Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Second Sunday before Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent.

The Second Sunday before Lent 2022

Reading: Luke 8:22-25

In our Gospel reading for the Third Sunday before Lent, we read, firstly, of Jesus’ selection of the twelve disciples who were to be his apostles and then, secondly, the introduction to Jesus’ teaching of his disciples, which is commonly known as the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:12-26). This actually takes place on a plateau on a mountain and is St Luke’s version on the Sermon on the Mount.

Since then, much has happened in the Gospel. After returning to Capernaum, Jesus heals a centurion’s son from a distance, praising the centurion’s faith as he does so (Luke 7:1-10). Jesus also visits a town called Nain, which is about 9 miles south of Nazareth, where he restores a widow’s only son to life, while the dead son’s funeral is taking place (Luke 7:11-17). Jesus answers questions about his identity from John the Baptist who is in prison and who wants to know whether Jesus really is the One who they have been waiting for. Jesus tells those whom John has sent on his behalf to report back what they see. Jesus speaks highly of John to those who are with him, but tells them that though John is a great prophet, anyone in the Kingdom of God is greater than him (Luke 7:18-35)!

Then, at dinner with a Pharisee called Simon, Jesus pronounces forgiveness on a woman with the reputation of being a sinner, who is weeping at his feet. Jesus criticizes Simon the Pharisee for criticizing the woman as he does so! It is those who have been forgiven much who love the most (Luke 7:36-50).

St Luke describes how Jesus goes on tour through the cities and villages proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God (Luke 8:1-3). St Luke gives us an interesting insight into the tour arrangements. St Luke tells us that the 12 apostles go with him, but so too do a group of women, including St Mary Magdalene, who, we are told, provide for Jesus and his disciples out of their resources. The women are not described as disciples, but they do finance their work!

As an example of Jesus’ teaching, St Luke gives his account of the Parable of the Sower together with Jesus’ explanation of why he teaches in parables as well as an explanation of the Parable of the Sower itself (Luke 8:4-15).

Jesus closed his teaching of his disciples on the mountain by telling them they should not only call him Lord, but also do what he says (Luke 6:46-49). St Luke reports how Jesus again stresses the importance of both hearing and listening carefully to what he says (Luke 8:16-18). Then, when his mother and brothers come to see Jesus, Jesus emphasizes this message by telling everyone that his true family is everyone who hears the Word of God and does it (Luke 8:19-21).

Being with Jesus must have been quite roller-coaster ride. You never quite knew what he was going to do or say next. Whatever else being with Jesus was, it certainly wasn’t boring.

Throughout St Luke’s account, we have been reading how Jesus teaches the importance of having faith. Jesus draws everyone’s attention to the faith of the centurion, for example, and he tells the woman who comes to see him at Simon the Pharisee’s house that it is her faith that has saved her. Faith involves both hearing and doing Jesus’ words. It is not, however, quite so easy as it sounds!

This brings us to our Gospel reading. It is St Luke’s account of the Calming of the Storm. We read St Mark’s account of the Calming of the Storm last year for Third Sunday after Trinity (Mark 4:35-41). (I don’t want to repeat everything I said then, but would encourage you to read the transcript or listen to the sermon online!)

The story is very well-known. Jesus, wanting to go from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other, gets into a boat with his disciples and tells them to set sail. Jesus falls asleep as they are sailing across the lake. Suddenly, a storm sweeps down on the lake and the boat starts to sink. Seeing they are in danger the disciples, in a state of panic, wake Jesus up, shouting:

‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ (Luke 8:24)

Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind and waves restoring calm. But he does not leave it there. He asks his disciples simply, ‘Where is your faith?’ The conclusion to the story is important. St Luke writes:

‘They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”’ (Luke 8:25)

What are we to make of this story? It is even harder for us today to believe that Jesus could calm the storm than it was for the disciples. The disciples, in common with most people in the ancient world, believed that such things could happen. For Jews, God was the One who did amazing things. Their escape from slavery in Egypt was because of the amazing intervention of God in parting the Red Sea. The Hebrew Scriptures just take it for granted that God can work what we call miracles. Pagans too believed that their gods could work wonders.

