Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Within a long strand of Hebrew tradition, the sea was associated with evil powers. According to an ancient creation myth, when God made the world and separated out the dry land, he had to combat monstrous forces of chaos that either lived in, or were identified with, the waters of the sea. This primal battle is recalled in many verses of the psalms and the prophets, especially those dating from periods when the Hebrew people were passing through times of war, invasion by enemies, or persecution. In fact, it features in this morning’s psalm, when the psalmist praises God for stilling the roaring of the seas. And recall the story of Noah, which tells of God using the floodwaters to wipe out what had gone wrong in creation, in order to make a fresh start possible.
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke, in which Jesus stills the storm, is closely related to the original version in Mark’s Gospel. And, like Mark, it ends with the words, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ In Matthew’s telling of the story, the writer goes even further and tells of Jesus actually walking on the sea. It was only when he got into the boat with the terrified and astonished disciples that the wind stopped. This action of Jesus echoes yet more episodes from the OT which tell of God’s power to walk on or through the waves. Again it is the Psalmist who talks of the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters….
These miracles of Jesus stilling the storm and walking on the water are full of theological significance. They serve the purposes of the Gospel writers in making clear the significance of Jesus. It is God alone who rules the waves and walks through the waters. It is God alone who defeated the sea monsters. It is God alone who can confront and overcome the powers of chaos and evil. So the Gospel writers lead us to just one conclusion: for them, Jesus is none other than God present on earth.
These stories carry potent symbolism for us, too. The strong wind and beating waves surely represent the powers of chaos which God brought into order at creation, but those powers are always ready to break out again – and they do, in our individual lives and experiences. When the wind comes up and the going gets tough, we fear we will be overwhelmed by the waters. In Gospel terms, the emphasis here is on holding firm to faith in times of trouble. This story encourages Christians that God is always at hand, to rescue and to reassure, even when faith falls short and doubts and fears get the upper hand.
Most of us may have little personal experience of the ways of the sea, but the image of the storm is something we can all relate to. Like the disciples, we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of the storm. Perhaps not literally tempestuous winds and roaring waves, but certainly metaphorical storms. I hardly dare mention the word, but Brexit looms large in my thinking. Whatever our personal view on the issue, who could have imagined, even a couple of years ago, the division, fragmentation and anxiety this would bring to a political system widely regarded as one of the most stable in the world? Tragically, of course, there are many parts of the world where political turmoil is a constant reality, often aligned to endless conflict and violence, poverty, hunger and disease.
Alongside national and international perspectives, life’s storms sometimes come very close to home: broken relationships; health problems; money worries; depression; loneliness; facing up to loss, separation and bereavement; confronting our own mortality and the reality that we are not invincible after all. I guess many of us know rather too well those 4 a.m. moments when darkness looms large and when even the smallest things become magnified and threaten to overwhelm us.
Life is often far from plain sailing. And anyone who claims that having faith automatically leads to serene passage on a calm sea is, I think, very wide of the mark. Is there a single one of us who has not at some time or other felt as though we were sinking under the waves? But Jesus’s question to his disciples is insistent: Where is your faith? That question doesn’t come across to me as combative or critical; Jesus knew the disciples’ fears were very real. As Lent approaches, we know we will soon be reminded once again of Jesus’s own anguish and fear in the Garden of Gethsemane: If it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] be taken from me. And, hours later, his own cry of dereliction from the cross: My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?
The Gospel writers, through these stories, are reinforcing the uniquely Christian understanding of a God who shares our human experience, both good and bad. It one thing to have faith when things are going well, but it can be a whole lot harder when the going gets tough. Ironically, perhaps – and, yes, even miraculously – it is precisely at those moments when all hope seems lost and despite everything that appears to contradict the fact, we can rely on the presence of the God who, even when the storm is at its worst, still says, Peace, be still.
Today and next Sunday, the compilers of the lectionary have chosen readings which prepare us for Lent, the journey with Jesus through the wilderness. They can help us to discern how to keep the season in a way that bears fruit, so that – in the words of the post-communion prayer we will hear near the end of the service – we may be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross. It is a powerful reminder that even the terror of the cross is not the end of the Jesus story.
This morning’s Gospel combines Jesus’s serenity in the face of threatening chaos, his sharing the lot of those engulfed by it, and his making real God’s rainbow-promise – as Captain Noah and his floating zoo found dry land returning – that even the mighty waters do not have the last word. I have mentioned in sermons more than once that the most command in all of Scripture is Do not be afraid. And it is the theologian and mystic of the Middle Ages, Mother Julian of Norwich, who encourages us that All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. As Jesus bids the storm to cease, he is not casting a magic spell, but he is asserting the good news of the Gospel that order can be brought to the forces of chaos that threaten to overwhelm us, that light is possible in our darkness, that hope can overcome our despair, and that life can triumph – even over death.