Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 10 August 2014
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Kings 19.9-18; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah is on the run. He is fleeing the wrath of Queen Jezebel after his victorious confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. After that high point in his battle against paganism, fear seems to have plunged him into depression and despair, a feeling that leads him to desire death: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Having fled south – away from the promised land – he lies down under a bush and hopes that death will take him in his sleep. But God sends an angel who prods him awake and says: “Get up and eat’ (1 Kings 19.5). Elijah experiences God close at hand, offering him food, as had happened at the beginning of his ministry at the Wadi Cherith. He goes back to sleep, but the angel wakes him again: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” (1 Kings 19.7) Elijah, who thought he was finished, must begin again. He must follow a road indicated by God, a journey so long that his own strength will not suffice. But nourished by the food which God supplies, he walks 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God; the place where God had revealed himself to Moses.
“He came to a cave and spent the night there.” (1 Kings 19.9) Tradition held that it was the same cave in which Moses had been covered by God’s hand when the Lord passed before him. The scene is set for a new meeting between God and his servant. The Lord asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah replies: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant…I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
(1 Kings 19.10) God orders him out of the cave, to stand in the Lord’s presence as he is about to pass by. The passage of the Lord is described in terms of the same natural phenomena: wind, earthquake and fire, which had accompanied the giving of the Law on Sinai. But this time, the Lord is not in them. What does this mean?
Elijah is often seen as the precursor of the Christian monastic movement; those who sought God in the wilderness. So let’s turn to a contemporary monk for some wisdom.
Enzo Bianchi, is the prior of the ecumenical monastery at Bose in northern Italy. In his commentary on this event, he speaks of the wind, earthquake and fire as representing the risks of deception, illusion and false inspiration, which face believers, especially in times of crisis and depression.
1. The rushing wind is likened to the will-power of those who appear as solid as rocks, as firm as mountains, able to face and every situation from their own resources and determination. They are those upright people who always want to be in control of others and themselves. It takes a crisis, some experience of failure or loss, something that is beyond their control, to make them understand that God is not present in human strength. Only when broken by the events of life, can come the grace to understand Paul’s message, that we cannot “ascend to heaven to bring God down.”…We must have faith, not in ourselves, but in the God who has come down to us. This brings the discovery that “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
2. The earthquake signifies sensitivity to the things of God: the emotions aroused in us by worship, the feelings that accompany meditation on scripture, our sense of spiritual gifts givem to us. These are real gifts that should not be denied or removed. But we must be vigilant so as not to exercise discernment or make choices or base our actions, solely on the basis of our feelings, what disturbs or moves us.
3. The fire represents passion, zeal and jealousy for God. It is the attitude of the militant: those who would, like James and John, have fire descend from heaven on those who would not welcome Jesus. It is the fire which drove Elijah to massacre the prophets of Baal. We should not decide when blinded by this kind of passion. We may well think that our indignation is righteous, but others and God may well see it differently.
Will-power, sensitivity and zeal can all be good and should not be decried in themselves, but we should be on our guard against allowing them to be the determining factor. God is not found in them.
4. The fourth phenomenon, to which the story has been leading up, is “a still small voice,” or “a sound of sheer silence.” “A sound of sheer silence’ is an apparent contradiction in terms. Does it mean a voice or silence? A voice of silence brings together opposites to contain an important message: to listen to God’s voice, silence and calm are required. It is necessary to quieten interior noise as well as exterior. It is not easy to acquire that quality of silence and listening that can allow one to catch God’s silent and elusive voice, which always speaks in secret and in peace. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” says Paul, quoting the book of Deuteronomy.
When he heard it, Elijah covered his face with his mantle, an instinctive gesture that attests to his awareness of being once again in the Lord’s presence. It was believed that one could not see God and live. Then there came a voice to him that repeated the question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” He answers in the same way.
This time, God corrects him. Elijah is not, as in his self-absorbed state he thinks, on his own. God has saved for himself remnants who have not succumbed to idolatry. Elijah is not finished yet; there is still work for him to do. He must anoint kings and Elisha as the prophet who will continue his work.
So, Elijah can continue his journey, renewed in his knowledge of God, having understood that God’s powerful voice heard on Carmel, as once by Moses on Sinai, cannot be fully understood without listening to another voice of God, that of silence. And when he considers the time right, God himself will put an end to his earthly life.
