1 Kings 19:9-18, Matthew 14:22-33
My original plan was to talk about this passage in light of our discernment process with the Brethren Nutrition Program. I’ve moved away from that specific focus over the course of the last couple of weeks, but my conclusion still applies to that process and to the discussion we will be having later and to the decisions that will be made in the days and weeks to come.
In our reading from 1 Kings, God speaks to Elijah at a time when Elijah is very discouraged. Elijah himself kind of summed it all up twice in his dialogue with God. It’s clear that Elijah is discouraged. And he has good reason to be.
1 Kings 18 is the famous contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal in front of the sinful King Ahab. I won’t go into detail, but the short version is that the 450 prophets of Baal prayed to Baal for a miracle, but nothing happened. Then Elijah prayed to God for a miracle under more difficult circumstances, and the miracle occurred. Elijah called out to everyone who had seen the miracle to seize the prophets of Baal and kill them, and that’s what happened.
The part of chapter 19 that we didn’t read this morning starts with King Ahab reporting to his infamous Queen, Jezebel. Ahab tells Jezebel what happened at the contest, and Jezebel sends a message to Elijah. The message says, more or less, “May the gods strike me dead if by tomorrow you aren’t as dead as all those prophets of Baal.” So Elijah, reasonably enough, runs. God comes to him a time or two along the way, and Elijah runs for over 40 days and 40 nights until he comes to Mount Horeb, where he hides in a cave and goes to sleep. That’s where we are when our reading from 1 Kings begins.
I confess that I’m discouraged this morning. I was discouraged to hear threats of nuclear war made against North Korea if North Korea did so much as threaten the United States. There are people who will tell you that the President did not threaten nuclear war, but they are wrong. They are neither reading carefully, nor thinking carefully about what was said. I was discouraged to hear a pastor endorse those threats, and explicitly say that the United States should not be run by Biblical or Christian principles, but by the wisdom of the world. I was discouraged to hear the President say that invading Venezuela was something that he considered an option. I was discouraged by the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville. I was discouraged by the death of one of the counter-protesters. I was more discouraged to learn that death was the result of a deliberate act by one of the protesters. I was discouraged to learn of the deaths of two Virginia State Police officers in a helicopter crash.
That’s before I even start to consider my own life. Not that there’s anything in particular going on in my life that discourages me, but our lives always have ups and downs. We always have moments of joy and moments of sadness, moments of hope and moments of despair. Hopefully there are more of the former than the latter, and hopefully the balance between the two in which we live each day favors joy and hope, but there’s no denying that there are things that happen personally, privately that could discourage us almost every day. And all of that is before we begin to consider the lives of our friends and families.
We know from scripture that God watches us. We know that God pays attention to what we do. We know that God watches and sees the small things, that God’s eye is on the sparrow, and that we are worth more than many sparrows. That’s in Luke 12, verses 6 and 7. We also know that God watches and sees the big things, not just big events but big things that are an accumulation of small events. Genesis 6:11 says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” This is just before God calls Noah to build the ark and prepare for the flood. The earth, a big thing, is filled with violence. Each act of violence may in itself be a small thing, but a small sin upon a small sin upon a small sin ends up leading to a world filled with sin. And even in the midst of a world filled with sin, God is paying attention to the small details enough to find the one man who remains righteous.
I imagine God watching us and saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing to each other? What are you doing to my creation?” God was watching Elijah, and probably said precisely that to himself. So God comes to Elijah and asks the question, “What are you doing here?”
God asked the question a couple of times. I don’t know how he asks it. I don’t know if he says it in an exasperated tone, or an inquisitive way, or if he says it sarcastically. I don’t know where God puts the emphasis. There’s a big difference between “What are YOU doing here?” and “What are you doing HERE?” The next time you need a sermon idea, by the way, playing around with putting the emphasis on that question in different places and what it might mean for is an idea worth considering. It even makes for a three point sermon!
Elijah is directed to a place to wait for God to pass by, and he obeys. A wind comes, and an earthquake comes, and a fire comes, but God is not in those things. Then comes a sound of sheer silence, and Elijah listens, and God is in the sheer silence.
How do you listen to silence? Let’s try it for just 15 seconds or so. (wait 15 seconds) Did any of you hear silence? Me either. I heard a few different things, among them the sound of my own breathing. I have a ringing in my ears that I hear all the time unless there is something louder that drowns it out or that makes me turn my attention elsewhere. I literally never hear silence, if such a thing is even possible.
It’s possible for God, though, which means it’s possible for Elijah. Elijah hears God because he obeys God, and Elijah finds encouragement because he obeys God, and Elijah later concludes his ministry and is lifted up into heaven in a fiery chariot because he obeys God.
