During the pandemic visitors to Wells Cathedral have been met with the breath-taking sight of a vast empty space (all the chairs had been taken away) in the middle of which was one single candle – the Easter candle. It gave the striking message: “When there is nothing left, we still hope – hope in God’s will to overcome evil with good.
The season of Advent helps us to prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. At this stage in the Advent journey, it is customary to think about the themes of hope and the prophets.
Prophets are usually thought of as people who foretell the future. In the Bible there are many prophecies about Christ, and these must have been astonishing for the first Christians to recognise – things foretold in their Scriptures about the Lord, which they saw had come true before their own eyes.
One of the most common prophecies about Christ is the famous verse in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”. But another verse from the same prophet Isaiah is less well known, but strikingly speaks about Christ’s death: “Then they made his grave with the wicked, and with rich people in his death, although he had committed no violence, nor was there any deceit in his mouth." Isaiah 53:9 Who could have foretold that the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, should be executed as a common criminal, with the wicked, but be buried in a rich man’s tomb!?
These are two small examples of many, many passages and themes in the Bible which foretold Christ’s birth and his whole life, long before any of it actually happened. They help us to see that God’s perspective of time is different to ours. He can see a long way past the time that we are living through now.
But prophecy is not just about foretelling the future. It is also about speaking the truth, especially when it’s really unpopular – speaking truth to power is definitely part of what a prophet does. Elijah was a prophet who knew all about this. He spoke out about the evils he saw around him and courageously defied the brutal powers that wanted to kill him. However, Elijah also shows us something very important about how each of relates to God individually.
Hiding in a cave from his persecutors, Elijah heard God’s voice telling him:
“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. I Kings 19:11
This “gentle whisper” that Elijah recognised as the true voice of God, is often translated as “a still small voice”. Which ever translation you prefer, down the ages this passage has brought comfort and guidance to countless people who recognised that God speaks to us gently and quietly in the inner recesses of our heart.
Whatever the darkness or the chaos, God speaks personally and lovingly to us. The true voice of God always speaks of hope – like the single flame of the paschal candle in that vast empty space.