19th Sunday of the Year (A) 9th August, 2020
Hymn singing, even where church services can take place, is not allowed at the moment and I’m sure many will be missing the valuable experience of getting air into the lungs and good thoughts into the mind. A popular hymn is ‘Dear Lord & Father on mankind’ which has clear connections with today’s first reading. The famous line of the hymn, ‘speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm’ is a direct reference to the passage about Elijah. This is one of the key passages in Scripture about the presence of God: that he is not found in violence, in drama or excitement, but speaks through those things – not around them or ignoring them but through them – as a still small voice, as the sound of a gentle breeze.
This is a key passage for those following the contemplative life either through dedication as monks and nuns, often in seclusion, or for those living the contemplative life in ordinary busy times. Of course, today during the pandemic, many people are living alone, isolating, keeping their distance, not being able to socialize, to see friends and family and so, many are leading a sort of contemplative life, whether they have chosen it or not. And with the world in such turmoil many surely are seeking the ‘still small voice of calm’.
But this is a passage that is not just for contemplatives but for all of us, especially in so far as it links with today’s gospel story which tells of the disciples being caught up in a strong wind on the lake, of Peter’s impetuosity and of Jesus’ calming and authoritative voice that puts things once more on an even keel.
A common theme to both readings is the feeling of distress, hopelessness, being caught up in a situation which seems impossible, being in a situation from which God appears to be absent. The news seems daily to add to the sorry list of these situations.
In the gospel story we hear how Peter, in a sudden and exuberant act of faith, launches himself towards Jesus but then starts to sink, in the same way that we can launch out in good intention and enthusiasm on many things – even faith related, religious or good works – but then run into difficulties and end up finding the whole thing overwhelming. We take on some job or task but haven’t really thought it through, some crisis comes upon us and threatens to dominate, overwhelm or crush us: – we can feel helpless, prayer doesn’t seem to work and we can find ourselves saying, ‘God where are you? Why is this happening? What is going to happen?’ The Good Lord is doubtless hearing these words a lot at the moment as people grapple with uncertainty, the prospect of unemployment, reduced income, psychological and emotional challenges and so much more.
The story of Elijah, which ends with his finding the still small voice of God, is very similar to this. This is not the story of a holy man being holy and finding God. It is the story of a prophet who, like anyone can be, was at the end of his tether. We are not told the whole story in the reading today, but we need to know that Elijah, in his role as a prophet, had been speaking and acting out against idolatry and false religion and had become extremely unpopular, so unpopular that had received a very specific and real death threat. In this state of turbulent and fearful anxiety he had gone off to a quiet place and said to God, ‘God, I have had enough, let’s end it, take my life’. But then the Lord revealed himself and made his presence felt, not in the wind, or the earthquake, but in that rarity of things to be found today, a stillness – the still small voice of calm. This still small voice was not around Elijah but was focused in Elijah himself. Elijah’s experience echoes a line in one of the psalms, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
Both Elijah and Peter were trying to be self-reliant. Both stories show us that in the midst of great difficulty, self-reliance can be the path to disaster. Replace the self-reliance with the reliance on Christ and on the presence of God and things work out, not necessarily as we might expect, want or imagine, but if we allow God to be there, then they will work out in God’s way.