Mountain and sea

I thought I would preach today on Elijah’s time up on the mountain. I expected that this morning, in speaking and listening, we’d unfold together that scene on Mount Horeb when one spectacular thing after another happened – rock shattering wind, earthquake, fire – and yet, God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the silence that followed them; in the “still small voice” of the old KJV, in “a gentle whisper,” in “a sound of sheer silence” as more recent translations rendered the text.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Holy One of Israel in Psalm 46, and I thought I’d preach on stillness today. A few years back I found a brief, prayerful text by Edwina Gateley I wanted to share with you today. And because it seems so much more appropriate to enter into silence than to preach about it, I invite you to ignore for a moment that the bulletin insists that now is the time for a sermon and to pray instead.

Be silent.
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God —
Love you.[1]

“Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Father of Jesus Christ in a Psalm that begins with bold assertions of human fearlessness. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”[2]

One of the wonderful things about living with scripture is that you never know what resonance it will create and what echoes you will pick up. Jesus, after the feast of abundance on the lakeshore that began with five loaves and two fish and ended when all had eaten and were filled and twelve baskets of left over pieces had been taken up, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. The contrast of the tumult of mountains shaking in the heart of the sea and the stillness of resting in the presence of God, that contrast from the psalm also appears in our gospel reading; only there it’s Jesus resting in the presence of God up on the mountain while the disciples are dealing with the waves battering their boat. I thought I would preach about solitude and silence, but we’re all in that boat, far away from the mountain.

After the banquet on the beach, Jesus dismissed the crowds and told the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead without him. It was the first time since Jesus had called them to be his disciples that he told them to go on without him. When night fell, he was alone on the mountain, praying, and they were alone in the thick of things, far from land, with the wind against them, working hard to keep the course.

Since apostolic times, the church has recognized itself in this small boat on its voyage to the other side of the wide sea. In Matthew, this is actually the second time that we are invited to recognize ourselves in those seafarers rather than watch them from the shore. The first time, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples when a wind storm arose; the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.[3] He was right there with them, but to them it was as if he wasn’t there at all. They woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. Why be afraid when Emmanuel, God-with-us is in the boat?

Well, in today’s passage of the sea crossing Jesus was not in the boat. It was dark, and they were far from the land because the wind was against them – but they were not afraid. They just kept the course. They knew what to do; several of them knew this lake like the back of their hands. Just keep your eyes on the horizon and the stars.

But then Jesus showed up. They thought they were seeing a ghost. Now they were terrified and crying out in fear, and Jesus said, “Take heart, it’s me; do not be afraid.” The wind and the waves they could handle, but Jesus showing up like that out of nowhere, that was frightening. The church has continued to tell and dwell in this story because it reminds us who Jesus is: not somebody we left behind on a distant shore when he sent us, but one who is with us and is coming to us. One whose voice and word we recognize. “It’s me; don’t be afraid.”

Now what got into Peter that he responded, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”? I’m only asking because it’s a good question to ask, not because I have an answer. Followers of Jesus have asked themselves for generations, and some suggest that Peter climbing over the side of the boat is a great example of daring discipleship. They paint a portrait of Jesus calling us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea and bidding us to come to him. Like Peter, we are to heed his call and find the courage to get out of the boat and walk. Step out boldly; just keep your eyes on the Lord. They think it’s perfectly OK for a follower of Jesus to want to walk on water, and if Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off the Lord, he would have hiked up and down the waves like it was just the thing to do out on the lake. Now I will gladly affirm that as disciples of Jesus we must step out boldly in faith, in obedience to Christ’s call; but Jesus didn’t come to them walking on the sea and saying, “It’s me; get out of the boat and let’s walk together.” That was Peter’s impulse, and the way I read this little gem of a story, he is not an example of courageous discipleship, but of rather ordinary discipleship.

The one we follow is with us and continues to come to us in unexpected ways. His is a presence unlike any other. Elijah on Mount Horeb fully expected to encounter the living God in the spectacular events of rock shattering and mountain splitting wind, of earthquake and fire, but the voice, the sound was still, small, a gentle whisper bordering on silence. “Take courage, it’s me. Don’t be afraid,” said Jesus. You are not alone on the journey to the fullness of God’s reign; I am with you. We hear the words, we hear the promise, but we go back and forth between between faith and the need for certainty.

Peter said, “Lord, if it is you…” In all of Matthew there are only two other scenes when someone addresses Jesus with this kind of conditional clause. In one, the devil comes to Jesus in the wilderness, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”[4] And in the other, at the crucifixion, some who pass by say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”[5] We are ordinary disciples; we want more than the word and the promise, and that puts us in the company of those who tempt and scorn the Son of God.

Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t sold Peter, but said, “Come.” The simple command reminds us of the day when Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw Peter and his brother and said to them, “Follow me.” They left their nets and followed him, and the hardest part then was keeping up with the man going ahead of them.

As we follow the Living One who is with us and who is coming to us we must learn to trust his word and promise and be attentive to his voice and call. Peter’s faith and ours is a blend of trust and doubt, of courage and fear, of sinking and being held.

“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”[6] The words of the psalm teach our hearts to trust in God’s promise and power to save. The world floods in on us with paralyzing experiences and frightening stories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other when love is absent. We have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over us, and many of us are drowning – in fear, in worries and despair.

I thought I would preach today on Elijah’s time up on the mountain and on God’s presence encountered in stillness. But Jesus came down the mountain in the darkness before dawn; he came down to meet his friends on the sea. When Peter began to sink and the waters were about to close over him, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” No more “Lord, if it is you,” only the voice of humanity crying out of the depths – and there it was, the strong hand of Jesus. Thanks be to God.


[1] Edwina Gateley, Let Your God Love You

[2] Psalm 46:1-3

[3] Matthew 8:23-27

[4] Matthew 4:3, 6

[5] Matthew 27:40

[6] Psalm 69:1-2