They say that troubles, like buses, turn up in threes; or perhaps, as Claudius said in Hamlet, When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. Perhaps they do or maybe, when there are difficulties and anxieties, emotionally and physically we are more drained, and so are less equipped to face the next challenge and so it in turn becomes more of a problem. Whatever the number, when matters are tough, things can get to feel overwhelming. I have to admit to finding myself a little that way last month. I was juggling some concerns and then, suddenly, a cancer scare (good newsflash – I’ve now received the all-clear). Even the thrill of good news, or the adrenaline comedown after something exciting, can be tiring. During these recent weeks I have felt so blessed by those around me who have journeyed with me and held me in prayer. I have felt myself held by God, as in the well-known Footprints poem.
Our readings through Matthew’s gospel, chapter 14, present us with a rollercoaster of troubles, fear and wonderful miracles. The disciples must have been so confused, downcast, uplifted and exhausted. Just as John the Baptist’s heralding of a great saviour was becoming a reality, John was brutally executed. Even as Jesus strove to carry out his ministry of healing and promise, the demands of the crowds were never-ending. Yet, Jesus provided practical and spiritual nourishment to the people on the hillside, and practical and spiritual nourishment to the disciples as he actively involved them in the miracle of fish and bread. Jesus gave his disciples a sign of his power and purpose and a taste of what his presence in them and with them could achieve. In this Sunday’s reading we see the disciples, alone and in fear of their lives as they are caught in a terrible storm on lake Galilee and then when they see what appears to be a ghost – maybe of a previously drowned sailor – coming towards them over the waves. When they screamed in fear, Jesus spoke to them, saying “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (14:27) This is more than a simple word of encouragement, or even just, look, it’s only me. The word Jesus used is the same that God spoke in encouragement and identification to Moses when he was in the wilderness at Mount Horeb: I AM. This is the God who brings calm out of chaos and creates beauty and purpose. In Old Testament imagery, this is represented by God conquering raging oceans and destructive sea monsters. Jesus, declaring I AM in the midst of the storm and calming the wind, was telling them clearly who he was. But he didn’t do it as a voice out of the wind. He did it by walking to the terrified disciples and being alongside them in the chaos. When Peter expressed his desire and willingness to be with Jesus, Jesus responded in invitation and then with support when Peter was overwhelmed by the situation and his fears. Peter wanted to trust; yet even with the example of Jesus’ power in the miracle on the hillside fresh in his memory, Peter doubted and began to sink – and was caught and carried by Jesus.
The reality of life is that it is stormy and often devastating. Even when things are going well for us, there is much to distract us. Without desire for, and recognition of, God who has created beauty out of chaos and has promised life out of death, there would be only the chaos, only an ongoing stream of random happenings. Where would be the hope and point of perseverance in that? But God has promised life that is abundant in vibrancy and meaning, and travels through the rollercoaster of highs and lows of the world beside us all the way. And because he is with us, when we have the courage to look into his eyes and hold his hand and see his presence, we can step into the still space that he creates and receive his peace in the heart of the storm.
May you feel the peace of the Lord in your life today.
Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act IV, scene V)
Image: Hokusai The Great Wave, 1831