Where is God in all of this?
Trinity 9 St James, Colwall, 9 August 2020
1 Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33
It’s over 6 months now since the world started to wake up to the seriousness of the risk from Covid-19. From watching the horrors of the disease and the privations of lock-down at a distance when it all began in the province of Wuhan, to similar scenes in Italy and then finally to our own shores, at times the threat from this virus has felt quite overwhelming, and shows no sign of subsiding. With many of the routines of our daily life taken from us or radically altered we may very well find ourselves like Elijah in the desert, or like the disciples in the boat on the stormy lake, wondering where is God in all of this and what is God doing.
We meet Elijah fleeing for his life after a dramatic showdown on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal. I’m sure you remember the story – under king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, many had turned to the worship of Baal. Elijah forces a confrontation during which the prophets of Baal call fruitlessly all day on their god to answer with fire. When it’s Elijah’s turn to call on the God of Israel, he builds a fire, surrounds and soaks it with water and prays to God who answers immediately with an all-consuming fire. It’s a triumph for this great man of faith and he seizes the moment to call for the prophets of Baal to be killed.
When the news reaches Jezebel, she is furious and swears to have Elijah killed also.
That’s when he flees far into the desert and sinks down in an exhausted depression, wishing that he could just die. But God has other plans for him and sends his angels to feed him and direct him on his way to mount Horeb where he finds a cave to spend the night in.
It’s there that God comes to find him: ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’
Elijah is full of self-pity: ‘I was acting for you Lord, when I destroyed the prophets of Baal, but look where it has landed me – all alone, and a death-threat on my head.’
I wonder if Elijah is expecting God to do something dramatic again, something that will resolve this crisis of faith.
God speaks: ‘ Go and stand on the mountain, Elijah: the Lord is about to pass by.’
Then follows drama and fireworks – earthquake, wind and fire, but God is in none of these displays of elemental power. God finally comes to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence, or the still small voice of calm as earlier translations have it. And in the silence, though Elijah is still feeling aggrieved, God reassures him that he is far from being the only believer left – there are 7000; that God still has some tasks left for him to do, including anointing his successor Elisha. And so Elijah goes forward, secure in the presence of God with him.
There are comparisons we can draw when we set this beside today’s gospel story. In the evening after that long day culminating in the feeding of the 5000,Jesus himself is still trying to find the time and space to grieve the death of his cousin John the Baptist so he has sent his disciples on ahead of him so that he can have some time alone in prayer. The disciples are still reeling from the experience of the previous day when they find themselves caught up in one of the storms that blow up without warning on the Sea of Galilee. Their fear only increases when they see a ghostly figure coming towards them across the water until they hear a voice they recognise: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Can this be Jesus trampling on the waves, when God alone is the one who has power over them. Who then is Jesus?
‘It is I’ - those words which announce the presence of God, the ‘I am’ God of Israel.
Peter is so caught up and emboldened by Jesus’ appearance with them that, encouraged by Jesus himself, he steps out of the boat to join him. But who can blame him when he feels the threat from the waves, even in the presence of Jesus?
Jesus, loving him, rescues him, of course, and the scene ends with the storm stilled, and Jesus in the boat with all of the disciples. Their only response can be to worship him: Jesus is truly Emmanuel, God with us.
We are being battered by the storms and waves of this virus and its consequences in so many different ways – physical and mental health and well-being, relationships with friends and family, economic loss, disappointments and broken dreams. None of us has been unaffected. Perhaps we look for God to intervene and act in a dramatic way, but hear only the sound of God’s silence. Perhaps we are willing, like Peter, to brave the storm and step into it in response to Jesus’ call, or maybe, like the other disciples, we remain faithfully where we are until Jesus comes to us in the boat and eases our fear and anxieties.
We may wish that God would wipe out the Covid virus and all that it has brought in its wake in a dramatic act of power. But that’s not the God way chooses to act. What God is doing in the current storms of the Covid pandemic is saying ‘Take heart, I am with you, do not be afraid.’
In the midst of these storms, pray that God’s presence may be revealed to us, as it was to Elijah and the disciples; that God’s voice may be heard in the silence and that God’s call may continue to empower us for loving and compassionate service in Jesus’ name.