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God of the Storm

This is the sermon I preached last Sunday, the Third Sunday of Creation, at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel text was Luke 8:22-25. 
We mostly read of Jesus and his disciples with crowds. It’s rare that Jesus has time alone to minister to his disciples, which is the scene before us. It is a crossing story. Crossings can be dangerous. Any decision to cross the unknown for the sake of transformation is fraught with danger. Jesus’ decision was to go to the foreign country of the Gerasenes. Let’s look a bit deeper and discern the choice, the crisis, the call, and the calm in this crossing story.

The choice was to go across to the other side of lake (v. 22). Choices that do not have the potential of life threatening crisis within them are trivial and non-transformative. Television advertising gives us enough examples of trivial choices that fed to us as being truly revolutionary. Jesus’ choice was for the sake of spreading the kingdom of God.

The exhausted Jesus slept in the boat, allowing himself to be at peace in the midst of danger. He was modeling the words of the Psalmist, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

The crisis was that a gale swept down on the lake (v. 23). Here the waters were stirred up by a sudden, violent, whirlwind or hurricane. Looking at that little lake, it’s hard to imagine such weather could take place. However, I have seen the Galilee as smooth as glass one minute and a short while later the waves are crashing. There are even signs posted at various shorelines that state, “Beware of western winds.”

There is debate as to whether the disciples were wimping out, maybe having a false sense of security because of Jesus’ presence, who was with them and could rescue them.  However, the disciples had reason to be afraid. This was an awful storm and some of them were experienced fishermen who likely dealt with storms in the past. These were real winds and raging waves. The threat to the disciple’s lives was genuine.

The call was from the disciples to Jesus, “Master, Master, we are perishing” (v. 24). Only in Luke’s gospel is Jesus addressed as “Master,” emphasizing the power of God manifested in him. Whenever “Master” is used in Luke it is when Jesus’ power is displayed to command nature or to heal or in the case of the Transfiguration, to reveal that God’s power is present in him.

The disciples aren’t questioning Jesus’ care for them here as they do in Mark. They only tell him about the dangerous situation (v. 24). Jesus did not chastise his disciples for getting worked up over nothing. The boat ride and storm gave the disciples the opportunity to experience Jesus’ power--its nature and its source. Every time the disciples call Jesus Master, the story shows their struggle to understand Jesus and his message. We see this in the final verse of the gospel in the disciples’ question.

Another call is to the wind and waves by Jesus. Jesus rebukes the storm, not the disciples. The word “rebuke” is the same word used elsewhere when Jesus casts out demons. Was Jesus scolding the water? Was he rebuking the evil spirits that were commonly believed to reside in the waters? Luke sees such aims that are set against God’s purpose and that test God as diabolic. Jesus demonstrated his power over the sea and anything else that would prevent the completion of their journey.

This story draws upon older images: at creation, God brings order from the primordial waters. Later God saves Noah, his family and creatures from the flood. Then God provides a way through waters as the Hebrew people flee the Egyptians. Jesus waking up and calming the storm for his disciples carries with it all the earlier stories and memories. Jesus’ word frees from bondage, carries us through the flood and sets in motion a new creation.

The power of his word is stronger than the chaotic and threatening power of the water and of the storm. By stilling the wind and waves by his word of command, Jesus does what in the Hebrew Scriptures God alone could do. The story is an epiphany, a manifestation of Jesus’ divine power and identity.

Now we come to the calm in the crossing story, which raises questions. Jesus poses the first one. “Where is your faith?,” he asks of the disciples. This assumes that the disciples do have faith, but that it had receded or gotten weak at that moment. The disciple’s faith and resilience were tested by the storm. “Where is your faith?” Jesus is concerned with the disciples’ trust and discernment. He is not implying that their faith is lacking, but that it’s still a work in progress. Is there any reason to keep faith when we are in the midst of emotional storms and adrift in a sea of disillusionment? “Where is your faith?”

