Readings: Amos 3:1-8; Psalm 5; Matthew 8:23-27
The series of questions in the first reading seem to be all of the kind 'is the Pope a Catholic?' The answer seems to be obvious, easy and simple in each case: the connection between the two parts of each question is perfectly clear and well known. The lion's roar, the falling bird, the effect of a trumpet sounding - there are immediate and predictable connections of 'cause and effect' in each case. So Amos implies.
Some aspects of the relationship between God and the people are as obvious as these connections in nature and in human affairs. If God is angry, it will be particularly with the ones He has chosen that He will be angry. (The more you are given, the more will be expected of you.) If God is acting, then He will not do so without revealing his plans to the prophets. And if the Lord speaks to His prophet, the prophet in turn must speak (remember that Amos, who knows what it involves, is reluctant to take on the task of prophesying.)
There is causality - 'therefore' - between the Lord's choice and what is expected of the people. There is causality - 'therefore' - between the prophet's vocation and what he must do. There is causality - 'therefore' - between the people's behaviour and the way God must react in response: 'prepare to meet your God'. Is it a threat or a promise?
This last kind of causality is deeply problematic. Is it true that we know how God must act in response to human behaviour? Is God obliged to anything? Has God bound Himself to particular ways of acting which cannot be suspended even if God, in the words of the prophet Jonah, repents of what He intended to do?
The gospel reading gives us two more examples of causality, one is obvious, easy and simple, and the other is mysterious, takes us beyond the merely problematic, and raises the deepest possible questions.
The easy one is the connection between a sudden storm at sea and the fear it provokes in those on a small boat caught in the storm. Even experienced fishermen - they more than anyone else - fear the sea, for they know what it can be like and what it can do. Does a storm break out at sea and the fisherman not fear? Does a man rebuke wind and sea and the storm stops?
The mysterious 'therefore' in the gospel is the one that connects Jesus rebuking the winds and the sea and the storm ceasing. This provokes astonishment: 'what kind is he?', they ask (what sort of human being, what kind of agent, with what force or power working in him or through him?) that even the wind and the seas obey him? For one who knows the Bible the obvious answer seems shocking, even blasphemous: it is the Lord who commands the waters, divides them, and sets limits to their flowing.
It sends us back to the last kind of causality that the first reading seemed to express. God can only act as God and that is always with full freedom, out of love, in order to create. A God of retribution, anger and appropriate punishment fits more neatly into the framework of cause and effect that we can manage. He would be an agent within our world, subject to its laws, just bigger and more powerful than any other agent in that world. But if this is all we say about God then we are speaking of an idol. Instead we are invited, by Jesus and by the Father he reveals to us, to open our minds and hearts to the vast spaces of divine freedom, to the infinite creativity of divine power, to the unpredictable and revolutionary tenderness of One who is, always and everywhere, Everlasting Love. We must learn about God's retribution, anger and punishment by studying Jesus, his words, his teaching, his experience.
Prepare to meet your God. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Threat or promise?