‘My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak. Let the watchman count on daybreak, and Israel on the Lord.”
The Psalmist’s prayer expresses a universal longing for the reassurance of God’s presence. Whilst we share his longing, it is more challenging to share his assurance that, as the watchman is assured of the dawn, so are we assured of God’s presence. As we remember the appalling desolation of the First World War, we are reminded of the fragility of human hope. Then, as now, there will be times when we struggle to cling to God’s presence in life’s unfolding circumstances.
Where is God to be found? The story of Elijah the prophet, fleeing the wrath of Israel’s reprobate king, answers this question in the most unexpected manner. Elijah had been forced to seek refuge in the wilderness. Despite his faithfulness to the mission entrusted to him, he had been reduced to hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb, far removed from any sanctuary or human comfort. Here the Lord came to Elijah, but in a way that teaches much about the manner of God’s presence.
“There came a mighty wind, so strong that it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind.”
The mighty wind was followed by an earthquake, and then by fire. Once again the Lord was not be found in fire and earthquake. To Moses and the children of Israel these very phenomena had symbolised God’s power to save, to set his people free. Elijah, in his desperation, must surely have longed for such a manifestation of God’s presence. But it was not to be.
“And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
However we interpret this scene, it is surely demonstrating that there will be times when we long for God to work wonders in our lives. We shall long for healing in sickness, life in death and light in darkness. We want God to be the earthquake that changes what has become unbearable. For Elijah the Lord came not in wonders, but in the sound of a gentle breeze. There will be times when we must reach beyond the urgency of our longing, and in the stillness of our poverty, surrender ourselves to the gentleness of God’s underlying presence. Saint Matthew’s narrative of the storm on the lake is a further reflection on the manner of God’s presence. The story unfolds with a sharp contrast.
While Jesus prayed in silence on the hill, the disciples battled with the storm unfolding below. We, like the disciples, will be gripped in life’s unpredictable storms. At such times we might well feel far removed from God’s presence, abandoned to our fearfulness.
“In the fourth watch of the night he went towards them, walking on the lake.”
The Lord, for whom the disciples longed, was not to be on some far and unattainable shore. He came to them in the heart of the storm that had threatened to overwhelm them.
The Word became flesh so as to enter and overcome all that threatens salvation. He speaks to troubled heart as he once spoke to the storm.
“Peace, be still.” He fills that stillness with the sound of a gentle breeze, the Spirit in whom we live and move.