The physical world wasn’t a closed system to people and neither was it all there was. The spiritual world of the gods was as real to them as the physical world. It was still amazing when miracles took place, but there was no philosophical reason why they could not happen. To put it another way: their worldview allowed for such things.

Ours, however, does not. Even if we believe that Jesus did indeed calm the storm, we don’t quite know how to fit it in with what we know of the laws of nature and our understanding of the physical world. Explaining such things is a bit embarrassing to be honest. Best, then, not even to try!

This is why many if not most sermons on this passage will ignore the issue of whether Jesus really did calm the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee and will focus instead on the meaning of the story for us today. Needless to say, its meaning, as far as preachers will be concerned, doesn’t have anything to do with changing the weather. So rather than discussing what actually happened, the story will be treated as more of a parable that teaches us about the need for faith.

The Gospel writers would be the first to admit that Jesus’ miracles have a deeper, even a symbolic, meaning. They would not, however, see such a symbolic meaning as an alternative to taking the story literally. Not taking the story literally, of course, totally misses one of the points of the story. It is precisely because Jesus can calm the storm and do other equally amazing things that we can be sure he is someone we can have faith in. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the crowds:

‘If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’ (John 10:37-38)

We, however, claim to believe that the Father is in Jesus, it’s just his works we are not sure about.

And so, in many sermons, the storm on the Sea of Galilee will be seen as a metaphor for the storms of life that come down on us all without warning at various times in our lives, often when we least expect them to. The message of the story on this understanding of it, then, is that we should have faith that Jesus can calm the storms in our lives. Preachers will tell their congregations that when we are going through difficult times such as sickness, tragedy, or bereavement, it may sometimes feel as if Jesus is asleep and doesn’t care. We too may think we are going to perish. But, they will tell us, what we need is to hold on to our faith in Jesus and he will calm the storm.

It is a very encouraging message and one that is designed to give hope. There are, however, problems with it, apart, that is, from the fact that all too often Jesus doesn’t calm the storms in our lives; indeed, sometimes he seems to be the cause of them.

While we may think that the story as metaphor approach to St Luke’s account of the calming of the storm gets us out of having to discuss the difficult issue of whether Jesus changed the weather, it, in fact, lands us with even more difficult issues to deal with. After all, if we believe in ‘God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth’, which, after all is a belief that is pretty much fundamental to our faith, then, in theory at least, he should be able to have some influence on the earth’s weather systems.

Believing that God is the Creator of all means we can at least explain why we believe Jesus could calm the wind and waves. But how do we explain that Jesus doesn’t always calm the storms of life? How do we explain that believers get sick, are killed in accidents and disasters, suffer bereavement, and experience all the other pain and problems that are common to humanity? How can our Father allow such things to happen to us and do nothing about them? The parable approach would be great if its message were true. The truth is that it doesn’t seem to be. Explaining why God doesn’t calm these storms of suffering is much harder than explaining how Jesus as the Son of God is able to calm the weather.

So, rather than finding we have escaped the problem of the storm, the parable approach creates a veritable storm of questions and problems. We need to try another approach to the story.

I want then to approach the story by looking at three things that are said in the story.

1. Who then is this?

St Luke describes the disciples’ reaction after Jesus has calmed the storm. St Luke writes:

‘They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”’ (Luke 8:25)

The biggest problem with our worldview isn’t that we don’t believe in miracles, it’s that we do believe in ourselves. That is to say that we think everything needs to be about us. So, of course, we think that Jesus doing something amazing should be to show us what he wants to do for us. St Luke’s conclusion to the story, however, focuses not on what Jesus can do for us, but on Jesus himself.