Sometimes the lesson that people take from this passage is to look for God in the silence, to look for the still, small voice. That’s not a bad lesson. We should look for God in small things. That doesn’t mean, though, that God doesn’t speak through big things too, or that God can’t shout. God spoke through a burning bush. God spoke through a pillar of fire. God spoke by turning over the tables in the synagogue. God speaks through big things and through small things, through loud voices and quiet voices. The first key thing is to always be listening, and the second key thing is to obey when you hear.
Our reading from Matthew is pretty straightforward as far as events go. The disciples are sailing back while Jesus stays behind to pray. The disciples don’t make much progress, because there’s a storm and the wind is against them. The next morning Jesus walks across the water to catch up with the disciples. The disciples are terrified, and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus reassures them that no, it isn’t a ghost, it’s really him. It’s really Jesus.
Does anyone here know who Warner Sallman is? Sallman was an artist from Chicago, and his paintings are among the most famous and the most popular of the 20th century. I printed out a couple of his paintings and brought them along. (note to readers: if you Google “Warner Sallman” you will see a wide variety of his paintings under “images.”) My parents gave me a small desk-sized print of the one with the boy at the ship’s wheel. Sallman isn’t famous by name, but his paintings are quite well known. Some people mock Sallman but I don’t want to do that. He painted out of devotion to and faith in God. He tried to and succeeded in bringing comfort and inspiration to millions of people. I can’t mock that. And if his blue-eyed, occasionally very white looking Jesus doesn’t match the Jesus of history who was Middle Eastern and likely much darker, well as the old song says, “The children in each different place, will see the baby Jesus’ face, like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace.”
I mention Sallman because I think his Jesus is the Jesus that a lot of people still picture when they think of him. That probably started to change with people about my age, but it’s still a Jesus that is very common and very easy to find in homes and in churches all over. When I was growing up we had a couple of Sallman pictures of Jesus in our church basement. This Jesus does not look like a Jesus to me who gets angry, or who talks loudly, or who becomes animated, or that laughs out loud, or anything like that. This looks like a Jesus of the still, small voice. This looks like a Jesus who said, (speaking mildly) “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
Maybe Jesus talked like that sometimes, but Jesus didn’t talk like that here. Jesus had to be loud here. There was a raging storm, with howling winds, and waves breaking against the boat. The disciples, some of them experienced boatmen, professional fishermen, were terrified by the storm. Jesus probably had to be more like an earthquake or something to be heard over the storm. (shouting) “Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!”
Peter was listening. Peter heard Jesus, but didn’t’ quite believe what he was seeing and hearing, so Peter says, “If it’s you, tell me to walk over there on the water!” And Jesus tells him to do so, and Peter does.
Everything is fine, and Peter is walking right along on the water until Peter gets distracted by the storm. Everything is fine as long as Peter trusts Jesus. Everything is fine until Peter becomes afraid. Then Peter starts to sink, and Jesus has to rescue him.
It is easy to be frightened. It is easy to be distracted. It is easy to be discouraged. It is easy to say that the answer is to trust Jesus, to keep our eyes on Jesus, to have faith in Jesus, to obey Jesus. It’s easy to say that but hard to know exactly how to do it.
But we have to do it. We have to do it because it’s the foundation of everything else that we try to do in our lives. We need to confess and repent. Racism is real. It’s a historical fact, and it’s a fact today in systems, in institutions, and in face-to-face relationships. All of us have benefited in some way from the historical practice of racism. All of us participate in some way in systemic and institutional racism. I know that’s not what we’re trying to do, but it’s the reality. All of us are a part of the problem in one way or another, and it takes trust and faith in Jesus for us to take steps towards finding healing and hope and reconciliation.
Faith Kelley posted something on Facebook last night that I am sharing with her permission. “Not even sure how to process everything today, but when George and I pray before he goes to bed I always ask God to help us love one another better tomorrow. That’s not enough but I think I’m on about a 2 year old level right now and so will have to do.”
I liked that. I think that we could do a lot worse than that. Go back to basics. What are the very basics of our faith?
Well, what are the two greatest commandments? To love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s from Matthew 22:26-40. What is the reason why Jesus came to earth? That’s John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” What’s one of the very first songs those of us who attended church as children probably learned? If you know it you’re welcome to sing it with me.
“Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me. Yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”
What’s the common thread in all of that? That’s right – love. God is Holy love. Help us love one another better tomorrow is about the best I can do too. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t know specifically what that will mean. I don’t know any of those things. All that I can hope is that when God asks me what I am doing here, that my actions answer for me with the word “love.” Amen.