Believe it or Not
Among the tricky questions about the Bible that keep coming back to haunt church-goers are two that seem to recur. The first issue seems almost comfortingly academic. Are the Bible accounts of the more unbelievable stories and events true in the sense that they happened as recorded or alternately? Alternately are they more there to shape our thinking and inspire us? But there is a second question and one we may well wish was not raised. If we are inspired, what are we going to do that is different?
The two stories that the lectionary challenges us to consider today may well have more than a little of the hint of the unbelievable, but I want to suggest the real reason for their value is because both stories touch on genuine insight into the human condition. It is a very human failing to pretend to ourselves that there is no foe and no fear we will not face – yet in reality when the challenge is significant or when danger begins to threaten, our first instinct is to do anything to make the problem go away. The message from each of the situations we are looking at today seems to be that if instead we face the problem, there is always the possibility that situation might be answered in most unexpected and positive ways.
To the modern Western mind both lectionary stories present a common problem. Since they both report events which are, at best, extremely unusual and at worst simply unbelievable, the temptation is to turn off at that point and dismiss them as being of no-value fairy stories. And to be brutally honest many modern commentators would certainly argue that the stories we will be looking at are unlikely to have occurred as reported, yet even if they are only treated as parable or myth, I suggest there is something we can learn here from each.
We will start with the boating trip. On a calm day boating is a great experience. But anyone who knows large lakes or the sea also knows that if the barometer suddenly drops, or if the air is funnelled down through the ravines or valleys towards water, the wind can mount, sometimes literally within minutes, and then of course the waves build. The so called Sea of Galilee is prone to such strong sudden winds and I would imagine, particularly in those days, the traditional old style fishing boats would not be particularly seaworthy or safe in such conditions. I guess that the fishing boat chosen as the vessel for the disciples trip would not come anywhere near any modern certification for sea-worthiness. We have reason to suspect from history and from the discovery of the remains of boats from that time, that it would have been an open boat, too low in the water to cope with large waves and with its planks held together caulked with pitch and in all probability held together with doubtful nails and lashed cords.
The Sea of Galilee, or more accurately the lake, has geological features that make it common for such winds to suddenly rise. I suspect this is why when we read of Jesus and the fishermen on the lake they are usually described as keeping close to the shore. This time Jesus has asked them to attempt something a little more risky – particularly at night – and that is to set out for the other side.
So now the wind rises and as the waves mount, these men – some of whom appear to have been seasoned fishermen – panic. This is more than a passing danger. Too far out to turn back they awaken Jesus apparently angry that he is sleeping instead of sharing in their situation. Then as quickly as it came – apparently in response to Jesus’ words – the storm dies.
The disciples bewilderment – and we might guess perhaps even their shame for their previous panic – leaves them with the question. Who is this man and does he really command wind and water to obey? Please note in the story it is an unanswered question left hanging and we too are left with the same puzzle.
I know that when this story is debated, the first thinly disguised rhetorical question from the critics is typically: could Jesus really control nature? For the record, at least as far as I am concerned, I often align myself with such critics because I am definitely not a Bible literalist, but on reflection surely this is not the real point of the story.
Certainly we could explain it away saying one of the standard weather observations is that a storm quick to rise is often quick to pass, so we might well believe that such a storm would die of its own accord, whether directed to do so or not. Yet for me the real issue is that Jesus is recorded as showing calmness in the face of the storm to the point of sleeping while all about him was panic …..and ultimately, however it happened, his calmness wins through.
Some here today will have seen the essence of that same calming miracle when for example an experienced paramedic arrives at the scene of some terrible accident – and seemingly oblivious to the panic and confusion of the worried onlookers, quietly and firmly takes control of the accident scene and before your eyes you can see everyone begin to relax.
But don’t forget there is a second story.
In this scene we have the Israelites are drawn up in battle formation with their traditional enemies the Philistines facing them. Probably neither side was particularly looking forward to the near certainty that many would not survive to the end of the day. Then a possible way out….. As was sometimes the custom for survival an alternative was put to them. Send out a champion to do battle with our champion and decide the result by proxy. The only catch was that the Philistine champion was a fearsome prospect. In such circumstances would you have offered to be the challenger? I know I wouldn’t. Although I would like to think I would step up if I saw some thug making threats, in reality I am not sure I would be brave enough.
