Words on the Word
19. Sunday A
1 Kings 19.9-13: After the fire came the sound of a gentle breeze.
Romans 9.1-5: My mental anguish is endless.
Matthew 14.22-33: ‘Come’, said Jesus.
Today’s collect begins with the words, ‘Almighty, ever-living God, whom we dare to call our Father’. Not so long ago this formula would have seemed self-evident. It would have needed no comment. That is no longer the case. Our time’s traumas and complexes have left us exposed (and rather paranoid) with regard to gendered vocabulary. The business of choosing pronouns has become a kind of Russian roulette.
This holds for theology, too. There are those who consider the naming of God as ‘Father’ to be nothing but chauvinism. Such language, they submit, is culturally conditioned by patriarchal norms from a long-surpassed stage of cultural history. People will have their reasons for arguing this way. But we are rather stuck. The name ‘Father’ is a leitmotif in Scripture; and Scripture is God’s self-revelation — this is the Church’s faith from ancient times, clearly vindicated by the Second Vatican Council. Our Lord Jesus Christ revealed God’s Fatherhood with singular authority, but not as a novelty. God is Father from eternity. We might then, instead of quarrelling about pronouns, consider how God has shown himself Father in the lives of his faithful ones. Today the Church puts before us a great example: that of the Prophet Elijah.
The text we have heard speaks of God’s revelation to Elijah on Mount Horeb. The Lord was not in the storm, the earthquake or the fire; then ‘came the sound of a gentle breeze’. We have all heard countless devout expositions of this tableau. They tend to wish to convey that God is a nice God, a God who does not disturb us; who does not make a fuss of himself but is like a gentle caress we shall feel in our inward being if we become still enough, silent enough, spiritual enough. Such a Quietist reading is well-intentioned but wishy-washy. It has not much to do with the narrative of Scripture. The Elijah cycle in 1 and 2 Kings lets us see that God, precisely, does show himself and act through dramatic gestures, through the weather and through fire. God is in the drought and the rain Elijah calls down on Israel (1. Kings 17.1, 18.41); he is in the fire summoned onto Mount Carmel (18.38); and he will be in the fire that devours the emissaries of Ahaziah (2. Kings 1.10).
Elijah’s God is not a harmless, hushed God. He is righteous and demanding. That is part of his Fatherliness.
The fact that the Lord, on Horeb, lets himself be perceived in a quiet breeze conveys a special message to Elijah in special circumstances. Elijas has come to Horeb to hide. He is afraid. But that is not all. He is also sulking. He considers that God has left him in the lurch, that the Lord is guilty of a breach of contract. For a long time Elijah has been an agent of divine power. The elements have obeyed him; he has worked wonders, as in the case of the cruses of the widow of Sarepta; he has raised the dead; he has single-handedly eliminated 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. Now, however, it is as if the Lord had nonchalantly put him on the shelf and forgotten all about him.
He is surrendered to his enemy, the odious Queen Jezebel. She pursues him relentlessly. No fire from God comes to his rescue. Elijah is fed up and tired. He only wishes to die. The scene is tragic; it is also pathetic. In the middle of tragedy there’s an absurd, childish element, a little boy saying: ‘Now you may think me of no consequence, but when I disappear, then you will miss me!’
The Lord refuses to engage with Elijah as if he were a child. Instead he dispatches an angel with the message: ‘Rise and eat, you have yet a long way to travel’ (19.7). Next he reveals himself in the epiphany on Horeb. He lets Elijah see that God is not absent just because, here and now, he chooses not to manifest himself with bombast. If God is truly God, he is present everywhere, even in his apparent absence. The God of action is also a God who waits. What he waits for is our response, our obedience, our getting up to go. ‘You have yet a long way to travel.’
God our Father does not merely offer comfort. He makes demands. He wishes us to realise what our taks is, and to show ourselves worthy of the task. He calls us to grow up, to set out, to give of ourselves so that others may live. He constantly bids us go beyond what we think of as our natural limit. He does not let us relax. His measure is eternal. He will not, then, leave us stuck in what is temporal and limited. His Fatherly expectation is high, but expresses itself gently, for he is a Father who loves his children. God does not shout at Elijah. He whispers to him, appealing intelligently to the prophet’s nobler side. Thus he enables Elijah to discover, without humiliation, that he is more than his tiredness, his fear, his present need. He discovers that he can go further in a power not his own. A kind of lightness possesses Elijah after Horeb. He renounces himself in order to become ever more a vehicle for God’s providence. Indeed, he is so fully divested of his heavy nature of dust that he can be carried straight into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 1.11), there to become a pledge of the New Testament to come (Mal 4.5).
‘Almighty, ever-living God, whom we dare to call our Father’. That is how our prayer begins. It carries on: ‘Bring to perfection in our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters.’ God’s Son, heeding the Father’s call, embraced a self-transcendence so complete that Paul could say: ‘he emptied himself’ (Phil 2.7). He calls out to us: ‘Follow me!’ He comes to us on the water, in the middle of the storm, and says: ‘Step out onto the water!’
It can at times by tempestuous and terrifying to acknowledge God as our Father. That is why he has given us the Church as our tender, consoling Mother. Thank God for that.
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
quem, docente Spiritu Sancto,
paterno nomine invocare præsumimus,
perfice in cordibus nostris spiritum adoptionis filiorum,
ut promissam hereditatem ingredi mereamur.
Per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, Filium tuum,
qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus,
per omnia sæcula sæculorum.
Joseph Mallord William Turner:
Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.