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Readings: 8th Sunday after Trinity

01 August 2014


Proper 14: 1 Kings 19.9-18; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33

Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech you to direct, sanctify and govern both our hearts and bodies in the ways of your laws and the works of your commandments; that through your most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in body and soul; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

"WHAT are you doing here, Elijah?" is one of the most profound and penetrating questions in the Old Testament, perhaps matched only by the angel's question to the distressed and fleeing Hagar: "Where have you come from, and where are you going to?" (Genesis 16.8). Ponder that, and there is no need for the rest of this column.

Elijah appears to be trying to go back in the footsteps of Moses, to recreate the prophet's experience at Mount Sinai (Horeb) of thunder, lightning, thick cloud, earthquake, and noise like a trumpet - all associated at one time or another with God's mysterious presence. Elijah wanted the reassurance of a similar display of God's tremendous power.

So God asked what he was up to, and Elijah's answer was a mixture of utter fidelity to God, tinged with despair, if not self-pity. Not answering the complaints, God sent him to face all the destructive power that Moses faced and that Elijah apparently wanted.

It was terrifying: he started by standing on the mountain, but ended deep in a cave. And then there was a sound of sheer silence, noiselessness: a silence so intense that you could hear it - the exact antithesis of the commotion.

And then the repeated, persistent question: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" The silence that is God's presence confronts us with uncomfortable questions about ourselves. Only once we face our situation can God meet us where we are.

Jesus also faced pressure. From the way the Gospel-writers tell the story, we know that John's execution was a turning-point in Jesus's ministry, as he began to face his own death. Like Elijah, he tried to get away from people into lonely places with God.

The disciples, meanwhile, were on familiar territory, the Sea of Galilee, when suddenly life lurched out of control. A storm blew up, and they, hardened sailors, feared for their lives. Jesus did not come to them as soon as the storm appeared, but kept praying. Then, in the dim light of early morning, he walked towards them on the water, and identified himself as God by saying "It is I;" "I Am": the name of God.

The water responded to his presence by bearing his weight; the storm subsided. Like his feeding of the crowd from a few loaves and fishes the day before, this was another foretaste of the healing of the relationship between humans and creation which the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus brought about.

Peter, in a burst of impetuous, perhaps incredulous, bravery, responded: "If it is you, tell me to come to you." And Jesus did, and Peter did, and it was all brilliant -until he looked at the waves around him, and started to sink. Then Jesus rescued him, got into the boat, and the storm ceased. We have to admire Peter's boldness rather than criticise his lack of faith. Which of us would have dared to put a foot over the side of the boat?

God, in Jesus Christ, came to him. God comes to us in the midst of our distress - in the midst of whatever we fear is out of control and threatening to us, perhaps to our very survival. Yet God does not always make everything right immediately. Elijah's story reminds us that we cannot dictate terms to God, or expect him to do an automatic repeat performance of something that he has done for someone else.

Instead, after experiencing the absence of God, despite the power of the natural events that, for others, signalled the presence of God, Elijah had to face sheer silence. Perhaps that is what he needed most of all.

Similarly, God did not spare Jesus the anguish of John's death. So Jesus, having fed the people, and, still distressed by the news of John's brutal execution, deliberately took time to be with God; Matthew is mute on the subject of his prayer.

These stories and the collect tell us that God does not abandon us in our distress, but meets us in completely unexpected ways. For me, it can be summed up in the words of Professor Leander Keck, who taught me New Testament when I was training for ordination: God is reliable, but never predictable.


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