HOMILY : 19th Sunday
This week we have another name from the Old Testament whose life was significant for Jesus : Elijah. Some people actually thought Jesus was Elijah brought to life again, and you may remember that when Jesus was transfigured in glory on the mountain, it was Moses and Elijah that the disciples saw with him. But although most of us know his name, I expect only a few of you know much about him. Today, we had his most famous story as our 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:9-14). It’s the story that inspired the hymn we sang at the beginning of Mass:-
Breathe through the earthquake, wind and fire. The still small voice of calm
But what happens next? And perhaps even more important what happened to make Elijah trek hundreds of miles south to Mount Horeb?
You see Elijah lived about as far from this Mountain as possible, up in the northern part of Israel where Ahab was King around 860BC. This is some 100 years after King David and his son Solomon, but way before Isaiah that I spoke of last week. Indeed you could argue that Elijah was a forerunner of Isaiah and the other prophets, because he was the first to find himself prophesying against the King and the people in power. Moses, you remember, although often described as a prophet, was actually the leader of his people, the lawgiver, and later in King David’s time, prophets like Nathan were more like wise advisers to the king, still very much part of the establishment.
Elijah, if he is to be true to God, has to be different simply because King Ahab and his wife Jezebel are doing so many things that contradict faith in the one God. So, first Elijah confronts Ahab when he grabs some land from his neighbour by arranging for him to be killed, but more important for our story, Ahab is now worshipping the pagan god Baal and encouraging his people to do the same. So Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a contest to see whose God is most powerful. He then manages through prayer (and maybe a bit of clever timing and wise planning) to get a lightning strike on his altar that convinces the ordinary people that “God is the Lord” rather than Baal. Supported by the people, Elijah has all the priests of Baal killed, and then has to run for his life when the King and Queen hear what he has done.
Brave for a moment, he is now terrified that he will soon be caught and killed, and it is then that he arrives at the Mountain. Remember from our reading what happens next? Here is the man who is following in the footsteps of Moses who met God on this mountain in the midst of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption! Here is the man who has called down fire from heaven and killed the priests of Baal! Surely he will meet God in one of these dramatic ways? But, no, God comes to speak to him in a totally different way, in “a gentle breeze” or in a better translation “a still small voice” (as in the hymn). It is from this experience that he goes back with new courage to continue his work.
You see now why this is so important for Jesus. He knows that he is the final fulfillment of the prophets, and because of Elijah he knows he has the power even to call down fire from heaven. But he also knows that to use that kind of power is a mistake – we see that as he resists the Temptations. He knows instead, also from Elijah, and from other later prophets, that God will speak not in the midst of noise and violence but in silence and stillness. Remember last week where Isaiah repeated again and again “Listen… listen..”? Jesus also knows that in doing God’s will he must face at some point confrontation with the government of his day (both Jewish and Roman) He must, like Elijah, risk everything in order that the true message of God may be heard.
His disciples (like most of their fellow Jews) tended to remember the dramatic bits of the Old Testament. Indeed on one occasion they actually ask him to call down fire from heaven, and he has to rebuke them. And notice too in the Gospel today,(Matt 14:22-33) God is not in the storm, but in the hand held out to Peter with the quiet words “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And then, as he gets into the boat “the wind drops”.
This is a message for us too. I must admit that I would like to bring down fire from heaven on the financial speculators at the moment. But as followers of Jesus, in the tradition of Elijah, we have to take a different route. We have to confront the world in God’s name, yes ; but we will find his power and presence in silence and prayer, and it is from that source that our words and actions may eventually have an effect!