“Surprised by Jesus’ Presence”
Psalm 107 & Luke 8: 22-25 ~ September 5, 2021 ~ Northwood United Church ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
Surprise!!! Surprise!!! Surprise!!! It was my 7th birthday and my well-meaning parents had planned a surprise birthday party for me. We walked into the house and there before me were my all my friends. Friends from my neighbourhood, friends from my hockey and baseball teams, from my class at school…shouting “Surprise!” Now, I need to say that I’ve never been a person who enjoys large crowds…or the limelight…so when I became the centre of attention with everyone shouting “Surprise!”, it was more than I could take. To this well meaning birthday surprise, I promptly ran up the stairs, entered my bedroom, closed the door and hid under the bed. For surprise was not what I wanted. My personality was not one that immediately embraced large surprises like that…not one bit. We will leave the surprised 7 year old under the bed for the time being and move ahead.
Our world has been bombarded with surprise after surprise lately. Covid presented 2020 with a massive surprise, the likes of which we had never imagined. The surprise of lockdowns, masking, handwashing and cleaning more than our parents taught us. And just when we thought we were getting things under control, the surprise of variants and mutations of the virus began to present themselves…surprise! The surprise of world events continued to unfold: a Federal Election, devastating storms, overpowering fires, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to name a few…surprise, surprise, surprise! You might wish to run with my 7 year old self and hide safely under your metaphorical bed if you get as overwhelmed with surprises as I do!
Yet, surprises can be wonderful, delightful, beautiful as well. Today, after being away from this building for 18 months, we have reopened as a ‘hybrid church’ and now are gathering with people both in the building as well as online. And it is so good to gather with friends again in worship! We are people who gather and commune: we gather around the table to break bread in communion; we gather around God’s Word and hear how it comforts and confronts us; we gather ‘virtually’ – we gather ‘in person’; we gather in study, in fellowship, in outreach…and the surprising reality is that Christ surprises us and shows up in all these times of both ‘virtual’ and ‘online’ gathering.
The text before us, Jesus calming the storm, is important to each and every one of the gospel writers. We find a version in each of the three parallel gospels: Matthew, Mark, and here in this morning’s version in Luke. Each evangelist has a different purpose in their usage of this story. They all tell the same story, but their hopes in explaining the nature of faith differ. Common to all versions; however, is the fear-evoking setting of water. As you know, the Hebrew people were a land-people. They were not seafarers. To be sure, stories of water in their history were ones of fear and death. Sea monsters, leviathan, lived in the depths of the sea. God’s creation took the fearful sea and shaped dry land out of it. Coming upon the Red Sea after the escape from Egypt represented death to the Hebrews until God worked through Moses and parted the waters. So, as we explore a text with deep, threatening waters, we have all these components of fearful surprise at play. You and I might look forward to a day on the water; however, the disciples did not. And when the surprising storms came up, it brought uncertainty, fear and terror along with them.
So, there is the common element of fear and uncertainty with this story of water; however, the purpose of the stories told in each of the gospels differ. The unique function of Luke’s telling of this very brief version of the story are found in the concluding questions. After Jesus calms the storm, he asks “where is your faith?” to which the disciples reply “who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” In this profound moment of surprise, we find that Jesus actually shows up…surprise…and we dive deeply into the question of faith, doubt and Jesus’ identity. “Where is your faith?...asks Jesus…Who then is this who shows up and calms the storm?...ask the disciples in return. Jesus showing up; Our faith and our doubt. Now, apart from preaching online, I haven’t had the joy of speaking in person for 1 ½ years, so these three topics might take us well past the lunch hour!
