Slyne with Hest
1 Kings 19.9-18
Elijah lived during the reign of Ahab of Israel (869–850 BC), who was married to the wicked Jezebel. Israel was then the northern half of a kingdom that divided after the death of Solomon (Judah was the southern half). Elijah is fighting almost a lone battle to preserve worship of the God of Abraham and Moses (Yahweh) against Baal and pagan gods, the ancient Canaanite gods of the land that were promoted by Jezebel.
However, God leaves a remnant of 7,000 faithful ones who have endured hardship, who have trusted God, and who ‘have not bowed to Baal’ (v.18). Elijah will also be assisted by two kings, Hazael and Jehu, and the prophet Elisha; the two kings will do a lot of killing to destroy Baal worship, something that we now find scandalous and embarrassing.
Before that we hear of Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb (Deuteronomy’s name for Mount Sinai), where Moses also encountered God (Exodus 3; 19; 33). Moses was only allowed a glimpse of God’s back (Exodus 33.18-23). Elijah is not allowed even that. God comes to him as ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (v.12) on the mountain, but it is enough to strengthen the faithfulness of Elijah.
Nature miracles, such as this walking on water, pose historical difficulties because they look like the legends that are often produced around famous individuals and heroes of old. But first consider how this story works as drama. Jesus sent the disciples on their way in the boat, while he sent the crowd away – it was late afternoon, and the crowd had a long walk back. He stayed round the far side of the Sea of Galilee by himself, praying until twilight, and then it got very dark.
The lake is big (approximately 20km long by 11km at its widest) and 200m below sea level in the Great Rift Valley. Bad weather can develop rapidly, so the disciples probably sailed close to the shoreline. They were making little or no progress, rowing against a strong wind, when Jesus caught them up on foot. He seemed to be walking on the surface of the lake, though in the dark it would be difficult to see. At first they thought it was a ghost because they knew that people don’t walk on water. After Jesus calls out, Peter says to him: if it really is you, invite me to join you. So he does, but Peter is buffeted by the wind and starts to sink in the mud and choppy waters – until Jesus supports him. And ‘the wind ceased’ (v.32).
As history, make of it what you will. But what are the theological themes that Matthew presents to us? First, faith. Not intellectual faith but trust. Trust in the power of God working through Jesus. Without that no miracle can occur. The patient must believe he can be made well. Faith/trust in turn casts out fear: ‘it is I, do not be afraid’ (v.27). Second, salvation. ‘Lord, save me’ (v.30) can mean to be saved physically from drowning, but it can also have a fuller spiritual sense. Both of these meanings fill out what it is to live the life of a disciple. The sense of salvation for the disciples is represented here by the silence that comes after the calming of the storm.
The links between the lectionary readings
Elijah struggles against all the odds to remain faithful to God when persecuted by Ahab and Jezebel in the ninth century BC, and Peter’s faith wavers when buffeted by the storm. But both come through when they experience the power of God. These themes of faith as trust or faithfulness, and salvation from God, are also the focus of Psalm 85.8-13.
A personal prayer
Loving God, you whisper in my ear, when all I want to do is shout and scream. You draw me to yourself, when all I want to do is withdraw. You offer me eternal life, when all I want to do is survive. Take my life in your hands and bless me, for I know not always what I do. Amen.
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