1 Kings 19:9a, 11–13a; Romans 9:1–5; Matthew 14:22–33
How much do we really want to see God face to face? How much do we really trust God to take care of us? And if we did see God face to face, would we recognize Him? These questions are at the root of our Old Testament and Gospel readings today.
Elijah has just completed the longest marathon on record—a forty-day run fueled by some heart cakes and a jug of water given to him by an angel. Wouldn’t you just love to be able to drop into 7-11 for a 960-hour energy hearth cake when you need to get through a difficult month?
Elijah is hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb, and God asks him why he’s there. We don’t get the whole story in our reading today, but Elijah is a bit put out because he’s done everything that God has asked, and now the rulers and the people of Israel want to kill him for it. He was expecting a bit more gratitude from them for ridding them of false prophets.
There’s no clear explanation of why he runs to Mt. Horeb, but it’s not hard to guess why. He fled to this place to hide. He knew that God had revealed himself to Moses here. He wants God to protect him, but he didn’t so much come seeking God as much as to hide until God came to seek him.
That can be our dilemma as Christians. We don’t as much trust God to walk with us but to come and rescue us. And the when he does, we cower. He lower our heads and grovel. Now, sometimes we should grovel. Sometimes we make mistakes, and our only reasonable response is to bow our heads and say, “Oh Lord, that was such a stupid thing I did. Please prevent my bad decisions from hurting other people.”
Does that prayer sound familiar? It sounds really familiar to me, because I’ve prayed it more times in my life than I’d like to admit.
But Elijah hasn’t done anything wrong, and yet he still feels defeated, and he cowers in this cave—waiting for God to come to him. And when God does come to Him, he cowers and hides his face.
We can’t really blame Elijah for cowering. The Jewish understanding was that no one could look God in the face and live. But Judaism also always had a notion of God who is merciful and loving—and most of all, generous.
What is it about God’s generosity that makes us want to cower? When you give your children or grandchildren a gift, do they shrink from you… or do they run, wrap their arms around you, and bury their faces in your belly? Why don’t we run and launch ourselves into God’s arms? We’re afraid of something—maybe afraid of what it will cost us to abandon ourselves completely to God. Maybe that fear isn’t unfounded. Our faith can cost us everything in this life.
But maybe that’s the point.
Faith should cost us something. Faith does cost us something. But we forget why we have faith. We don’t have faith simply so we’ll be grateful for what we already have. We wouldn’t be here experiencing anything without God’s gift of life to us. We need faith to help us weather the waves and storms. We need faith so that we will trust to go to those dangerous places where God sometimes calls us.
In our gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus to call him out on the water, and Jesus does so. Peter asks Jesus to prove himself, but even as Peter walks on the waves, the tumult of the sea causes him to doubt.
“Why did you doubt?” Jesus asks Peter.
How many times do we ask God to prove Himself, only to doubt and lose faith when things don’t go exactly as we planned? What is faith for if we always lose it when we need it? We don’t need faith when everything is hunky dory. We don’t need faith when we’ve got that great job, the nice car, and the cozy north-end bungalow. We need faith when our health fails us; when the job prospects have evaporated and our savings are gone; when our children decide that this religion stuff just isn’t for them; when it looks like we are going to lose everything.
We need faith in our worst times, but it’s so often in those worst times when we let our faith falter, like Peter sinking in the waves.
But what happens when your faith has carried you through those storms? When you look back and see in those moments the hand of God holding you up? When you look back on the messy, twisted road that has led you to this point? Our faith is borne not in triumph but in those moments of adversity and struggle. When our faith is exercised and challenged, that is when it and we have the most potential for spiritual growth.
There’s a song titled “Oceans” that is very popular on Christian music charts right now, and it takes its imagery from this gospel reading. There’s a line in it that goes like this:
“Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my savior.”
Our faith is made stronger when we are taken deeper than we could ever go on our own. When we’ve been thrown into the deep end and have to thrash our way out. Our faith can take us deeper, or when we’re in too deep, it can be that lifeline that pulls us back out.
Many of us have had very interesting spiritual journeys with all kinds of twists and turns, on rocky roads and barren paths that have nonetheless led them here back to the Church. My own life path took me away from the Church for twenty years, and then led me right back here, much to my surprise and joy: right back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which we will celebrate shortly. Like the Prodigal Son, many of us prodigal sons and daughters stand here now and marvel how God brought us back to this table. But here we are, with our faith not only intact, but far stronger than if we had never faced the barren path. We have faith because we have encountered God’s generosity deeply. We come here to the Eucharist like children racing to bury themselves in the arms of their Father, as we all should every Sunday.
There’s a Spanish proverb, sometimes attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola. The origin isn’t important, but the sentiment is: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
God can take the most broken road—your worst mistakes and all of your bad decisions—and lead you back to him; and that broken road may be just what you needed to recognize your need for God and your need for faith.