“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Paul quotes that passage from Isaiah in his letter to the Christians in Rome. If a messenger with beautiful feet were sent to you today, what message would those feet deliver to you? What is the Good News you are longing to hear? Do you hope to hear the doctor say, “You will be fine. It’s nothing serious”? Do you long to hear someone you love say, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you”? Are you waiting for the Good News that war is over, that children are safe, that hunger has been abolished, that everyone has a home? Maybe it doesn’t even matter what news the messenger brings, so long as someone arrives to be with you in the waiting.
It is exactly this longing for a faithful companion that our OT prophet Elijah expresses from the cave where he is hiding in today’s first reading. I encourage you to go back and read the two or three chapters of 1 Kings preceding today’s reading, because it’s a really, really great story. But I’ll sum up a little so you know what’s led Elijah to be hiding in a cave to begin with:
Many Israelites, including King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, had left the true God to worship an idol called Baal. Elijah calls for a showdown between himself and the 450 priests of Baal to prove whose God is the true God. They erect an altar with a sacrificial animal on it. Then the 450 priests of Baal call for fire to come down from heaven and burn it up. Nothing happened. Elijah begins his turn by praying to God for the same thing, and for extra measure, douses the altar in water, so that the wood will be harder to burn. Nonetheless, God triumphs!
Following their failure, all the 450 priests of Baal were executed. Angry that they have lost face, however, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel issue a death warrant for Elijah. That’s where today’s story begins. That’s why God’s powerful prophet is hiding in a cave, afraid and dejected. He’d seen God act for all the world to see, but now he’s alone, and secretly fearing that his life doesn’t matter. He wonders if all his work has been in vain, and worries that no one else in the world stands with him or for him. He could use some Good News.
Today’s Gospel reading is another story about people succumbing to anxiety after God has done mighty deeds right before their eyes. It takes place on the very evening Jesus fed 5000 men plus women and children in the Gospel story we heard last week. At the end of the day, Jesus, exhausted and depleted, needed some alone time away from the crowds. He goes up on a mountain to pray, to find comfort and rejuvenation by sitting in God’s lap for a bit. Meanwhile, he sends his disciples across the lake ahead of him. There is a great storm. The wind, Matthew’s Gospel says, was contrary, so that no matter how the disciples set their sails, their little boat was tossed and buffeted by the waves. And it was dark. They were afraid.
The disciples and Elijah didn’t seem to have trouble believing that God would do signs and wonders for the world at large. But it seems that what both the disciples (esp. Peter) and Elijah needed was a messenger to remind them of the Good News that God was God FOR THEM. Not just for the crowd of 20,000 or so with their full bellies. Not just for all the priests of Baal. The disciples and Elijah needed to know that God could hear their hearts when they cried, “Lord, save me!” They needed a messenger with beautiful feet to deliver that Good News that God not only could save them, but wanted to do so.
Sometimes in the midst of a storm we begin to believe that if God were really present, we wouldn’t be in that predicament. If we really were God’s special people, we would not encounter cruel enemies or violent weather. Elijah seems to think that because he is faithful to God, he shouldn’t be persecuted by the authorities. And the disciples seem to think that if trouble is present, God must not be. If Jesus really loved us, we wouldn’t be facing this storm.
And yet, when we turn from our fear to the Scriptures, we find story after story of God in the very midst of chaos! From the very first line of Genesis, God is immersed in the chaos. God is with the Israelites as they flee from Egypt. God is with the exiles in Babylon. God is with the widows and orphans. God is ALWAYS where the trouble is. The fact that Elijah didn’t recognize God in the storm and fire on the mountain doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. It just means Elijah didn’t realize God was there until the storm had passed, and he spent some time listening in silence. The fact that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus through the wind and rain didn’t mean they weren’t seeing Jesus. It just means that they were so scared they couldn’t focus.
When fear holds us captive, we might see God at work all around the world, but not in our own homes or heart. We can start to imagine God listening to the prayers of our friends, but feeling that our own prayers got stuck in the rafters somewhere. When our faith seems to curl up into a little ball and hide under the couch, and we wish God would come and find us, we can always return to today’s texts to hear Good News.
