chapter 19.
Elijah is exhausted, he is consumed with fear and he runs for his life. He runs for days and days…and an angel of the Lord ministers to him along the way, bringing him water and fresh-baked bread to renew his strength for the journey. He runs for 40 days until he reaches Mt. Sinai.
Run to God’s Mountain
You no doubt remember Mt. Sinai…Moses was tending sheep and it was there that God appeared to him in the burning bush…the spirit of God revealed in fiery flames. Mt. Sinai is also where God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses…the spirit of God revealed in thunder and lightning, thick clouds of smoke, and an earthquake as Moses ascended the mountain to receive the covenant.
Elijah too had no doubt heard the accounts of God’s spirit revealed to Moses in such astounding ways on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps, then…he was headed to a place where God was known to reveal God’s self. Maybe he was longing to see God’s spirit manifested in some dramatic way, as it had been with Moses.
Maybe Elijah ran, in fear and desperation, to the one place that he was sure to receive…once again… an uncompromising, unambiguous sign from the Holy Spirit…Mt. Sinai. Maybe the prophet longed for the assurance found in a dazzling sign – of thunder, or flame, of wind, or earthquake. Maybe Elijah expected God to show up once again on Mt. Sinai.
Elijah had seen God in a spectacular way in his triumphs on Mt. Carmel, and now was desperate to see God in a spectacular way in the depths of his fears on Mt. Sinai.
Elijah expected God to show up!
- When have you expected God to show up?
- When have you stood vulnerable before God with the expectation that God would, no doubt, show up in a dramatic and unequivocal way?
- When have you expected God, the One who parts the Red Sea, who turns water into wine, who defeats death…to show up in your life in a definitive and powerful way?
Often in life, we confess God’s omnipotent power with our lips, but fall short of living as disciples with the expectation that God is actually going to show up.
- When is the last time we came to church with the expectation that God would show up…that the Holy Spirit would actually convict us and then call us to go back out into the world and to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God?
- When was the last time we said in confidence as we drove to worship… “I am going to God’s house expecting my healing, expecting my miracle, expecting my deliverance?”
- When we celebrate Holy Communion, do we have faith that we will break bread with the very presence of God?
- When we get on our knees in prayer, do we cry out to God with the unshakable conviction that God hears us and is with us?
- When we open the Scriptures to study the very Word of God, do we expect to actually meet and be transformed by the one who created us?
- When have you expected God to show up?
Sometimes our problem is that we don’t expect God to show up.
Sometimes, when we do expect God to show up, God doesn’t show up in the way we expected…and rather than a battle ready warrior, we receive the gift of a babe in a manger…rather than an earthquake, or a lightning bolt, we receive something quite unexpected…a whisper in the darkness.
A Heart Strangely Warmed
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, studied the Word of God, and preached, and prayed, and ministered with the expectation that God would show up. In his early life, Wesley sailed to the colonies as a missionary. On the ship was a community of devout Moravians, which were German Lutherans. At one point in the voyage a storm came up and broke the mast off the ship.
Wesley later reflected in his journal that “a terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on.” Wesley was transformed by this experience. He believed he witnessed an inner assurance of faith that the Moravians possessed which he lacked. The Moravians expected God to show up in the wind, and rain, and storm, and Wesley didn’t.
Just a few months later, Wesley returned to England, a failed missionary and spiritually depressed disciple, and he winds up (unwillingly he writes) at a society meeting (or an 18th century Bible study). And as he hears Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans, he writes, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” And he heard God in a whisper and the Holy Spirit began to work in his life in a new way.
Driven to the Cave
Elijah finds a dark cave to seek refuge from the cruel world and await his impending death. The prophet’s fear and despair, exhaustion and alienation drove him to a mountainous cave. For Elijah, the cave was not a sanctuary that provided refuge but rather a cell that summoned death.
- What drives you to your cave?
- What causes you to feel defeated?
- What leads you to wave the white flag of surrender in face of adversity in life?
- What draws you away from where God is calling you and lures you to succumb to darkness and solitude?
