Paralyzed by Fear
I don’t want to get too technical, but there is a term for the prophet Elijah, whom we encounter in the reading from 1 Kings today. He is a piece of work.
Three of the episodes for which he is most famous will serve to give us a taste of Elijah’s character. First, at the height of the drought he claims to have set in motion, he goes to stay with a widow and her young son. In his first encounter with the woman, he says with no preliminaries, “Bring me some water to drink and bake me some bread.” He apparently doesn’t care much either for the social niceties or for the plight of the widow, who was just about to cook a last meal for herself and her boy and then settle down to starve to death. He promises they won’t starve, and her supplies of grain and oil are miraculously renewed all the time he stays there.
Second, when the widow’s child becomes ill and dies, and she blames this “man of God” for causing it, Elijah raises him from the dead, but not before handing off the blame to God. He rebukes God, saying, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” (1 Kgs 17:20).
The same kind of cheeky irreverence appears in the third episode, along with something more unsettling, even sinister. Elijah confronts King Ahab and issues a challenge. The king has adopted the pagan practices of his wife Jezebel, filling the land with shrines to the goddess Asherah and her consort Baal. It is this apostasy that has occasioned the drought, at least according to the prophet, and the time has come for a showdown. Elijah proposes a contest with the prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel in the sight of the people, whom he challenges, saying, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). Then he takes on the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal by having both sides set up altars with bulls, kindling, wood—everything except the fire. He then proposes that they pray to their god and he will pray to Yahweh, and the deity who answers with fire will be acknowledged as the true god.
When the prophets can’t seem to get a rise out of Baal, Elijah takes to mocking them, suggesting that their god is on a journey or asleep or visiting the privy, so maybe they should shout louder and cut themselves with knives and that sort of thing. They do, but it has no effect except to make their voices hoarse and to get sticky pagan blood all over the place. Now it’s Elijah’s turn in the spotlight, and he does his best P. T. Barnum act. He calls the people in close so they can see better, and they watch as he rebuilds the altar to Yahweh and digs a trench around it. Imagine their shock and indignation when he orders the servants to keep pouring water over the altar until the offering is soaked and the trench is full. The arrogance necessary to waste that much water in the middle of a severe drought just to prove a point is also an element of the prophet’s character.
But that’s not the sinister part. That comes after God responds to Elijah’s prayer by sending down fire that “consume[s] the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even lick[s] up the water … in the trench” (1 Kgs 18:38). The people are appropriately awed, and bow down to worship Yahweh on the spot. That’s not enough for this zealous prophet, however; he tells the people, “‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of the escape.’ Then they [seize] them; and Elijah [brings] them down to the Wadi Kishon, and kill[s] them there” (1 Kgs 18:40). Four hundred fifty human beings, slaughtered like the bulls on the altars, their blood running into the dry riverbed, filling it up like the water Elijah poured over the offerings filled up the trenches.
So when we talk about the great prophet Elijah, we should remember not only his faithfulness to God but also his willingness to confront God with accusations of wrongdoing. We should remember not only that he raised a child from the dead or ascended in a fiery chariot, but also that he was a mass murderer. Mass executioner, if you like, but at some point the distinction ceases to matter. Well before you get to number four fifty, I would guess.
There is yet another side of Elijah’s character that becomes clear in the wake of this slaughter: his cowardice. When Jezebel finds out that Elijah has killed all her prophets, she vows to kill him. This gets Elijah’s attention. Ahab is a weaselly character who is easily manipulated and has trouble making decisions, but you don’t mess around with Jezebel. She means business. The writer of the story says of Elijah, “Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life” (1 Kgs 19:3).
It may not be entirely fair to describe this as cowardice. In fact, on the surface it looks like a pretty prudent course of action. But Elijah is no ordinary yokel; he is a prophet of the living God. He serves a God who is able to shut up the heavens for three years, by whose power he can raise the dead, and who can send fire powerful enough to burn even water. Elijah has just presided over a great “victory” in his nation’s religious war, and has got the people of Israel back on the side of Yahweh. It should be his moment of triumph, but instead he is consumed by fear and self-pity, so much so that he wants to die.
Prompted by an angel, he travels to Mount Horeb, the site where Moses encountered God in the burning bush and later received the Ten Commandments from God’s hand. He finds a cave and settles in for the night. The word of God comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 9). A reasonable question, I think. Elijah’s answer is telling: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for 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” (v. 10). The maitre d’ calls out, “Pity, party of one!”
God does not respond to this complaint of Elijah’s except to tell him to go to the mouth of the cave because God is about to pass by. The writer tells us, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence” (vv. 11–12). I find it interesting that it says, “the Lord was not in the fire,” considering the story of the contest on Mount Carmel just one chapter before. It sort of calls into doubt the whole fire-from-heaven scenario, doesn’t it? We may have here in these verses the voice of another writer who is troubled by that depiction of God’s power and its implications, not the least of which is Elijah’s zeal in butchering his enemies. For whatever reason, here in chapter 19 God is not found in wind, fire, or earthquake, but in profound silence.
When the silence comes, Elijah goes to the mouth of the cave, where God repeats the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 13). And here is where the prophet proves to be a disappointment. Apparently unaffected by the awesome theophany he has just witnessed, he replies in the exact same words as before: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for 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” (v. 14).
God knows that it’s all over for Elijah, and the remainder of the passage represents a sort of “decommissioning” of the prophet. Fear and defeatism have won out over faith. Elijah has developed tunnel vision. Like many of us when we find ourselves in the throes of disappointment or self-pity or depression, Elijah can’t see past his own pain. He whines, “I alone am left,” but this is patently untrue, which God gently reminds him, saying, “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (v. 18). Elijah is not the only faithful person left; he’s just the only one Elijah currently cares about.
