A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Of all the things we can feel and experience, fear can be the most overwhelming and debilitating. Sometimes our fears are grounded in reality: going into an exam where we are not sure what questions we are going to be asked, facing an unexpected trip to the hospital tests or an op, receiving news that throws our life into uncertain confusion, and so on.
But at other times our fears, real though they might be for us, have no rational explanation. Someone I know has a fear of flying. So overwhelming was that fear that, when he married, his wife – who had been fine until then – developed the same fear. For years they could only take holidays to places they could reach by car. Despite all the reassurances about the safety of planes over cars, they were unable to fly until they decided to confront their fear and go on a fear of flying course. Since then they have flown as far as the Canary Islands and are gradually getting better – though part of the course involved discussing the various noises planes make, which cannot always have been helpful to the other passengers!
Fear often comes when we are out of control – which, I think, is the case with my friends and their experience of flying. That presumably was what happened with the disciples in the middle of a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Imagine having been out in the middle of Lake Windermere when Storm Eunice hit and you get the idea. Usually the Sea of Galilee is as smooth as a piece of glass but even today storms such as the one described in our gospel are reported to blow out of nowhere. So the disciples probably sailed out when the lake was calm and were just sitting or lying in the boat relaxing so much so that Jesus had fallen asleep. All of a sudden, a storm blew up and the boat began to fill with water. Imagine their sense of panic and of fear as they thought they might drown. Not surprising then that they shout to Jesus, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing’. Were they just waking him to be with them or did they have a sense that he might be able to do more? We don’t know but it seems that they just wanted him to wake up. Jesus wakes up, calmly rebukes the wind and the raging waves and calm is restored. And then he turns to them and asks, ‘Where is your faith?’ and we read that they were afraid and amazed as Jesus has command over the winds and the waves.
Jesus is with them through the storm and is able to bring them out of the other side to a place of calm and peace. You can imagine how that story would have resonated in the early Church as people faced opposition from their families, their synagogues and the Roman authorities at various points. When the storm is raging, trust in Jesus.
That would be enough, wouldn’t it? We could glean from this story that Jesus is just someone we can turn to when things get sticky or dangerous. But this story comes in Luke’s gospel just after the Parable of the Sower where we glean that it is the seed sown in fertile soil that grows and flourishes. And in the story just before this one, Jesus describes his family as those who hear God’s word and do it. So having faith is far more than just turning to Jesus in difficult situations – situations where we feel out of control when we might reach for the spiritual lifebelt – it is about a relationship of growing depth which we have to allow God to nurture and bless. It’s about allowing the seed to take root in us so that when we face such challenges we can respond in faith. Prayer and reading of the scripture help us to align ourselves with God’s mind and will that we know that God is with us through the storms but also through the calm places in our lives where it is so easy to assume control once more and forget about Him. That’s a good reason to join our Lent Study Groups or Prayer Workshops – to grow in this faith and trust.
But it is often as we turn to God in the storms that our faith grows as we learn to trust him not necessarily to take away those storms but to be with us and to bring us to a place of peace and of calm amid the storm.
A colleague of mine served as University Chaplain and she speaks of the privilege of spending time with the International Students who came across to the UK to study. One of these was a young priest called Hilary, who came from South Sudan, having been driven out of his home and having lived with his family in a refugee camp in Khartoum. They lived in very poor conditions – his family of 6 were effectively living in one room – but the Church was growing like topsy. The church that he led had at that stage, 500 people in it and it had grown from virtually nothing. Hilary is now Bishop of Yei in the Southern Sudan.
It is often the case that the church grows in a place where there is struggle, hardship and persecution and it is perhaps because people have no control of their own and can only turn to God and trust in Him. The same is true in other parts of the world and I wonder whether it is our ability to be in control of our lives and our relative comfort that often get in the way of us developing our trust in God’s providence and provision for us.
The same is often true of people who come forward to offer themselves for ministry. They often speak of moments of great difficulty in their lives as key moments of formation in their faith: relationship breakdown, illness, failure of some sort. As we feel ourselves to be out of our depth, we turn to God, begin to trust more and depend on Him and as a result our faith grows and deepens.
And as our faith grows and our relationship with God deepens, we live acknowledging the presence of God in our lives. Jesus becomes a constant companion rather than someone we just turn to in times of storm and we know the empowering of God’s Holy Spirit as we seek to be the people God calls us to be. As we develop our relationship with God through prayer, worship and the reading of scripture, as we are open to listening to God as well as speaking, so we begin to be aligned to his purposes for his creation. We begin to see things as he sees them. The writer of the book of Revelation was caught up in a vision of God’s splendour and majesty which we heard about in our first reading. Such a vision of God transforms the way in which we see the world and one another. And so it is often the case that those who have dedicated themselves to prayer, those who have been through a time of suffering where they have been particularly close to God, can give us insight into God’s will and purpose.
Such a knowledge and relationship with God can help us to reframe, to see differently, situations that may seem difficult or impossible. And I think of people I have met in my ministry who had endure the most horrendous illness, but who were such godly people with incredible insight and who radiated peace and a deep joy.
Faith in a God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer, is a journey which leads us through calm and storm but enables to see things from God’s perspective as the one who longs to bring healing and wholeness to us all.
Our readings for today begin to look towards the season of Lent and Lent is a time of penitence and of preparation. A time to reflect once more upon our lives and to look honestly at whether Jesus is Lord of our lives – or whether our desire for control gets in the way of that. May we use this time to repent and to grow in our faith, learning to trust God a little bit more. And may that peace and calm of his presence be a witness to all those we meet.
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