Here we can see again that God is always where we are—esp. when there’s trouble! Where else would God be? Twice God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” and twice Elijah whines about being alone, somehow overlooking the fact that God has to be there with him in order for them to be having a conversation. In a similar vein, Jesus knows that his disciples are alone on a tumultuous sea in the dark, and sets out to be with them. It is how God operates. Wherever there is trouble, God is there, though, like the disciples, we don’t always recognize God in those panic-filled moments.
Hearing his friends in distress, Jesus calls out to them, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” Could there be a sweeter sound? Perhaps like Peter, we jump at the sound of Jesus’ voice, and leap in the direction of the call. Or perhaps, like the others, we cower in the boat and watch what happens next. After all, how do we know for sure that this messenger has beautiful feet? Though Jesus assured the disciples of his identity as the eternal God, Peter has to double-check. “If it really is you, invite me out there with you,” he calls. And Jesus does not chastise him for being a smart-aleck, or for doubting. Instead, Jesus calls out to him, “Come.” Jesus can take it when we are anxious and unsure. Jesus will not punish us for doubting. Jesus extends his hands and invites us to trust.
Like many of us, Peter starts out well enough. With his eyes on Jesus, he is able to walk smoothly over stormy seas. But then, it says, he “notices the wind.” We don’t know what exactly prompts this, but we’re told that then he begins to sink. It seems to me that there are two equally plausible reasons for this.
One possibility is that Peter forgets about Jesus and starts to think to himself, “I can’t believe I’m doing this! I shouldn’t be able to do this! I am a poor, sinful person, not very well-educated or well-mannered. I’m no one special. Why should Jesus empower me to do this amazing thing?” It is possible that when he forgot God’s baptismal promise, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased,” he begins to sink into despair.
Or maybe Peter thought THIS, as he looked down at his feet, carefully skimming the water: “Hey! Look at me! I can do this! I am powerful and strong, and I can do this!” And as his heart and mind filled with pride, he might have lost sight of the fact that it was Jesus who was keeping him afloat, and not his own righteousness or good intentions or faith.
Either way, we’ve been there. Sometimes we have too little trust that God has made us into new creations, and that God fills us with the Holy Spirit, enabling us to do great things through Christ. And sometimes we have so much pride in our own goodness that we forget that it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can accomplish any good thing. None of us has a faith that is unshakable or a history that is blameless. Not one of us is pure enough to walk on water, to fix all that is wrong in the world, or even in our own families or our own lives. We need God to reach out to us and grab us when we start to fall.
Take a look at my feet, friends, because I have some GOOD NEWS for you! God is here! God is within us when we lack courage, and ahead of us when we fear the future. God comes to us in the storms and upholds us, even when we don’t feel it. And what’s more, since we can rest in the certainty that God is always with us, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow where Jesus leads—to radically embrace the poor, to give hope to the sick and the sad, to welcome the rejects and the outcasts, to lift up those who feel weighted down. Following Jesus means walking out into storms, for it is among the scared and hopeless that God most wants to be. We now join the ranks of the messengers with Good News who have beautiful feet, and we can expect to be headed for some rough terrain.
Why? Because there is no Biblical promise that believing in God and following God’s call will keep us safe. Maybe there won’t be a King Ahab hunting us down, but maybe there will be. Or maybe we’ll receive a call that is equally frightening for us—a call to be reconciled with someone we distrust or fear, a call to explore a new and terrifying ministry, a call to address painful life choices or family history, a call to alter something that is comfortable and familiar, though no longer helpful. God may call us to something so terrifying that we find ourselves shouting along with Peter, “Lord, save me!”
And this is the Good News, my friends: God has. God does. God is always coming to us, right where we are! God is with us in our caves. God is with us in our boats. God is with us in our quiet places when we feel all alone. Where else would God be? Like Elijah, we might not hear God’s message right away. Like Peter, we might lose our footing. But in the tempests and in the stillness, in the water and the wine, in our companions and in our callings, Jesus continually whispers to us, “Take courage; it is I. Don’t be afraid.” THANKS be to God! Amen.