Maybe we are driven to our caves because we feel inadequate or we question our self-worth, maybe it is a failed dream or goal, maybe it is a betrayal or a poor decision, maybe it is worry or fear that drives us to our caves…worry about the future, about our families, about our health, maybe it is facing enormous financial pressure or making ends meet each month or greed and material possessions, maybe it is our jobs, maybe it is not being heard, feeling as though we don’t have a voice, abandonment, failure, losing control, losing hope.
We are driven to our caves when we feel trapped in life, when we are unable to move forward or back, when disappointment, remorse, regret, failure and fear envelope us, when we, like Elijah, are left feeling alone and forgotten.
But our God is a God who knows about cave ministry. Our God knows about what it looks like to be resurrected from our cave experiences.
Through the power of Jesus, Lazarus rose from the grave and walked out of his cave. Through the glory of God, Jesus defeated death from within a cave.
The cave is where God resurrects that which is dead. It is where God resurrects dead dreams, dead marriages, dead hopes and dreams.
Sometimes, in our cave experiences, when all is stripped away and our lives are hushed…it is then that we hear God whispering to us…
Called From the Cave
“Elijah, why are you here?” For the prophet – a gentle God-whisper draws him out of the cave.
Why a whisper? God was so magnificent and dazzling before in the fire, and the wind, and the earthquake…Why a whisper now?
Perhaps God chose to speak to Elijah in a whisper because God wanted to remind Elijah that even though he was drawn to the darkness of the cave, he had indeed not been abandoned or forsaken, that in fact, God was not only with him “in spirit” so to speak, but that God’s spirit was literally and physically “with him.” That in fact, even when Elijah was driven to his “cave,” and waived the white flag of surrender, even though the darkness and solitude threatened to overtake him, he was not alienated and he was never alone.
“Elijah, why are you here?” In his cave experience, Elijah, after hearing this God whisper, might have thought, “What are YOU doing here, God? What are you doing here God…in this cave with me and not out on the mountain in glory? What are you doing here God… in a whisper rather than in a dramatic display of your almighty power? What are you doing here, God?”
God speaks in whispers to us at times because God is reminding us that we are not alone in our caves, that, in fact, the Holy Spirit is with us in a very real way.
You don’t have to shout when you’re close to someone.
Hearing a whisper, requires proximity.
Hearing a whisper, necessitates being in a close relationship.
God is in the fight with us, and spectacular displays of atmospheric changes and precipitation are not prerequisites for God to be made known in this world. We limit God when we understand the Holy Spirit to only work in spectacular, miraculous ways. The Holy Spirit also works through means that are unseen, unappreciated, and inscrutable to human observation. God can whisper too.
So…What is God whispering to you?
Whether you find yourself in a cave experience or whether we find ourselves coming out of the darkness, what might God be whispering to you?
The Whisper Test
Mary Ann Bird relates in her memoirs, The Whisper Test, the story of how she encountered God in the kindness of a teacher.
[Mary Ann]…was born with multiple birth defects: deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, crooked nose, lop sided feet. As a child, Mary Ann suffered not only the physical impairments but also the emotional damage inflicted by other children. “Oh Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “What happened to your lip?”
“I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie.
One of the worst experiences at school, she reported, was the day of the annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like “the sky is blue” or “you have new shoes.” This was “the whisper test.” If the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said.
One year Mary Ann was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school. Every student, including Mary Ann, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her “teacher’s pet”. Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test. When her turn came, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk. As Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper. “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” What she whispered was “I wish you were my little girl.”
Perhaps the gift of our cave experiences is that when everything is stripped away, and our lives are hushed and we can finally hear, once again, God whispering to us.
- What is God whispering to you?
- How might the Holy Spirit be working in unseen and inscrutable ways in your life…reaching out to you in whispers…?
- What are you doing here?
This is the Good News, may we hear it and claim it for our lives.
Amen! See, I told you her words would bless you.
We’d love to hear your answers in the comments. Tell us how God is whispering to you and what He’s saying to your heart.