A sermon preached on the second Sunday before Lent year B, 4 February 2018 Evensong by Dr Robert Titley, Canon Treasurer. Readings Genesis 2.4b–end, Luke 8.22–35.
Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and professional atheist who died in 1970, seems on the whole to have been happy in his atheism, except for one downside: ‘When life is good,’ he said, ‘there’s no-one to thank.’
Today’s first reading is an invitation to say thank you. It’s the second of two creation stories in Genesis. In this version, God makes a man first, plants the garden of Eden for him to live in, provides animals to keep him company; and then finally (because the man still feels lonely and incomplete) God creates a woman. It’s a charming, almost playful story - when God brings each animal to the man to see what he calls it, it’s like a parent watching a baby respond to soft toys dangled over the cot - and the story says that you and I and all that exists owe that existence to a generous God. It's an invitation to see the universe, deep down, as a good place, even a kind of gift: the fact that it is there and we are in it is a reason to say, ‘Thank God’.
Sometimes, though, you don’t want someone to thank because life is good, but someone to change things because life is bad. This is the position of the disciples in the second reading, in the storm on the sea of Galilee. The ancient Jews had a love-hate relationship with the sea, though usually without the love. Often in the Bible the sea is a symbol of evil forces, and a sign of the power of God is that God can deal with the sea.
A physicist estimates that the amount of energy in Luke’s Palestinian weather system would exceed that of an atomic bomb. So, when Jesus ‘rebukes’ the storm what does he do? Change the meteorological structure to neutralise all that energy? Or does he just know that it is about to cease through natural process? Or - what?
Important questions. Your answers will say a lot about how you see Jesus, and how you expect God to act in your life - if at all. Important questions, but we cannot settle them from the story itself. Your ‘what really happened’ verdict on this story, will in the end be a matter of faith - and in one sense there are more pressing faith questions to answer than how God deals with storms on Palestinian lakes. But the story is about more than that.
You and I are not in the innocence of the Garden of Eden, and we are not yet in the peaceful glory of heaven. We are between the garden and the city of gold, like the disciples in the boat, trying to live our lives in waters that can get pretty rough. Our storms tend to be the ‘inverted comma’ kind, caused by the frightening things of life and death, or by human cleverness, by power misused, or good intentions which go wrong. And we have been in this boat a very long while. The weather improves for some of the human race as history rolls on, but there is a horrible stubbornness about the ills of the world.
And where is God? In Genesis, God is in the garden, and the man seems wonderfully at home in God’s company. God is in heaven too, of course – heaven is just that, being in the presence of God with nothing to get in the way – but where is God in between?
The disciples see where. When the storm threatens to sink them, Jesus is with them, a human being just like them, yet the winds and water obey him, as though they owe something to him. And that closeness between God and humanity, the closeness we see in the garden, the closeness we hope for in heaven, that same closeness is there in the person of Jesus himself, in the middle of the storm. And being close to Jesus, the disciples should feel it. Where is your faith? He asks, when they are more afraid than they need to be.
You and I have our ways of being close to him. Some of you are sitting in what’s called the ‘nave’, from the Latin word for ‘ship’, because a church looks like an upside-down boat, and because the boat is itself a symbol of the church. The church is that place, that space, that group of people in which you can be close to Jesus, as you pray and hear the scriptures, in the middle of the storms of life.
How does he get us through get through the storm? By leading us back to the Garden of Eden, some happy state before life became so complicated? No, there is no going back. And no jumping ahead to heaven, where the pain and confusion of the world is done with; not yet. No, he says, I am with you in the boat, and the more you trust me, the more the storm will lose its power to terrify. Where is your faith?
Give us Lord the grace to walk by faith, through every storm of life to keep our eyes on you. And when we fail to see, or start to sink, stretch out your hand to raise us up. So may we learn to hold to you through good and ill, until we come to the haven where we would be, in everlasting joy and peace? Jeffrey John
A physicist estimates John Polkinghorne, One World, SPCK, 1986, p.72
Give us, Lord Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles. Canterbury Press, 2001, p. 82