Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 7 August 2011
1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Psalm 85:9-14; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33
Elijah is one of the flamboyant prophets of the Old Testament, perhaps best known for calling fire down from heaven in Yahweh’s name to consume a sacrifice on Mount Carmel after Baal’s prophets had failed to get an answer from their god. At this stage in the story, facing the ire of the Baal-worshipping queen of Israel, Jezebel, he has fled into the desert. After wandering for forty days and being miraculously fed, he comes to Horeb, also known as Sinai, the place where God appeared to Moses and God’s people with earthquake, wind and fire. At that time they received the Law including the Ten Commandments, the foundations upon which their faith was built. Jezebel’s vendetta against Elijah seems to have sparked a crisis for the prophet. He realizes that the victory on Mount Carmel, impressive though it was, is not going to result in a wholehearted return of God’s people to true worship. His journey to Horeb retraces the steps of the journey of God’s people. Perhaps he is hoping that by returning to the source, he can reconnect with the passion that had fuelled him in the recent past. At Horeb he experiences again all the phenomena which accompanied God’s earlier appearance there but, strangely, this time they do not herald the presence of God. God is in the silence that follows them. It is as if God is whispering to the prophet: “I have moved on. You want to go back to the way things were, but I want you to find me where I am now. And my presence is just as real and recognizable – the difference is you have to listen much more carefully or else you’ll miss it.”
In the psalm excerpt we declare: “I will listen to what God the Lord says.” That is easy enough to do when God’s words fit our expectations that have been shaped by our religious experience up to this point. It didn’t take great spiritual discernment to tremble in awe at the foot of Sinai when it was burning and shaking. It takes a much more attuned ear to hear the voice of silence. The Apostle Paul had heard in Jesus Christ this new thing that God was doing and responded wholeheartedly. It breaks his heart that others in his original community of faith have not heard it.
Following the still voice of God’s presence can be a lot like walking on water. So much easier to walk well-trodden routes that have the solidity of general acceptance. Jesus could do it because his life was saturated in prayer. He was attuned to God’s will, connected to God’s life, and so he could walk paths that drew the strongest condemnation from the experts in his religion. Peter could do it as long as he operated out of faith in Jesus and not fear of the surroundings. We can do it too if we listen carefully, overcome our doubt and walk toward the divine voice which calls “Come”.