Last Sunday’s gospel reading was Matthew’s account of the calming of the storm by Jesus. Here’s what I said.
Many of us, at some point in our lives, find ourselves gripped by fear or panic. Sometimes that fear may be well-founded. But at others it may seem totally irrational – either to ourselves or to others. Fear is a very powerful and controlling emotion, and not understanding why we feel afraid or fearful can be awful. And there’s no shortage of good advice around from experts and self-help gurus on how to deal with those things that cause us unbearable fear or stress.
Advice such as this: Named must your fear be before banish it you can.
Anyone know who said that? It was, of course,
the Jedi Master Yoda – from the second Star Wars film to be made, The Empire Strikes Back. Anyone here who has never seen Star Wars?
There are fears and phobias of almost anything, and following Yoda’s advice, we give each of them a name. From well-known fears like claustrophobia and agoraphobia – fear of enclosed or fear of open spaces. Those fears that perhaps many understand – nosocomephobia, or fear of hospitals. And those some of us never will – oenophobia, the fear of wine. Fears which really seem quite strange to most people – such as sesquipedalophobia, or fear of long words. And while we may laugh sometimes at things others are afraid of, at some of these phobias, they really are no laughing matter to those who experience them. Fear is a very real thing and to those that experience a phobia the anxiety and stress that results make it very hard to handle.
Today’s gospel reading is about fear. And it’s about how that fear was dealt with. The disciples find themselves caught in a storm. And given that some of them were fishermen and were well-used to handling boats on the Sea of Galilee where, because of the topography storms could descend without warning, you might have thought that they were well-able to cope. I don’t suppose any of them suffered from pluviophobia, or fear of being rained on. There is, however, more going on here than meets the eye. In fact, fishing when the weather was fine was one thing. Being at sea in a storm something quite different. This isn’t just a bit of wind and rain. Storms on the Sea of Galillee can be tremendously violent and arise without any warning. The Jews were not a sea-faring people, the reason being that Israel had no natural harbours, and Jews believed that the sea was full of fearsome and unnatural monsters. The sea was often thought of as a godless place. When the prophet Jonah wanted to run away from God he went and got passage on a boat heading out to sea, because he thought God wouldn’t be there. And he ended up being swallowed by a whale! So you can begin to imagine how the disciples must have been feeling. Particularly given they would have been in quite a small boat and have known the danger they were in. They are battered by the wind and rain, unable to make any headway. They would have been in fear for their lives.
And Jesus is not with them.
Jesus has gone off alone. Just to put this into context, he has just heard the news of the death of his cousin John the Baptist. The crowds wouldn’t leave him alone, and have followed him. 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 the boat is far from the land, battered by the waves, and struggling to make any headway against the wind. And early next morning- hours later – 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. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t come immediately they were in trouble – he waits overnight. And it’s also interesting how he chooses to rescue them. He comes walking across the water in the middle of the storm in the darkness. Remember that Jews believed the sea was full of monsters. It’s no wonder that they thought they saw a ghost. It’s no wonder that when they first saw him they cried out in fear. And Jesus must have known that his sudden appearance in this fashion would freak them out!
Why wait? And why then come in such an alarming fashion? Matthew doesn’t explain. Perhaps it is Jesus’ way of helping them to understand the importance of trust. At any rate, 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 – albeit in such a startling manner – to make all 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 – and yet they discovered that even though he wasn’t there, even though they weathered the storm all night, Jesus cared, 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.
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. It doesn’t mean that our troubles vanish – but it gives us a new strength to face them. 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.