If you come by my office during the week, and I invite you all to swing by at any time, you will probably hear music coming from my computer. I might even be humming or singing along with something. Or, if you’re particularly lucky, you might be like poor Bob who caught me dancing and rocking out at my desk this past week to a particularly jazzy and soul-filled version of “My Life Flows On In Endless Song!” I’m sorry you had to see that, Bob!
Music is so important in my life. It gives me a means of expressing myself, and helps connect thoughts and ideas. It has moved me to tears and inspired worship, and it’s a way I find joy and peace. As an extrovert, I also find meaning and joy in conversation and socializing with others. And I admit, as a Millennial, I do use social media – in other words, I’m connected with others in real space and cyber space.
Even so, throughout my life I have found myself being drawn to silence, contemplation, and stillness, time and time again. And as much as I love rocking out in my car or hanging out with people, I crave silence and contemplation.
Finding time to spend time with God and to listen to or for God is a theme in this week’s lessons. Even last week, as Pr. Joe pointed out, Jesus tried to take time to pray to his Father, but was interrupted by the crowds upon whom he had compassion. This morning, we hear about the prophet Elijah’s need for rest, for Jesus’ time of prayer, and for the psalmist’s desire to “listen to what the Lord God is saying.”
And yet, in these readings, particularly the Old Testament and Gospel, the followers and servants of God… well, they miss the boat. Elijah, God’s feisty prophet, has just had his incredible showdown with the 450 prophets of Baal in order to prove that the God of Israel is the Lord of all. God showed up in a big way, and following the debate, Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, which did not sit well with Ahab and Jezebel. Since they were so upset, they tried to kill Elijah and he fled into the wilderness, so worn out and distraught, he wanted to die. After being sustained for 40 days and nights by God’s angels in the wilderness, Elijah finds himself at Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai.
Sitting in a cave, Elijah hears God’s voice, which asks him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he responds with a mini-rant, basically saying, “I have been super awesome and gung ho for you, God. Your people are not following your ways; they’re destroying your altars and killing all my fellow prophets. Now I’m all by myself and they’re even trying to kill me!”
Now, Elijah is blowing things out of proportion – there are other prophets and there are at least 7,000 faithful people left in Israel. And I find it interesting that God doesn’t respond directly with a speech, but tells Elijah to go and to watch because God is going to show up. There’s a great wind, and a crazy earthquake, and a blazing fire, and then, sheer silence. And it’s not just the absence of sound, it’s a stillness that’s full of anticipation and is humming with potential. And when Elijah hears that, he wraps his robe around his face and steps out of the cave. Again God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And rather than responding with awe and wonder, humility and obedience to what has just happened, Elijah repeats his previous rant word for word. Face Palm I can just imagine God’s head shaking and God saying “what do I have to do to get through to you?!”
Jump forward a few centuries. Jesus and the disciples have fed the multitudes, and Jesus puts the disciples in a boat telling them to go on ahead. He dismisses the crowds and then he goes up the mountain by himself to pray. He’s praying at night, by himself, on a mountain and during the fourth watch of the night, between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., he sets off across the waves that are aggressively pounding the disciples’ boat.
As he approaches, the disciples are seized by fear thinking Jesus is a ghost or an apparition. He speaks to them, telling them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” and his words echo God’s words to Moses when he heard God say, “I AM.” Jesus is saying, “take heart, I am God; don’t be afraid.”
This answer is sufficient for the other disciples, but Peter tests his Lord by saying, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So often, we praise Peter for his faith in getting out of the boat, but it’s important to realize that the other figures who ask Jesus “if it is you…” include Satan, the high priest at his trial, and those who mock him on the cross. That’s some terrible company to be in! This is not one of Peter’s shining moments. He does walk on water, but becomes frightened when he sees the strong winds and begins to sink like a rock. With lightening quick reflexes Jesus reaches out and grabs him, asking him why he began to doubt. They get back into the boat, the winds cease, and the disciples worship him as the Son of God.
What’s amazing is that Jesus has already calmed a terrifying storm for the disciples. He’s cured people, done miracles, fed the multitudes only hours earlier, and they still doubt who he is and what he can do. Once again, God spoke and showed up in incredible ways and the disciples missed it.
What is God trying to say to you? Are you listening? Are you making time to hear?
I don’t know about you, but I am awfully good at telling God how I think things ought to be! Sadly, I’m not always so eager to listen. I’m great at running around attempting to complete that never-ending to do list, all the while forgetting to carve out that crucial time for silence and solitude in my life. And sometimes, when God is speaking, whether in the silence of my heart, through Scripture, or through trusted mentors, colleagues, family or friends, I have a hard time listening then, too. It’s then that I feel like Elijah, so hung up on my own stuff that I completely ignore that God has just shown up all around me and I persist in my own stubbornness. Sound familiar?
Or maybe we are blinded by our fear, failing to step back and see what God is doing and how God is trying to come through the storms and chaos to reach us. Maybe it’s just what God is up to or calling us to do that scares us, like the disciples who couldn’t believe it was really their leader on the water. Or, God reaches us and we, like Peter, don’t take heart and believe Jesus’ words that he is God and Lord of all, but rather put him to the test.
Yes, there’s a lot of fear in these readings as well. Elijah runs from Jezebel and, really, from his calling as a prophet of God. The disciples let fearful superstitions rule them instead of seeing Jesus as the God capable of taming the chaotic waters underfoot. The people of God are afraid of listening to and believing God. They let what was going on around them and inside of them dictate their interactions with God. Don’t we, too, let fear, noise, distractions, troubles, and our own insecurities sidetrack us from encountering God and God’s work in and around us?
If our Lord and Savior needed prayer time alone on a mountain to rejuvenate, what makes us think we don’t need to spend time in prayer and solitude as well? Perhaps it’s because we think it’s “unproductive.” Or maybe it’s because we are afraid of listening to or for God – afraid of hearing something we don’t want to hear. But in order to grow in our faith, we must face our fears.
On Thursday, we heard the results of the Church Assessment Tool. And one of our areas for growth is that people want to grow in their spiritual vitality. I am thrilled about this because it means that we as a community are interested in being transformed by God – that the Holy Spirit is at work here and calling us to greater discipleship. At the same time, this type of growth means that we are called to engage more deeply in prayer, study, worship, service and generosity. All of these activities are training so that we are better able to recognize God, whether on a mountain in silence, or in the midst of a storm. We spend time in prayer and solitude, but we come together in worship and community to support, encourage and challenge one another as fellow disciples. Elijah made the mistake of thinking he was the only one left who cared for God and he was plunged into despair. He missed the chance to be in community with God’s other faithful servants.
Jesus never stops coming to us in our boats when we’re quivering with fear. He never stops reaching out to us when we begin to sink because the winds are too fierce and are howling too loudly. Time and time again, he calls out, “take heart, I am God, don’t be afraid.” May we listen to God’s voice, giving us courage to face our fears in the midst of every storm. Amen.
© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.