1 Kings 19:9-18 & St Matthew 14: 22-33
Have you ever felt sorry for yourself? Ever felt that there was nothing to be done, and the best thing would be to cry, scream, or go to bed and pull the duvet up over your head? At times like these it’s very difficult to see a different perspective and even more difficult for someone else to show us a different perspective. We may be in such a state as we are feeling sorry for ourselves or because we’re fearful. Both these things were going on in our readings today and in both God finds a way of moving things forward.
Elijah is another thoroughly unpleasant person in the Old Testament. He was a zealot. A prophet called, it must be said, to minister at a very difficult time. Israel had turned away from the proper observance of the faith and the king, Ahab, had married a pagan wife, Jezebel who was seeking to increase the practice of paganism – the Bible calls this Baal worship – in Israel. She persecuted those who stayed loyal to God. Elijah must have wished he’d received a calling in a different age.
He set about his work with gusto and the passage we had read to us this morning comes after a dramatic showdown with the pagan priests where he challenges them to call down divine power (they fail). Elijah demonstrates God’s power and then butchers them. This didn’t go down well with Jezebel and Elijah escapes to the mountains to flee her rage.
There he has his pity party. He’s clearly depressed and the first thing God does in the passage preceding today’s is to give him food and make him sleep. Suitably refreshed God asks Elijah about his situation and the pity party starts:
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.
So I presume that we all think that Elijah has some cause to feel sorry for himself. I mean if he was the only faithful Jew left, the only functioning prophet and if they were coming to persecute him then we should feel sorry for him. Shouldn’t we?
The problem is this isn’t the whole story…
Yes, Jezebel was after him but he’d just killed 200 of her pagan priests. They had families too.
Later in the passage God tells him to anoint someone as King over Israel, to anoint Elisha as prophet in his place and, strikingly at the end of today’s passage:
Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.
So there is a substitute king, a substitute prophet and 7,000 who hadn’t given in to pagan worship. Doesn’t sound like Elijah’s perception was correct does it?
But that’s what happens when we throw a pity party – we have a distorted view of the world and of our own situation and we make it SO much worse than it actually is.
We see something similar in the Gospel reading.
Walking in the Storm
The disciples were clearly exhausted. They’d had a long day listening to Jesus preach, dealing with the hungry crowds – this episode follows on from last week’s reading where Jesus fed the 5,000 men – and, to quote the writer, to say nothing of the women and children. They’d finally managed to get the crowds to go, Jesus wanted time alone in the mountains and the disciples put out into the lake. At last they could have some down time but a storm came and scared the living daylights out of them.
Admittedly some were fishers so they knew how to handle a boat but they were clearly afraid and then Jesus, walking on the water to them, hardly calmed their fears. Their perceptions were off kilter – they thought a ghost was coming towards them. However, once they realised it was Jesus they were reassured – even to the point where Peter leapt into the water and walked towards Jesus but as soon as he took his eyes of Jesus he noticed, again, the wind, the rain and the storm and so sank beneath the waves – not a bad metaphor for our own lives really.
What’s Really Going on?
It seems to me that the link between these passages is they both offer lessons in working out what’s really going on. Elijah plays the martyr but his self-righteousness makes him forget or ignore the 7,000 faithful people, Elisha the trainee prophet and a suitable candidate to be king. Peter over comes his fear and so reaches out and walks on the water but easily becomes distracted by the turmoil and so loses his confidence and sinks beneath the waves.
In our church life it’s easy to get distracted and to have a pity party. One of my placements last year took me to a church building which is the size of a small cathedral. The spire of this church is a landmark that can be seen all over the city and, I’m told, out to sea. It’s a Grade 1 listed building – words which, in England – make ministerial hearts sink – it’s the same as a Grade A listing here. §The church seats 950 people – it has a gallery around three sides. One of the older members told me that it was full when he was a kid – he said the rich came and their servants came with them and sat behind them in the gallery. He joked that the rot set in when the servants weren’t made to come to church.
Others say that the church was full and wonderful and the Sunday School had hundreds of people and bemoan the youth of today for not coming to Sunday School.
I felt sorry for them – there were 25 of them on a good day in a church that could seat 950. What they forgot was that the church was built for shipyard owners and their foreman would come along, note who was in church and only give work on Monday to those who had been in church on Sunday. I suppose it was an older version of people in England going to church to ensure their kids get into the Church Schools. They looked back to a time of plenty and had, in a time of famine – as far as church attendance goes – lost their nerve and find themselves sinking beneath the waves. Of course as they looked back they had a distorted view of reality – a bit like our friend Elijah.
We have a choice in our church. We can look back at our past and be amazed at the numbers that used to come, the history, the money that used to be there, the brimming Sunday School and a proud history and bemoan the state of things now and despair, lose sight of Jesus and sink or we can do something different. We could look at the past and see what we can learn from it to propel us forward. We can see that in the past our forebears in this place saw Jesus, stepped out of their boats and walked towards him and, as they trusted in him did well. As they trusted Jesus drew people to himself.
We can worry, huddle and sink being more and more resentful or we can be outward focused and look to Jesus – and see where Jesus is now on the streets around us – and how we might meet him and serve him.
If we keep our eyes, and the eyes of our church, on Jesus and if we continue to respond to him our future is secure and future generations will look back on us seeking to learn our response to our age as they seek to craft their response to their own age.
Like Elijah we have to learn to see things as they really are, to resist having a pity party and, like Peter, keep our eyes on Jesus so as not to sink beneath the waves!
Will you pray with me?
Sweet Lord of rest,
ark from the ocean’s roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Lord of rest,
help us keep our eyes on you,
that we be faithful and true.
Amen. (from the hymn Sweet Sacrament Divine)