The disciples had been concerned that Jesus didn’t care that they were perishing in the storm. At the end of the story, they realize there are more important things to worry about. Jesus challenges them to think about him and who he is. Jesus’ works are meant to tells us something about Jesus and who he is. What matters, then, is what decision we come to about him and what we decide to do as a consequence? What does or does not happen to us is secondary to this. If this seems a bit hard, then we need to go back to what Jesus says to his disciples on the mountain. Jesus says to them:

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.’ (Luke 6:22)

As we saw in the sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent, Jesus is telling his disciples that they should prioritize their relationship with him.

‘Who then is this?’ the disciples ask each other. Their worldview may allow for such things to happen; they, nevertheless, are still not used to being part of them when they do. The disciples have heard Jesus preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, forgive people’s sins, and claim authority over the Law. They have seen him cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Now they have seen him calm the forces of nature. Who is this indeed?

Everything that they have heard and seen would suggest that they are in the presence of God himself. The scribes and Pharisees ask, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Luke 5:21). It’s a good question. The only problem is that Jesus seems to be, well, so human. That was the problem that people had at Nazareth. Nothing about Jesus and his behaviour growing up led anyone who knew him when he was growing up to think that Jesus was anything other than a nice, local Jewish lad.

The disciples were following Jesus because they believed he was something more than this, but that more didn’t mean that they thought he was anything other than an exceptional human being. Jesus was, after all, asleep in the boat, just as you would expect anyone to be after a hard day’s work. After Jesus has calmed the storm, however, they are not so sure: ‘Who then is this?’, they ask.

Jesus didn’t fit any of the normal categories. He still doesn’t. It sometimes amuses me the way that New Testament scholars hunt around for first century categories to use in an attempt to explain where Jesus fits in his historical context. And some of them have some truth in them: Rabbi, prophet, Messiah, charismatic wonder-worker. Jesus is all of these things, but he is more.

The Church took some time to work out its answer to the question of who Jesus is. They needed to find a way to explain how Jesus could be at the same time both human and divine. How could be asleep in the boat, tired out, one moment, and then calming the wind and waves the next? Having, however, settled on an explanation at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that affirmed both his humanity and his divinity, it was to be his divinity which dominated the Church’s thinking about Jesus in the years ahead. Jesus was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the Lord of Lords, and King of kings. The divine Jesus became remote. He was one of us in name only.

It has been partly in reaction to this that the Church, in recent years, has preferred to stress Jesus’ humanity. We have emphasized those aspects of his character that demonstrate just how human he is. We see him as in every way like us: getting hungry, tired, sad, angry, and with all the other appetites and emotions common to humans. We find that the Church’s doctrine of the ‘two natures’ of Christ, human and divine, and this talk of his divinity both make him seem less human, so we have stopped talking of Jesus in this way. We focus now on his humanity and quietly ignore his divinity.

But the Church’s belief in Jesus’ two natures and its talk of his divinity, how he is God Incarnate, doesn't make Jesus less human, nor does talking about his humanity makes him less divine. He is both. Jesus is unique: that's rather the point. Jesus isn't just a teacher, prophet, or charismatic figure, no matter how special; he is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).

Who then is this? The One who created the forces of nature can calm them. We need in our own day to rediscover the divine Jesus, not at the expense of his humanity, but so we can more properly appreciate it. And having rediscovered it, we too should feel a sense of fear and amazement.

2. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’

So, what about the storms that hit us without warning in life? The message of this story isn’t that Jesus stops the storms coming, nor even that he calms them when they do, but that when they come, we should have faith. This is not faith that Christ will make them go away, but faith that Christ will help us to get through them. Our faith is not meant to calm the storm; it is meant to calm us.

This will only happen when we are sure that Jesus is the One who has power over the wind and waves and everything else in this world. This is why the most important thing for us to do is to answer the question, ‘Who then is this?’ for ourselves.

If we don’t think he is One who can calm the weather, then we do, indeed, have a problem. All too often our faith Jesus is a bit like a cuddly toy: something to hold on to when we get scared in the darkness, while knowing that it is just toy. Our faith in Christ needs to be real and rooted in our knowledge of who he really is.

