Faith in stormy times…
Sunday 20 June 2021
Readings: Job 38:1-11, Mark 4:35-41
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is nothing quite like being at sea during a storm to put the fear of God into you.
Some 20 years ago now I signed up to take part in a charity fund-raising trip, sailing an ocean-going clipper down the coast of Norway and across the North Sea back to London.
But before myself and the rest of the novice crew were let loose on the boat we had to go on a training sail for the weekend – to literally learn the ropes.
The training sail took place in the Solent between Southampton and Cowes. The plan was that we would be sailing for 24 hours continuously in a watch system to get us used to the 5 or 6 days it would take us to get from Bergen to London.
During the day the weather was fine and all the other sailors on the Solent had a good laugh at us struggling to pull up sails, tack the boat and all the other things we had to learn how to do.
But, as darkness fell, the other boats went home and we carried on sailing around the Isle of Wight.
And then, out of nowhere a bit like this morning’s reading, a vicious squall came up, a force 8 wind that whipped the sea into a frenzy.
We still had the large mainsail up, which meant that the boat tipped right over, the waves were breaking over the sides and washing down the decks.
In this state we had to try and reef in the mainsail, to make it smaller, and change the foresails.
Which might sound easy but which meant leaving the relative safety of the cockpit, strapping yourself onto the jackstays, going forward into the breaking sea and struggling with complex ropes and heavy sails while the wind and waves are doing their best to knock you over.
I don’t mind telling you that there was quite a bit of fear around while that was going on and I wonder what we would have said if Jesus had been having a bit of a doze on a cushion in the back while we were fighting for our lives, or so it felt.
Let’s remind ourselves of what the disciples, many of whom were experienced fishermen, said in Mark’s gospel:
“Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”
These are strong, challenging words to Jesus and you really get the sense that they come from a place of genuine fear.
In the other synoptic gospels this challenge to Jesus is somewhat toned down. In Matthew the disciples say:
“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
and in Luke:
“Master, master, we’re going to drown!”
But in Mark, who is always more direct, forthright and forceful, the disciples perhaps echo our own voices in times of distress, of which we have had a few recently:
“…don’t you care…”
They say that there are no atheists in a foxhole, as those without God may find him in times of crisis, but here it is those who are literally with God who are challenging his perceived inaction when an unexpected challenge arises.
We are first told that Jesus is asleep in the stern during the storm. It really does look as though Jesus doesn’t care what is happening to the boat or the disciples. But is this the reality, or is it merely the disciple’s perception of what is happening? Is God really absent and uncaring in this situation or is he acutely aware of what is happening but waiting for the disciples to make the first move towards him?
They don’t simply make a move towards Jesus, they actually wake him up. We aren’t told quite how they did this, but given Jesus was managing to sleep through a storm I suspect that they had to give him quite a shake to get this attention. If you think that prayer is always a super-spiritual activity which involves lots quietness then imagine the disciples in a state of real fear having to shake Jesus awake to get his attention. Which I suppose is an act of faith in itself, after all why bother waking someone up if you don’t think they can do something?
As Jesus wakes up the first thing he hears is their complaint: “Don’t you care?”
I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for Jesus or the disciples at this point.
But Jesus answers the question decisively – he ‘rebukes’ the wind and the sea, and there is a dead calm. Interestingly if you think that you want some dead calm in your life remember that we do need some wind in our sails to move our boats at all.
Having rebuked the elements, Jesus then challenges the disciples:
“Why were you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
They don’t answer this question, because they were in ‘great awe’ and spoke not to Jesus but to one another:
“How can this be? Even the wind and sea obey him!”
The disciples seem almost as scared by this action as they were of the previous inaction.
The answer to ‘how can this be?’ is not given in today’s Gospel but is strongly hinted at in the reading from the book of Job. And, of course, the book of Job itself is an exploration of the question of where is God when trouble strikes. After many chapters of Job complaining to God and challenging his decisions part of God’s response is found here, although it is not always comfortable reading. God essentially says to Job ‘who are you to question me – who laid the foundations of the earth.’
‘Who shut in the sea with doors…’
“…and said ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”
The message is clear – the doubt of the disciples is on a par with the doubt of Job and the answer is the same – the God who created the sea can stop it in it’s tracks and the God we see in Job is the same God we see in the person of Jesus in the back of a boat on the sea of Galilee.
He is the God who made heaven and earth. The God of creation has power over creation. This is the God we have faith in and he is there all the time.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question him or shouldn’t metaphorically shake him awake in our fear. Questioning God is a good thing if it leads us from a state of not thinking about him at all to realising that he is with us always. But, as Job and the disciples discovered, we need to realise that God answers our questions and our prayers in his terms and not ours.
God is not asleep to our suffering and our distress but often it is we who are asleep to God. In seeking to shake God awake perhaps it is our own faith and prayer life that is being woken up.
Sometimes the storm passes and we return to normality, although I hope not dead calm. And sometimes the storm does not pass but we find ourselves able to cope better with the situation. When we have faith and perseverance amazing things can happen.
My shipmates and I not only survived that long night on the Solent but when we eventually sailed from Norway across the North Sea we had a storm then too. Because of our experience of being challenged we found that we have been transformed from terrified novices into salty sea dogs – and rather than clinging on for dear life and wondering when God was going to make it stop we found ourselves riding the waves with joy and rejoicing in a God whose creation is bigger and more vibrant than we can possibly imagine.