Jesus showing up. This passage assures us that Jesus does, indeed, show up in our fears. We have been in a metaphorical boat, in a stormy sea for many, many months! Many of us had our own versions of ‘stormy seas’ prior to Covid. You know the stormy seas that I am talking about…When the doctor gives that diagnosis you fear and everything stops. Stormy seas. When that relationship that was such a cornerstone crumbles…your marriage, a deep friendship, a deep loss, divisions within a family. Stormy seas. When your mental health challenges began to mount: depression, anxiety, and the many others. Stormy seas. There are so many stormy seas that you have been presented with: downsizing within your company, job loss, moving. You know the stormy seas that you have sailed. Stormy, stormy seas. And amidst those stormy seas…the surprise of Jesus’ presence arrives! And we pay attention to what happens when Jesus shows up. We notice in the text that Jesus does not teleport the disciples out of the boat to dry land. What does he do? Jesus calms the sea. And with Jesus’ presence, they somehow know that it will be OK. With Jesus’ surprising presence, the sea calms. They are still in the waters, a place of uncertainty, calm for now, yet with their faith they know they can now get through it. That all will be well. These are the moments of grace we find in our stormy seas, when we know (beyond knowing) that it will be OK. A shift from viewing this time as an end point, to viewing it both as an ending as well as a new beginning, founded with the hope knowing of God’s transformational presence. This is the message of the cross, this is the message of Jesus arrival upon a Friday, and into the sunrises that begin with an Easter Sunday morning.
As you recall, we had left a young 7 year old under his bed, fearful of the birthday surprise. After the shouts of “surprise”, I had run and hid under my bed. The comforting presence came from my mother who, wisely, gave me a bit of time while Dad got the party games going ~ pin the tail on the donkey, whack the pinata, you remember the party games. After a bit of time, Mom came up and gently told me that it was OK…yes there were a lot of people there, but everyone there came because they loved me. They were my friends, my family, they had come to celebrate…to celebrate me. She calmed the seas of my fear, we went back downstairs, and the party continued. (As a sidenote, we never had LARGE birthday parties again! Thanks Mom and Dad for that!)
I wonder where you have seen Jesus showing up in the stormy seas of your life? The Risen Christ walks among us; however, he is not always easy to distinguish…unless we carefully look for Him. The compassion, the care, the support…all these gifts of Christ that we receive from others. All these gifts that we receive from those small, still moments when we realize His presence. Christ comes to us in the presence of others…and a gift of faith is realizing that presence. Christ is also in you! Sometimes, Jesus surprising presence arrives as you realize healing, hope and strength in ways you never thought possible. Christ is in you…and a gift of faith is realizing that presence. Jesus shows up and stills the storms of life in us and others and through. The other way He shows us is through the mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, the Risen Christ is somehow there…in the sunrise, the rain falling, the wind blowing…the quiet moments. Christ’s presence is here…if…we open the space for Him to arrive. And that moves us to the questions found at the end of this brief text.
Where is your faith? After stilling the storm, Jesus asks the question: “where is your faith?” Have you ever considered what the opposite of Jesus’ question might be? Jesus is asking about faith. What would you say is the opposite of faith? Would it be mistrust? Is lack of trust the antonym of faith? Or would it be anxiety? Is anxiety the opposite? Or would it be doubt? Would doubt be the other side of faith? What I would like to suggest is that it is fear. Mark’s purpose, in this text, in teaching about faith, and Mark teaches that faith releases us from fear. To shift away from fear when we face the stormy seas in life is that of taking a deep dive into faith. Faith is moving away from fear…and in the depths of our faith…knowing that all will be well. And that takes us into the second question…that of the disciple’s response.
Who then is this?... Who then is this? is the question the disciples ask as they begin to wrestle, truly wrestle with their faith. As we begin to open our eyes with faith, seeing Jesus’ surprising presence in the storms of life, we must ask the deep question of faith: ‘who then is this?’ Who then is this that when two or three are gathered – virtually or in-person – we find Christ present, stilling the storms of life? Who then is this who teaches that the last shall be first and calls us to live a lifestyle of care and compassion for all? Who then is this who teaches us to love thy neighbour with the same depth that we love ourselves? Who then is this who lovingly embraces all the ways of death and shows the power of God’s liberating way over them?
Who then is this? This.. is the one we follow…the one who will calms the storms of life…the one who is surprisingly present with us…the one whose Spirit resides in our very being. The one who will be our trusted guide through the storm as we find safe ways to gather; as we care for the most vulnerable; as we love our neighbour; as we put Christ at our centre.
May it be so.