Safe in the Storm
Safety is not one need among others. We have numerous needs—deep kinds of needs or desires sitting in our created natures. We desire or need to feel chosen, to feel ourselves cared for; to be included and know ourselves a part of a pack. Safety is a need like these but not just one alongside the others; safety is something like a platform on which all the rest stand.
But what does it mean to be safe? Or at least to feel and know that I am safe? I have been reading Corrie Ten Boom's famous old book The Hiding Place, a classic of mid-1900s Christian writing. She lived through the Nazi occupation of Holland, giving herself to the hiding and support of the Jews and, in her own diagnosis, not terribly good at it. She was a middle-aged woman who was trying to do her best and found herself quickly at the center of things that were requiring so much that she was unprepared for—the hiding, the lying, the precise warnings and all under the eyes of Nazi professionals trying to find her. All she wanted to do was open her door and help. It's a book that models a kind of "banal heroism." And I love it for that.
But not being great at it all meant she was found out. She spent the opening months of her prison spell in complete isolation, losing her elderly father who was also imprisoned. Eventually she and her sister were shipped off to a labor camp and a concentration camp where hundreds of women died each day. She lost her dearest friend in the world, her sister, in that dehumanizing and grotesque place. She saw, in short, firsthand some of the greatest evils that this world has ever witnessed. And yet everywhere in the book she, and her sister Betsy, speak as if they knew they were safe. They hated the surroundings and tried to help others; but they knew they were safe enough.
Even as her sister lay dying, malnourished and little more than bones with skin, , knowing she was about to die, she said:
There is no pit so deep, that God's love is not deeper still.
In the end, not her closet but her God was the hiding place.
That God brings safety should not be a hard application from the calming of the winds and waves. This episode is given in all four of the Gospels, the disciples obviously thought this was among the most striking moments of their lives and who can blame them?
If you're here this morning and are a bit skeptical of all this stuff, that's ok. We're glad you're here. We tend to believe only those things that line up with our own experiences, so the ease of disbelief comes honestly. I think sometimes the disagreement comes down to whether the disciples (those in the boat) made up the story later because they believed Jesus was God and tried to make up reasons to justify it, or what seems much more plausible to me given first century Jewish thought: that they believed Jesus was God because they experienced these things as true and so believed.
But some confusion might be helped about these great signs when we think in different terms than what is sometimes called the "God of the gaps" approach: where God is invoked as the explanation for those things we can't otherwise explain. If there's a gap in our knowledge or our ability to explain, then we call it a "miracle" (a modern term, not an ancient one), and thus in those places we see God. For some, especially in a more skeptical vein, this tells the real story of belief in God. People used to have to ascribe lots of things to a god of some sort because they couldn't explain it; then "science" came along and finally helped to explain the world. As science grew, gaps shrank. And since the gaps are where we see God, God increasingly disappears until we can feel ok to go ahead and presume that we don't need him.
But that whole way of viewing the world and God stands over against all of Christian theology. In all Christian theology from early to late, God is not found in the gaps but in the explanations. Think of the Christian theology of marriage. I can explain a marriage and its causes many ways: two people fell in love; two people exchanged vows; a minister or a justice of the peace pronounced something. All of that is true; there is no gap. Yet the heart of Christian thought on marriage always has been: they are "those whom God has joined together." God is not seen in the gaps; he is seen in his works.
That's the view everywhere put forward in the Bible: God acts, sometimes in ways that we can explain through various kinds of causes, and sometimes in ways without those explanations or even conter to our normal experiences. So in the ancient book of songs and prayers that we call the Psalms, we read in one place:
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy. (Ps 65:7-8)
That's the utterly ordinary course of affairs seen as the ordinary work of God. Or one of my favorite illustrations of the point:
He (God) makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains. (Ps 104:10)
God makes springs pour water into the ravines, then "it flows" itself—a force which we named gravity. There's no place for a God of the gaps approach to the world within Christian thought.
And that's not just a sidenote here. One of those ordinary works of God is the ending of storms. Again in those ancient songs we read of God:
who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves...
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. (Ps 65:7-8)
You rule the raging of the sea,
when its waves rise, you still them. (Ps 89:9)
But maybe the most relevant is the great Psalm we read this morning, which walks through all kinds of scenarios: wandering in deserts, working in fields. And God rescuing his people by exerting his power over everything they face:
Some went down to the sea in ships...
the (waves) mounted up to heaven;
they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven. (Ps 107)
As one of the early theologians summarized the whole concern:
"Creation is obedient to whatever Christ chooses to command." [Cyril of Alexandria, in ACCS NT, III.137]
That's just as true of gravity or water rolling downhill as it is true of this command for calm on a storm. Creation is obedient to whatever Christ chooses to command.
