God can seem elusive, so elusive that some of the greatest saints have found themselves feeling completely bereft of his presence, often for long periods of time. On the other hand, God can choose to be present, perhaps too present for comfort at times!
The two Bible passages today concern God choosing to show himself to his followers in the midst of demonstrations of the power of the created world.
Elijah had experienced God’s power in a most amazing way. It’s one of my favourite stories in the Bible. He and the prophets of Baal had had a contest to see which god was the true one. Despite spending much of the day pleading with Baal to act, his prophets saw no evidence of his presence. Elijah simply prayed to God once and the fire came from heaven and consumed his offering. The people fell on their faces and worshipped, acknowledging, ‘The Lord, he is God’. All the prophets of Baal were slaughtered. Then the drought declared by Elijah ended and the rain came as he had predicted. It’s hard to believe that anyone could see more evidence of God’s power and dependability. Elijah had been used mightily by God.
Yet, just before the passage we have read today from the first book of Kings, we find that Elijah had completely given up on life. Jezebel wanted him dead. In response Elijah went into the wilderness, sat under a broom tree and asked to die. Fortunately God didn’t give up on Elijah, but sent food and drink to him so that he could then travel the forty days to Mount Horeb, where our reading finds him. There God found Elijah and listened to his troubles. Despite Elijah’s lack of faith in God’s protection from Jezebel, God still chose to respond to Elijah’s needs by appearing to him. He demonstrated his power in the wind, an earthquake and then a fire. Then God revealed his presence in ‘a sound of sheer silence’ or ‘a low whisper’ or ‘a still, small voice’ and gently restored Elijah’s mission, reassuring him that all was not lost. God was still in charge, the mission would continue, seven thousand would remain as a faithful remnant in Israel.
In the Gospel we meet the disciples, struggling to get to land in their boat caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. They were surrounded by the powerful forces of nature, wind and waves, much as Elijah had seen God’s power in the wind, earthquake and fire. They knew themselves to be small and powerless in comparison. As if they didn’t have troubles enough, suddenly the disciples saw a ghost!
When Mark tells this story, he states that Jesus intended to ‘pass by’, the same term God used to Elijah to explain that he was going to demonstrate his presence. From this we can work out that Jesus’ appearance in the midst of the storm was a theophany, a time when God chose to show himself. As with the creation miracle we read last week about the feeding of the 5000, Jesus was revealing that he and God are one. As we read in Job 9:8: “He stretches out the heavens by himself and walks on the waves of the sea.” Walking on water is something only God can do.
It was Peter who seemed to recover first in response to hearing Jesus’ voice. He was prepared to trust that Jesus could allow him too to walk on water. I love Peter! He just goes straight at things without hesitation. He was prepared to get out of the boat and risk all on a word from Jesus. And it worked! He walked on water – for a while. But then he remembered that he was in the middle of the stormy sea, with waves and high winds. He took his eyes off Jesus and concentrated on the threats of wind and waves. He began to sink. Despite his lack of faith, Jesus reached down his hand and rescued Peter, bringing him safely to the boat. The storm was calm and, like the Israelites in Elijah’s time, the disciples worshipped, recognising the presence of God: ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Elijah had seen God work in great power, shutting up the heavens and opening them again, raining fire down from heaven to burn up the sacrifice. And yet, in the face of the threat from Jezebel, all he wanted to do was curl up and die. Peter had seen five loaves and two fish feed 5000 men plus women and children. He’d watched as Jesus walked across the sea. He was walking on the sea himself, something no other human being had done. And yet, when he remembered the threat from the storm, he was overwhelmed with fear and sank.
How did God respond to these men? Elijah found his life strengthened by basic things, bread and water. Then God revealed himself in power, and spoke to him in quiet or maybe even in silence, renewing his mission. Peter was given Jesus’ hand so that he wouldn’t die by drowning. He witnessed the power of Jesus to still the storm and he was given a chance to worship once again.
God knows what we are like; he understands our weaknesses and comes to us despite them. I really like the Common Worship (Church of England) translation of Psalm 103:13-14 ‘As a father has compassion on his children, so is the Lord merciful towards those who fear him. For he knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.’ He doesn’t expect us to be like a rock. He is the rock. We are but dust; fallible, weak human beings. But he doesn’t despise us because of that and nor should we despise ourselves.
I’m sure some of you are going through difficult and painful times right now. You may have prayed for help, healing, relief, but it seems not to have come. Like Elijah and Peter, the things of the world that are threatening you and battering you may seem a great deal more real and powerful than God right now. Even if you can look back and remember wonderful things God has done in the past, it may be very hard to hang on to them at the moment. God is near and I’m convinced that he will speak to you through a song, a scripture verse, the love of a friend, the beauty of nature. Once more his still, small voice will be louder than all the storms of life, and calm will be restored.
As St Jerome said: ‘You command, and immediately the waters are solid.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor