We face many storms as individuals and as churches, and this is a well-known passage from the Gospels. But, do we really think about what this passage has to say to us? That was the challenge I wrestled with, while I also wanted to set out something of the developing vision for Emmanuel parish church…
Just before the reading we heard, Jesus has had a busy day. He has been teaching and preaching all day, talking to people about the coming of God’s kingdom, about the way that it is growing and breaking into our world. It has been another busy day, and at the end of it Jesus is exhausted; he’s probably physically tired and emotionally drained.
So, to get away from all the people that were crowding around and wanting more, always wanting more, Jesus and his close friends and followers get into a few small boats and set off across the lake. The sun sets behind the hills and, rocked by the waves, Jesus falls asleep.
But, as can happen on the Sea of Galilee, a sudden storm springs up. The wind and clouds are funnelled down the valley from the high hills above, and the lake goes from calm to stormy in a frighteningly short amount of time. This isn’t the first time the fishermen in the boats have been caught in this sort of storm, and they know what it means; it means swamped boats, broken masts, people drowned. This is fear, fear based on experience. It’s happened before; their minds might even have flashed back to people they knew who had been killed in such storms.
And, through it all, Jesus sleeps. These tough experienced fishermen know when they’re in trouble and they know there’s nothing they can do about it. And, more frustratingly, there’s one person that isn’t pulling his weight. He’s in trouble and doesn’t even know it because he’s so deeply asleep. The least he could do would be to help bail out the boat, or say a prayer, or something. So, they wake up Jesus, scared and annoyed. “Don’t you care if we drown?” they ask.
So, Jesus gets up, shouts at the wind, shouts at the water and then turns to his disciples. In the sudden stillness, in the sudden calm, he asks them: “Why are you so afraid?”. To which the obvious answer is: ‘because we were going to drown’! “Do you still have no faith?” he carries on.
Have you ever had that sinking experience when you’ve know that things were bad, and then you discover, actually they were much worse than you thought? Well, that’s what the disciples are now feeling. What just happened there? The storm has gone, and that’s pretty scary in itself. And this Teacher, whom they respect, and admire, and have followed, and have seen do amazing things, well, he’s just moved things onto a totally different level. “Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him.”
The disciples knew the Old Testament pretty well. So, there was probably a whole load of stories that went flashing through their minds – Moses and the Red Sea, Jonah and the storm, and also, perhaps, the Psalm that we’ve just heard read:
“They cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
‘Who is this?’ Who could this be but God? But that’s still too mind-blowing a conclusion, so the disciples shy away from it. They can’t think about it, because it’s too difficult.
So, can we? Can we go one better than the disciples and think about what all this means for us? Well, it has often been used to think about the church, afloat, just, on the storms of trouble and evil, of persecution and temptation. And, of course, that leads us to thinking about what the storms currently raging about us are. Here in Emmanuel, we know that we are struggling with a decaying building and with a lack of money. Those are common problems, and part of the problem of falling numbers. Again, that’s common across the country.
Now, this could be the point where I decry the forces of secularism, where I denounce Richard Dawkins and his ilk, where I despair of government policies that seem to work against Christianity. I could do those things. Many people have. But, every time I hear those arguments I have a nagging feeling that I can hear Jesus say “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Well, actually, I don’t think he’s being that polite.
Because, all those things are symptoms of the real problem. Jesus was asleep in the boat because of his reliance on God, because of his confidence in God’s presence and power. Later in the gospels, the disciples will fall asleep whilst Jesus prays. They fall asleep because of complacency, apathy, and a lack of understanding. That’s us. We, the church, have dozed off because of complacency, because of apathy, because we didn’t think that there was any need to be awake. And now we’ve hopefully woken up, hopefully, but there’s a furious squall and we don’t know what to do! As the Psalm says “they reeled and staggered like drunken men; they were at their wits end.”
But, across the country, churches are growing, people are coming to a deeper relationship with God, God’s kingdom is at work. Across the country people are discovering the power of God, the love of God, the fact that God cares about our lives, and about every bit of our lives. And, also that God cares about the whole of his creation.
Both the Psalm and the gospel reading also remind us of God’s care and interest in his creation. The fact that Jesus could control the wind and the waves was a sign that he was God, that he had God’s power. The Psalm talks of God’s sovereignty over nature. We are given the responsibility of caring for God’s creation. The fact that we haven’t done a very good job of that is another symptom of our failure to fully understand God and his call on our lives. And that’s something that I want us to be looking at more carefully as a church.
But, across the country, people are noticing the lives of Christians around them and are being drawn to worship the God that they see reflected in those lives. At Pentecost, the Diocese sent us all Good News Stories about how churches are growing in Derbyshire. If you haven’t already seen that, do please take one away. A good news story from Emmanuel is the amount of money that we were able to raise for Christian Aid, over £1600. That represents people’s time and effort, and that many people in our community share at least some of our concerns. That’s a great place to start.
The Psalm we heard said “Let the give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men.” That’s the God we worship, that’s the God we know, and can get to know better. It’s a God who has unfailing love for us, and longs to do wonderful things for us and with us. Over the last few months the PCC, the Church Council, have come up with their prayers and hopes for Emmanuel. It’s a vision of a worshipping, growing, outward-looking community of faith. And so, with God’s help, we’re working towards fulfilling that vision.
That’s why we’re opening up the church building on Saturdays, so that people can come here in a non-threatening way, and perhaps be drawn into the worship of God. Same for the website, in a virtual sort of way. So, if you can help staff the building, or supply photos, or stories, that would be great. We’re all part of this.
That’s also why I’m hoping that ‘This Time Tomorrow’ will become a regular part of our worship. It’s one way of helping us remember that God cares about the whole of our lives, not just the part we spend in church. It’s also a way of supporting each other through prayer as we go through the storms of our own personal lives. That’s also why we’re going to be holding a Healing and Wholeness Service in the morning on 29th July. Because God cares about us, God wants to bring us to wholeness, and part of that is praying for each other for that healing and wholeness that only God can give us.
And because prayer is so important we agreed at PCC on Tuesday that we’re going to have regular prayer meetings, to help us, like Jesus, rely on God and have confidence in his presence and power. So do please come along. Prayer is the engine which drives things, it’s the way we can connect and reconnect with God. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find it a lot easier to do when you’re not on your own! There’s always something distracting isn’t there?
We’re also looking at ways we can have prayer walks, use the screen to help people worship God, improve this building so that more people are drawn to God’s glory because of it, hold different types of services such as Back to Church Sunday and Messy Church and so on. You’ll be hearing more about these things over the coming weeks and months. There’s lots of things that we could be doing; working out what God wants us to do is a bit harder. Which, of course, is why we need to pray, why we need to seek the help of the Holy Spirit, why we need to ask God for his wisdom and vision.
The storm that Jesus’ disciples went through was very real and very scary. The storms that we go through in life might not be actual, literal storms but they are no less real and no less scary for that. So let us, as individuals when we need to, and as a church at the moment, take a deep breath, and ask Jesus to help us. Because our God has unfailing love for us, and longs to do wonderful things for us and with us. Let’s put our faith, our trust, our hope in that God. And, as the psalmist encouraged us to do, let us praise God publically and together. Let us exalt the Lord in the assembly of the people and praise him the council of the elders. Amen.