Have you ever had any of those ‘Oh my goodness’ moments? ‘What on earth have I done!’
Let me set the scene for our first reading – and the last verse of our processional hymn.
Ahab is king of Israel, married to Jezebel. Things have deteriorated under his rule, with people not only turning away from God, but worshipping other local gods, the Baals. The country is gripped by a terrible drought. The prophets of God have been under siege by Jezebel who has threatened to kill them. Things are not good. Elijah, the prophet, has been called to warn God’s people about returning to God.
Eventually there is a showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. 450 prophets of Baal and Elijah and the Israelites meet on Mount Carmel. Each is to offer a sacrifice to their God and call upon their God to send fire to consume the sacrifice. The prophets of Baal, after whipping themselves up into a frenzy and calling upon their Gods are unsuccessful. Elijah goes one step further. With his sacrifice, he builds a trench around it and then fill four jars of water and pours over the sacrifice – not just once but three times. He then calls upon God and fire consumes the sacrifice. What faith! He then kills the prophets of Baal.
Jezebel is not amused and threatens Elijah by saying that within 24 hours he will be dead. Elijah has shown such faith, such courage, such trust in God but at that point he is full of doubt. He is at rock bottom and runs for his life. It is one of those ‘Oh my goodness’ moments. He gets to the desert and collapses under a juniper tree, depressed and asking God to end his life. An angel brings hot bread and fresh water and sends Elijah to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.
God asks Elijah ‘what are you doing?’. Elijah’s response is somewhat indignant. ‘I have been working so hard for you. I am the only prophet left and Jezebel is after my blood.’
God says, ‘Go outside and stand on the mountain. I am about to show myself’.
Firstly, something like a hurricane hits the place. It rips the rocks out of the mountains and smashes them into tiny pieces. God is not in the storm. There are more special effects, an earthquake that is scary on the Richter scale but God is not in the earthquake. Next there is a raging fire – but God is not the fire. Then, after the fire, there is the quiet and gentle whisper of God.
I am sure that you recognise those words from the last verse of our opening hymn
Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm;
O still, small voice of calm.
It is in that still small voice that Elijah is both gently rebuked and encouraged. He is, in effect, re-commissioned in his work for God.
Let’s move forward in time to our gospel reading, to a similar story of faith and doubt.
Our gospel reading is a picture of the life of faith or rather, the life of half faith. Faith mixed with fear and doubt, which is probably a more realistic picture of our own faith.
Peter is one of those larger than life characters – impetuous, ready for anything, tending to act first and think after, to engage mouth rather than brain.
The disciples are in the boat. They have seen so much of Jesus’ power. They have heard his teaching and prayed his prayer. They have seen the miracles but now they were stuck. They were professional fisherman and yet they were struggling with the oars, unable to make headway against the wind.
We too in our world have discovered so much, learnt so much, invented so much, and yet are still without power to do many of the things that really matter. We have invented wonderful machines for making war (you only have to look at the current situation between America and North Korea) and yet no one has found one that will make peace. We can put a person on the moon but we can’t fill hungry stomachs. We can listen to the songs the whales singing on the ocean floor, but we can’t hear the cry of the human souls in the next street.
And there, shimmering on the water is a strange figure, walking towards us. Much of our world knows at least a little about Jesus, but he seems like a ghostly image unrelated to us and our personal problems. Some find him frightening, some wish he’d go away and leave us alone. Even those who believe in him, like the disciples already did, don’t know what to expect of him. He seems to be doing the impossible.
Peter, ever the impetuous, starts off with great faith.
‘Lord, if it is you give me the word to come to you on the water.’
Jesus simply says, ‘Come on then.’
And Peter steps out in faith – after all it must take some courage and faith, amidst the raging waves, to get out of a boat and walk on the water. He walks towards Jesus on the water. He is doing fine until a face full of wind slaps him back into reality. He freezes, loses focus and starts going under. It is one of those, ‘Oh my goodness’ moments. ‘What have I done?’ That’s is what it can feel like when we try and bring God’s love and healing power into the darkness of the world. That is when we need to hear, once more, Jesus words, a combination of rebuke and encouragement ‘Is that really how much faith that you have? Why all this doubt.
I remember when I gave in my notice and resigned from being a headteacher. My original intention was to be non-stipendiary priest – to keep my role as headteacher and to be an associate priest. I had felt increasingly called to full time ministry. Don’ t get me wrong. It was a very difficult decision. My school was my baby, my child and to a certain extent, had become my life. I had the interviews and Bishop Mark had offered me a stipendiary curacy at St. Matthews. The letter of resignation had been on the table for a while and it was coming crunch time – the deadline for giving in my notice as a headteacher. On that last date I walked to the post box and stood there for what seemed like ages. When I eventually had the courage to post the letter I had that ‘Oh my goodness, what on earth have I done?’ moment. There was no getting the letter back, there was no changing my mind now. All the doubts, comments some people had made ‘you can make more of a difference in school than you can in the church’, ‘why are you giving up your job, which you have worked so hard for’, ‘don’t do it’ came flooding into my mind. I also knew that once the resignation became public knowledge, that it was going to get worse. It certainly felt that the waves were overwhelming me.
As I walked home, amidst the whirling doubts and confusion, there was that still small voice. ‘I have brought you this far. Have faith’. I needed to hear Jesus words, a combination of rebuke and encouragement ‘Is that really how much faith that you have? Why all this doubt?’ I guess the moment when we are most tempted to give up is probably the moment when help is, if we only just knew it, just a step away.
That is what it is like for each of us in Christian discipleship, again and again – both in our individual lives and in our life together as a church. There are many times when Jesus asks us to do what seems impossible. How can we ever begin to do the task that he has called us to do? There are other people better than me to do the job (think of Moses). I have done so much for God – he can’t expect me to do anymore (think of Elijah) what if I step out in faith and it all goes wrong (think of Peter).
If we, like Peter and Elijah, look at the wind, the earthquake and the waves – then we will conclude that it is impossible. What we are called to do – it’s so basic and yet so obvious, yet so hard to put into practice – is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and our ears open to his still, small voice. Our wills and hearts must be ready to do what he says, even if it does seem a little crazy at the time.