Today’s readings speak to all of those of us who have had to deal with stormy times in their lives. Which is to say, I would guess, all of us. And so if we remember what’s going on with Elijah, I think we could identify with him today. Elijah has just come from soundly defeating all of the pagan “prophets” of Baal, which was very embarrassing to King Ahab and especially to Queen Jezebel, who vowed to take Elijah’s life in retaliation. So he has been hiding out in a cave, not for protection from inclement weather, but for protection from those who sought his life. In the midst of this, God asks Elijah why he is here. Elijah explains that the people of Israel have been unfaithful and have turned away from God, not listening to Elijah’s preaching, and they have put all the other legitimate prophets to death. Elijah alone is left. So clearly he would prefer to be left alone in the cave to have some rest from his enemies.
But the Lord doesn’t leave it at that. He tells him to go out to the entrance of the cave where the Lord will be passing by. So when he does that, Elijah experiences a few different things that could well have signified God’s presence: wind, an earthquake, and fire. These represent the many ways we tend to hope God will come to us. When we’re at the end of our rope and we are running for our lives in whatever crisis we can think of, we want God to come on the scene with a mighty act of power and make it all better. But sometimes all we get is a tiny, whispering sound. That’s what Elijah gets, and he knows without a doubt it is the Lord.
Many people ask me how they can know God’s will in the midst of a difficult situation. The answer always is that God will speak to our hearts. Not in some mighty act of power, but in a tiny, whispering sound. We have to be open to that, we have to be listening. And that’s the problem. Because sometimes we’re so caught up in running for our lives, that we miss the tiny whispering sound, we miss the presence of God.
Our Gospel makes that same point. Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you’ll recall from last week’s Gospel, and now he sends his disciples out in the boat while he goes off to pray. While they are at sea, a terrible storm rages and the wind and waves are tossing the little boat all over the place. The disciples, like Elijah, are afraid for their lives. In the midst of it all, they see Jesus walking on the water. Now they aren’t real sure that’s who it is, but I think for them it was a fairly safe bet. Peter speaks up and says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus gives the command and Peter gets out of the boat.
For a while, he does okay. He’s making progress, walking toward Jesus. But then he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking at the storm: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” Do you see that? While he’s looking at Jesus, he is able to walk toward him, but as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus in favor of looking at the storm, he sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks him, pulling Peter out of the water.
But we’re going to give Peter a break today. Let’s try a little prayer experiment. I want you to think about a crisis you’ve been in recently, or even one that’s still going on. It might be little or big, but bring that to mind. That crisis is the waves in the story. Now you get to be Peter. You’re on the boat, that safe refuge that is leading you to the place that Jesus has in mind for you. Only on the voyage, your crisis begins a storm that tosses you around so badly that you can’t even see your destination anymore, and you fear for your life. But you see Jesus on the water.
You call out to him and he bids you to come to him. You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot. So you get out of the boat, that safe refuge that gives you some comfort even in the storm, and you start to walk toward Jesus across the stormy sea. And you do okay for a while, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, or if there is any hope for your situation at all. You feel the wind pushing at you and notice that the waves of your crisis are a lot uglier than you thought they were. And you begin to sink into them, despairing that there is no hope for your situation. And Jesus reaches out his hand to you, pulling you up out of the stormy sea. The storm is still raging, but with Jesus’ help, you get back into the boat, and the waves calm down, and you continue the journey to the place where Jesus wants you to be.
Now we can beat ourselves up, us and Peter too, for having a lapse in faith that lands us in the waves. But think about the other eleven who never even got out of the boat. Because the worst failure is never even trying to come to Jesus. Preferring the comfort of the boat to making that uncertain leap of faith. Maybe the boat is a job you’re not meant to have, or staying away from school because you fear you might not do well, or not making the phone call to that distant loved one because you might be rejected. It’s a lot more comfortable staying where we are, but when we stay in the boat we never have the opportunity to come to Jesus. Because Jesus isn’t in the boat, he’s out there on the water.
When I was in my mid 30s, I was going through a time where I knew I needed a change in my life, because my spiritual life was pretty stagnant. But I was safe and comfortable in my boat: I had a good job, family and friends who are great, and participated in ministry at my church. But I knew the job I had wasn’t what I was meant to do forever. And then I read a book called If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. It was by an evangelical pastor, and obviously, it went into this Gospel reading in great detail. That’s when I knew that I was cowering in the boat. I had to get out and walk on the water. And that’s how I ended up in seminary, to make a long story short!
Jesus isn’t calling us to be perfect today. Only faithful. We will only be able to walk on the water with Jesus’ help. We may even need him to pull us up out of the waves once in a while. But we were not created for the boat, we were created to walk on water. And we’ll never be able to do that if we don’t get out of the boat.