I Kings 19:9-18
Elijah is a tired, scared, and dejected prophet. His mountain top experience at Carmel, and his slaughter of the prophets of Ba’al is over. The drought on the land brought on by an angry God has lifted. None of these miraculous works wins over the allegiance of the evil Jezebel. The vile queen demands Elijah’s head, and sends messengers to tell him that his death is certain. The mighty Elijah becomes afraid for his life. He is on the run. The God who did big miracles at every turn is no consolation for him. He becomes suicidal. An angel must force feed him. Hesitantly, under God’s direction, Elijah journey’s to mount Horeb (the mountain of the Lord’s presence) and takes up residence in a cave.
While in the cave God comes to Elijah with a question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah responds in defeat, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” God has mercy on Elijah, and tells Elijah that he will witness God passing by at the mouth of the cave. Elijah waits. A great wind, an earthquake, and a fire all come by, but God is not in any of them. This is a change of experience for Elijah, for in the past God did speak from the fire (c.f. 1 Kings 18:24). Finally there is the sound of sheer silence. At the sound of the silence Elijah receives the same question from God, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah offers the same response. Nothing has changed. Nothing at all.
The LORD gives Elijah a mission to anoint his successor. When Elijah finally meets his successor (a pericope out of the scope of our lectionary text) he anoints Elisha and says, “What have I done to you?” And when old Elijah says to young Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you” and Elisha responds, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit” Elijah offers the ominous, “you have asked a hard thing…”
The life of the prophet is a lonely and treacherous road filled with uncertainty and crises of faith. There is nothing easy about following God. And nothing has changed. Nothing at all.
Psalm 85 acts as an appropriate response to our Hebrew Bible lection because it comprises a prayer in the midst of crisis. The psalm begins with a recounting of God’s previous help (1-3), then moves to a cry for help in the present crisis (4-7), and ends with words of assurance (8-13). The latter part of Psalm 85 is our focus.
The poetry of Psalm 85’s words of assurance is unrivaled. The psalmist asserts that God will bring about a time when “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” The description of life in this new time is more than an escape from death. It is a description of the abundant life, a life filled with good things, a life worth living. The people will once again be in full relationship with God, and God as part of the community, will bring about a sense of well being that only God can bring about.
The response to crisis modeled in Psalm 85 is instructive. The psalmist remembers God’s saving work in the past, describes the difficulty of the present, and looks with hope toward the future. This is crisis-liturgy for the people of God.
Our Epistle lection emphasizes that the salvation offered by God is open for all (Jew and Gentile alike). As he often does, Paul presents a montage of scripture references from the Old Testament to support his assertions: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame”, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” etc. Salvation is the attainment of the righteousness available through Jesus Christ. This is different than the righteousness that comes through the law. The righteousness available through Christ comes by the word that has come near in a very special way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (even nearer than the words of the Law that came to Moses).
We have all heard sermons on this pericope that focus first on Peter’s initial bravery in taking a step of the bow of the boat into the angry waves, and second on Peter’s failure to maintain focus on Jesus and traverse the stormy sea. The application of said sermons is something like ‘when taking great leaps of faith make sure you keep your eyes focused on Jesus.’ Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman offers a different take on Peter’s actions and questions the appropriateness of Peter leaving the boat to begin with. You can find Mark’s thought provoking work here.
Hoffman challenges us with the question, “Why did Jesus and the Disciples cross the sea?” The answer–to get to the other side (and minister to the people!) The boat was the means to an end. The boat was the place of gathering for the disciples of Jesus as they braved the testy waters in order to bring the gospel to the world. The boat was the church! Mark concludes, “Leave walking on the water to Jesus. That ship which is the church is where we want to be, and it can provide the way for us to get to other places.” To often one sees Jesus at a distance and leaves the church behind in order to achieve a more mystical union, or a more cherished position, or because they believe they are immune to the waves and thus no longer in need of the community. For Peter this hubris was almost deadly.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the vocation of the Prophet whose lifeline is the word of the Lord. What does it mean to be faced with sheer silence? Have you had seasons of silence? Are you presently in one? Does the crisis-liturgy of Psalm 85 resonate as your needed response to God? How hard is it to call on the name of the Lord and receive salvation when God is not showing God’s-self in the wind, quake, and fire? Do you look out at the raging seas and see only a ghost far off, and do you long for it to come nearer? Look around you, you are in the safe presence of the church, and you are heading somewhere, and the phantom of the deep is none other than Christ, who is walking toward you ready to calm the sea.