By the Rev. Darren Miner
Based on the Bible readings we have heard recently, you might think we were in the season of Epiphany. Last Sunday, we had two accounts of divine epiphanies, one to Moses and one to Jesus’ inner circle. Today, we get another two epiphany stories, one to the prophet Elijah and one to a boatload of Jesus’ disciples.
Let me start out by setting the scene for the epiphany to Elijah. Elijah had bested the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al in a contest and ordered the losers in the contest to be executed. Queen Jezebel, in turn, ordered that Elijah be executed. He ran away to a cave on Mount Horeb to hide and to bemoan his fate.
There, in that cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord asking him what he is doing hiding in a cave. Elijah complains that he is the last faithful Israelite left in the land and is now under a sentence of death. The Lord then instructs Elijah to go out onto the mountain and await his appearance. Here is where things get really interesting! Instead of instantly obeying, Elijah waits in the cave for a sign. First, there is a great wind. Elijah stays put. Then, there is an earthquake. Elijah stays put. Then, there is a great fire. Elijah stays put. In each case, we are told, the Lord was not to be found in these terrifying phenomena. Last but not least, there is the faintest of whispers, the merest of murmurs. At long last, Elijah leaves the cave to meet with the Lord, rightly discerning that the Lord has finally arrived. We are told that he covers his eyes with his cloak, lest he be struck dead by the sight of the Lord’s face. Outside that cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord asks Elijah the very same question he had asked before. And again, Elijah gives the very same answer. It is as if he has learned nothing about the power of the Lord! He is still afraid. He is still discouraged. He is still bone-weary. At this point, the Lord shows him mercy, allowing him to retire after he has trained up a successor.
This epiphany to Elijah teaches us so much about discerning the presence of God. Let’s be honest here. If any of us had been in that cave waiting for a sign of the Lord’s arrival, wouldn’t we have responded prematurely to the storm or the earthquake or the fire? How many of us would have had the spiritual discernment to wait for a faint whisper? Clearly, Elijah was a true prophet! He knew how to discern the presence of God in the most unexpected of events. How many times in our lives have we asked God for a sign? How many times have we later complained that we never got a sign? Well, I bet we got one. The question is, “Did we recognize the sign when it came?” Maybe it wasn’t a great cosmic event, maybe it was a faint whisper…or a chance encounter with a homeless person, or a word overheard in an elevator, or a line of dialogue in our favorite soap opera. One thing we know from Elijah’s epiphany: God comes to us in unexpected ways.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see another unexpected epiphany. Jesus takes a shortcut right across the Sea of Galilee, walking on the water of the stormy sea, as if it were a walk in the park. He encounters his disciples in a wind-battered boat sometime between 3 and 6 a.m., while it is still quite dark. They don’t recognize him and mistake him for a ghost. Jesus tries to reassure them that it is he, and not a ghost. But Peter demands that Jesus prove himself. He demands that Jesus give him the ability to walk on water as well. Peter gets out of the boat—and for a moment he does walk on water! But then fear overwhelms him, and he loses faith in Jesus. Down into the water he goes—till Jesus reaches out his hand and saves him from drowning. Jesus ever so gently chides Peter for his lack of faith. And the rest of the disciples, who had been watching this strange scene from the boat, prostrate themselves before Jesus and declare him the Son of God.
Yes, Jesus chides Peter for lack of faith. But I want to defend him for just a moment. Did you see any of the other disciples get out of the boat and attempt to walk with Jesus? No, you did not! Admittedly, Peter ultimately failed, but for a time he succeeded. In my mind, that final failure does not negate the previous success. Not at all!
Now, as in the epiphany of Elijah, we find God in an unexpected place, namely, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century rabbi and the foster son of a lowly carpenter. Again and again, Jesus had revealed his true identity to his disciples, but again and again they were unable to see. He taught them about God, but they didn’t see God in the one who taught them. He healed the sick and cast out demons, but they didn’t make the connection. Just before this incident on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus had miraculously multiplied loaves of bread and fed 5000 people. Still his disciples didn’t fully understand. It took seeing Jesus walk on water to convince them that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God and worthy of true worship.
If we look hard, we can find ourselves in these Bible stories. Sometimes, we are like the prophet Elijah. We give in to fear and hide ourselves away in a cave, waiting for the Lord to come and save us. (But unlike that great prophet, all too often, we ignore the faint whisper signaling help has arrived.) Sometimes, we are like those disciples who stayed huddled in the boat. We find it hard to recognize God, even when he is staring us right in the face. We may yearn to walk on the water with him, but we are too timid to get out of the boat and try.
The message for us today is to trust in God and to stop being afraid. Be an Elijah, but an Elijah who doesn’t hide in a cave when the going gets tough. Be a disciple, but a disciple who dares to get out of the boat in the midst of a storming sea. Be a Peter, but a Peter who doesn’t lose faith at the sound of the howling wind. And always, always be ready to encounter God in the most unexpected of places: in a faint whisper at the mouth of a cave, in a rabbi walking on water, or even in a wheaten wafer and a sip of red Port wine.
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.