Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Stilling the storm

Job 38: 1-11; Mark 4: 35-41 - Middle Lambrook URC 350th anniversary.

Tell me, in accents of wonder, how rolled the sea,
Tossing the boat in a tempest on Galilee;
And how the Master, ready and kind,
Chided the billows, and hushed the wind.

Well, that’s what happened, according to Mark’s gospel – but why is he telling us this story?

Mark – which is thought to be the first gospel to be written down – is the shortest gospel: so short indeed that it has almost nothing to say about the resurrection of Jesus.
Some of the oldest versions of Mark end with the women running from the empty tomb of Jesus and the phrase “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”.

Yet Mark did not write down his gospel until about 30 or 340 years after the resurrection, so you would think he would have heard about the resurrection of Jesus.

Mark starts his gospel with “the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”, and he records all the events that happen in the light of his belief that the risen Jesus is the Son of God. He uses events from the life of Jesus to illustrate a dawning sense of realisation that Jesus is God’s Son.

Sometimes we do this with life-changing events.
To give a trivial example, I have recently been having trouble with my shoulder. I ended up going to the GP who asked the usual ‘when did it all start?’ question. It is only in the light of the pain and restricted movement I was getting that I remembered tripping over and twisting quite awkwardly. I found myself saying “come to think of it, my shoulder was never the same after that – I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of all this trouble”.

Mark tells us the story of Jesus, and on a number of occasions he tells stories where the disciples might have said ‘Come to think of it, it gave us goose-bumps, we should have known then that Jesus would rise from death.’
Mark uses the word ‘fear’ to describe this feeling – but it can be translated also as afraid, filled with awe, astounded, terrified. It’s not an emotion that can be ignored, and the disciples experience it 6 times with Jesus:

During this storm at sea (4: 41), and during another storm, when Jesus walks on the water to join them in the boat (6: 50).
Twice when Jesus predicts his death (9:32 & 10: 32).
At the transfiguration (9:6)
And, as I mentioned, on finding the empty tomb (16:8).

I fact, the fear is so great during today’s story when Jesus stills the storm, that Mark says of the disciples “they feared a great fear”.
This is the first time they’ve seen Jesus do anything like this.
It’s not because of what Jesus says or does to them, or something he does to the boat – Jesus commands the sea.

Only God – the creator of all, can command the sea: hovering over the chaotic depths, dividing dry land from sea, separating the waters above and below the earth.

We heard from the book of Job how God finally answers Job’s pleas for mercy, following the terrible fate that has befallen him. Job has laid out all his good works and asks ‘doesn’t God see my ways?’.
When God finally speaks he asks questions of his own “where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” “who supported the sea at its birth.. and said ‘Thus far you may come but no farther’?”.
God places Jonah’s suffering in the context of the wonders of creation – and especially God’s mastery over the sea. God who made all, holds all in his hand and sees all.
Yes, God cares for Job, but Job is not actually at the centre of the universe – God is.

When the disciples ask Jesus “Don’t you care that we are sinking?” – Jesus responds not only by saving them, but by demonstrating who he really is – he commands the sea.
The disciples are awe-struck and ask “Who can this be? Even the wind and sea obey him?”.

That question “who can this be?” grows through Mark’s gospel  – and with it comes a growing sense of awe and fear.
Jesus is able to command the sea.
Jesus is revealed in glory at the transfiguration.
Jesus predicts his sacrificial death.
Jesus is not dead – and the tomb is empty.

Mark wants us to know that this living Jesus is the Saviour and the Son of God ad we should follow him and become part of God’s kingdom.

It is that determination to follow and proclaim Jesus that led people to begin worshipping in this place 350 years ago. I found a little of the history on line, suggesting that the earlier meeting house here burnt down and the new ‘Presbyterian Meeting House’ was registered in 1729. The meeting probably became Unitarian for a time in the eighteenth century but then Independent and later Congregational from the end of the eighteenth century.
This then became a United Reformed Church in 1972.

What other storms have hit in that time, I wonder?
Have there been times when you’ve felt like joining the disciples in the boat as they shout to a sleeping Jesus over the roar of the waves “We are sinking! Do you not care?”.
Or joining with Job to say “does God not see my ways?”.

But the truth, the gospel, the good news, is this: the creator of all and master of all is with us, ready to command the seas and the winds, and ready to calm our fears.

Protect me O Lord for my boat is so small,
Protect me O Lord for my boat is so small
My boat is so small and your sea is so wide
Protect me O Lord.

