Coping with the storms of life. My sermon for this week on Matthew 14.22-33
Being caught in a storm at sea is no laughing matter. I speak from bitter experience. Twice I have been caught in storms at sea. And I’m not talking here about a bit of heavy swell and some wind and rain on the ferry over to France. I’m talking about real storms – the kind where you feel that life as you know it has come to an end. The first time was during my Church Army training, while on a placement at the training ship HMS Collingwood. While there I got a trip out to sea on the guided missile destroyer HMS Antrim. This was in the days when we still had a navy! It was my first ever trip to sea, not counting the Isle of Wight ferry. Shortly after we left Portsmouth harbour it started. The ship hit gale force winds. I can still remember the sick bay and the doctor with what looked like a ridiculously large hyperdermic.
The second time was on a family holiday in Devon. We took the boat over to Lundy island, off the north Devon Coast. And it was a great deal worse than HMS Antrim, if that’s possible. Again, as we left harbour we ran straight into a storm. It had been a particularly stormy spring, and since the Lundy island boats are flat-bottomed so that they can land at the island, they are particularly susceptible to the movement of the sea. I have vague memories of sitting in the bar surrounded by other people clearly feeling just as bad as me. I had no idea where Anne-Marie or the children were and was past caring. Turned out they were up on deck in exactly the same state. After we landed the crew, having done an amazing job of clearing up the mess left by all the passengers, informed everyone we were lucky to get to Lundy – and that it had been their first successful landing that spring. And everyone was thinking – shame they made it this time, we’ve still got to get back home.
So I can imagine how the disciples must have felt, caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. They would have been in quite a small boat and, used to boats though some of them were, have known the danger they were in. In a severe storm small boats can capsize or sink. Storms on the Sea of Galilee were common. This large inland lake is about 600 feet – that’s 180 metres for those of you who, unlike me, think in metric – below sea level and is surrounded by hills and narrow ravines. The water traps heat during the day. Warm air rises, cools and falls, and sometimes is funnelled by the ravines into violent gales that sweep down without warning. And here they are, out in the middle of the sea, battered and buffeted by waves and by the wind, and unable to make the shore. And Jesus is not with them.
Let’s just go back a bit, for we need to put this passage into context. Matthew tells us how Jesus, having heard of the death of John the Baptist, gets into a boat all by himself and crosses the sea to a solitary place where he can be alone. John, remember, is not just the Forerunner. At a personal level he is also Jesus’ cousin. And like anyone, Jesus is feeling bereaved, and he wants some time alone – he needs space.
But the people won’t let him be – and they follow him on foot around the seashore, arriving before him. The Sea of Galilee is about five miles long by two miles wide, so it wouldn’t take too long to walk around. So he is denied his time alone. He heals the sick and, when evening comes, feeds them from the five loaves and two fish, as we heard last week. Their needs come before his. But then he dismisses the crowds and he makes the disciples get into the boat and head back towards the other side of the lake. And he goes up a mountain on his own to pray. He is still grieving for John and he still needs some time alone, to pray and reflect.
And the disciples, on their way across the lake, run into the storm – and a pretty big storm it seems to have been. The disciples battle against it for hours and Jesus is not there to help. Matthew tells us that when evening came Jesus is alone but by this time the boat is far from the land, battered by the waves, and struggling to make any headway against the wind. And early next morning they are still there, out on the sea, unable to complete the journey of just a couple of miles or so.
And then Jesus comes walking across the water. Interesting that Jesus didn’t come immediately they were in trouble – he waits overnight. Whjy isn’t clear – perhaps he wanted them to learn about trusting him. And then he comes across the water and says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” He faces the same storm as the disciples, but comes to make all well. And after the incident with Peter, impetuous Peter who wants to walk to Jesus but panics and loses faith, Jesus gets into the boat and the wind ceases. When Jesus is there all is well.
If only life were all plain sailing! But as we all know it isn’t. We all have times when the storms of life batter and buffet, and perhaps like the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, we feel that Jesus is not there. So much we have to deal with leads to unbearable stress or depression or recrimination or feeling that life just can’t go on – bereavement, illness, redundancy, crime … the list could go on. Matthew doesn’t elaborate on how the disciples were feeling, but it doesn’t take much to imagine what thoughts, what questions, must have been going through their minds:
- He made us cross the lake – he must have known what would happen!
- Why isn’t he here when we need him?
- He’s just gone off on his own. He’s okay – nice and safe!
- Doesn’t he care about us?
Human reactions – we all have them – but the reality was that Jesus did care, he knew what was happening, and he came to their rescue.
When we face storms in life it can seem sometimes that Jesus is not there. At such times we can take encouragement from this story – we can trust that although we may not be able to see him or feel his presence that he is caring for us, he is coming to us, sharing our dangers with us, and holding out his hands to catch us as he did Peter. We can know that however bad things might be that when Jesus is there we have no need to fear.
But that kind of trust doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from spending time with Jesus – just as the disciples spent time with Jesus – spending time in prayer and in listening to his teaching. For our faith needs to grow strong if we are to be able to trust when times are tough, if we are to learn to cope with the storms and not fear because we know Jesus is with us. Now, it may be that you don’t find praying easy, or that you struggle to read the Bible regularly – if you want to discuss these things or about some other aspect of your spiritual life, then feel free to talk to either me or Mother Anne-Marie. We’re there to listen and to help.
Like the disciples we are on a spiritual journey, a journey where there will be times of doubt or of misunderstanding or times of just sheer lack of faith. But like the disciples we need to keep growing so that our faith enables us to face the worst that life can throw at us without fear. Later on the disciples, living in the light of the resurrection, knew that Jesus was with them and were able to remain steadfast in even the strongest storms. We also live in the light of the resurrection. And because of that, we can answer the question posed by our final hymn this morning. A hymn I thought was widely known but I gather isn’t here at St. John’s. I hope you enjoy singing it.
It’s that great Evangelical hymn of faith and trust by Priscilla Owens, and when we know the light of the risen Jesus in our lives we can answer the question posed in the first verse with a resounding ‘yes!’ :
Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
when the clouds unfold their wings of strife.
when the strong tides lift and the cables strain,
will your anchor drift or firm remain?
Let us pray
Yes, Lord, our anchor will hold in the storms of life, for …
We have an anchor that keeps the soul,
steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.