Our faith in Christ is faith in One who has authority over all things. Knowing that everything, including the darkness, is subject to him and that nothing can happen outside his will means we know we are not at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Faith knows that all things including the bad things all work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).

Now believing this when we are suffering, scared, and sorrowful is not easy, but the right question to ask ourselves when we experience pain and hardship is Jesus’ question to his disciples. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Where is our faith?’ Not where is our faith to make it go away, but where is our faith to keep going? Where is our faith to believe that God knows best, has a plan, and will work all things out?

Too many want nothing to do with God in their normal everyday life, but then when trouble comes want to be able to turn to him for help. But faith doesn’t work like that. Faith isn’t just for when we encounter storms in life; faith must be our life.

Faith is not something that can be kept in the cupboard for a rainy day, something we can turn to when we don’t know what else to do. Faith is about a relationship with God in Christ. A relationship that not only helps us through the troubles and storms of this life, but which becomes stronger because of them.

3. Master, Master we are perishing!

Although the disciples didn't realise it at the time, they were exactly right in thinking they were perishing. But it was not the storm that was the biggest threat to them. St Mark has the disciples’ words to Jesus as a question. St Mark writes that the disciples ask Jesus:

‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38)

It is because Jesus cares that they are perishing that he is there with them in the boat and why he will go on to do what it is that he came to do, what his Father sent him to do. St John writes:

‘For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

St Paul writes to the believers in the Church of Corinth that he has passed on to them as of first importance what he also has received, namely, that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3).

This idea the Christ came to die for our sins, and that this was what his coming was all about, is one that is now often seen as being about just one aspect of what Jesus came to do or which is even an idea that has been dropped altogether. And yes, it is, of course, true that Jesus is concerned with more than just our sins, but he is not concerned with less.

Many in the Church want to focus on what they see as Jesus’ example and teaching, that is, on how we should live our lives to make a difference for good; for example, by working for such things as justice, equality, diversity, and inclusivity, here and now, in this world. But we cannot do any of these things until our sin has been forgiven and Christ has given us new life. Instead of talking about sin, many want to concentrate instead on God’s inclusive love for all and on how he welcomes all people to come to him. God does indeed love and welcome all to come to him. But he wants them to come to him, so they can find forgiveness of their sins in Christ who died for all our sins, and that cannot happen while we insist on claiming we have no sin. St John writes:

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1:8)

We cannot follow Christ’ example and teaching while we persist in our sin. We cannot live good lives while we are slaves to sin. And it is human sin, our sin, that causes injustice and inequality in our world.

We have to face the reality of our predicament and we have tell people the reality of theirs. The good news is that in Christ, and in Christ alone, there is forgiveness and hope. This may not be a message either we or those we tell it to will want to hear. We may prefer what sounds to us a more positive message, and faith brings much that is positive and life-affirming, but we have to first face the truth that we are perishing. St Paul writes:

‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18)

I am very conscious that talk of sin and its consequences, and not least the fact we are perishing because of it, is something that is hard to get people to take seriously. In our own day especially, it sounds like foolishness to most people and that includes, sadly, many in the Church. We can see the effects of sin all around us in broken lives and communities, but we are unable and unwilling to see that it is our sin that is the cause.

It is because such a message is seen as foolishness that we are tempted as believers to look for a more positive message to offer people instead. It is a temptation we must resist. Our task is to tell people the truth of the Gospel and that includes telling them the truth about themselves. We can do this best by telling them the truth about Christ and the forgiveness that he offers. For it is only as we see him as he really is that we see ourselves as we really are.

The disciples were afraid and amazed by Jesus. As his disciples today, we too need to be afraid and amazed by him for it is in that fear and amazement that we will find the faith we need to face the storms of life and to reach out to those who are perishing around us with the good news of forgiveness in Christ.

May our Lord give us the courage and the faith to do so.


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