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Keeping Our Heads Above Water

A storm has broken over our world. Things that we once considered steady and dependable have been shaken. Uncertainty and fear reign, especially amongst the vulnerable, amongst those who are on the frontlines of the fight against the virus and amongst those who are staring financial ruin in the face. It is overwhelming. How can we, as Christians, keep our heads above water in this particular storm? It is unlike anything any of us has ever had to face. Its impact stretches into every area of our lives. And the last thing I want to do is to trivialise in any way the very real anxieties and suffering that all of us are going through. I don’t have any quick fix. Nor can I offer a five-step programme that will see us through the challenges facing us. But I do believe there is real help and strength to be found in God and his word. The following article is based on the talk I recorded for Glenabbey Church’s first online Sunday morning service on Mother’s Day, 22nd March.

Matthew 14:22-33 (NIV)

“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Storms and miracles

The first Christians didn’t discover who Jesus was in a book or at church: they discovered his true identity in the context of real life, often in life’s storms. The personal storms of crippling illness, hunger, poverty, death, or the storms of fear, doubt, and guilt. And even, as we have just read, the literal storms that could suddenly whip up on the Sea of Galilee.

In all these storms Jesus acted in such unexpected and powerful ways that it left people either scratching their heads in puzzled wonder: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Or, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?” Or, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Or it left them in worship, as in the boat that day: “truly you are the Son of God”.

The accounts of Christ’s miracles were not myths, invented by the early church to express how much the early Christians admired Jesus or even invented to console the elderly or amuse children. As Peter himself later wrote, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16) They are factual accounts. But they don’t sit easily in our increasingly materialistic and anti-supernatural culture. And it’s possible that some of us who claim to be Christians have quietly dismissed them and would be embarrassed to talk about them.

Peter wasn’t in the slightest embarrassed. Not because he was gullible or religiously superstitious, prone to believe anything he was told, however improbable, but because the evidence was unmistakable. He was a fisherman. He knew only too well how the natural world normally works. He always used a boat to cross the lake! Knowing how things normally work made it obvious to him that for a real human being to feed 5000 plus from a child-size lunch or walk on the surface of the lake could not be explained in natural terms.

Unlike so many in our modern world he hadn’t ruled out the possibility of God’s supernatural intervention in this world. It didn’t seem to him to be either illogical or against nature that the Creator of the universe, who made things work as they normally do, has the right and ability, if he so chooses, to make them work differently.

Peter was also learning that Christ’s miracles were not simply demonstrations of supernatural power but signposts pointing to who Jesus was and illustrating what he had come to do. Feeding a vast crowd was in itself a wonderful thing to do. But we need more than physical food. Christ, through the miracle, was demonstrating that he was the bread of life who could provide real, lasting spiritual satisfaction.

The point of the dramatic miracle on the lake was not to teach the disciples how they could cross without a boat. (There is no record that Peter ever walked on water again). The point of this miracle, witnessed only by Jesus disciples, was to teach them how they could walk through the storms that would come their way as they followed Jesus, keeping their heads above water. And that, it seems to me, is immediately and deeply relevant for us in this new and frightening Coronavirus world.

Christ prays for us in the storm

Jesus sent his disciples in a boat across the lake while he went up into the mountain to pray. The setting is significant: Christ high on a mountain, out of sight and praying; the disciples down on the lake making their way to the other side. There is a vital connection between the two seemingly separate scenes.

The disciples were soon struggling to make any headway in the strong winds. Since Jesus was nowhere to be seen it seemed that they had been left to make the journey on their own. But what seemed to be the case wasn’t in fact the case.

Jesus had deliberately sent them on their own in the boat across the lake, knowing exactly what they would face. And he allowed them to face it before eventually coming to them. He hadn’t forgotten them. In fact, he was praying. Prayer connects the scene on the mountain with the scene on the lake. This is the first thing we need to know when it comes to keeping our heads above water in the Coronavirus storm: the risen Lord prays for us.

