I think that today’s readings are readings that call us to hope. The hope that we have is the presence of our God, even when things are falling apart – even when the wind and the rain and the earthquakes and fire threaten us, God is there. I thought of that a lot this week. A former parishioner’s house burned down after it was struck by lightening in one of the freakish storms we’ve been having. A parishioner’s brother died saving a young man from drowning. I visited one of my own relatives in the hospital today, and she was so agitated, so afraid she might die. Even the most faithful among us has to ask, where is God in all this?
I think Elijah can relate to us when we’re feeling this way. The back story on our first reading is that 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 God says that he will be “passing by” which in biblical language means that God will be doing a “God thing.” God will be revealing his presence. And so we have the story: there is a mighty wind, an earthquake and even fire. But Elijah only recognizes the Lord’s presence in the tiny whispering sound. The text says that the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. I’m not sure I agree with that. I do think that God is with us even in calamity, but wherever we experience his presence is where he is for us. For Elijah, he needed the peace of the tiny whisper. But we might need reassurance in the earthquake or the fire.
Our gospel reading today I think proves that God is where we need him. Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you may remember from last week’s gospel. After that, he takes some time alone to pray, and is so filled with the Spirit that he actually walks on water. Again, here is Jesus “passing by” the disciples on the boat. He reassures them that it is him, and Peter, the impetuous one, immediately asks if he can come out and walk on the water too. Jesus says, “come.”
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.
So we might be tempted to criticize Peter for his lack of faith. But we should remember that he, at least, had enough faith to get out of the boat. The other eleven did not. He got out of the boat because that’s where Jesus was – out there on the water. Was Jesus present for him when the wind and the waves threatened to take his life? Absolutely. God is present for us when we are in the middle of the storm.
Let’s try a little prayer experiment. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes, but you have to promise not to fall asleep! 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 calls back for 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, having made just a little bit of progress, confident that he is with you even in the storm.
Whether we are experiencing wind, waves, earthquakes or fire, we can be confident that our Lord is with us. We might still have to experience all those things, but we can go through them with hope that comes from the presence of our God, who is with us in our darkest times, whispering to us, or calling out to us from the water.