Sunday Scripture: Finding God by facing fear
August 7, 2011
By Terrance Callan
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33
It is natural to avoid the things we fear and to reject what does not make sense to us. But sometimes we can only find God by confronting what frightens us and accepting things that do not make sense to us.
The reading from the First Book of Kings tells about an incident in the life of the prophet Elijah. Ahab, king of Israel, had threatened Elijah’s life, so Elijah fled to Horeb, the mountain of God. There he was told to stand on the mountain, and God would pass by. While Elijah stood on the mountain, there was first a strong and heavy wind, then an earthquake, and after that. Fire. But God was not in any of these. Then “there was a tiny whispering sound,” and God was in it.
Surprisingly. Elijah did not encounter God in any of the powerful natural phenomena that often accompany an appearance of God. Instead God was present in the tiny whispering sound that followed them. But in order to meet God, Elijah had to expose himself to the wind, earthquake and fire where God was not, and to the tiny whispering sound where God was. Like Elijah, we may need to confront fearful things in order to meet God.
The reading from the Gospel according to Matthew tells of a time when Jesus’ disciples encountered God in Him. After Jesus fed the 5,000, He sent His disciples back across the Sea of Galilee in their boat; He remained behind to dismiss the crowd and pray on a mountain by himself. Very early the next morning, between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., as the disciples’ boat was being tossed about by waves, Jesus came toward it walking on the water.
Naturally the disciples were terrified. Even after Jesus said, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid,” they did not believe their eyes. Peter asked for a sign saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus answered, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But then Peter became frightened by the wind and waves and began to sin. He called out, “Lord, save me.”
Jesus immediately did so, but reproached Peter saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
When Jesus and Peter got into the boat, the wind died down, and those in the boat did Jesus homage.
In order to meet God in Jesus, Peter needed to obey Jesus’ command to walk toward Him across the water in the midst of a storm. When Peter did so, even though he faltered, he and the other disciples did learn to know God in Jesus. Jesus rescued Peter; the wind died down; and the disciples saw that Jesus was truly the Son of God.
The reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans speaks about another kind of difficulty encountering God in Jesus. In this passage, Paul lists the blessings of the people of Israel: “theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ.”
Israel is God’s chosen people, blessed by God beyond all other peoples of the world. Even so, many Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Savior sent to them by God when He came. Paul expresses his anguish at this situation: For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people.”
Many Jews, despite their long relationship with God, did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus was not what they expected, and they were not able to adjust to this latest surprise in God’s dealing with them. Their experience warns us to be ready for surprises in God’s dealing with us. God does not conform to our expectations; we must conform to God.
Callan is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.