This may come as a surprise to us. We are used to thinking of what Jesus achieved for us through his incarnation, his life and teaching, his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension to be with the Father and even his return in power and great glory. Rightly so! But we tend not to think so much about what he is doing now.

What is he doing? One of the main things he is doing is praying for those who trust in him. The book of Hebrews tells us that Christ is able to save completely those who come to God through him, “because he always lives to intercede for them”. (Hebrews 7:25) Christ has not gone back to heaven to put his feet up, relax and wait for us to arrive, if we manage to survive the journey! He is committed to us still. As our faithful High Priest, he has our names on his heart and on his shoulders. He prays for us.

What does he pray for? The answer becomes clear in another storm Peter was soon to face.

When the Lord was arrested, Peter fled with the others. He then recovered a little and followed at a distance, while trying to remain incognito. But he soon felt the suspicious gazes of those gathered that night around the fire at the High Priest’s house. He buckled under pressure of their questioning and three times vehemently denied that he was with Christ or even knew him. He went out into the dark in tears, his world fallen apart.

It was a huge shock to Peter to discover his own weakness. But the Lord was not shocked. He never is. Moreover, he had told Peter in advance that he would deny Jesus. But he had added, “I have prayed for you Peter that your faith doesn’t fail.” (Luke 22:32)

The Lord prayed that Peter’s faith wouldn’t fail. Everything else failed: his courage, language, witness. But his faith didn’t fail. Despite appearances, deep-down underneath Peter never ceased to be a believer.

Faith is the core issue. Faith is what the evil one attacks, for faith lies at the heart of our relationship with God. When Jesus reached out to save Peter that day on the lake, he said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Not “O you of NO faith.” Little faith. He doubted but he still was a believer. Later he failed and denied the Lord but he still was a believer.

This virus is ripping its way through our lives like a tornado, with ferocious destructive power. We are being shaken. Our faith is being shaken. We need to know that the Lord is risen, glorified, not now on a mountain but at the right hand of God. And he is interceding for us, praying that our faith doesn’t fail. The reason we can be confident of surviving the storms and reaching the goal of our journey is not that we are especially bright, talented or spiritual, but because Jesus prays for us and the prayers of the Son of God are always answered.

Christ comes to us in the storm

Jesus didn’t just pray for his disciples; he came to them in the storm. At first, they thought he was a ghost. They didn’t immediately conclude it was the real Jesus supernaturally walking towards them on the surface of the water. These were experienced fishermen who knew only too well from daily life that human beings can’t walk on water. They weren’t by instinct prone to jump to a miraculous explanation for things they didn’t understand. So, they went for the explanation, that made most sense: it was some kind of apparition. And that terrified them, as it probably would me!

But then the ‘ghost’ spoke. This was no trick of the light. They weren’t imagining things. There were words, real communication that all could hear: “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.” This was no ghost: it was Jesus.

The storm did not cease when Jesus spoke but what a difference his words made: “It is I.” Jesus was walking through the storm with them. And what a difference those same words can make to us as our current storm hits deeper each day: “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

The Lord is with us in the storm, just as he promised his disciples as he commissioned them to take the gospel to the world: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

In the final weeks before his death, the Lord repeatedly referred to the fact that he was going away, preparing his disciples for the time when he would no longer be physically present with them. “I will not leave you as orphans”, he said, “I will come to you.” They would no longer be able to see him, have a meal with him, go for a walk with him. But he would be present. The Lord is with us in every storm, whether we feel he is or not. In a storm our emotions are as unstable as the sea. We must expect that. In our house we have experienced anxiety, tears, fear and frustration and we are just in the early days of this crisis. But we can make the truth of Christ’s presence with us more real by doing what the disciples did that day on the Sea of Galilee: listening to his words and following what he says. As Jesus promised, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)

Christ enables us to walk with him in the storm

Peter, greatly to his credit, wanted to go further. In the previous incident the Lord had challenged the disciples not to send the vast crowd away but to feed them. They couldn’t do it. But Jesus had taken the little food they had, blessed it and then had given the food into their hands to distribute it in turn to the crowd. And everyone was fed to satisfaction, with food to spare. The Lord had done it through them. So, Peter reasoned, if it really was Jesus walking through the storm at sea, then he could enable Peter to walk on the water with him.

