God's Word on Sunday: God’s voice is heard in the still silence

  • August 10, 2023

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 13 (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:21-33)

Elijah expected a grand show. The word of the Lord directed him to stand on the mountain because God was going to pass by. At first, it seemed that he would not be disappointed. There was a wind so strong that it split rocks. But God was not in the wind. This was followed by a strong earthquake — but no God. Finally, there was a consuming fire, but God was not even in the fire. 

These manifestations were the ways in which ancient peoples encountered God. Not understanding the forces of nature, they tended to deify storms, earthquakes, floods, famines and plagues or see them as divine wrath. Most people no longer see God in these forces of nature, although nature can inspire and uplift people to contemplate the beauty of the creator. The only survival of these older ways of looking at natural events is in insurance documents. There these destructive events are referred to as “acts of God.” In other words, we are not going to pay because God did it.

So where was God in this story? After these three events, Elijah had an experience of the divine presence that defies description. God’s voice was described by a Hebrew phrase that is very difficult to translate. In the various English translations available, it has been rendered as “still small voice, light murmuring sound, gentle whisper, tiny whispering sound and sheer silence.” They all struggle to capture the nuance of the phrase, but no one translation is adequate. The sense is that the voice is unlike anything we know or expect, and it is almost imperceptible. There is too much noise around us and within us; one must be still and quiet to perceive the gentle whisper or rustle of the voice. God is not silent; it is just that we cannot hear God’s voice. God does not come to us always in the expected ways. Individually and as a people we are called to still the mouth, the mind and the heart, and to learn to be still and silent. Then we too can cover our face as Elijah did, knowing that we were in the divine presence.

Paul was experiencing intense inner anguish over Israel’s refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. He recounted all of Israel’s achievements — they were (and still are) the chosen people and the bearer of the covenants and the Law. From them came the prophets and Jesus Himself. He remained convinced that in the end all Israel would be saved. Pope John Paul II spoke of God’s covenant with Israel that has never been revoked and this the Church has repeatedly affirmed. Antisemitism is wrong and sinful, but closely connected to that is the idea that the Jewish people have been abandoned or rejected by God. Unfortunately, these ideas still linger in the minds and hearts of far too many people.

We sometimes say that someone either walks on water or thinks that they do, and it is not always said in a complimentary sense. It is a reference to this Gospel story and others in which Jesus walks on water. The difference in this account is that Peter walked on water too, and he was scarcely the model of great holiness. He was very human in every respect. Responding to a challenge by Peter to prove his identity, Jesus commanded Peter to walk to Him across the water. At first, he was successful, for his mind was focused on Jesus and he was empowered by Him. But as he noticed the wind and the waves around him, he began to fear, and with that surrender to fear the connection with Jesus was lost. Down he went and had to be fished out of the water, probably sputtering and gasping. Jesus chided him for his lack of faith for it was this doubt that disempowered him.

This is what most people do — they believe in these human boundaries and limits as if they were absolute and feed themselves “I can’t” responses to the challenges and opportunities of life. Rather than focusing on the Lord, they listen to their own internal fears or those that others eagerly contribute and make these fears and doubts their own.

True freedom lies in listening to one voice: the still, quiet, whisper within us rather than the voices of doubt and fear.