Reverend Philip Stringer
1 Kings 19:9-18
LET US PRAY: We ask, O Lord, that the words which we hear this morning, and the worship which we offer, may bear fruit in our hearts, and be acceptable in your sight, our strength and our redeemer; AMEN
He had merely done what God had asked of him. But that was precisely what had gotten Elijah into trouble. Israel had been swept away with a lust for other gods. In particular, the priests of Baal had convinced the people to turn away from the Lord.
When a terrible draught struck the region, Elijah saw an opportunity to challenge the priests of Baal. So upon Mt. Carmel, the Lord’s power over Baal was shown in a great contest. The prophets of Baal were to make a sacrifice for Baal to consume. They summoned their god-- all day long, with shouts and cries, and even cutting themselves in a bloody plea to Baal-- but he did not appear. Of course he could NOT appear, Elijah knew, because he did not exist.
But then was the opportunity of the Lord. Elijah prepared his sacrifice, and then had it repeatedly drenched with water. And immediately as Elijah prayed, fire from heaven poured down from heaven, consuming the offering, the altar, and even the puddles of water around it. It was a fearfully powerful display. And then the Lord caused the clouds to gather, and rain gave relief to the drought. It was a great day of power and victory. Elijah was sure that things would be different from now on.
But Ahaz, the king, and his wife, Jezebel, were moved instead to gain revenge for the death of Baal’s prophets. The prophets of the Lord were hunted down and murdered, until Elijah was the only one to remain.
So Elijah ran away-- he ran to God-- to Mt. Horeb, and he hid in a cave on the Lord’s mountain. He had only done what God asked. But that was precisely what had gotten him into trouble. Elijah was confused-- indeed he felt betrayed. How could God allow this? Why didn’t God’s great display of force put an end to unfaithfulness and change the hearts of the people? He had only done what God had asked, and the result was the death of many good and faithful people, and his own life in danger. Elijah was filled with sadness. So he ran away to the Mt. of God.
And the Lord, speaking to him in this place, said, “what are you doing here?” Which is to say, “you do not belong here. You belong among the people to lead them back to me.” And then the Lord proceeded to explain to Elijah the ways of the Lord. “Go to the mouth of the cave and wait for the Lord to pass by.” The almighty-and-all-powerful God is about to show himself to Elijah. There is a great wind-- but Elijah recognizes that this is not the Lord. So also with an earthquake does he know that the Lord is not in it. And likewise with a great fire. But then comes a sound of sheer silence-- absolute nothing-ness. And here, Elijah knows-- here is God.
It is as if the Lord has said to Elijah, “I will not conquer the world with spectacular displays of power, or in well-timed rainstorms. I will do it quietly. I will not swoop in and squash my enemies. But I will send you, instead, as a regular, common person. And you will anoint some more people. It will be quiet and uninteresting to the world. But I will be working through them and accomplishing my will.”
God showed Elijah that what impresses the world is of little consequence in the end. It is, instead, in what the world measures as “nothing” that the almighty is really at work.
Our gospel text today, picks up the story of Jesus at a point of similar revelation. It was at the end of a busy and extraordinary day. Reeling at the death of John the Baptist, thousands of people had flocked to Jesus for answers and comfort. He had ministered to them and healed their sick; and at the end of the day he had fed them all with five small loaves and two fish. After everyone had eaten, 12 baskets were filled with the “leftovers.” The disciples were flabbergasted-- certainly things would be different from here on out.
Jesus ordered the disciples into a boat to go to the other side of the great lake. They went, but it turned out that where Jesus told them to go was a difficult place. The wind was against them. They were trapped in the middle of the lake, unable to make headway in the direction Jesus had sent them.