Jesus invited him to step out of the boat and join him and he did just that. Peter’s response didn’t come from some foolish religious excitability or spiritual heroism. It was calm, reasoned faith in response to Christ’s word to him. For faith is not a matter of trying to work ourselves up to the point where we can say, “I believe I can walk on water” or even to sing “I believe I can fly”! Rather, faith is responding to what God says by doing what he invites us to do.

How did Peter get on? Very well at first, but then things started to go wrong when he took his eyes of Christ and focused instead on the storm around him. It was as if he started to think: “I shouldn’t be able to do this! I’ve managed so far but that wave over there is bigger than anything I’ve experienced! What if I can’t keep this up?” He allowed the storm completely to fill his vision and consequently began to sink.

At that point he did what we all must do when we wake up to the fact we are sinking. He cried out to the Lord. And the Lord saved him. He didn’t stand at a distance criticizing Peter, saying, “When you have learned to trust me perfectly, then I will help you.” He took hold of him on the spot and saved him.

Peter is not the only one to have started out on the journey of faith only to sink when the reality of life’s circumstances bears down upon them!

Perhaps that describes you? You started well, but then it was as if a strong, contrary wind began to blow. Following Christ became harder. The lovely feelings of peace and joy and general excitement you had at the beginning are little more than a distant memory. And somewhere along the way, you made the same mistake Peter made and allowed your particular storm to fill your vision that you have almost completely lost sight of Jesus, you’ve started to sink emotionally and spiritually, and you feel yourself going under.

Others are not in that place just yet, but fear they are headed that way. They still remember a time when walking with Christ seemed possible, if not easy. But then a storm hit. And then another. Now every day is like walking against the wind. They feel battered and bruised. If you are at the point of going under, do what Peter did: look to Christ, cry to him to save you and to help you keep our heads above water. He is committed to doing it.

I love these contemporary lyrics: “The grace of God has reached for me, and pulled me from the raging sea, and I am safe on this solid ground, the Lord is my salvation.” All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved! But we don’t have to wait until we are sinking before turning to Christ. And if we allow him to fill our vision, rather than the storm we are going through, we will discover that he can enable us to keep walking.

How might we practically do that?

Keeping our eyes on the Lord means just that! It requires deliberate action on our part: it is not automatic. When we wake at the beginning of the day, when we are trying to go to sleep at the day’s end, and all though our waking hours, we have the choice as to what we do with our minds, our eyes, our time, our actions. Do we fill our minds with the storm or with the Lord who is with us in the storm?

Five days into our self-isolation I woke at 5.20 am with the words of The Lord is my salvation in my head. So, of course I woke my wife, and we found the song on YouTube, being sung by Kristyn Getty. (Disclaimer: she’s our daughter!) This reminded me how important the music and songs are that fill our hearts and heads and homes. So many of the songs of our culture simply don’t cut it in a storm. Their philosophy of looking inside ourselves for our answer is woefully inadequate when there are far better and eternal answers. We are not our own salvation, the Lord is.

And not just in the music we listen to and the songs we sing but fixing our hearts and minds on Christ by setting aside deliberate time to listen to his words. That also requires deliberate choice on our part.

This isn’t the same as watching online sermons or reading Christian books and articles. These are good things, of course, but we could do all that and still find ourselves sinking spiritually. What above all is vital in the storm, as in all of life, is to draw near to the Lord ourselves and cultivate a personal relationship with him. No one else can do this for us.

At the heart of this relationship is a two-way conversation. God speaks to us in his word, we speak to him in prayer. Sadly, many Christians have a theoretical belief that the Bible is God’s word and that prayer is important, but it makes little or no difference to their daily schedule. What about you?