Goliath of Gath was indeed a giant. If the story is to be believed without exaggeration, then Goliath was a fearsome giant indeed……nine foot tall, if I have the arithmetic correct. But when Goliath was strutting his stuff in front of Saul’s army and no-one was prepared to fight him, there is something you may have missed. King Saul himself was also something of a giant among his people according to the Bible measuring seven foot.
The fact that Saul, possibly the only one who might have had a chance against the Philistine giant, was also chicken, must have seemed on the one hand to be understandable, but on the other, acutely embarrassing to the Israelites.
That the shepherd boy David was prepared to step forward in his place, armed only with a sling, was not only unexpected and brave, it was also an event which in the Bible account was a turning point in the fortunes of the two men. From that point on, David, the giant slayer who had been armed with nothing but a sling saw his fortunes increase while Saul, for all his impressive appearance, saw his status begin to diminish in the eyes of his followers.
Of course both of these stories miss something if we focus on how believable they are. I suspect more than a few here today would have reservations yet even if we do eventually decide whether or not they are a true record then, as historical accounts, they would only instruct as one- time events. If on the other hand, we can also see their symbolic meaning, then we can notice a more contemporary connection.
It is not only disciples in a boat facing the terrors of a storm or soldiers on a battlefield who can know fear or panic. Each one of us sooner or later is bound to know great sorrow or moments of panic if we are to truly live. To love is, sooner or later, to risk the loss of at least one close to us. Accidents do happen. It is not just earthquakes and fires that can catch us unawares. The dangers we may unexpectedly face may vary greatly but moments of danger there most assuredly will be. To believe that facing these moments squarely, armed with nothing more than the assurance that we can find a way through and knowing that nothing can separate us from this mysterious relationship we call the love of God gives a meaning to life which points to hope.
So what have we noted?
We read that the disciples panicked when the waves rose, yet discovered there was something about the strange nature of Christ that could calm them despite the worst the storm could offer. Perhaps the symbolism teaches us that when the panic inducing situation faces us that we too might find for us the storm abates when we turn to what in our journey we have found Christ to mean for us.
We read that when David encountered the horror of the Philistine giant Goliath he was able to prevail using only the skills he already possessed. Clearly the war between the Philistines and the men of Saul is long since over. Yet there are still bullying situations where we find people who matter to us being threatened by forces beyond their strength to overcome. Might it be that we too can find within our own feeble resources the skills to be champions on others’ behalf.
I am reasonably certain that none of us will command the weather like Jesus is said to have done, nor should we expect some David to appear on our behalf to kill the giant who threatens others, yet I believe we have potential to contribute to peace in the midst of our personal storms, or for that matter put ourselves on the line when called to do so.
Some storms have nothing to do with water… and some who face the storms or the dangerous enemies on behalf of others are not found in the pages of the Bible. One of the bravest in our time who knows exactly what it is to put her life on the line is that extraordinary Pakistani schoolgirl (Malala Yousafzai)– and subsequently at age 17 made it as the youngest ever Nobel Peace prize winner. She was honoured for standing up against those who used force to stop girls in Pakistan from getting an education. After receiving many death threats she continued publicizing the cause for girls’ education and even survived a Taleban assassination attempt. She refused to let the danger prevent her message getting through and continued publicizing her message in every forum she could reach right up to the United Nations.
The literalist quest to put every effort into establishing historical certainty of the more extraordinary Bible stories may well be beyond the reach of the best of scholars. Nor is there a clear answer to the disciples’ question. “Who is this man?” And what is more, living a life based on facing challenge head-on and meeting those tempest problems of doubt and worry can ultimately carry no guarantee. What we do learn from Jesus however is that just as Jesus was able to instil eventual trust in his disciples, others too have found in Christ a peace that can speak to all manner of storms and challenge. The real test will be for each of us to discover our own personal encounter with the one whose boat we claim to share.
(Note: In these sermons, since there is now a complete lectionary set, I often rework the sermon from three years back. Since I have been assured that some read the sermons to stimulate their thinking, it would be helpful to new visitors if readers would leave their own suggested comments, illustrations or alternative interpretations for others to consider).