19th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year A
In our first reading we have the figure of Elijah. Traditionally, Elijah represents the witness of the Prophets to Jesus. We see this is the Transfiguration of Jesus which we celebrated on Thursday. Elijah can seen as the archetypal prophet. Indeed, his story is a brilliant one and you could do a lot worse than read it yourself this week. Some consider it one of the most brilliant spiritual stories in human civilisation, both for the depth of its insight into the spiritual quest and for the imagery of its expression.
Elijah is the archetypal prophet in a number of ways. First, his very name spells out the prophetic mission. Elijah means “The Lord is God,” and this is the prophetic mission: to call the people of God back to the one true God. It is the prophet’s mission to remind Israel that it is a chosen people. Chosen by God. If Israel strays from the Word of God, not only does it lose its sense of identity, but, in a very real sense, it ceases to exist. No worship of God, no people. Elijah’s whole life revolves around this.
And his feelings of failure revolve around this too. Elijah questions whether anything he has done has been successful, or whether his whole life has been a waste of time. He must struggle with the temptation to just give up. And all of this brings us to the scenes in the desert, one of which we had today.
The scenes in the desert might, in fact, be the highpoints of the story of Elijah. Today’s is certainly one of the most famous theophanies in human history, one of the most famous depictions of an encounter with God. But to understand the desert scenes, one has to remember the basic identity of Israel, its founding story. We must remember its encounter with the Lord and the experience of the Exodus. Israel is formed when Moses, in obedience to God’s Word, leads the people out of Egypt into the desert, out of slavery into freedom, out from under Pharaoh to under the liberating Word of God. It is in this experience that Israel learns who God is and therefore who Israel is. Israel learns how God is with Israel.
So, when we read this section about Elijah and we have the story of Exodus in mind, we are immediately aware of the similarities. And the similarities make the differences very stark.
In both, there is an escape into the desert. But in Exodus, the people are escaping from Egypt. Here, it is Elijah escaping from the people. In Exodus, God is with his people. Here, the people have abandoned God, and God is with Elijah. Elijah looks around and sees a new slavery. In Exodus, some parts of Israel found the desert too difficult and wanted to return to Egypt, to a life of comfortable slavery, to an easier, false life; here, the people have done just that: they have forgotten the one true God and gone over to fake religion.
This is what makes Israel into the new Egypt. That they would choose fake gods after they have met the one true God: this is the ultimate in bad faith. It shows a spiritually dissolute culture. One that chooses comfort over truth, pleasure over justice, darkness over light, death over life.
Indeed, today’s first reading is another description, like that in Exodus, of the profound, founding spiritual insight of Israel: namely, who the true God is. In fact, this is the genius of Israel, what set it apart from all other historical cultures. It is the spiritual insight that God is not natural. God is not one of the powers of the world. God is not part of the universe. God is not like anything else. God cannot be compared with anything in the world. We still hear people making this fundamental mistake today, often the new atheists, when they make God like something else, showing that they have never read the Bible properly, and definitely not Elijah. Whatever might be the most powerful, natural forces – whether that be fire, wind, earthquake, power, greed or fear – they are nothing compared to God. Nothing compared to God.
But how would one communicate this spiritual insight, that they are nothing compared to God? Well, it takes a spiritual genius like Moses or Elijah to do this. In the Exodus, the incomparable nature of God is communicated by the giving of the name which is no name: I am. In our reading today, Elijah does it by making God into nothing, into no thing, into a still small sound, to show that God is nothing like natural forces. Again, though, it takes someone of Elijah’s spiritual depth to recognise that this is exactly where God is. Elijah knows how different God is to the false gods. He also knows how different life is when one knows this and lives this. He also knows that there is no going back once one does know this. To pretend otherwise is to live a lie, a stupid, meaningless lie.
We see something similar in the Gospel. As Deacon Jim mentioned last week, it is the difference Jesus makes; between having or not having faith. In one sense, you can see this as another Exodus story. God comes to save his people who are in trouble. As in our first reading, God is beyond the powers of this world. He can walk on the water. St Peter somehow knows that the God of Israel is recognised in the call to leave behind false security for the true security of fidelity to God’s Word in my life.
And so he asks God to call him out of the boat into water, out of Egypt into the desert. And like Israel, he fails. But in his failure, he succeeds. This is part of the great spiritual genius of St Peter: he knows to cling to Christ. Like Elijah, he sees his life as coming from the Lord and not from himself. He is first defined by Jesus, the Word of God. And in this, St Peter represents both the Church and each one of us. The Church only succeeds when it realises its own poverty, and therefore its wealth only in Christ.
What we have to do remains the same. We must get to know our God. We must through prayer, through the scriptures, through the sacraments, in the poor, be able to recognise the still small voice and not be swayed by the commotion. And we must, like Peter, recognise the call in our lives and, when we go off the rails spiritually, remember to reach out for the only one who can save us. If we do both of these things, then, through us, the peace of God will enter our families and our communities, and others will be able to find stability and safety from the spiritual storms.