August 7, 2011 - Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

St. Paul makes an amazing claim in this part of his letter to the Romans, and it is not said in a careless way. He says that if his people, the Israelites, could all be converted, he would be willing to go to Hell himself. Of course, his being cut off from Christ would not help them in any way, but the sentiment is clear. He is sincerely saddened that, although tens of thousands of Israelites became Christians, the majority did not.

He makes the point that Israel, more than any other nation, ought to come to believe in Jesus: they were the people he spent 2000 years preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ, they are the ones who wrote the Old Testament; they lived through all the events contained therein; they were the ones who received the Law; all the great prophets were Israelites; and, above all, Jesus himself was a Jew. The Jews preserved the promises of God for 100 generations, but most failed to believe when the promises were fulfilled in their midst.

But it is not that the word of God has failed. God was speaking, but they were not listening. We know this because so many people did hear the word of God and come to believe in Jesus Christ. There was a word to hear, and it was a powerful word, strong enough to change the world. If some people did not hear the word, they were not listening.

In our first reading today, Elijah was listening. He was at the end of his rope, so he climbed a mountain and went in a cave and waited to hear the word of God. Along comes a strong wind blowing rocks around, picking up boulders and throwing them down. Then there was an earthquake. Then there was a fire, a forest fire perhaps, or maybe a meteor crashing to earth. But Elijah was not fooled by the strong wind or the earthquake or the fire. Many people would be fooled. Many people try to figure out what a tornado or an earthquake mean. Elijah knows to wait in silence. Then he hears the still, small voice, the tiny whispering sound, and he recognizes the voice of God.

If we are going to hear the word of God, we need silence. How else do we expect to hear the voice of God? We certainly cannot hear him if we are talking. We cannot hear him over the sound of the television. We modern people are always talking or watching television or going to the movies or getting in our cars and turning on the radio. When exactly does God have a chance to tell us what we need to hear? We will not shove it down our throats. He will not shout over the radio or TV. He will not interrupt us. He will continue speaking his word forever, but we will not hear it until we stop and listen.

We need to spend time in silence, listening to the word of God. We need more than a minute or two, while our mind is still full of the day’s thoughts; we need significant time in silence, until we can hear the voice of God. At first, silence is difficult, but then it becomes addictive. Eventually we learn to recognize God’s whispers, which we hear not with our ears but deep in our souls.

Listening patiently for God’s word is not wasted time. It is the opposite of wasting time. As we enter into the silence, waiting patiently to hear God’s voice, we can begin by knowing that he exists. Jesus says in the gospel today “It is I. Do not be afraid.” This is a logical translation of the text, but it is not the most literal translation. This translation implies that Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry. It’s not a ghost; it’s just me.” What Jesus actually says is more profound, “I am. Do not be afraid.” When Jesus sees the apostles, they are afraid, so he reminds them of this most important fact: “I am. I exist.” Jesus exists, therefore we do not need to be afraid. We ought to walk through this world with an unshakable confidence. There is no reason to be afraid, not really afraid. I am not saying that bad things will never happen. Bad things do happen, but Jesus continues existing. He continues loving us. No matter what, Jesus Christ loves us.

The apostles were afraid because they thought that they were alone. They thought that they were alone and a ghost was coming toward them on the water. Jesus reminds them that they are never alone. We are never alone. When we have problems, God knows all about them. When we sit in silence waiting for God, God is sitting there with us. God is never far off. It might seem like he is miles away, but he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He knows our needs, our burdens, and our fears better than we could ever know them. It is not as if God is busy, as if we are waiting in silence for God to be ready for us. We are waiting in silence with God for us to be ready for God.

This is Christian prayer. Many Christians do not seem to know what prayer really is. It is waiting in silence to hear God speak, waiting with God in silence, knowing that God is next to us, that God is in us. Prayer is not about getting God to do what we want, but finding out what God wants. God has a word for each of us, a word that could change us, that could make us who we wish we were. This word of God is not without power, but it will only have effect if we can quiet ourself down long enough to hear it.