Monday, 25 February 2019

Sermon for Sunday 24 February 2019 (2nd Sunday before Lent)

LUKE 8: 22 – 25

Living in Morecambe, I guess that, unless you were born here, you chose to come at least partly because of the sea. How many people moved here specifically to be near the sea?

And of the rest of us, if you have the good fortune to take holidays, how many choose a destination at the seaside? “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside”!

Well you can’t understand our gospel reading this morning unless you forget all that and think of the sea not as beautiful and inviting but as dangerous and fearful. Which is why, in our reading from Revelation 4 it describes heaven as “a sea of glass”. We still use that phrase. And later in Revelation, (21:1) it describes the new heaven and the new earth as, rather puzzlingly, being without any sea. “The sea was no more.”

The people of the Bible associated the sea with terrifying evil powers. The forces of chaos and evil lived in the sea and anyone who lived near it were afraid of its destructive power. They believed some primal force was behind the storms that could whip up out of nowhere and destroy everything in its path. In our days of Tsunamis that is a bit more understandable.

And so Jesus going to sleep (Mark’s gospel adds a nice touch “on a pillow”) is a picture of undisturbed contentment and peace. He’s completely chilled, as if he hasn’t a care in the world. He’s not afraid of the sea.

While Jesus calmly sleeps, a storm sweeps down the lake, swamping the boat with water. The sailors panic and cry out to him that they are in very real danger of drowning.
I wonder what they expected of him? Did they just think he should know beforehand if drowning was to be their fate? Or did they have an inkling that he might be able to do something and rescue them?

Luke doesn’t record the actual words of Jesus. But we have them in the other gospels and they sound like he is addressing a personal force: “Peace, be still!” No wonder the disciples asked each other: “who on earth is this?”  Who can speak to the created order and tell it to ‘shut up’? What kind of power is this, greater than the power of the wind and sea?

I’m sure the purpose of this miracle wasn’t just a random display of power – Jesus had been tempted with that kind of danger a short time before in the wilderness in his encounter with the Tempter - and had resisted. There’s something else going on here.

I believe he wanted the disciples to get the message that God alone rules the waves and God alone can defeat the demonic powers of chaos and evil. When the disciples call out “Who is this?” they were drawn to the inevitable conclusion that in the most real and powerful sense Jesus is God, Yahweh himself, present on earth.

And if this Jesus can calm the storm at sea, surely he can calm other storms that rage inside and outside of us? The early Christians who heard this story passed down, and then read it for themselves as the written gospels were circulated, were facing political hostility and the threat and reality of persecution.

In the face of danger, they may well have felt buffeted, in danger of going under. They may well have been wondering why Christ was so slow to act. Was he asleep?

They were being reminded that even if Jesus seemed indifferent while the boat of the church was being tossed around, they must have faith. As long as Jesus was with them, there was no need to fear. It was a clear message to the vulnerable church to hold firm to faith in times of trouble. Simply because Jesus is God, he is able to bring us through the storm.

You may have heard about Asia Bibi – the Pakistani Christian woman imprisoned on death row after she was accused by her neighbour of blasphemy more than 8 years ago. After a lot of campaigning by Christian groups in Pakistan, our own country and others, the original sentence was overturned last November. But it sparked protests from fundamentalist Islamist groups in Pakistan to the extent that she will have to her home country and seek asylum in another country. Her lawyer has already fled in fear of his life. This is one of many, many stories of modern persecution of Christians and our gospel account today is very comforting to them.

Whether through the tempests of persecution of the church or personal storms of illness, loss, betrayal, bereavement, breakdown – this miracle has strengthened countless millions of Christians down through the centuries and still does today. Christ’s words still have an extraordinary power to bring a great calm in times of turmoil and chaos, when we reach out in faith, however falteringly, that he is who he is, God with us.

So what is our storm, we who live in Morecambe by the sea?
Swamped with worries about the children, the grandchildren, nieces and nephews, elderly parents? Feeling we’re going under financially or with the pressure of work or the worry of not having any work.

Drowning under a wave of criticism or bullying?
Floundering after hearing bad news of an unexpected diagnosis in ourselves or someone we love.

And perhaps deepest of all, the fear we don’t often talk about - the fear of death and dying – which the disciples knew all about in their storm.

Being a disciple does not exempt us from any of these fears. They are very natural and very real. It’s what we do with them that counts.

Jesus says to us with all the love of his heart: “don’t be afraid, I’m here; I’m with you in your little boat; put your hand in mine; we’ll make this journey together and I will give you peace on the inside (in your heart and mind), even while that storm rages on the outside. Just trust me.”

So may the Lord Jesus give us grace to walk by faith through every storm of life keeping our eyes firmly fixed on him.