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8th August 2021

Facing the Worst

Passage: Mark 6;45-56

SO- here are twelve big tough men out in a boat; they see their best friend coming towards them; promptly assume he must be a ghost and scream their heads off. Over-reaction or what?
The trouble with fear is that people are affected differently. My mother and I had a civilised arrangement: she would remove spiders from my bedroom because I was terrified of them and she was not; I would remove worms from the garden path because she was terrified of them and I was not. Some people are scared of heights and some of depths; some of being in a small space indoors and others of being in a vast space outdoors. And in order to understand why these grown men freaked out we need to remember that in their Jewish culture, the sea was a very threatening place; thought to be full of malignant demons: evil powers to bring disease, destruction and death. Add to this the fact that these men were sailing at night, in an era when artificial light was practically non-existent: it would have been very dark and dark places were also full of threat. There was nothing romantic or sensual about the night in their thinking- it was a time when evil could grab you by the throat. So, given this culture, you start to understand why these big tough men were-as the reading said, “scared out of their wits.”
We all know what it is to be badly scared right now, don’t we? Covid has made life terrifying to us. The world seems full of life-threatening disease. The environment looks doomed to destruction. Economic and social structures which gave us some sense of security are now shaking badly. We have not even been able to cling to each other for comfort. Most of us still feel out of our depth, that we are struggling to survive. And many people out there have even more reason to be terrified- with homes and jobs and lives and whole nations at risk. Our world is a very frightening place right now. &&&&&&&
And fear has a way of messing with our heads, doesn’t it? Things which once seemed perfectly safe now look terrifying. Survivors of Japanese prisoner of war camps have been known to hide in terror from the most innocent Japanese person on the street. Survivors of Nazi concentration camps have been known to scream hysterically at the sight of a perfectly gentle Alsatian dog because terrors of the past have left deep scars on these people’s minds.
Today there are many who, up to March 2019, were living active, independent lives; for whom shopping in Sainsburys, lunch at the pub, Sunday morning in church were part of their normal routine but now these places terrify them because the fear of Covid and the months of lockdown have drained their confidence.
In that story did you notice how even Jesus himself, the man the disciples had thought of as the Son of God, had suddenly become an object of terror. This is what happens when you are scared. Just as an animal caught in a trap will bite the hand which is setting them free, so even the good things in our lives get mixed up with the evil which is frightening us. We cannot trust anyone. We cannot feel safe anywhere. Even God, Jesus and the church threaten us. We start to believe that either God is deliberately inflicting this terror upon us or that God is rejecting us; that Jesus Christ is no more than a phantom sent to dismay and confuse us. The church- especially after two World Wars was thought to be hand in glove with the ruling forces whose policies had stirred up conflict and then sent many to their deaths and yes, it has to be admitted that the church has been guilty of using fear, wealth and political power as weapons of its own. So-as in that story- there is a lot of fear around today and God gets mixed up with that fear. Even if we do not blame God directly for the pandemic, we are not totally convinced that he is going to bring us through it, are we? We are grappling with our own demons and at times it feels as though we are very much on our own. &&&&&&&&
But, before we give up in despair, just remember how, in the story, once Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, the wind dies down and the boat safely reaches land. Once Jesus was recognised as a saving rather than a destructive power, there was peace in the boat and the men could cope with the task of crossing the sea to the landing place. They could deal with the darkness whilst waiting for the dawn. And, as one of those very men was to write down years later, “in him (in Jesus) was light and that light was the light of the human race. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overpowered it.”
As I remarked, Jewish culture feared the sea but, more than once in their scriptures-our Old Testament- they claim God’s sovereignty over that sea. God will lift up his voice and the deep waters will tremble. Yes, there is terror in life but God is more powerful and God will save those who trust him.
But there has to be that element of trust, doesn’t there? If the disciples had carried on screaming and panicking and refusing to let Jesus into their boat, they would have ended up sinking the ship. Only hours earlier they had seen Jesus feed a crowd in the desert, a sure sign, in their own culture again, of divine power. But whilst their fear was taking precedence over their faith, they could not see this. Only when they allowed Jesus into their boat, was he able to bring peace; enable them to look at their situation objectively; recover their strength and use their own skills to get the boat ashore.
There is a message here for us, isn’t there? You don’t really need me to spell it out…. We have a lot to be afraid of right now. No-one denies that and let no-one belittle it. But why not invite Jesus into our boat? Why not ask him to enter our fears and our battles and bring peace? Why not trust him for strength and guidance enough to bring us safely through this time? If we do not trust him; if we do not let him into the place where we are, then how can he help us? &&&&&&&&&&&&
And if we can bring ourselves to allow Jesus Christ into our own dark and fearful places, then we have a message and a Gospel-good news- to share with a very frightened world. It is not complicated theology; it is not naïve anti-science; it is not threats of hellfire and damnation- it is, as Jackie quoted from her favourite hymn- holding the Christ light in the night time of our world’s fear; offering a power and a peace which is greater than anything the world can give. It is enabling each other to separate that which is terrifying us from that which can save us. It is not even something we need to understand in its totality; just someone we need to trust.
I have to admit that I am not very good at this myself but I have heard many testimonies from people who have reached the end of their tether, become trapped in places of fear and pain and panic and have called out to God- I cannot do anymore. I cannot see the way forward. I need you to help me. And the peace and the power have been given.
I have also heard testimonies of those in crisis for whom a Christian friend, “holding the Christ-light” for them when they cannot hold it for themselves, has been a lifeline.
And I also believe that, in every walk of life, every profession, every craft, every political decision, that where space is made for humility, for stillness, for prayer- inspiration is given, strength is found and the right way forward is identified.
We have a space here for prayer. We have a place where Christian comrades can encourage and inspire one another. We have a witness to show the world that God is still with us, just so long as people believe in him and trust him. So let us receive Jesus Christ into our boats, as we sail across our own stormy waters. And let us be a light, to show the saving grace of that same Lord Jesus Christ to a frightened and turbulent world. Amen.