Sunday 9 August 2020
Weathering the Storm
Context: a congregation of around 25, mainly elderly, many facing self-isolation
Aim: to encourage faith in the context of threatening uncertainty
Jesus and his disciples are parted. He’s alone on the mountain, above it all, communing in peace with God. They’re in the thick of it, on the water, battling against a force 9. Jesus comes to them. He joins his disciples in the storm of their lives. You’d think that would be good news. But it isn’t. It makes matters worse. The disciples now have two things to fear – first the storm, and then this ghost walking the waves. Surely, they’re sunk!?
But no! Jesus shouts to them, His voice rising above the storm: ‘It is I.’ Impulsive Peter replies immediately. At critical moments Peter has a habit of acting or speaking before thinking. ‘Lord, if it is you ….’ What did he mean? ‘If, as you say, you’re Jesus, then prove it. Show you can make me walk on water, like you.’ Or, ‘since I can now see that you’re not a ghost, but my Master, then I trust you to help me do what I can’t do on my own; walk through this storm to you.’ Which? Is Peter testing Jesus or trusting him?
Jesus shouts back, one word: ‘Come!’ Why would Jesus invite Peter to do something that Peter, like you and I, simply can’t do – walk on water? Is it because Jesus never rejects anyone who appeals to him, however impossible (humanly speaking) their situation is? In answer to ‘come,’ Peter clambers out of the boat, and starts walking. Test or trust, he doesn’t get very far. But Jesus saves his life. Then they both clamber into the boat. The disciples and Jesus are reunited – all in the same boat. The storm subsides. The story ends in thankful worship.
Happy ending? Well not quite. For ringing in Peter’s head is Jesus’ reprimand: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ This story is about faith in Jesus. It says something about Jesus as Lord of the natural world, where floods, bushfires and viruses rage and threaten our security, our lives. It’s about faith and doubt in the context of calamity or chaos. The stormy sea is, in the Bible, a metaphor for the chaos which threatens our ordered world. (Think of the tale of Jonah).
Where’s the truth in Matthew’s story? It’s a miracle story. It used to be fashionable to explain away the miracle stories of Jesus. Suppose for example, that the disciples alone in their boat, tossing on the waves, had been blown off course. Without realizing it, they were very near the shore. Suppose therefore they see Jesus walking, not on the waves, but on the water’s edge. Standing where the waves are crashing on the beach, He hauls Peter out of the water. It’s not difficult to see how early Christian storytelling might have woven a miracle out of that.
But why reduce the story like that? Surely, the test of the ‘truth’ of this story is not whether it’s consistent with laws of nature. It’s an affirmation in story form of a truth about Jesus, about Jesus with us, and our faith in Him to see us through crises which threaten to overwhelm us. It’s a story born of faith to nurture faith. That’s the truth of it.
Suppose – as some commentators suggest – the little groups of early Christians for whom Matthew was writing were finding life threatening to the point of extinction; the synagogues hostile, the authorities bent on persecution, the church, their frail little boat, in danger of capsizing in a storm of hostility. And their leader seemed far away out of sight, up on a mountain somewhere separated from them by His crucifixion. They feared the end. Then what happened?
We know how chaotic and stormy life can be. This year so far has pitched many of us into small boats isolated on rough seas; we’ve lost our bearings. Where’s God in all this? Matthew offers us an answer.
Jesus communes uniquely alone with God, for he is God. But Jesus is not above it all. In his humanity he comes to us in the storm, is with us in the storm. Perhaps we don’t at first recognize him; but he’s there. We don’t have to summon him. He calls us: ‘It is I.’ He calls us to do what to us, overwhelmed by wind and waves, seems impossible. Walk on water? Our faith isn’t up to it. But if we can summon up enough faith in him to take the first step or two, he will stretch out his hand and hold us. And that is what matters – not what caused the storm, not whether we’ll survive it, not when and how it will end. None of that. What matters is that He with us in the storm, a truth which only faith can grasp.
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