A Sermon preached by Eleanor Childs, Lay Reader on 24 February 2019
Who has heard our gospel story of Jesus stilling the storm before? It’s a pretty familiar passage to most church goers, especially to those who have ever attended Sunday school. And sheer familiarity makes it harder to hear and appreciate something. My first thought when I looked at the Gospel passage was how on earth can I say something fresh that hasn’t been said before. Not that we always have to say something fresh, sometimes we have to hear the same thing again and again till we really understand it or it sinks into our innermost being and affects our behaviour. But the amazing thing that I find about Scripture is that you can come to the same passage again and again and it does speak to you afresh. It’s one of the reasons I am deeply convinced Scripture is inspired, that it is the Word of God. It speaks into our lives with the ring of truth. And if we attend carefully enough we meet the One who speaks to us.
I was interested in the other Lectionary passages our Gospel is matched up with. We have the creation story in Genesis at the dawn of life on earth, and we have the scene in the throne room in heaven in Revelation. And in the middle – or between them, if you like- our gospel is the story of Jesus miraculously stilling a storm. All three passages describe events that are completely above and beyond our experience and knowledge. The sceptic or atheist would say, ‘You don’t believe that stuff – they’re invented tales, primitive attempts to explain things that Science had not yet discovered, the stuff of fantasy,. Well, Science still hasn’t come up with much that is conclusive about how the world began or about heavenly realms.
But let’s leave that aside and look at our gospel passage as it is the most accessible to us, having taken place in historical time in a known location on earth and described by an eye witness . The Sea of Galilee is really a large lake, 680 feet below sea level. It is in a bowl surrounded by high mountains which are cut through by ravines. Down these ravines cold air from the mountains can suddenly funnel down and encounter the warm humid air on the lake , creating sudden squalls.
There are very slight variations in the 3 gospel accounts of this incident in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus and his disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee, at Jesus command. And a storm blows up. Has anyone ever been out sailing in rough water? Were you scared? The disciples were not landlubbers but seasoned fishermen who knew their lake and they were really panicked, convinced they were going to drown. All 3 gospel accounts stress that the boat was being swamped and Luke says they were in great danger. Mark gives us the most circumstantial detail. He tells us that Jesus was sleeping on a cushion in the stern. Imagine being able to sleep soundly in a small fishing boat that is plunging and tossing and filling with water and panicking fishermen shouting to one another. It says something about Jesus, doesn’t it? Yes, probably he was exhausted, but his trust in His Father and commitment to walking in His will gave him a deep down peace so he could sleep deeply. Mark also tells us that they asked, ‘Don’t you care if we drown?’ Sounds like they are rather angry at him sleeping blissfully, unaware that they are struggling to keep the boat from foundering. Anger is never far behind panic.
I’m sure most of us can identify with the disciples. When the storms of life come on us and we feel like we might go under, we can feel that God is a thousand miles away and doesn’t care. Jesus gets up and Luke tells us he ‘rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided and all was calm.’ Mark again gives us more detail and gives us the actual words Jesus spoke. ‘He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.’
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t rebuke his disciples for disturbing him with their prayers but asks them why they are disturbing themselves with their fears and where is their faith. You know, as I was thinking and praying over this passage, I found I wanted to defend the disciples. I found myself saying, ‘But, Lord, the boat was in danger of sinking, what were they supposed to do? Anyone would have been scared. At least they had enough faith to turn to you, though it doesn’t sound like they had a lot of confidence in you in any of the accounts. What should they have done? Kept going or should they have called on you sooner, before they had got to the end of their own resources?
It was only as I pondered over the last verse that I felt some light dawn. It says, ‘In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”‘ Now the disciples had just seen Jesus perform miraculous healings of a paralytic and a leper; they had seen him raise a dead man – the widow of Nain’s son- to life. So how come they were so shocked at this miracle? What was it about this miracle that shook them to the core? Why were they amazed and afraid, instead of saying ‘Wow! Three cheers for Jesus.’
First of all I think it was their own personal experience, a very dramatic, near-death experience. There was something about it that led them beyond the miracle to an awareness of the awesome presence and power of God. In spite of the other miracles they hadn’t really grasped who Jesus was. They had faith in him, but they didn’t have his faith in God. They realised they didn’t really know Him. He was not just a great teacher, their rabbi who could work miracles, he was not just the Messiah Israel had been waiting for. In him, they were in the presence of Almighty God himself and his otherness, his power and authority awed them.
Peter had a similar experience over the miraculous catch of fish documented in an earlier chapter in Luke. You remember the disciples had fished all night and caught nothing, and Jesus told them to push out the boat and let down their nets in broad daylight when no fish would be around and they had a huge catch. Peter had a glimpse then of who Jesus was. He fell on his knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’ In the presence of a high and holy God of power and authority we see ourselves and our world in a new light.
The disciples were good Jews. They knew that God created and sustained the world through the power of his word. They knew He had created humanity, as our Genesis passage described. They would have believed the miracles of the Old Testament – the ten plagues God visited on Egypt, the exodus when God dried up the Red Sea so his people could pass through, the fall of the walls of Jericho etc. But knowing about God is very different from knowing Him, and knowing the high and Holy God, the creator of the universe, who speaks into our lives, even when it is to deliver us, is a very awesome experience. It puts us in touch with another reality above the visible, physical world where we are in control. God calls us into question as He did his disciples, He calls us to abandon our attempts to control our destiny and to follow Him in humility and trust.
Our God is a God of miracles and he longs to bless and heal us. So why don’t we see more miracles amongst us? It’s for the same reason that Jesus performed no miracles in his home area. Matthew tells us in his gospel that when Jesus returned to Nazareth, his home town, ‘He did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.’ Jesus responded to faith, even the weak faith of the disciples. Miracles should point us to God and his amazing love for us, and his desire for relationship with us. Many people accept the gift, the healing, the answer to prayer and go on their way, forgetful of the Giver. We see this time and again in the gospels. The 9 lepers who were healed by Jesus and ran off without a backward glance, the man who was healed at the pool of Bethsaida, the leper who was healed and commanded to keep quiet about it, but instantly disobeyed. The miracles Jesus did for them did not lead them into the relationship God sought with them.
The thing I’ve personally noticed about miracles is that people soon forget them. I remember an amazing miracle of healing of someone we’d prayed for in our home group when we were living in Brussels, and talking to the person a year later it was as if she had forgotten it. Also I think it’s easy to dismiss or explain away miracles or attribute them to coincidence when they happen to other people.
The disciples were called first of all to relationship with Christ and through that relationship their eyes were opened to the kingdom of God. They had to let go of the blinkers of their prejudices, their agendas for him and their confidence in their own abilities. They had to learn that God was a lot bigger and more awesome than they had ever imagined. Sometimes it takes a mighty big storm in our lives to open our eyes to that.
The concept of holiness is a very alien one to many people in the modern or post-modern world. Perhaps some catch a glimpse of it the beauty of the world God has created, or in music or the birth of their child. The very – word ‘holy’ is often used in a pejorative sense- if we consider someone a ‘holy Joe’ we probably think he is a humbug. There is very little in secular society that is considered sacred. Probably the self has supplanted God as being sacred, and being politically incorrect is the modern equivalent of blasphemy. But we Christians worship a holy God. Our passage in Revelation describes the worship in heaven, where people fall down before God saying, ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.’ It sometimes takes a great storm in our lives to open our eyes to that reality. Our God is holy and almighty and we need to come before Him in humility and faith so that we and our world may experience his amazing love for us and see his power and glory revealed among us as it was to his first disciples.