Father Donald Senior, CP

Aug. 9: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

‘A tiny whispering sound’

1 Kgs 19:9 11-13; Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-33

A deep conviction of the Bible is that God is totally different from us, as in the famous words of Hosea 11:9, where God declares that even in the face of Israel’s infidelities God will show abundant mercy: “For I am God and no mortal.” This sense of God’s awesome being leads observant Jews today not even to say God’s name but to use euphemisms, as the Bible itself does.

Yet, at the same time, the Bible uses human images to speak of God by way of analogy. So God is like a loving father or a tender mother or a faithful spouse. In many Old Testament stories, human emotions are ascribed to God: God’s anger or sadness or frustration or forgiving mercy. These analogies or comparisons help us imagine God’s presence even though God’s transcendent being remains a mystery to us.

This blend of awesome transcendence and tender love as defining characteristics of God is present in the powerful readings we have for this Sunday. In the reading from the First Book of Kings, the great prophet Elijah has fled to the Sinai Peninsula, hounded by the murderous threats of King Ahab and his wicked consort Jezebel. 

Hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb, the prophet is commanded by God to stand outside the cave and to look for his presence. What follows seems at first to be the kind of awesome events often associated with God’s presence: a strong wind, an earthquake and then fire.

But God was not to be found in any of these dramatic signs. Instead, there came a “tiny whispering sound.” Elijah recognized this as God’s presence and he “hid his face in his cloak.”

A haunting scene from the Gospel of Matthew breathes the same spirit. The disciples find themselves “tossed about by the waves” in a nighttime storm on the Sea of Galilee. Then suddenly the amazed disciples see Jesus, who had been praying alone on a mountain near the shore. He is walking on the sea.

The power to tread upon the sea is cited several times in the Old Testament as a way of expressing God’s sovereignty over the forces of nature. And here, Jesus himself, suffused with the divine presence, displays the same power. When the disciples cry out in fear at this startling scene, Jesus reassures them: “Take courage. It is I; do not be afraid.” 

The translation “It is I” can mask the full import of Jesus’ words. Literally in Greek, Jesus says, “ego eimi,” which translates to “I am.” This is the same mysterious name of God that appears in theophanies in the Old Testament, “I am who am” (the translation of the sacred Hebrew name for God, Yahweh).

This passage from Matthew’s Gospel affirms the divine power of Jesus. More than that, the story reveals the impact of God’s power as one of healing and rescue. 

Peter, dazzled by Jesus’ presence, asks to walk on the water to him. Jesus calls to him come. And Peter walks on the water — sharing in Jesus’ divine power — until in the face of the wind and the angry sea, he lets fear overtake his faith. 

“Lord, save me!” Peter cries out. Jesus, chiding him for his “little faith,” lifts him out of the waves. Together Jesus and Peter get into the boat with the other disciples and the winds die down. Overwhelmed by this encounter with the divine presence, the disciples offer homage to Jesus: “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

These powerful readings remind us of the mystery of God’s presence. Sometimes we may take God for granted or even speak of God too informally as if there were no mystery at all. The Bible is fully convinced of God’s unconditional love and infinite mercy, but also recognizes that grasping the full identity of God is beyond our power and imagination.

Thus, faith in God remains a challenge to us. We can echo the words of the parent, who faced with Jesus’ healing of his epileptic son, exclaims, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”


  • scripture