Worship was led by The Revd. Dr. Walter Houston who preached on the real sensation of fear which we experience. Elijah also experienced fear but was reassured by the sense of God’s voice within himself. Jesus reassured Peter when he failed to walk on the water and chastised him for his lack of faith. Whatever fear we experience, God is there reassuring and supporting us.
Rejoice and Sing 67 Immortal, invisible, God only wise
Rejoice and Sing 704 Lord, thine heart in love hath yearned (Psalm 85)
Rejoice and Sing 354 Come, living God, when least expected
Rejoice and Sing 688 I waited for the Lord my God
Rejoice and Sing 72 Now thank we all our God
First book of Kings chapter 19 verses 1 to 18
Matthew chapter 14 verses 22 – 33
It isn’t only the children who love thrillers, is it? They sell in their millions, whether they are trashy or well written, and the same goes for the video versions that we see on TV or Netflix. We seem to like feeling the vicarious sense of danger as the hero gets into hot water for the 20th time, and we are eager to find out how he gets out of it, and to have the comfort of knowing that the goodies win in the end and evil is defeated.
I suppose that by watching or reading stories like these we can feel the thrill of terror experienced by the hero without actually being in any danger, and then the sense of relief at being saved from the danger. Millennia of evolution surrounded by the perils of wild beasts, forest fires, famine, violence from neighbouring tribes and so on have engendered a strong pattern in us of reaction to danger: terror followed by fight or flight as appropriate. But modern life has, thank God, radically reduced our opportunities to exercise this reaction, and it may be that enjoying thrillers is a substitute—I’m only speculating, I’m no psychologist.
But though many of the dangers to life that our ancestors experienced have vanished or become less frequent, they haven’t gone away altogether. From time to time every one of us, I think, will experience that sense of what has been called ‘existential terror’, that our life is in danger, and in some cases perhaps that life itself is threatened. For the more intrepid among us, that moment might come on a mountain wall or on the ocean wave; for most of us it is finding a lump or some other symptom that might presage a fatal illness; or the doctor’s diagnosis that you do indeed have such an illness; or it might be the reckless words of a president on a short fuse.
For some it is slightly different: the terror of their lives is a sense of hopelessness that engulfs them and induces them to throw away their lives themselves. And this has been growing in recent years. How often has your train been delayed by what the announcements euphemistically refer to as ‘an incident on the line’, which often enough means someone has thrown themselves in front of a train?
Elijah too experienced this sense, as he says under the broom bush ‘O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’ But what has led the intrepid prophet Elijah, who confronted king Ahab and faced the massed ranks of the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel with confidence, to this ignominious flight? It must surely be more than just Jezebel’s message that she intends to have him killed: it is reaction of existential terror. He and all that he holds dear are under threat, and he can see no way of avoiding the disaster that is coming down the track: as he says, ‘The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.’ And this is what makes him exaggerate: ‘I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
Faced with ultimate terror, Elijah has given up. He has taken the choice of flight rather than fight this time. If ‘take away my life’ is the response of hopelessness, his terror is underlined by the words ‘they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
But of course this story is not just one of terror, but of divine comfort. Like the best thrillers, it shows us Elijah ultimately escaping from the danger, but the way in which his escape takes place is important. Quite simply, he meets God; and God assures him, implicitly, that his life is in no danger, and that, more important, God’s own cause is in no danger either: ‘I will leave 7000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’
How does the storyteller convince us of God’s presence in Elijah’s life? Obviously there are legendary features to it—the angel who leaves Elijah food, or the journey of 40 days and 40 nights, a symbolic figure, recalling the 40 years that the Israelites are said to have wandered in the same wilderness. We can’t know to what extent the story is historical, though the confrontation over who should be the state God of the kingdom of Israel is very plausible: the traditional God of the Israelites, or the god of Tyre, Baal Melkart, supported by the Phoenician queen Jezebel. It is a matter of national politics, not just of religion. But there is also a profound theological element to the story. How does God communicate with human beings? Through spectacular natural phenomena like earthquake, wind and fire? There’s plenty in the Bible itself that might suggest that. But in this story ‘the Lord was not in the wind’, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire; but rather in the voice within heard in silence.