His problem is that he has taken his eye off the ball. He has allowed himself to become distracted and swayed by other concerns—most notably Jezebel’s threats—and has forgotten not only who he is but also whose he is. The God who called him to his prophetic vocation and has sustained him, sometimes miraculously, all these years, is here at the mouth of this cave, waiting in the sheer silence, but Elijah has fallen too deep into his own darkness to realize it. When he looks around, he cannot see the path forward. He is paralyzed by his fear.
The same thing happens to Peter in our reading from Matthew. He takes his eye off the ball and becomes paralyzed by fear. When his fear overpowers trust, he puts himself at risk of drowning.
The story goes like this: Jesus sends the disciples across the Sea of Galilee in a boat while he stays behind to pray. Well after midnight, while Peter and the others are still straining at the oars, their boat buffeted by the wind and waves, Jesus comes toward them, walking on the sea. They are terrified and think he is a ghost, but he assures them it is he. In the version of the story that appears in Mark and John, he then gets into the boat and the wind immediately dies down. Only in Matthew’s version of the story does Peter try to get in on the act. He starts out okay, but when he takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to notice the wind, he becomes terrified and starts to go under. Jesus saves him, offers a mild rebuke—“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (v. 31)—and they both climb into the boat, one of them sopping wet.
It all seems pretty straightforward. As the Son of God, Jesus is able to perform feats like this, but Peter fails because he does not possess the same kind of power or the requisite faith. The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t write a check with your mouth that your … faith can’t cash, or something like that. But there may be something much more profound going on here.
Notice, first of all, that Matthew never says Jesus walks on the water; he says he walks on the sea. The same is true of both Mark and John. What difference does that make, you may wonder. A great deal of difference, I answer. Jesus is not a first-century David Copperfield, performing some kind of illusion for a gullible audience in Las Vegas. This is not magic, and neither is it a miracle per se. He’s not doing this to impress or entertain, or to stick it to his disciples, as though he were saying, “Look here! Son of God!” as he speeds past them like a waterskier without a rope. Or skis. Or a boat. The meaning of this episode is far deeper than that.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, as in other ancient Mesopotamian myths, the sea represents more than a mere body of water. It is the abode of monsters and demons, the realm of chaos that God imposed order upon at creation. Genesis 1 says God separates the waters and makes the dry land appear. God sets up a dome called Sky to keep most of the waters of chaos outside, with only part of the waters remaining as the Sea. In other words, God tames or subdues the waters, but chaos still holds sway in the sea. Creatures such as Leviathan and Rahab, great sea monsters, rule these waters, and untold spirits and demons frolic in the chaotic depths of the sea. This explains what would otherwise appear as an indecipherable non sequitur in the book of Revelation. John describes the new heaven and earth that God will inaugurate after the final victory over evil, and then adds, “And the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1).
Is it any wonder, then, that the disciples are terrified when they see Jesus walking on the sea and think he is a ghost or something worse? When they cry out in fear, he reassures them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (v. 27). The clause translated here as “It is I” is really ego eimi, which literally means, “I am.” That’s the same thing God says when Moses asks for God’s name. And that’s no accident.
In this story of Jesus’s walking on the sea (not the water), Matthew is telling us that, like God the Creator, Jesus has power over chaos and evil. He treads the spirits and monsters and gods and devils underfoot. He can calm the waves and wind with a word. The sea of chaos holds no terror for the one whose name is I AM.
But see what happens when Peter elbows his way onto the scene. He says, “‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He [says], ‘Come.’ So Peter [gets] out of the boat, [starts] walking on the water, and [comes] toward Jesus” (vv. 28–29, emphasis added). See what just happened there? Peter doesn’t get the message; he doesn’t ask to tread on the sea of chaos, but only to perform a magic trick to impress his friends. So when he gets out there and suddenly realizes where he is; when he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks around at the waves and wind; when he starts imagining Leviathan swimming up from the depths to chomp him, he freaks out. He becomes paralyzed with fear, starts to sink, and has to cry out for Jesus to save him.
Which he does, of course. Jesus must know what is going to happen; he probably knows what Peter is thinking even as he makes the request. But he lets him try it, and when he inevitably fails, he doesn’t write Peter off and let him go under and sleep with the fishes. He reaches out his hand, catches him, and takes him into the boat with him.
That’s good news, not just for Peter, but for all of us. We live in a frightening world. Just this week we have seen many of the terrors of the nuclear age that we thought we had banished come flooding back as we have watched the tense standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. We have seen a bomb go off in a mosque in Minnesota and white supremacists clash with protestors in Virginia. The war rages on in Syria, tensions between the US and Russia are at Cold-War levels, twenty million people remain at risk of starvation in Yemen and central Africa, and a leaked report tells us that global climate change has already had stark effects, which will only get worse if we continue on our present path of denial and inaction. It is easy in such a world to take our eye off the ball. To look away from Jesus and see the waves and wind. To forget God’s provision and protection and hear only the threats of the queen. To think that we are the only ones left who care or believe or try to do what’s right.
When we find ourselves in that predicament, let us stand at the mouth of the cave and hear God whisper, “What are you doing here?” and then give a better answer than Elijah does. Let us cry out to Jesus, “Save us!” and then take hold of his hand that is always stretched out to us. Let us not become paralyzed by our fear so that we curse the darkness, but rather let us be motivated by our faith to light a candle. Let us be ever mindful that, no matter how bad things get, we are always held in the strong arms of a loving God.