Today is Sea Sunday when we think especially of all those who sail our oceans, in merchant fleets, fishing fleets and in the national navies of our world. We pray especially for those known to us – Diane and James, for example - and we give thank for those who risk their lives to provide us with both safety on our shores, and with the rich harvest of the sea. We also remember the National Sea Rescue Institute and their brave and dedicated volunteers.
The real, physical storms that batter the ships and boats are part of the everyday life of seamen, and part of the risk they voluntarily take when they go to sea. Let’s consider some of the noteworthy storms in the history of our faith: the storm of Jonah; the storm on Galilee; the storms in the Mediterran-ean when Paul was on his way to Rome, the storm that led to the conversion of John Newton; the storm on the Irish Sea that changed John Wesley’s idea of grace, to name but a few.
Notice that all of these were life-threatening, but God was not absent. He took each of them, and without making them any less violent, used them as the raw material for something quite marvellous.
Storms are always dangerous. They have in them the possibility of disaster, and it is a real and immediate possibility, We do well to be afraid. But they have another possibility as well. They may be exhilarating, energising and the beginning of something valuable, as the storms on the Highveld are.
It depends on who you are and where you are and whether or not you are sheltered and safe.
It is Bastille Day on Tuesday, which, if you are not French, you may well have overlooked! This is an example of quite another sort of storm – no less dangerous, but not a wind and rain storm. Jesus and his disciples experienced that sort of storm when Herodias’s nasty little daughter requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The senseless killing of good and holy people causes an storm in our hearts and in our faith.
Today we are going to look at what our faith means and how it holds up in terms of the storms that we encounter in life.
A vast and life-shattering storm broke on France on Bastille Day in 1789. Nothing would ever be the same again. For some it was the end; for others it was the beginning. For some it was a judgement; for others it was justice at last. It was, as Dickens said, “the best of times, the worst of times”. It was a storm of vast proportions that engulfed an entire nation, and, in time, the whole of Europe.
We have been through stormy times in our land, too, though not like the storms that have hit Burundi, Congo, Sudan, Nigeria and the Muslim world. Our storm is not over, however, and the wind may at any time change.
For some of us the storm comes even closer, and there are few in our congregation this morning who have not experienced the evil face of violent crime in their own lives or in those of their families.
The storm may come even closer than that, and be inside us. Perhaps you have just heard a diagnosis of an illness that you didn’t know you had, and that threatens to alter the shape of your life, or even bring you to the end of it here. Perhaps you are in the midst of a family turmoil that threatens to destroy the very fabric of your life and home. Perhaps you are being knocked this way and that as you wrestle with a difficult decision, or a situation that has got out of hand, and you can see no way out. Perhaps you have been pulled down into depression and you have lost all hope, and you are adrift on the ocean without sail or rudder.
I think that maybe that is the picture we need to see. Imagine the sea in a storm. The waves get higher and higher and the wind whips up the foam, driving all before it. All on the surface is tossed about and maybe even be broken up. At the same time, however, a little deeper down, the fish go about their business as usual, probably unaware of the violence on the surface. At the bottom of the ocean, where the bedrock is, there is complete calm. The only movement is gentle, along with the voluntary movement of the sea creatures. That bedrock is absolutely unaffected by any storm. If a vessel is securely anchored to the bedrock, it too will be safe from being driven ashore, or of losing its way. The surface is part of the ocean, but it is not the whole of the ocean. It is enormously important, the source of light and air in the water, but it needs the balance of the depths as well.
The things I mentioned above - the storms of this life, are the events that happen at the top of the ocean of our existence. They happen in terms of our temporary lives, as it were. At the base of our existence is the bedrock of our God. Is this what Jesus was saying when he talked about the man who built his house upon the rock?
There is a promise for all of God’s children who are at the moment in the middle of a dangerous storm. We will find it in the first verses of Isaiah chapter 43. Listen to it.
“Fear not, Jacob (put your own name in here), for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
Note that the waters and the rivers will not dry up or go away, and the fire will not go out. The promise is two-fold. God is with you, even if you cannot discern him; you will not be destroyed. In fact you will not be damaged. You may by hurt, but it will not be damaging. Make this your own.
And, even better, the ‘river’ you are crossing is not an ocean. It has another bank within sight, and the further you go into it, the closer you are to the other side. Claim the promise of safety while you swim desperately for the other shore!
When my elder daughter Elizabeth was 13 months old, she had pyelo-nephritis, compounded by one or two other conditions and it looked pretty bad for a while. While I was nursing her, day and night, my father sent me this verse and it was for me the turning point. I was, after that, able to pray to God himself, rather than just to mouth prayers. And I was able to accept that he not only knew about what was happening, but was also able to deal with it. I am happy to say that she has just turned 46 and is as healthy as the day is long. There is another bank to the river of trouble, and you will reach it, along with the Heavenly Father who holds your hand as you go.
He has not promised to keep you safe from the storms of life, but he has assured us that we will be safe IN the storms.