Reading and Sermon preached by Revd Karen Charman on The Ninth Sunday After Trinity, 9th August 2020 via Zoom
1 Kings 19.9-18 – Elijah meets God at Horeb
9 At that place Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10 He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
11 He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
4 He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ 15 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
A prophet…a man of God… ealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. An obedient servant. His vocation…his dedication to serve the Lord his God…has taken him on many journeys. He has seen many things. He has heard the word of the Lord, and heeded his call, on many occasions…has undertaken many missions.
He has seen God dry up wadis and seal up the skies, so that neither rain nor dew might fall upon the land. He has been fed by ravens, at God’s command. He has felt the power of God flowing through his veins, as the Lord answered his prayer and brought the widow’s son back to life.
He has stood defiantly before the King, and has killed the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, with his sword.
He has fled for his life from the vengeful wrath of Jezebel and, after a forty-day journey, has come to Horeb, the Mountain of God.
Weary, dejected and alone, fearful, and aggrieved that his years of dedicated service to the Lord appear to have brought no reward, but only danger, he brings his many grievances to God.
God tells him to leave the sanctuary of his cave, and to stand on the mountain. The prophet obeys. He stands on a narrow ledge of rock outside the cave.
He feels a gentle, cooling breeze on his cheek…his hair begins to blow with the gentle wind…his cloak begins to flap. As the wind increases, he stretches out a hand to steady himself…then presses himself against the side of the cliff. The wind is howling now and, with a mighty boom, a split appears in the mountain top. Great stones and mighty boulders crash down the mountain-side and fall into the valley below.
The earth starts to tremble, and great cracks appear in the ground.
A flash of lightning tears the sky apart, and a nearby tree bursts into flame.
The prophet feels the heat on his cheeks, chokes as the acrid smell of burning threatens to overwhelm him…covers his face with his hands to protect his eyes from the searing heat…staggers and almost falls.
Terrified, he flees back into the cave, and cowers there, waiting for the storm and the fire to pass by.
And then, as suddenly as it arrived, it is gone. There is no sound. No crackling and hissing flames. No rumbling. No crashing of stones. No howling wind. Nothing.
Only a sound of sheer silence…and the growing awareness of God’s loving presence…and the conviction that all shall be well.
Fast-forward almost 900 years, and the scene changes to another mountain-side. This time, no wind. No earthquake. No fire. Just a man, kneeling in prayer. A stillness…a silence…as God and man commune.
The camera tilts and pans, and we see a lake below. Above the lake, towards the centre, clouds slowly gather and – off camera – the man seems to sense the impending storm and slowly gets to his feet. Still communing with his Father, in that natural contemplation that needs no words, he sets his face towards the sea below, and makes his way down the mountain.
Far below, in the centre of the lake, a boat begins to bob and then roll, as the waves swell. The disciples battle to tighten the sail and to pull it down; and others begin to bail out water, as the waves batter against the sides of the boat, and begin to spill over the bow.
The sky darkens, as night falls, and the disciples give up their attempts to reach land, and ready themselves for a long night ahead. They share stories, and reflect upon the events of the previous day, as they wait for dawn to break.
And then, as the sky begins to lighten, a strange shape emerges from the darkness and appears to hover over the shimmering surface of the sea.
The disciples cry out in fear, and terror seizes them, as they wonder what ghost, demon, or malevolent being this might be, moving inexorably towards them.
But immediately a voice speaks commandingly and clearly over the howl of the wind, the beating of the waves against the boat, and the terrified cries and gasps of the disciples, “Take heart, I am; do not be afraid.”
Words of revelation, the divine name, echoes of Scripture, and the unmistakable voice of the Teacher, their Lord.
Peter responds intuitively, overcoming his fears and, when Jesus says, “Come,” he steps out of the boat and, with his eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, walks on the water. One step … two … three … four. He feels a breath of wind, tousling his hair and – taking his eyes off Jesus – he looks down at his feet and sees the wine-dark sea … the domain of darkness and chaos, and wild, untameable serpents and monsters. Fear and doubt assail him, and he begins to sink.
Despite his fear, Peter trusts in Jesus and cries out, “Lord, save me!” And immediately, his cry is heard and his prayer answered. In one swift movement, Jesus reaches out and catches him and, with just the hint of a laugh, asks, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” before leading him back to the boat.
As they embark, the wind ceases, and there is a moment of complete calm before the disciples proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, and bow down to worship him.
I wonder, what can we learn from these three episodes? What’s their significance for us, today?
Last week, in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, we reflected on the compassion of Jesus.
As I’m sure you’re all aware, our Diocese Common Vision is a call to be more Christ-like: contemplative, compassionate and courageous, for the sake of God’s world.
If last week’s readings were about compassion, then this week’s are, perhaps, a call to contemplation and courage.
Although Elijah perhaps didn’t set out to practise contemplative prayer, he obeyed God’s call to go to Horeb, the Mount of God – a place of divine encounter – and there, in the solitude of a mountain cave, he experienced both God’s absence (in the wind, earthquake and fire) and – in the sound of sheer silence – his awesome presence.
Our Gospel reading offers a clearer example and pattern of contemplative prayer. Exhausted, no doubt, from the feeding of the 5,000, and from the compassionate healing ministry which preceded that miracle, Jesus goes up the mountain by himself to pray.
Whereas Elijah’s solitude was a result of his fearful flight from Jezebel and her wrath, Jesus deliberately dismisses his disciples and the crowds, so that he can spend some time alone. Knowing that mountains are often “thin places” – places of divine encounter and sacred space – Jesus goes up the mountain by himself to pray. In this reading – and often in the Gospels – we see a pattern of Jesus exercising compassionate care: ministering to others, and then seeking time alone with God to rest and recharge. And that time of contemplative prayer, after healing and feeding the demanding crowds, then equips Jesus, and gives him the strength to perform further miracles – walking on water and stilling the wind.
If Jesus is an exemplar of contemplative prayer, then Peter is perhaps an exemplar of courage; and a reminder that, if we take that first step of faith of responding to God’s call and stepping out of the boat, Jesus won’t abandon us, even when our faith or courage fails.
We have no guarantees that our journey as a disciple will be easy – troubled waters and storms will threaten to overwhelm us all at times, but a little faith and a little courage will help us on our way.
Stepping out of the boat might be rather risky. It might be rather frightening. But it could also be rather exciting for, when we trust in Jesus and step out of the boat, he’ll not let us sink, but will rescue us when we cry out for help.
In recent months, the coronavirus has given us many opportunities to exercise compassion.
Oasis and our Julian Group Meetings, and the re-opening of our churches for private prayer, provide opportunities for us to be more contemplative.
I wonder where, and how God is calling us – as a Benefice and as individuals – to be more courageous? What – or where – are the boats we cling to? What, or where, is the wine-dark sea, with its sea-serpents and monsters which we fear to face?
Where is God calling us…calling you… to step out in faith, and with courage, today?
And where are the troubled waters, and stormy seas, that you’ll need his help to cross?
In Jesus’ name.