While it may not be completely evident at first glance, there is a remarkable similarity between the situation in which Elijah found himself (first reading) and the disciples' predicament in today's Gospel. Elijah had incurred the wrath of Jezebel, wife of Ahab, king of Israel, and as a result, the prophet had to flee into the desert. There, he began to despair. He sat under a broom tree and prayed for God to take his life.
|Nineteenth Sunday in
|1 Kings 19:9, 11-13
Although he felt alone and helpless, he was soon to learn that the God for whom he had fearlessly prophesied had not abandoned him. On the contrary, God was near, providing food for Elijah's journey as well as an intimate experience of the divine presence. Elijah experienced that presence as a "still small silence" or, as some translations put it, as a "tiny whispering sound" nearer to him than his own beating heart. He was not alone; all would be well.
Like Elijah, the disciples of Jesus found themselves in peril, as wind and waves tossed their boat about. Their fear of capsizing was exacerbated by the fact that they didn't initially recognize Jesus and thought that a ghost was approaching. Despite the precariousness of their situation, Jesus insisted that they have courage. "Do not be afraid," he said. Even though the winds continued to blow and their boat continued to bounce about, the presence of Jesus offered them the reassurance they needed.
Their circumstances did not change, nor did those of Elijah. The disciples were still at sea during a storm, and Elijah was still being threatened by Jezebel. But both the prophet and the disciples were able to continue on because the presence of God and of Jesus gave them the courage to do so.
In his commentary on this Sunday's Gospel, Methodist pastor William Ritter points out that the evangelist tells his readers the disciples experienced Jesus' presence during the fourth watch of the night (The Abingdon Preaching Annual, David N. Mosser, ed., Abingdon Press, 2004). That would be 3 in the morning. "Three o'clock," said Ritter, "is an hour associated with insomniacs, worry and deviants." If you are unable to sleep, 3 a.m. is tossing-and-turning and pacing-the-hall time. If you are waiting for someone to come home, 3 a.m. becomes nail-biting time. If the phone rings or there's a knock on the door at 3 a.m., it's palm-sweating time. If people are still out on the streets at 3 a.m., it's often up-to-no-good time.
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For some people, it's 3 a.m. emotionally. Whatever problems we experience, whatever hurt or guilt or grief, it's always worse in the middle of the night. For others, it's 3 a.m. in an ethical sense. Temptation, insists Ritter, is incredibly nocturnal, and people may not make the best choices when the rest of the world is sleeping. Still others fear that it is 3 a.m. in an ecclesiastical sense. The dwindling numbers in their congregation seem more distressing at 3 a.m. The projects yet to be done come haunting, as do the stinging criticisms leveled at you and your efforts from all directions.
For those who are sick, weak or in any way incapacitated, all seems worse at 3 a.m. Aches are more acute; sadness is more profound, and the unwillingness to face another day can be overwhelming. For the lonely and for those who grieve for a loved one who has died, 3 a.m. makes the pain of separation more sharp just as it makes the spirit dull.
Despite all the fears and struggles that may make it seem like it is always 3 a.m., we look to today's Gospel and are encouraged. Exactly when it seems that things couldn't get any worse, Jesus comes to us, walking on the sea of our sadness and discontent. With love and assurance, he says, "Take courage; it is I. Do not be afraid." Then, like Elijah and like the disciples, we will draw courage from his presence -- so much courage that like Peter, we dare to venture out into the deep.
Like Peter, we may also be struck by fear and start to sink under the exigencies of human existence. Even then, Jesus will be there with outstretched hand, calling forth our faith and keeping us afloat. With Peter, we say, "I believe, Lord; help my unbelief."
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]