Let me suggest a simple step. Read this short paragraph in Matthew, then read it again and again. Spend time with it until it penetrates mind and heart and sticks there, so that you can meditate on it even in the dark. First get the details straight. Note what exactly is said (not what you think it says!). Ask questions of the paragraph: who, what, when, where, why and how. Ask what it meant for the people involved. Then consider what it might mean for you in your context. Talk to God about what you are reading and thinking about. Stay with it, perhaps over several days or even a week, until you feel the power of it in your own soul and hear God’s voice in your heart.

Christ reveals his glory in the storm

Peter and Jesus returned to the others in the boat. ‘Immediately the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”’

Worship. It’s a word that carries a wide range of meanings in the Bible. Here the focus is on adoration, on bowing down to God. For sooner or later worship in terms of our daily service to God in all that we do and worship in terms of our thanksgiving to God for what he gives to us must lead and eventually give way to adoring wonder of God himself, in the beauty of his person, in the wonder of his grace, in the awesomeness of his power, even in the glory of his wrath.

Worship in this sense is not something we try. In the boat that day the disciples were not trying to worship. They worshipped. It was their instinctive response at the revelation of the glory of Christ in his power over nature and in his grace to Peter.

Have you ever noticed that you can’t laugh upon command? You can try, but it always sounds false. Because it is false. What we need is for something funny to happen or for someone to tell us a funny story. Genuine laughter is a response. Worship is like that. We can praise, sing, pray, serve on command but we can’t worship on command. Worship is a response to God’s revelation of himself.

That’s what happened in the boat. For a brief moment the sun pierced the storm clouds they glimpsed the awesome reality that Jesus was not just a carpenter’s son. He was God’s Son. They realised, for a moment at least, that the man who had reached down into the swirling, murky waters to save their friend was God incarnate. And they bowed their knees in worship.

Of course, it didn’t take long before they forgot (as we do so easily), often failing to work out the implications for the next storm they would face. And storms are dark and difficult. The light doesn’t penetrate every five minutes. But at least for a moment, in the midst of much toil and fear, they were given an experience of Christ’s glory. Let’s pray that the same glory will at least at some stage be apparent to us in our storm. The words “Don’t be afraid” are easy to say. But they can sound trite, useless even insulting in a context such as a present-day health crisis. Which is why Jesus didn’t say them on their own. We mustn’t leave out the “It is I.” What makes all the difference is knowing who says, “Don’t be afraid”. That he is the Son of God and that he is with us.

As he followed Jesus Peter would have to face different storms. The Lord would be with him in each one and enable him to keep his head above water. But finally there would come a storm in which the Lord would appear to let Peter sink completely. History tells us that Peter was crucified upside down and the Lord didn’t intervene to save him from dying. His time and work for Christ in this world were over. But this is not the only world there is!

Peter had witnessed how Jesus had faced the ultimate storm involving betrayal, rejection, mockery, torture and brutal death as he gave his life for Peter. But that wasn’t the end. God raised him from the dead. Peter was totally confident that even in death the Lord would be with him and that through death he would be with his Lord forever.

This storm will pass. When it is blowing strong in our lives as we watch loved ones suit up to go onto the frontline of the fight against the virus, as we listen to the death toll mount each day, as we fear for elderly parents, as we face the implications of no job: it can be hard to believe that life won’t always be like this. But it will pass. Yet other storms of different kinds will come. God in his loving wisdom allows us to face them, even though very often the reasons are so hard for us to see now.

Perhaps the Coronavirus will shake the world out of complacency, out of selfreliance. Perhaps it will make people realise again that our planet is temporary and our life on it is temporary. Perhaps it will lead to more people asking the big questions that mostly they try to shut out of their heads. Perhaps. If it did, that could be so significant and transformative. In particular it could change us, bring us closer to God, help us to see what’s really important, refocus our ambitions and passions. Let’s pray that all that will be so.

But let’s hold on to this in the storm: for all who trust in Christ, there is real and eternal hope. For Christ prays for us, he comes to us, he holds us safe, enabling us to walk with our heads above water and in the storm, at some point, he will reveal his true glory to us.

O come let us adore him.

 

Photography by Gilbert Lennox featuring Downpatrick Head, Co Mayo

Copyright Gilbert Lennox March 2020

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