Storms and the presence of God link the first reading for Sunday August 13 (1 Kings 19:9-18) to the gospel (Matt 14:22-33).
In the first reading Elijah experiences wind, earthquakes and fire…and a gentle whisper… as heralds of God’s presence at a time when he is fleeing for his life.
In the gospel (Matt 14:22-33) Jesus, then Peter, walk on water, during a storm, except Peter begins to fear and to sink.
These two readings and the reading from Romans 10:5-15 for the day all talk, in one way or another about trust in God.
In the chapters leading up to the first passage from 1 Kings, the Israelite king Ahab had married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of the Sidonians. She had introduced Baal-worship to the Israelites who put up altars to Baal and imprisoned or murdered so many prophets that Elijah was left virtually alone.
After many failed attempts to capture Elijah, Elijah suddenly approached Ahab and suggested a challenge between Baal and Yahweh, to take place on Mt. Carmel. The challenge was to set fire to a stack of wood. Since Baal was thought to control storms among other things, a lightening strike would do the trick. Ahab and Jezebel assembled 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets from Asherah against Elijah. But they failed to have Baal light the wood. Elijah laughed at them, commanded that the wood be soaked with water, then called on Yahweh, who lit the fire.
Instead of being persuaded that Yahweh was the true God, Jezebel flew into a rage. She wanted Elijah dead.
Elijah’s sense of triumph vanished. He recognized his jeopardy and fled.
As the passage for Sunday morning opens Elijah has been on the run, hiding from the soldiers.
…he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Seemingly ignoring Elijah’s concern the Lord said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” God told Elijah to go out of the cave where he was hiding and stand in a place where his pursuers could see him. The instruction seemed to defy good sense even though it came from God.
These words to Elijah evoke God’s instruction to Moses in Exodus 33:19-23 when he said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you…But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the Lord said, “… stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then … you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
The reading from 1 Kings continues, Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Elijah’s fear triumphed over the wonder of being in God’s presence. He had not gone out of the cave and stood on the mountain, as God had instructed. Fear made him hesitate to follow God’s commands. (Some writers point to this passage as an example of someone being burned out by ministry.) Either way it seems that God’s instruction made Elijah pause.
Having faith in God was a struggle even for Elijah, who had been an eyewitness to God’s power in the face of overwhelming human odds. Faith was not just an intellectual exercise. It demanded that Elijah expose himself to mortal danger. He faltered but came through in the end.
After the wind, the earthquake and the fire, God came to Elijah as a gentle whisper. In a sense, God recognized that he had pushed Elijah to his limits and so God backed off. God came lightly to his burnt-out prophet.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah repeated the same words he said earlier, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. In 1 Kings 17 Elijah is described as being a Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, that is, from the eastern side of the Jordan. God told him to return there, a distance from the land of Israel.
When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”
Elijah reminded God that he had been very zealous about everything that God had asked but that he feared that the Israelites were going to kill him nonetheless. God told Elijah that the Israelites would be cleansed and purged by people from outside. Hazael was a king over Aram Damascus to the East of Israel. Jehu son of Nimshi was king of the northern kingdom of Samaria. Together they would defeat Ahab and Jezebel’s forces and a faithful remnant of 7,000 would be the source of a renewed Israel, dedicated to God.
- What is the current-day equivalent of Baal worship? Who are our contemporary Elijah’s?
- Have you ever ‘heard a call’ from God that was so strange, illogical or dangerous that you hesitated? If so, you’re not alone. Elijah paused at the entrance to the cave rather than going out and standing on the mountain as God had commanded. In the gospel Peter walked on water until he realized the physics-defying nature of what he was doing. Following God’s call is sometimes a huge exercise of faith. It is an ongoing challenge to how we live.
- After a time of turbulence in your life that may have caused you to doubt your faith, have experienced a moment like Elijah when, after the fire came a gentle whisper?