Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A
1 Kings 19:9a, 10–13a; Romans 9:1–5; Matthew 14:22–33
I used to be involved in an online discussion group where a fair number of former police officers participated, and the subject of de-escalation came up—that is, how to help people go from being really ready to doing something dangerous to talking them back into rational territory. My favorite tip was on how to talk to a loud drunk person. The trick is, apparently, to start speaking to them at a normal level—or maybe even a little louder to match their intensity—and then, assuming you have their full attention, to slowly get quieter. They then have to listen more carefully, and they slowly start to match your volume. That's the game here. Get the person to match your level of intensity. You might have to start with someone whose intensity is off the charts, but by matching their intensity and then decreasing yours, you help talk them from being loud and obnoxious into being quiet and compliant.
I hear that some of you parents do the same with your children.
It struck me that perhaps this is what God was doing with Elijah at Mt. Horeb. The back story is that Elijah has run for over forty days and forty nights to escape from Queen Jezebel, who wants to destroy him—and reasonably so since he has had all of her idolatrous prophets put to death. But he's the last of the prophets of the Lord of Israel and is certain that death is coming for him soon.
He's fearful, and he does the only thing he can think of. He runs to the mountain of the Lord. He hides in the cave waiting for the Lord to come to him.
Which God does, as He always does. We like to imagine that God draws away from us, but it's always our initiative to move away. God is always there, but we close ourselves off from Him. He has to pull out all the stops to get to us. And make no mistake about it, God will pull out all the stops.
That's what we see here with Elijah. First the wind rending the mountain, then the earthquake, then the fire. But Elijah did not hear the Lord in wind, earthquake, or fire. Only in the whisper does Elijah hear the Lord. Now, I prefer the translation in the Revised Standard Version of the bible: Rather than a whisper, as in our New American Bible translation, the RSV says "a still, small voice."
A still, small voice. To me, that has a different character than a whisper. A still voice has a ring to it, while a whisper sort of blows away with the breeze. So that's my pick: the still, small voice.
So do you think the Lord is not present in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire? Perhaps He wasn't. But maybe He was present in all those forms... maybe God was there all along, but not in a way that Elijah could approach. Perhaps the Lord had to come to Elijah in ever smaller, more humble forms before Elijah could hear Him—before Elijah could even stand before Him.
I know in my own life that it is not always the big events, the big noises or disruptions, that the Lord uses to get my attention. He often has to use the still, small voice to get my attention—like the police officer speaking to the drunk, or the parent bringing the intensity of the child's emotions down to a place where real communication can happen. That's what the Lord does to us: talks us down from our emotional upheavals to a place where we can actually hear what He's saying to us. Maybe that's why He came to us as a small child rather than in all of His glory.
Think of Peter, too, in our gospel reading. First the apostles see Jesus walking to them on the water, and they think He's a ghost. He doesn't say, "I am no mere ghost! I am the Lord, the Almighty and powerful God!"
No. He says, "Take courage. It is I"—in effect, "Relax, guys, it's just me."
What happens next? Peter tests him. "If it's you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water"—in effect, "If it's really you, Lord...."
Is it that Peter denies Jesus' power? Not exactly. He and the other apostles have just seen Jesus feed 5000 men plus women and children from five loaves and two fish.
He doesn't deny Jesus' power.
He denies Jesus' presence.
He won't believe a mere apparition, in a vision only, but if that vision can make him walk on water, he'll believe.
But even then, even when he now knows Jesus' is right there, he falters. He has everything right there that he needs to be secure... except for complete faith.
That's our story right there. That's us. That is why Peter is such a great example for us and a great choice to be the leader of the Twelve. Jesus calls Peter "rock," and I don't think it's because Peter had rock-hard abs or biceps. It took Peter a few tries before he really understood, before Jesus got through his rock-hard head.
Jesus knows us so well. He knows that most of us have to encounter Him in ways that are basic to human experience: in the still, small voice; in the cry of an infant in a manger; in a hand reaching out to help us when we stumble. That's why we have Jesus here with us in the Word of God, why we celebrate His presence in the Eucharist, and why we reserve Him in the tabernacle for the sick and for adoration. That's why Jesus gave the Church sacraments of matter.
Because if Jesus left us here with no sensible means of His presence—no physical, material reminder of Him—we would always be fleeing to some Mt. Horeb somewhere trying to find Him.
But He's right here... in that still, small voice