So, Elijah flies for his life. He crosses the border from the northern kingdom known as Israel into Judah. One would think he would be safe enough there, but not so: in the reign of Ahab and his heirs Judah was thoroughly under Israel’s thumb, and Jezebel could easily get him brought back, or murdered by her thugs. He presses on to Beersheba, in the extreme south of the inhabited land, where he leaves his servant: he evidently wishes to be alone, goes on another day’s journey and throws himself down under a broom bush and pleads to die. But here the first sign comes that in fact he is not alone: after he wakes from sleep an angel touches him, and leaves him food, not once by twice. And in the strength of that food he travels through an increasingly arid and empty country until he comes to ‘Horeb, the mountain of God’. This is the mountain where according to Deuteronomy the Israelites met with God and the Ten Commandments were given. Whether it is the same place as Mount Sinai is not clear, though the Bible as we have it certainly identifies them as the same.
No one has told Elijah to make this journey. It is he himself who has been drawn, perhaps unconsciously, to this place so steeped in the lore and faith of his nation, where he may find comfort.
And here is the second sign that he is not alone: the voice of God comes to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Elijah was not where he ought to be, fighting for the faith of his God. He was in flight, terrified. And he admits it: ‘The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ (It is at this point in Mendelssohn’s oratorio. which follows Elijah’s story, that the chorus occurs that we heard just now, ‘He that endures to the end shall be saved’. But Elijah is not yet convinced to endure.)
He is sent out onto the mountainside to witness a stunning display of the power of God in nature. But, he learns, this is not how God will communicate with him. The wind, the earthquake and the fire are followed by utter silence. I am sorry if you are missing that well-loved phrase ‘a still small voice’. The fact is it is inaccurate in one respect and out of date in another. The word ‘still’ could mean ‘silent’ in 1611, but it doesn’t convey that meaning to us today. And the Hebrew word qol, which often means ‘voice’, can also mean simply a sound. ‘The sound of utter silence’ gives a better impression of the meaning of the Hebrew. It is in the silence that God speaks to Elijah. It is not quite clear why at this point God’s question and Elijah’s answer are repeated from earlier in the story. God’s final answer is simply to give Elijah a new commission. God still has work for him to do. It is not time to be giving up. He has no need to fear Jezebel.
But what supports Elijah and relieves him of his terror, I believe, is nothing that God says, it is simply the presence of God to him, a comforting and strengthening presence. And in the strength of that presence he can go to fulfil his first commission, to call a prophet to succeed him, Elisha. And it is actually Elisha who fulfils the other two commissions, to anoint new kings over Damascus and Israel.
Our other reading, from Matthew, presents us with another man suddenly struck by existential terror. This story is doubtless also largely legendary, and only Matthew, unlike Mark and John, mentions Peter’s attempt to walk on the water. But we can learn from it all the same. Peter is trying to walk on the water like Jesus, when suddenly he realises that he is walking over 50 fathoms of water, or whatever the depth might be, and starts to sink. It may seem strange that an experienced fisherman, who knows how to swim and is only two yards from a boat, should be frightened of sinking, but that is what existential terror is like: it can be totally irrational. All he needs is the reassuring hand of Jesus and, again, his voice, even telling him off for lacking faith.
So what do these stories mean for us, we who are all struck by existential terror from time to time, and indeed will all at some point be unable to escape from the reality of death? Simply this: that however alone we may feel in front of deadly danger—and of course we may not be, even in human terms—we are not alone. Whether we know it or realise it or not, there is one who is there with us and knows our plight, and we have full access to his comfort. He may rebuke us for disbelieving, as Jesus does Peter, or ask us what we are doing in our fearful retreat, as God does Elijah, but in the end we will hear him saying ‘I am with you, I am here for you’.
But if the ears and eyes of our spirit are open, we may know the divine presence. Nine times out of ten our terror is unnecessary, and our Lord will conduct us over the bridge above the terrifying gulf safely to the other side, or if indeed our hour has come, will go with us as our eyes close. ‘Fear not, I am with you’ are the gladdest words in the Bible, and they are ours to hear.