There are biblical texts that are so familiar to me that I feel like I know them word for word, at least in the NRSV version. That’s partly because I taught Intro to the Bible at least 20 times over the years. It’s also because I’ve been preaching regularly for fifteen years now, which means that I’ve been through the three-year lectionary cycle 5 times. But with parents who took their children to church at least three times a week while I was growing up, my history with these stories goes back much further—some of them seem as though they have entered the very marrow of my bones.
That’s certainly true of the story of Jesus walking on the water. It’s drama and special effects made it a standard of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. It’s also true of the story from I Kings—Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb. I know I’ve got a sermon on it somewhere in my files but curiously I couldn’t find it—which means I’ve never preached this text at Grace.
It’s a story full of emotion and theological significance. Elijah, the great prophet of Israel has fled to this place, Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. He had just won a contest with the prophets of Baal, and should have been basking in victory and in God’s victory over the Canaanite deity. Instead, King Ahab put a bounty on his head and Elijah had to flee the kingdom. Fearing for his life and despondent about his failure to convert king and people, Elijah came here as the text says, to die.
But God had other plans. What happens next is remarkable. If you were to go back and look at Exodus 19, which is the story of the Israelites’ arrival at Mt. Sinai after fleeing the Egyptians, you would read about God’s appearance to them. There was an earthquake, a mighty wind, a fire. And then God spoke.
Here, centuries later, at the same place, God tells Elijah to come out of the cave so that he can pass by. The text then reads: “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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
The contrast couldn’t be more clear. In the first instance God appeared to Moses and the Israelites in earthquake, wind, and fire. Now God appears to Elijah after all of the special effects were over, as if to say that God is present not in the powers of nature, but in the power of words and silence. What comes next is a recommissioning of Elijah and an anointing, of him, the kings who will come after Ahab, and of Elisha, Elijah’s successor.
There are significant parallels here with the gospel story. It occurs immediately after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand-remember that the immediate context for that was Jesus receiving news that John the Baptist had been beheaded and his desire to go to a deserted place. Thwarted by the crowds, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead, while he went up the mountain to pray.
The disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee and are caught up in a storm. They struggle all night. When morning comes, they see Jesus on the water, walking toward them. Thinking they are seeing a ghost, they become frightened (first mention of this emotion in the story.” Jesus greets them with words that are common in biblical encounters of divine and human: “Be not afraid.”
But then comes an even more dramatic and significant dialogue. Peter enters the water, begins to sink, and cries out, “Save me!” Jesus reached out his hand, caught him, and said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they arrived back in the boat, the storm ended, and the disciples worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
These two stories speak powerfully to our situation. How many of us feel like we are drowning in a storm-tossed sea, that we’ve been in this mess forever and there seems to be no way out? How many of us are calling out to Jesus, “Save me!” right now? How many of us are doubting whether he is reaching out to take hold of us?
How many of us have been speaking truth to power? Advocating for justice and equality, crying out against corruption, and intolerance, and cruelty? How many of us are ready to give up as we watch the forces of evil grow and crush those who are working against injustice and oppression? How many of us want to flee out into the wilderness and die as Elijah planned?
Despair, fear, drowning. Those are all obvious responses to our situation. There seems to be no way out and the crises seem to heap up one on another with no end in sight.
Still, God came to Elijah in the wilderness, when he was at his weakest and deep in despair. God came to him, spoke to him, and empowered him to continue his work.
As Peter was drowning, he called out “Save me!” and Jesus reached out his hand and took him.
We can’t do it on our own. We should be at the end of our rope, sapped of energy and hope. We should be down in despair. But even here, when things look most bleak, when the storm rages most furiously, God is here.
Can we see him? Can we hear him? After earthquake, wind, and fire, after the sound of sheer silence, can we hear God speaking to us? In the midst of the storm, as we feel ourselves drowning, can we see Jesus’ hand reaching out to us, to save us?
God comes to us, in the middle of life, in the middle of our experiences, the suffering of the world, injustice and oppression. God comes to us, offering us grace, mercy, and love, to restore us and strengthen us, and to prepare us for the journey ahead. May we feel God’s healing and comforting power in our lives and may we respond in faith to God’s call to us to hope and to work for justice and peace.