Over Troubled Waters – March 18, 2012
Isaiah 43:1-7.15-21, Luke 8:22-25
March 18, 2012
I’ve often told people that I had a wonderful, relatively trouble-free childhood. And I’ve said that the two major crises of that time for me were that they canceled Star Trek, and Simon and Garfunkle broke up!
Well, if you don’t know who Simon and Garfunkle were, they were a folk singing duo from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. They had many hit songs, one of the best of which was called “Bridge over troubled water.” That’s where I borrowed the title for this message. “Over Troubled Waters.” Because this is the story about Jesus, not just being a “bridge over,” but actually calming the “troubled waters.” And I use this story today because I believe that this is the next big event in the progression of the people learning about Jesus, and discovering who he was.
Think about where we’ve come so far. By now, Jesus has become hugely popular. People have come from far and wide to hear him speak. The crowds are beyond what we’ve probably pictured in our minds. So we’ve been “tweaking” those images! The crowds came to hear Jesus because he spoke with an authority and power that they had never heard before. And of course, they came because they heard that he could perform miracles.
But then, when they did hear him speak, they heard him begin to say some things they didn’t expect. He talked about forgiving sins. He began to redefine the kingdom of God. He told them that the kingdom was among them, and that they were the light of the world. And by the way, their scriptures told them that! Isaiah told them “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) I’m sure they thought of that when he said those words!
Well, Jesus also started to tell them, and even more importantly to show them, some things about God’s kingdom that made them uncomfortable. For one thing, he “hung out” with the wrong people. He reached out to the outcast and the downtrodden. And last week we saw him honoring a man who was a Roman soldier, and a Gentile.
Now he’s about to take things to the proverbial “next level.” I know that’s a popular term in today’s world. But I think it’s appropriate here. Even those who were close to Jesus, and who had witnessed each progression of his ministry, were stunned by this event. They said to one another, “Who is this guy?” “Even the wind and water obey him!” Even nature is at his command! And that’s huge!
It was especially huge that the water obeyed him! His disciples, being “good Jewish boys” knew their Genesis. They learned, and they would have remembered that “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth,” and that the earth at that time “was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the waters.”
Notice what it says there. And I never thought about this until a conference I went to a few years ago. It says that the waters were there at that time of creation. And it says that the waters were associated with the chaos of the world before God created it and ordered it.
Now, let me tell you, that passage sparked considerable debate among the early church fathers. (And I’m sure the Jewish teachers before them.) Early on, as they were defining the beliefs of the faith, they argued about the creation story. And there were some who argued the concept of “Ex Nihilo.” That is, creation “out of nothing.” A sermon is always much more pretentious when the preacher quotes Latin, don’t you think? (Actually, we always said it’s even more pretentious if they don’t translate the Latin for the people – assuming they can!)
“Ex nihilo” means “out of nothing.” And Christians tended toward that concept, that God created all things out of nothing. And if you think about it, that takes an even higher belief in the creative power of God – which I’m fine with, by the way. Because the scripture doesn’t say that, specifically. Genesis says the earth was without form and void, and that it was covered with waters. And throughout history, water has been associated with that void and chaos.
Think about it. Water has always held a certain fear for people. Maybe some of us here have that fear! And the Bible picks up on that thought in a number of places. The Psalms have many references to water as uncontrollable and chaotic, and fearful. For instance, the psalmist wrote in Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice.” In Psalm 69 the imagery is even more graphic. “Save me, O Lord, for the waters have come up to my neck!”
Isaiah used this metaphor in our reading for today. “When you pass through the waters I will be with you.” In our middle hymn, we find the words “…when sorrows like sea billows roll.” The words to that song were written by Horatio Spelford in 1873. Spelford had just lost his wife and daughter when the ship they were on went down on the way across the Atlantic Ocean. And as he made his own crossing weeks later, he was called to the deck by the captain as they passed the place where the other ship had gone down. There, as Spelford looked out over the waters and the chaos they represented in his life, he began writing the amazing poem that would become this hymn.
Water represents chaos and fear. But notice that there is also some positive symbolism in water. In that same poem, Spelford gives us this interplay between that fear of the waters, and peace flowing over his soul “like a river.” Think of the other positive ways we think of water. Think of old Moses and one million people with him in the desert, without any water! Think about how God, through Moses, “controlled” the waters in that wilderness and the people were saved.
Think about the water we use in the sacrament of baptism. Even there the symbolism is not completely positive. In baptism the water symbolizes cleansing, but it also symbolizes death. When a person is “immersed” in baptism, the symbolism is that of dying – in the waters – and then being raised to new life with Jesus. Sometimes I think our “version” of baptism misses some of that!
Ok. So those are all nice thoughts. They’re good examples of Biblical study and theology – and that’s good! But they can’t be just that. They can’t stand by themselves. Those kinds of things need to help us in our faith, or they are just academic.
So let’s get back to the disciples in that boat. And let’s try to imagine their thoughts as Jesus calmed the waters. Remember, a lot of them were fishermen, people who had worked the sea, and no doubt had lost friends and comrades in it’s waters. Let’s remember how they learned from their childhood about the waters of creation and how God formed the Earth out of that dark, fearful, chaotic void.
Remember all that imagery, and also remember that the disciples had just gone through their own fearful experience! The storms on the Sea of Galilee could come up fast, and they could be violent! And even these fishermen were afraid for their lives! And then think about this. With all of those thoughts about chaotic waters of creation, and seeing Jesus calm the troubled water, did more than just put him in the role of a miracle worker. It put him in the role of God!
That’s the “new level” I was talking about! And again, we know this about Jesus. They didn’t! To learn such things about their teacher was shocking – almost unbelievable! I hope we can get a sense of that. And I hope we can get an understanding of how important the question they asked really was. “Who is this man?” That’s an important question for us, too!
Again, I think after a while we get sort of numb when we hear these stories. We read them in our “Bible voice.” And we hear them so many times over the years that they lose their power. Maybe we should all go watch the movie “A Perfect Storm” and see those wind and waves and sinking boats! Maybe we should go back and watch some film footage of hurricanes – with Jim Cantore out there with his raincoat and his microphone being pounded by the winds and water. (How is it he gets that assignment every time!) Or maybe we should pull up the History Channel and watch a good documentary where the great battleships and aircraft carriers of World War II are being tossed around like corks.
Then maybe we can picture this moment where Jesus and his disciples were being tossed around in their boat, taking on water, and losing control. And then we might better picture the seas calmed, and see the amazed looks on the disciples faces – faces dripping with water! And we might see more vividly, Jesus, his hands stretched out “over troubled waters” – waters troubled… until that moment.
As we look continue down our Lenten path, and as we prepare for Holy Week, may images like these grow in our minds. May we see Jesus in the context of the creative power of God, and may we see how he was master of the chaos of the waters, out of which everything was made. May we see him at that “next level.”
Lord of wind and sky and sea, we look to Jesus, seeking to know him better this Lenten season. May we have the same amazement the disciples had as they witnessed his power. May we be more determined to follow him, and to be his people. For we pray in his name, Amen.