Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday before Lent 2022

Sleep, in heaven, is impossible.

The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor

Sunday, 20th February 2022 at 11.15 AM

Bob Monkhouse, of blessed memory, told many memorable jokes—this one sticks in my mind, possibly because it is rather dark. He said:
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my father. Not screaming and terrified, like his passengers.”

Jesus slept. In the boat. Not so very surprising if he was truly human, we all need sleep; but perhaps a bit surprising for God?
We need some people, like bus drivers, like God, to stay awake.
Jesus sleeps and the disciples are left terrified and screaming.
A storm comes out of nowhere; threatening to capsize the boat.
He sleeps. They shout. Master, we are perishing! How can you sleep?
He awakes: rebukes the wind, rebukes the waves, rebukes the disciples—where is your faith? Did you really think God was asleep?

Well, sometimes, yes! Sometimes it might be easier to think that God is asleep, when bad things happen, when storms descend (Eunice or otherwise), when prayers go unanswered. It might be easier to think that God has just failed to notice. It’s easier to think he was asleep and unaware, because it is too horrible to imagine God awake and watching steadily as disaster unfolds.

But if St John, in the reading from the Revelation is to be believed, then sleep, in heaven, is impossible, especially with those four living creatures bellowing Holy, Holy, Holy, at the top of their voices, day and night. The one on the throne does not sleep, and neither do those who worship. Heaven is constantly watchful, endlessly giving glory and honour and thanks to the one seated on the throne. We, in worship, join with them.

So, what is going on with Jesus sleeping through the storm, because it looks like the powers of chaos spied an opportunity as he dozed-off! Wild, uncontrolled waters are a potent symbol of primordial chaos; the potential for creation to be undone, for order to be up-ended. We hear it again and again in the psalms: waters rage and swell, they are lifted-up in terrifying power. The disciples must have felt that they were in the very grip of this unholy chaos as the waters flooded the boat. They turned to Jesus, their Captain, for help; dare I say it, for leadership.

And when he rebuked the storm and the waters, putting them back in their place, the disciples got more than they had imagined. This was more than the Captain steering into the waves, or dropping anchor, or co-ordinating a bail-out, or whatever it is you should do as Captain of an ailing ship. Who is this—they ask—commanding the very winds and the waters?

So, we could say that this storm was a learning-opportunity. The disciples discovered something about who Jesus was, and now it is offered to us in Scripture as an opportunity for us to discover, in turn, who he was, and is. We might see the parallel between those calmed waters of the lake, and the sea of glass, like crystal, before the throne of God in heaven—waters thoroughly calmed, ordered; sure evidence of God the Father’s sovereignty over creation, working in Jesus, the Son.

But for all that they undoubtedly learned, this experience was terrifying for the disciples, and the feeling of being abandoned by Jesus at their moment of need was very real indeed. We might want to excuse their faithlessness, mindful that our faith might feel a bit wobbly in those circumstances.

But… these disciples were in a boat. They had deliberately gone out with Jesus onto the unpredictable waters. Some of them were fishermen, for goodness sake—people who made their living by venturing off the safety of land and into the uncertainty of the deep. Did they really expect everything to be plain sailing? Where was their faith?

We heard in the creation story from Genesis, that we human beings are creatures of the dry earth—we were made to till it. We are terrestrial creatures, made from dust; made for the realm where the waters are somewhat tamed—coming out of the sky in gentle showers to ‘drench the ground and smooth out the ridges’ as we heard in the psalm—or flowing in rivers, which, most of the time, stay safely within their banks. This water is a blessing, to make the earth fruitful; it is water under control and in order, and it brings life. In Genesis the earth would have remained lifeless were it not for the twin efforts—the co-creativity perhaps—of the humans who till the land below and the Lord who sends the rain from above.

There is something wonderfully comforting about this ecology, where God and humans cooperate to make the earth flourish. It is remarkable and wonderful how reliable and stable our ecosystem is. It makes it harder for us to see when that system is under stress, from Climate change and the like, because the earth still tends towards this stability and fruitfulness despite the demands we put upon it, even when we are pushing it to breaking-point, as scientists keep trying to explain.

Genesis and the psalm give us a picture of humanity and creation, earth and earth-creatures, flourishing under the gentle showers of God’s blessing. Earth is where human life is most predictable and comfortable. So, it is interesting that Jesus chose fishermen among his disciples, and that he was inclined to take them out in boats.

There is much about the world that is ordered and reliable, and a cause for joy. But there is much about the world that is more like open water; unpredictable, chaotic, and sometimes downright dangerous and terrifying.

Does God not see this stuff? Like Jesus in the boat, does he grow drowsy, allowing disaster to make its approach? Worse still, does he see it all very clearly and then just sit on his hands, keeping a lofty magisterial distance, as the boat fills with water, as the storms overwhelm us—knowing that this will be good for us and for our learning… eventually? Fortunately for us, neither picture of God (the sleepy captain nor the distant teacher) does justice to what we see in the Incarnation.

Where is your faith?—Jesus asked his disciples.

They had accepted his call, his call to follow, and that meant coming away from what was known and safe and predictable. His mission was not to comfort the comfortable; not to stand secure on dry ground. His mission was to go into the chaos to which creation is prey; to the places where it all unravels; where health and wealth and well-being are in short-supply; where sin abounds. To accept his call would mean going where he goes—getting into the boat with him—and plain-sailing was definitely not guaranteed.

Jesus fell asleep in the boat, and continued to sleep as the storm fell upon them. This would not be the last occasion, of course, when the disciples would feel abandoned by Jesus. In the boat he merely slept; in the tomb, on Holy Saturday, he lay dead, and the disciples were left rudderless and afraid.

But His mission was not just to descend into all the chaos to which creation is prey, and which the storm symbolised, but to descend even further, to where the storm freezes into death.

Where is your faith?—Jesus asked them. To have faith in Jesus means to have faith in his mission—his mission to go into the worlds’ need, its chaos, its storms—the storms that affect whole nations, the storms of a disrupted climate, but equally the storms that afflict us individually—the illnesses, griefs and anxieties, the temptations that leave us all at sea, and sometimes terrified.

Having faith in Jesus means to have faith in his whole mission, and to share in that mission with him—to get into the boat, which is the Church—to be drowned in baptism and to share the ships-ration in the Eucharist. We may not be able to do very much in the storms we face; to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, or to reverse the course of climate change (although we shouldn’t neglect to do whatever we can, however little). There might be a bit more we could do in support of those around us—we might make all the difference to someone who is struggling with their mental or physical health, or grief, or suffering abuse. Whenever we engage with the chaos, even within ourselves, we share in his mission, and we can do so with the most extraordinary hope.

Because though he slept in the boat, though he slept in the tomb, he did so in order to arise—to rebuke the storm, to rebuke death itself—and he calls us to do the same, in his name, and in his power.