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Seeing the Invisible

While I am writing this essay, I am still under the spell of last night’s magnificent performance of the Elijah in the Marktkirche, of Hanover, Germany. Listening to the choir brought memories of past days, when as a member of the Andrews University chorus, I, too, was singing Felix Mendelssohn’s famous oratorio in the Pioneer Memorial Church. “Blessed are the men who fear Him,” “Baal, we cry to thee,” and “Thanks be to God!” These were unforgettable moments in my life, and even more so in the history of God’s ancient people.

Single-handedly, Elijah, the prophet from Tishbe in Gilead, had won the showdown between Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, and Jahwe, the one and only God of Israel. Fire from heaven—a lightning bolt, literally out of the blue sky—had ignited and burned up the sacrifice, which included the altar over which twelve large jars with water had been poured. To top this feat, the fearless warrior for God brought down plenty of water from heaven upon the barren land.

While Elijah bent down to the ground, his servant watched the sky for some sign of rain. “There is nothing there,” he told the praying prophet. But Elijah wouldn’t give up. Six times he sent his servant back to his lookout, believing that Jahwe would work another miracle, no less important than the first. The seventh time the servant reported: “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea” (1 Kings 18:44 NIV). Soon after, a heavy rainstorm came on and soaked the land. The drought and the famine were finally over.

To expect a lightning stroke or to “hear the sound of heavy rain” (v. 41 TNIV) when the sky is steel blue and “there is nothing there” to indicate any change is not the way we normally think and act—nor should we. But there are moments when exactly such an attitude is called for. That’s what the letter to the Hebrews calls faith: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1 NIV). The Greek text contains two interesting nouns, which convey surprising and helpful insights into the biblical understanding of the true nature of faith.

Hypostasis, the first explanatory noun, means “basis/foundation,” but also “possession/realization.” No doubt, faith is the basis and foundation of all hope. Hope, in turn, may be defined as forward-looking faith. However, rather than just denoting the intellectual assent to some religious truth or even the firm conviction regarding some spiritual reality, faith also means that one actually possesses the object of one’s hope—if only by faith. Believing in Christ means to have eternal life already now. By faith, we claim what we have been promised: salvation from sin and resurrection from the dead. Thus, it can indeed be said that faith is the possession and realization of what we hope for. Elijah prayed and acted upon the basis of such faith.

Elengchos, the second noun that explains the meaning of living faith, means “being convicted of,” as well as surety/guaranty/evidence.” Here, too, the notion of conviction is supplemented and deepened by the idea of possessing some guaranty or evidence of what one hopes for. Again, this is “real” only by faith, not by any objective or incontrovertible proof. Still, believing is seeing, just as seeing is believing. Faith opens our sight and hearing to a reality not visible and audible to natural eyes and ears. Instead of propagating “blind” faith, the Scriptures call for a seeing and hearing faith. The story of Elisha in Dothan illustrates this point impressively (2 Kings 6:8-17). Similarly, Elijah “heard” the rainstorm long before there were even any clouds. And, according to Hebrews 11:27, Moses “persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (NIV).

But isn’t such a bold view of faith liable to self-deception and abuse by misguided people? Doesn’t it open the door to pious illusions and religious manipulation? And, above all, doesn’t it contradict our everyday experience—even in the life of the most faithful of believers? This is indeed the case—as the story of Elijah itself demonstrates. Just hours or days after his triumphant victory over King Ahab and the idolatrous Baal worshipers, the once-so-fearless prophet runs for his life, hides in the desert and wants only to die. No more miracles, no more power, no more assurance, no more vision, no more faith, no more hope…!

It is in this desperate situation that Elijah receives an overwhelming revelation of God’s presence. He is told: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11 NIV). If ever there is a need to feel the presence of God and be reassured of his tender love, it is when we feel alone, weak, and hopeless! But neither a mountain-tearing, rock-shattering storm (ever heard of such?), nor a powerful earthquake, nor a fire (remember the burning altar on mount Carmel!) brings lasting peace of mind to a despondent soul. It is only “a gentle whisper” or—as the Hebrew can also be rendered—“the voice of a gentle silence” (v. 14) that offers us the (re)assurance that God is here with us!

When Elijah’s servant told him “there is nothing” that would indicate an approaching rainstorm, Elijah sent him back six times to watch for a small cloud on the horizon, until it actually appeared. When there was virtually nothing anymore to indicate the divine presence, the prophet finally realized God’s nearness as never before. Upon hearing the “silent whisper”, he pulled his coat over his face. God was there! According to Allen E. Lewis, “Faith’s problem is not that God is so far from us as to be unknowable, but so close to us as to go unrecognized.” Can you feel his presence? Do you hear His voice? Do you see the Invisible?

When the final accord of Mendelssohn’s oratorio had faded away in the Marktkirche of Hanover last night, there was an unusually long moment of silence before the well-deserved applause. It was the greatest possible compliment to the performers and the sign that the message of the oratorio had been understood.

Rolf Pöhler teaches systematic theology at Friedensau Adventist University, in Friedensau, Germany.

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