Elijah’s encounter with God teaches us that every day it is necessary to exercise the ears of the heart, so that the ‘heart of stone’ might become an understanding heart, which only the Lord can give.
“Elijah, what are you doing here?” “Why are you here?” This is the question God addresses to us all.
Whether we realise it or not, and most times we don’t, God addresses that question to us when we come the church, when we worship, when we pray, when we read the scriptures and meditate on them, when we think of what goes on in the world around us. Our tendency is to despair, to think it is all hopeless. What can we few do in the face of so much and so many? What can I do on my own?
First of all, God reminds us that we are not alone. In the life and community of the church there is a remnant of faithful worshippers whose faith and loyalty we should not forget. They are often the messengers of God to us. They are the ones who, as God’s messengers, nudge us awake and point us to the food which God supplies to sustain and strengthen us.
Secondly, when things are hard, we often ask “Where is God?” Yet God is with his people. He wakes from our spiritual torpor in the challenge of his gospel and he feeds us for our journey with bread of life. (If you look for Elijah among the Old Testament figures on the north wall of the church, you will him holding one of the ravens who fed him at the Brook Cherith. The raven holds in his beak the bread of the eucharist.)
In today’s Gospel passage, Matthew addresses a church community represented by the group of disciples, sent off by Jesus in the boat. That boat is now “battered by the waves,” literally, “tortured.” It is a church which wonders where it is going, where God is in the midst of the difficulties and threats it faces. Like the wind, everything seems against them. But in the midst of this, Jesus comes to them – not recognised at first – thought to be a ghost, just another thing to frighten them. Then he speaks to them: “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid.”
His word and presence transform Peter: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus does command: “Come.” And so Peter gets out of the boat. But then he notices the gale again and takes fright. But at least he has enough trust in Jesus to call out, “Lord, save me.” Peter takes his eye off Jesus, sees only the storm and so, begins to sink. So if we are not to be terrified by the storms of this world, if we are not to be overcome by depression and despair, then we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and call to him for help, knowing as Paul teaches us that: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
In the epistle, Paul asks, ‘How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”’
God addresses these questions to us, to those who believe in our society; one where the gods of paganism seem quite as dominant as they were in Elijah’s day.
There may be someone here this morning to whom God is addressing the question of vocation to the priesthood – to be one who in word and sacrament proclaims Christ– they may even have succumbed to the temptation to make a run for the wilderness. But if you are being called, God will find you there.
But the particular vocation of some does not let everyone else off the hook. We are all called, as individuals, in the places we live and work, among the people who share our lives, and as a community of disciples set in the heart of this city, to proclaim the Lord.
Make no mistake, We will find that challenging and sometimes frightening, but if we keep our eyes on Jesus, if we listen for his voice, we will hear him saying both, “What are you doing here?” and “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” That word of assurance can transform us. Our sick parishioners are keeping their clergy running around at the moment. On Thursday, I went to the Luton and Dunstable Hospital – not quite a forty day journey to Mount Horeb but a good way beyond our parish – to see Myrtle Hughes after her unfortunate encounter last Sunday with a taxi and the pavement. She was “clothed and in her right mind,” in fact very cheerful, except that one of her legs needs physiotherapy to get her moving again.
The next day, I set off to visit Lily Caplin in Whipps Cross Hospital. At Leytonstone Station I joined the queue for a bus to the hospital. When it came I ushered a young Muslim woman, robed in black from head to toe and face veiled, onto it ahead of me. Perhaps because I had not assumed that men should always go first and women take up the rear – she sat near me and to my surprise began a conversation: asking if I worked in the local community and then about the place I did work.
I explained that I was going to the hospital to visit someone who was ill. She then made sure I got off the bus at the right stop: an angel of the Lord in a hijab.
When I got to Lily, who had had a fall and a bad infection, she was looking remarkably cheerful. When I asked her how she was, her reply was “I’ve had so many blessings in my life that I’m not going to start grumbling now.”
So, like the disciples in the boat who had heard Jesus saying, Take heart, It is I. Have no fear,” in the middle of a busy hospital ward, we worshipped and prayed.