Simon Conway Morris, a Christian who works as a professor of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge University, remarked that for his part:
I am not surprised at those [New Testament miracles] reported, I am surprised that they are so few. What else would you expect when the Creator visits his Creation?
Yet that is precisely the point that the disciples are confronting. Who is this man? Creation itself obeys his command. That is God's work; it is God's work to keep his people safe even in the midst of the winds and the waves.
It feels easy for us to imagine them leaping to the "Jesus as God" line, but that's just about the furthest idea from anything in Jewish theology: a man walking around doing the works of God—not the works that God approves, but the works that are proper to God and only God.
In this second episode, the healing of the man living under the power of "legion," a military term, we find again a kind of authority but now an authority over another part of creation. I happen to be fairly confident that such things exist as are called "demons," though we have maybe construed them weirdly. The word "demon" is just a Greek word for a spirit of some kind, a being that exists in a way that you can't see it. They aren't all evil in the Greek use of the term, though in English "demon" just means the bad sort.
I can't help but wonder if the general disbelief, once again, chiefly comes from a "demon of the gaps" idea. As if it is a choice in any particular case that it is either explained by medical or psychological terms, or it might possibly be something like an evil spirit having influence or dominance. I don't have any reason to buy that argument. And anyway, there are just too many testimonies from too many trustworthy people for me to dismiss the reality.
This, by the way, is the closest that Jesus goes to leaving Israel at any point in his adult life—and it's not really leaving Israel. The region was disputed, up on the hills above the southern and eastern sides of the Sea of Galilee. Some Jews and some Gentiles were there, but we're obviously meant to think of it as Gentiles because they're raising pigs! Not a very profitable business among Jews of the day; pigs were the symbol of the unclean world, the worst of the worst things to eat.
And the thrust of the story is clear: Jesus holds all authority as he walks through the world. He wages war on the Ligion of the Kingdom of Darkness. All of creation must obey him, including unclean spirits, including winds and waves; diseases, all things that stand over against the kingdom of God and those who belong in that kingdom. Who is this man? Luke answers that with his version of a big flashing neon sign:
"Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.
God sets people free and keeps people safe. Nothing in creation, from the storms to evil spirits, holds even a bite-size of power. Creation is obedient to whatever Christ commands.
We imagine safety as a need so that I can live the good life, and that's true. But remember the good life: who are the blessed? The good life is tasted by the poor, the weeping, the persecuted. We are kept safe, yes. But that's also true in storms and through them.
George Matheson was a pastor and poet whose most famous Christian song was "O Love that Will Not Let Me Go." Matheson was a student in Scotland when he began to go blind. In a very short while the eye disease had taken his sight away completely. He managed to finish his studies and then continue on with seminary work to become a pastor because of the constant help of his sister who never left his side. She is one of the great saints of Christendom, though I don’t even know her name. Small, patient work.
He wrote the hymn in 1882 and said about writing it, “I was suffering... and the hymn was the fruit of pain.” We don’t know for sure what the pain was but if you look up the song in any collection, you'll find in one of the stanzas the following lines:
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
It’s a beautiful thought, but it's actually not what Matheson wrote. He wrote it this way:
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I climb the rainbow through the rain
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
A committee putting together the hymnals decided, however, that “climbing a rainbow in the rain” was not suitable for singing in a church – perhaps it would be adventurous, but not for a Sunday. A church history professor of mine, remarked about the change:
“You see, of course, the great difference. You understand what was lost. It’s one thing to be in a safe and secure place and ‘trace the rainbow through the rain.’ It’s another thing altogether to be out in the storm – as Matheson was. He was not sitting by the window in a cozy house. He was out in the greatest storm of his life…. But he was not overwhelmed because he saw the promises of God. When he could not see anything else, the blind poet ... saw the rainbow… not as something interesting and beautiful; he saw it as something real… He was not safely inside tracing the rainbow through the rain. He was in the storm, stumbling on, groping for something to hold. And he felt that his only hope was to touch the rainbow with his fumbling finger – and to take hold of it, and to climb and climb and climb!” [David Calhoun, from a sermon]
When I heard him say this, that professor was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually take his own life. Where is your faith? It is the call to grab the promise in the storm. "I'm here; you're ok." Safety in the midst of the fire and the water.
At one point Corrie Ten Boom remembers her father's words to her from a train ride they took together long before:
Corrie, when a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don't throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.
What is the ordinary work of God that we find in the person of Jesus Christ? Safety, freedom, with power and authority and grace even when climbing in the storms.
"O give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever!"