God does understand
Third Sunday after Trinity 2015
I’ve been on a regional course this week in Hertfordshire on how to be an effective incumbent. It was a bit of a curate’s egg (good in parts), but one of the good bits was about time management. This is really interesting, because in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives us His take on time management, so it has to be worth listening to.
He’s been with the Galilean crowd, teaching them, and now He needs time alone with God. He is exhausted – people have been coming to Him day and night and He has hardly even had time to eat. So in the evening He leaves the crowd and goes across the lake with the disciples in their boat. Almost as soon as he lays down in the boat, He falls asleep. Just when life is at its busiest, when people need us most, when there are most demands on our time, that’s when we most need time out with God, to listen to Him and allow Him to refresh us and equip us to do His work and to face the pressures that beset us. Remind me of that some time when I’m juggling far too many balls in the air!
So, Peter scans the sky and doesn’t like the look of it. The wind is rising and the sea is becoming restless. From the heights of Mount Hermon and the hills and valleys around, funnelled through the ravines, winds descend on the Sea of Galilee without warning and with great force. This is the real world, and just as Jesus is resting with God in the stillness, suddenly the storm hits the little boat. It’s is being battered by the waves, and the wind is against it. The boat starts to fill with water. Jesus continues to sleep. The sails are out of control, the helm won’t respond, timber and tackle groan. There is a very short distance between peace and trouble, between calm and chaos. In this frail craft that we call human life, there is always the danger of being overwhelmed.
‘Teacher’, the disciples cry, ‘do you not care that we are perishing?’ Jesus wakes up, rebukes the wind, and says to the waves, ‘Peace! Be still.’ The wind ceases and there is a dead calm.
Our way to Jesus is through the contradictions and adversities of our world, not along some pleasant detour round them. Like the disciples, our trust can fail us when the going is tough. Our faith may be small, but we believe in a great God, and He always stands ready to help.
Statements of the inexorable power of God need to be heard, perhaps more today than ever. God has to be powerful, otherwise what Paul is saying in our reading from the Letter to the Corinthians simply looks contradictory. Paul is talking about the power of God at work in His ministers as they suffer ‘beatings, imprisonments, riots’ and other sufferings. But we need to think carefully about what God’s power is like. The Jesus who commands the storm is soon to be the tortured and suffering Jesus who dies on the cross. The disciples, like us, have to learn to trust God for what God is and what He gives, not for what we would like.
At lifeboat stations there is usually a record of rescues and of the wonderful bravery of those who continue to go out in storms to help those in difficulty. But sometimes, instead of a record of rescue, it simply says, ‘Standing by’. That is when the lifeboat was there and ready to help if needed. The crew were keeping watch in stormy weather or in a potentially dangerous situation, and were ready to come to the aid of any vessel that got into trouble. It’s like that with God, He is always ‘standing by’, ready to help those who call on Him. Whatever we fear may be out of control or threatening, God is there and will come to us in the midst of it, but He doesn’t always make everything all right immediately and on our terms.
Julian of Norwich lived through stormy times - the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries were turbulent times – the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. She witnessed four kings sit on the throne of England. As a young woman she nearly died of illness, but she wrote this –
He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed; you shall not be work-weary; you shall not be distressed.’ But he did say, ‘You shall not be overcome.’
Julian was deeply aware of God as our maker, our lover and our keeper. Amidst the storms of life, she was acutely aware of the presence, the love and the power of God. Sometimes people who are experiencing difficult times themselves, or have to watch a loved one suffer, say to me, Why has God done this to so and so? He’s always been a good person and he doesn’t deserve this. The theology of suffering is probably best left for another sermon, but God promises us two things. One is His presence with us in all of life’s circumstances, and the other is eternal life, a quality of life based on love, God’s love for us, ours for Him, and each of us for one another, that begins in this life, and stretches throughout eternity.
Christianity is not an insurance policy; God doesn’t necessarily change the circumstances of our lives when they get tough – that’s not what He promises, and because of the presence of sin in the world, bad things do happen to good people. But if we stay close to God, have a relationship with Him, and call on Him in times of trouble, He will come to us, often in unexpected ways. He will never forsake us or abandon us, even in death. And if we are tempted to think that God doesn’t understand the depth of our pain, then we only need to remind ourselves of what Jesus suffered. God does understand and He will be there with us. God is always reliable, but never predictable. Amen.