Jesus seems to be addressing the disciples’ fear during the storm. Fear, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.

The disciples were amazed, showing an element of uncertainly, but also implying a glimmer of understanding. “Who then is this?” This also reflects understanding, recognizing Jesus is in control. No wonder they were afraid. They had just witnessed power greater than the storm.

Storms can be frightening. On the positive side however, from thunder storms, come the nitrogen essential for the growth of plants and for our own wellbeing, courtesy of the violence of lightening strikes. Cyclones stir ocean waters warming colder parts of the ocean and the planet. Spring floods carved the Grand Canyon, but also annually sustain life by clearing away waste and depositing rich silts, from making the ancient Nile fertile for farming to fostering richness for abundant life in the Mississippi backwaters in a way that runoff-controlling dams do not. We’re up against the balance of storms encouraging life and our resistance to them stifling our well-being.

Today we are experiencing a whole succession of extreme weather events—hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, you name it. We influence these events. Climate change effects them and humanity contributes to that by its addiction to fossil fuels that lead to greenhouse emissions that warm the planet and cause much destruction and suffering. Could this be systemic evil, appealing to an over-consuming society in its greed for more, at the cost of the suffering of many across our planet?

Then there’s our own Chautauqua Lake, where herbicides were used to fight toxic and harmful algae blooms. According to a recent news report, the most toxic algae blooms are those where herbicide was used. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not. This is one of our own storms we are fighting and for which we are looking for an answer. I didn’t realize this, but our lake is used as drinking water in some areas, as well as for swimming, boating and fishing.

Nutrients are the principal cause of the impairment [of the lake]. Storm water delivers nutrients into the lake either as phosphorus or as nitrogen contained within the chemistry of the storm water or as attachments to sediment that flows along with the storm water.

What can be done about this? Chautauqua Institution has taken some actions that other communities can implement as well, if they haven’t already, such as:
A comprehensive Drainage Management Plan to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff and nutrients entering the lake
Composting
Supporting Chautauqua Utility District's efforts to update the wastewater treatment facility that serves the Institution grounds and surrounding community
Improving codes and regulations to minimize runoff
Strengthening links to community environmental stewards
So what is the voice of God saying to us today in the midst of these catastrophic weather events and the climate crisis? At a time when our little boat of planet earth is more threatened than ever—by a storm of our own making—it seems that someone is asleep on the deck below.

The good news is that ultimately the powers that think they are greater than God will fall just as easily as the storm before our Lord Jesus. What about the storms that rage within us and those we encounter every day? They too are just as answerable to Jesus’ command. “With one cry to the Master, the wild waves and wind always calm themselves in his presence and once again, [we] experience peace in the midst of the storms” (Schade).

Storms are usually due to and are the agents of change in the natural order. High and low pressure systems, Tectonic plate pressure bursts, all announce change and the crossing from one state of equilibrium to another, paralleling our life journeys.

Today’s gospel points beyond itself to the act of God in Christ as a whole. For us, the real question is not whether Jesus literally calmed a storm on a Galilean lake, but whether God has acted in Christ to deliver those who call on him. The story affirms that God is superior to any natural disaster, that even if our small boat sinks and we go down with the ship, God is still the master, delivering us through and beyond (not necessarily from) the power of any natural disaster to destroy those who call on him in faith (Boring and Craddock).

May the God of the Storm continue to bless us, deliver us from fear and equip us to be mindful of the Earth and all its inhabitants.
Amen.

References consulted

M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary
Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke
Chautauqua Institution, https://chq.org/chautauqua-lake-management
Monica Joytsna Melanchthon, The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary
Deborah Thompson Prince, Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 1
Stanley Saunders, workingpreacher.org
Leah Schade, letallcreationpraise.org
Nick Utphal, https://wordpress.com/2016/10/09/sermon-for-storm-sunday/
Peter Woods, thelisteninghermit.com

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