Trinity 8

Sunday 10th August 2014

 10.00 am Hadlow

  1 Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33

 May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is a very special day and I am delighted to be baptising Elia this morning. Although I have not yet been here a terribly long time in the grand scheme of things I can say with hand on heart that I knew Elia before he was born and it is a privilege to be asked to baptise him. If I end up conducting his wedding then we shall know that I have been here a long time.

Although I am sure that Ngatu and Emma know this you may not be aware that the name “Elia” actually derives from the name Elijah, which means “Yahweh is God”. Today’s first reading was all about the original Elijah, and I have to say that, in my opinion, Elijah has always been one of the most interesting characters from the Old Testament.

Both of today’s readings speak very strongly to me of the importance of letting God be God – of recognising that although each of us are of infinite worth none of us can build the kingdom of God on our own and that, ultimately we have to look to God and not to our own strength. But let’s look first at the prophet Elijah, who gives his name to our baptism boy today.

Elijah really puts the Old Testament into Old Testament prophets – when he was faced with the priests of the pagan god Baal his interpretation of inter-faith dialogue was to bring fire down on their heads. Elijah was a man really on fire for God, and so it turned out were those who opposed him, and he did everything possible to return Israel to the proper worship of Yahweh. However despite his best efforts and even despite the demonstrations of divine power that accompanied his ministry King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were still the rulers of Israel, the proper worship of God seemed to be in terminal decline and the cults of Asherah and Baal were in the ascendency.   When we encounter Elijah in Chapter 19 Queen Jezebel has threatened to kill him for what he has done to her followers and Elijah seems to have lost his Old Testament hutzpah and has run to the hills in fear of his life.

The Elijah we encounter in today’s reading is not Elijah the powerful, or Elijah the triumphant, rather we have Elijah the scared, Elijah the defeated, an Elijah who sees an inevitable decline in faith, who believes himself alone in the fight for God and, given his current downcast state, he probably believes that the outlook for God in Israel in not great.

While he is hiding in the cave God speaks and says:

What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah responds:

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.”

Elijah’s response is full of self-justification and even self-pity – he has done everything possible for God in Israel, yet he believes that he is now the only true believer left and the implication is that if his life is taken then it will be game over for Yahweh.

God does not argue with Elijah, but rather he asks him to go out of his cave and stand on the mountain as the glory of God is about to pass by. And then, there was a hurricane so strong that it split rocks, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire. And then, after all this primal elemental power, there was sheer silence – a silence so profound that we are told that it was the sound of sheer silence. And from that profound silence God spoke to Elijah again and asked him the same question:

What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And it is clear that Elijah has learnt nothing from the experience of witnessing God’s power and is still wallowing in his self-justification and self-pity because he responds in exactly the same way:

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.”

Again God does not seek to argue with Elijah but, rather, he commissions him for a new task – he is to go and anoint a new King of Isreal and also to anoint Elisha as Elijah’s successor. Despite his fears that he is the last true believer God is clear that the work shall go on and that Elijah’s ministry does not finish with him. But Elijah and Elisha are still not the only ones left – right at the end of the reading God reveals that there are another 7000 who have not abandoned him:

“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.”

Doubtless this all came as something as a shock to Elijah – he thought that the line of faith ended with him but in the space of a few moments he is told both that he has a successor and that God is aware of thousands of others who have remained faithful. God has gently and quietly reminded Elijah that God’s plans for the world do not all rest on his shoulders and do not all depend on him for success. Although we are each called to play our part in the unfolding story of God’s relationship with the world, and we should each seek to respond to God’s call on our lives to the best of our abilities, it may also be a good corrective to be reminded that God will be God whether despite us or because of us. Elijah had a lot of faith in his own efforts on behalf of God but perhaps that had undermined his faith in God’s own abilities. I have no doubt that many in the wider church feel that the church will only have a future if we run faster and do more. Perhaps we also need to learn to listen for God in the silence and to accept that God has plans that he will work in his good time.

And this theme of having faith in God rather than in our own strength continues into our gospel reading. After feeding the 5000 or the 10000 or the 20000 with the five loaves and two fishes, which of course is itself a demonstration of the super abundant providence of God in the face of seeming shortage, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him on a boat while he withdrew up a mountain to pray. You will notice that both Jesus and Elijah withdrew to a mountain to encounter God and last Wednesday we celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration which also had Elijah and Jesus and Moses at the top of a mountain.

Anyway, during the night as Jesus was up the mountain praying a storm blew up and the disciple’s boat was battered by wind and waves. The disciples were separated from Jesus, they must have felt very much on their own and abandoned to the elements. Having stood on the back of a boat whilst riding huge waves in a gale I can tell you that the sea can seem very big and you can feel very small and I have no doubt that the disciple’s boat was a lot smaller and more flimsy than the one I was standing on.

But then, as dawn broke, and against all the odds and against all common sense the disciples see the figure of a man coming towards them across the water. At first, and perhaps naturally, they think that this apparition is a ghost but Jesus reassures them:

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And wonderful, impetuous, Peter does not sit back and wait for Jesus to reach the boat, instead he cries out to the approaching figure:

Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus says, “Come”, as he called Peter at the start of his ministry, and Peter gets out of the boat in the middle of the storm and starts walking towards his Lord, doubtless at first keeping his eyes fixed on his goal. But then, a bit like a cartoon character noticing that there is no longer firm ground beneath his feet, Peter becomes aware once again of the wind and waves around him – he sees the problems and the physical impossibility of his situation, he takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink:

Lord, save me!”

 And Jesus immediately reaches out, tells off Peter for losing faith but saves him and calms the storm and those in the boat recognise and worship Jesus as the son of God.

Yes, the Church does face challenges in the future. The wind and waves of finance, an aging population, the growth in worship of things that are not of God, the decline in biblical literacy and of orthodoxy all seem to point to decline. Although I should point out that when I looked at the church registers for this church for the year 1900 it was interesting to note that on Easter Day that year there were only 22 communicants, so there are far more people in church today then there were then. So these things are often more cyclical than the doom mongers would have us accept.

And yet, and yet it seems to me that God is bigger than all those things and God is bigger than our fears and our efforts. Like Elijah we may feel that we have done our best and we are the last and yet I believe that God knows our successors and he knows the unknown thousands who have not bowed their knee to the world.

This is not a recipe for complacency and inaction – far from it. Like Peter we should not sit back in the boat and wait for Jesus, rather we should get out of the boat and do the impossible despite the wind and the waves – but we should also try to learn the lesson of Peter and keep our eyes fixed firmly on the son of God while we walk knowing that, even when we fail as we surely will, Jesus will save us and the work of God will go on.

And the work of God does go on and we shall grow the kingdom of heaven by baptising Elijah’s namesake right now.

Amen.

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