Now that would be a discouraging— perhaps even frightening— experience for any of us, but for the people of Jesus’ day it carried a particularly terrifying significance. For the people of ancient Palestine, the surface of the sea was a barrier that separated two realms. Beneath the surface of the water was the realm of Chaos— where there was no order. It was the realm where demons dwelt. In Genesis, we read that the Spirit of the LORD moved over the face of the chaos, and from it, God drew forth dry land and established order. But now, a seemingly evil spirit is holding them in the middle of the Sea of Galilee— a wind that is “against them.” To the disciples the danger was not merely physical; it was supernatural. Held by an evil wind, they believed that the realm of chaos and demons was swirling below them, eager to swallow them up!
And then there appeared a figure, standing upon the surface of this swirling nightmare, and they were utterly terrified. “Take heart, it is I,” said Jesus, “do not be afraid.”
Suspicious but hopeful, Peter wants to come to Jesus. He is like Elijah that way, leaving the task behind and wanting to step into the realm of God.
He does not belong there, of course, in the realm of God. And when he realizes this, he begins to sink— not merely into water; Peter is being overcome by cosmic forces greater than himself. Peter is not merely sinking— he is being devoured!
We do not belong in the realm of God. We are not strong enough to live there. Peter belongs in the boat-- like the rest of us. Like Elijah, he belongs in THIS world, even if it is not an easy place.
But here, dear friends, is good news: When Jesus is walking across the water, his destination is the boat! Our God is not one who’s might is revealed in great and crushing displays of destructive power. Our God is the one who brings peace and calm and quiet into our world. Jesus is coming to the boat, not because Jesus needs the safety of the boat, but because that is where his disciples are. He is coming to be with the disciples. Jesus brings Peter back to the boat, for this is where God AND Peter both belong. God is at home in this ordinary world, and that is what makes this world an extraordinary place.
With Jesus in the boat, the wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshipped him.” Certainly the ability of our God to walk on water and do wondrous things is worthy of praise. But the truly remarkable quality of God that is worthy of praise is the fact that he is not a God far off-- not a god walking on water-- but a god who is in the same boat as us. With you is where he chooses to be.
Long ago, God chose to come into our world-- not accompanied with wind, earthquakes and fire-- but in a tiny, helpless baby. And when that baby grew up, he did not command armies or overthrow governments. Instead, he conquered the world with love. Reflecting upon this, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote, “ Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I myself have founded great empires.... But Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day, millions would die for Him. Jesus Christ was more than a man.”
As a follower of Jesus, where God calls you to go is not an easy place, and what God calls you to do is not an easy task. In essence, God has called you to set yourselves against the way of the world-- and like a boat that it battered by wind and waves, it is a hard course to travel. Indeed, it may even seem as if all of the forces of evil might overwhelm you.
When Martin Luther faced a panel of judges (at the Diet of Worms) which sought to compel him to end his calls for reform, he was asked, “Where will you be, Martin Luther, when the princes of Germany, and all your friends and family forsake you?”
“Then, as now,” he calmly replied, “I will be where I have always been: in the hands of Almighty God.”
Letting go of fears and facing the challenge can be hard-- just ask Elijah. But it is in the very midst of weakness that we may find our hope and courage. For God has revealed weakness as God’s favorite place to be.
The Amazon River is the largest river in the world. The mouth is 90 miles across. There is enough water to exceed the combined flow of the Yangtze, Mississippi, and Nile Rivers. So much water comes from the Amazon that its currents can be detected 200 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
One irony of ancient navigation was that sailors sometimes died for lack of water, caught in windless waters of the South Atlantic. They were adrift, helpless, dying of thirst. Sometimes other ships from South America who knew the area would come alongside and call out, “What is your trouble?” And they would exclaim, “Can you spare us some water? Our sailors are dying of thirst!”
And from the other ship would come the cry, “Just lower your buckets. You are in the mouth of the mighty Amazon.”
In a world that is impressed by the spectacular, it is easy to overlook the quiet power of God. It flows like a mighty current of fresh water in an otherwise deadly sea. Quietly and unimpressively by the eyes of the world, God has come to be with us-- refreshing us with hope, courage, and strength. And it is God’s quiet and gentle presence that will carry us safely through.