When the scene of our lesson today from 1 Kings opens up, we might expect to find the prophet Elijah - a prophet being one called by God to turn the people back towards God – at the head of a parade or at least at a victory feast. After all, Elijah is fresh off a major success in his role as prophet. Elijah has gone into the midst of the Israelites, who had turned away from God to worship the false gods of Baal, and he has challenged the priests of Baal to a test of power and won, and won big time as God helped Elijah to call down fire so strong that his sacrifice drenched in water on the altar is completely consumed, along with all of the water that had run down all around the altar. And the priests of Baal are cast out and the people are awestruck.
Yet, after the people are initially awestruck and amazed by God’s show of power through Elijah, they are now chasing Elijah to take away his life, to kill him. It turns out that the people liked their false gods; we like our false gods – our stuff and all of the important, busy tasks and social media and all the other endless ways we find to distract ourselves from worshiping and devoting our lives and thoughts, feelings, and actions from the one true and righteous and holy God.
That’s why we find Elijah hiding in a cave, not at a feast or parade. Elijah is regrouping. And God – “the word of Lord” it says in the text - shows up to Elijah, asking him what he is doing. And Elijah says, “God, I did what you told me to and it worked, but now everyone is trying to kill me.” Elijah has a bit of, you know, appropriate prophet outrage at having done what he was told to do and then not having it turn out as he expected. And the word of the Lord tells Elijah to go outside because God is about to pass by. But Elijah doesn’t run outside. First there is wind strong enough to break bits of rock away, but Elijah does not go outside because God was not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, and then there is fire, but still Elijah does not go outside because God is not in the earthquake and not in the fire.
Then there is silence, “the sound of sheer silence.”
Now Elijah wraps his face in his mantle as befitting a meeting with God and goes outside.
So, we are reminded today that, especially if we are fresh off what seem to be some successes on God’s behalf,
1. All may not continue to go well or easily for us and
2. We need listen closely for God’s guidance and look for God’s presence which may not be loud and stormy, but quiet and available only when we enter the silence, readied to meet God.
Fresh off the success of feeding the five thousand, or when we count the women and children perhaps more like seven or ten thousand or even more; fresh off the miracle of feeding the multitudes with a blessing and multiplying of just five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead of him in the boat, and disperses the crowds, and then goes off alone up the mountain to pray. There, alone and in the silence, Jesus regroups and gets readied to continue his earthly journey and his earthly miracles.
In fact, it would appear that Jesus’ time alone prepares him for his very next miracle; that of walking on the stormy waters to meet the disciples, who are in the boat being battered by the waves and making little progress towards their destination. Are these stormy waters a metaphor for our distracted lives or was there a real storm that the disciples were laboring in the midst of on that lake so long ago? Or could it be both? Either way, Jesus comes walking on the water to them - to us: comes to meet them - and us - amidst the storms, and the disciples are not initially thrilled. We hear that they are in fact, terrified. Yet Jesus, being Jesus, tells them to “take heart” and “not to be afraid.”
It’s a funny thing about time alone. I’ve heard so many people say they want more of it, myself included. Yet once we have some of those precious moments of time alone, time in the silence, I think we often panic. There in the silence we do not necessarily and immediately find solitude, but the raging storms of our minds and hearts; the earthquakes and winds of our fears and insecurities, strong enough, it would seem, to chip off the very stone around us. The texture of the silence we think we long for can, in fact, be quite uncomfortable in its reality. No wonder I run so quickly back to my distracted life. At least the distractions are comfortable and might even seem temporarily safe, because their tumult and roiling noise match the tumult and roiling noise of my inner life.
Yet Jesus comes to us amidst these storms; Jesus who fed the multitude by blessing a few loaves and fishes; Jesus who himself went up the mountain to pray and take time in the silence there; Jesus comes to us amidst these storms of our inner and outer lives – literally and miraculously walking on water in order to reach our frail vessels and offer a word of peace and encouragement. “Take heart!” It is I who is with you, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.”
Ah, and then we things again as they truly are. Then by the power of the Holy Spirit, that same power that brought life out of death from the cross, our eyes are opened; our hearts can be lifted; our lives are renewed in the knowledge of their purpose: to serve God and God alone.
This is why we come together for worship each week and more often if we can. There are different ways to practice serving God with a less distracted life. As Christians we come together for worship and we lift our voices on high – whether in the sanctuary of Redeemer, New Paltz or in our homes – we sing our way to focused praise of God. This is why we tell the stories of God’s faithfulness and break the bread and share the wine – letting Christ’s redemptive work change the very fabric of our DNA so as to make us more able to focus on praising God. And during this pandemic time, we journey deeply into the knowledge that Christ’s spiritual gift of resurrection can sustain us while we cannot access the physical elements of bread and wine. Instead we lean into God gathering us and the trust that God’s forgiving and reconciling work through Christ is still working upon us with a spiritual power unmatched – so that we can be focused for lives praising God.
Then, we go forth from worship praising God again, and seeing the actions of our hands and the life of our minds and hearts as we truly should see them: blessed gifts on loan to us from God; God who is turning us back, calling us to come away from all that distracts us so as to learn true peace; to learn and practice the true serenity made possible by God’s power through Christ.
Notice I say practice not perfect. Only God in Christ is perfect. The rest of us must muddle along, likely discovering that in one moment we are on track for praising and serving God as prophets in our own time, and at the next moment distracted and doubting and afraid amidst the stormy waves, disciples in our own time.
And still God calls to us in the silence. Still Christ reminds us to take heart and not to be afraid. For there is one true and righteous and holy God who calls us in many ways on many paths to come home and know true peace so as to share that peace with others amidst their storms and the storms of this world. Amen.