May this little vessel be one in which the glory and peace of Jesus Christ is known. To his glory. Amen.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The backwards kingdom

Jonah ch 3; Mark 4: 26-34

There is a Godly Play version of the story of Jonah. Its title is “Jonah – the backwards prophet”.
Jonah seems to manage to get things completely wrong .
First God tells him to go to Nineveh – which is to the East of Joppa, near where Jonah begins the story.  Jonah immediately seeks a boat going to Tarsish – we sets off West, into the Mediterranean, until diverted by a storm and a large fish, who returns Jonah to dry land.

Then in today’s chapter we’ve heard how God tells Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh.

This time at least Jonah, the backward prophet, gets it right: he goes in the direction God sends him.
He walks deep into the great city and proclaims “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”.
It’s hard to imagine his surprise when the people of Nineveh, a people so wicked they have drawn themselves to the attention of Almighty God, listen to him.

Even the king listens to Jonah’s message, sits in ashes and orders the whole city – even the animals – to fast and to cover themselves in sackcloth. The king declares “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

I wonder what Jonah thought. He has suffered storm and near shipwreck and the inside of a great fish to come and deliver this message of doom. But Jonah, the backward prophet, has been listened to – an unusual experience for most prophets, you might think.

Jonah has turned around and gone to Nineveh, and it is astonishing that the people of Nineveh have turned around, too – turned from their wickedness, listened to Jonah, and turned to God in repentance.
But for the king to say ‘God may change his mind?’ – really, what are they expecting?

I wonder who was most surprised, Jonah, the King of Nineveh, or the cows covered in sackcloth at what happens next: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

God changed his mind.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise of next week’s chapter of Jonah – but let’s just say that Jonah is not best pleased. He has (on the second attempt) done what God asked him to do – tell the people of Nineveh that God is going to destroy them in 40 days. He sits, expecting a ring-side seat, and…God changed his mind.
Jonah, the backward prophet, learns that God’s mercy and love is greater even than his power and his justice.
He is meant to deliver God’s teaching to the people, and he ends up receiving a huge lesson himself.

Because, as Jesus teaches, God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed which grows into a large shrub, and the birds of the air nest in its branches.
The seed Jesus is talking about is a tiny, air-borne seed of a common weed in the Middle East. It grows wherever it can, and as you have seen from the picture, it is a highly unimpressive scrubby kind of bush. The nearest equivalent for us in Britain might be the bramble. It pops up where you least want it in your garden, it scratches you when you try to uproot it, and it forms a dense, unattractive thicket.

Yet the birds love it – it provides just the sort of cover they love.
But if you are a farmer, the last thing you want to do is provide a home for scavenging birds, who will lurk in those bushes and fall on any seed that you try to sow in the future.

So Jesus’ parable tells the story of a seed that grows into a weed and provides a home for pests.
This is the backward kingdom of God.
Sometimes when we’re reading our Bibles it can be  interesting to wonder who it is in the story who is nearest to the kingdom of God.

In the story of the mustard seed it seems to be those birds – they don’t question how the seed grows, they don’t look for a harvest to reap and gather into barns – they just make the most of the opportunity and build themselves a nest.

Maybe Jesus wants us to know that God’s kingdom is like this – we don’t need to engage the intellect and work out how it works; we don’t need to worry about the future; we don’t need strict rules about who’s in and who’s out of God’s kingdom – we just have to know we are welcome to make it our home. We just need faith, hope and love.

And what about in the story of Jonah – who is nearest to God’s kingdom there?
Not Jonah – the backward prophet, who has to be kidnapped by a fish to listen to God.
It seems to be the king of Nineveh. When he’s threatened with terrible violence by God’s prophet, he orders his people to repent and hopes that God might change his mind.  And God does.

Recognising who is nearest to the kingdom of God in our Bible readings might help us to identify those who are nearest the kingdom of God in our times.

Perhaps the people we least expect – like the king of Nineveh. There is no longer a king of Nineveh – but Nineveh exists – it is a suburb of Mosul.
The Syrian Orthodox church recognise the 7th century bishop Isaac of Nineveh as a saint.
Isaac of Nineveh was not far from the kingdom. In one part of his work he writes:
“A handful of sand, thrown into the sea, is what sinning is, when compared to God’s providence and mercy. Just like an abundant source of water is not impeded by a handful of dust, so is the Creator’s mercy not defeated by the sins of His creations.”
It surely would have surprised Jonah that the sinful people of Nineveh had so much to teach us about the mercy of God. Perhaps those nearest the kingdom are those we least expect.

Perhaps those closest to the kingdom of God are the ones we are not sure we want to welcome – like the scavenging birds for a farmer.

Perhaps we feel we ourselves are far from God’s kingdom because of our lack of knowledge, or our past, or our failure to adhere to rules?
Consider the birds of the air – and the grace and mercy of God who gives a welcome to all who seek to grow in faith hope and love.

Listen to the Word of God – you are not far from the kingdom of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.