A sermon on 1 Samuel 17 & Mark 4:35-41 by Nathan Nettleton, 25 June 2006
The Christian life is often lived against overwhelming odds, but the presence of Christ and some basic godly resources make it a good bet.
I think most of us have times when we feel ready to throw in the towel. Whether it be is some specific project, or just in the normal day to day living of life, there are times when it feels like everything is against us and there is just no way we are going to make it through. It is all too hard and the obstacles are all too big and we have come to the end of our rope, physically and emotionally. We are ready to give up, take what's left of our shattered dreams, and go home with our tails between our legs. I think probably all of us have known that feeling at some point. Am I right?
As we seek to live our lives as faithful followers of Jesus, there are plenty of times and events that produce these same sorts of feelings again. Sometimes even more so. We set out with the best of intentions, but it seems as though things conspire against us to make it impossible for us to live up to our intentions. We aim to join in with the ongoing prayer of the church for at least a little bit of time each day, but waves of busyness come crashing over us and when we finally have the time, we no longer have the energy. We aim to be welcoming and hospitable to all people, but there always seem to be a few who specialise in getting under our skin and pressing our buttons, and next thing we know we are angry and resentful and we start distancing ourselves from everybody. We aim to simplify our lifestyle and use our money more generously, but the omnipresent roar of the advertisers drowns out our whispers of hope and we find ourselves again falling prey to their hollow promises of greater happiness for just the price of one more purchase. Often it seems that the more determinedly we try to make real progress, the bigger and wilder the forces against us become. How can we go on? What hope have we got against such overwhelming odds?
Two of our scripture readings tonight speak to exactly these feelings, and they speak with words of hope and promise. They are among the most popular and well known stories in the Bible, but it is probably not so often noticed just how similar they are in their message. Too often our churches have only sought to verify that these stories actually happened - that David killed a giant and that Jesus calmed a storm - instead of asking whether they are true, really true, whether the promises that these stories make to us are worth actually living our lives by.
Our reading from the Gospel according to Mark is highly symbolic. The disciples are all in a boat with Jesus, trying to get to the other side of the sea, when a wild storm whips up and threatens to smash the boat and drown them all. In the gospels, and especially in Mark's gospel, being in a boat together, and especially in a boat with Jesus, is a symbol of being in the church. That's why the national and world councils of churches use the boat as their logo. We're all in the same boat, it is saying. So our story is a picture of the church. They are trying to get to the other side of the sea. This too is an image that is used symbolically over and over in the Bible. Crossing the Red Sea, crossing the Jordan River; these are images of escaping from slavery and finding freedom in the promised land on the other side. In the gospels, crossing the sea can be either a heading home to the promised land, or a heading away on mission. This story doesn't emphasise the direction, because it probably doesn't matter for the main point, but either way, it is an image of the church trying to make progress, trying to get somewhere. And soon they are not making much progress. There is a wild storm at sea. The Israelites were not an ocean loving people. The sea was always considered dangerous. The sea was a place of demonic chaos that could whip up and overwhelm you at any time. A storm at sea is a very frightening image to such people.
So here we have a boat load of Christ's followers, the Church, trying to go where Jesus has called them to go, and the forces of darkness and chaos have risen up to smash them to pieces and sink them. It is a picture of our endeavours to live the life of discipleship in the Church. All too often it feels as though it is all in vain and our efforts to brave the sea and make it to the promised land on the other side are going to see us driven back from whence we came or swamped and drowned. And where is Jesus when all hell is breaking lose around us? He seems to be asleep and quite oblivious to it all. A lot of help he is!
But before we get too annoyed at his lack of concern for our safety and sanity, it must be acknowledged that although he is sleeping here, this storm-battered picture could be a picture of Jesus' life too. The whole gospel account is one of Jesus pushing on towards his destination, the promised land of love and mercy and hope, and the further he goes the more the storms of hatred, rage, and violent opposition rise up around him and threaten to destroy him. Indeed the gospel writer may have intended us to hear a link between this story and the story of the Garden of Gesthemene, because here Jesus is asleep and the disciples are terrified of the destruction that is about to befall them, and in the Garden of Gesthemene, the disciples are asleep and Jesus is terrified of the destruction that is about to befall him.
The story of young David facing Goliath the giant is very similar. David himself may appear to be a picture of confident trust in the Lord, but he's the only one. The Israelite army is in a right state of panic. Every time they see what they are up against, they go to water. And by the time David enters the picture, Goliath has been taunting them for forty days - forty days being the Bible's symbolic length of tough times of purging or disciplined preparation for freedom. So whether we picture our life and discipleship as being under threat from a wild storm, or under threat from a giant who is promising to turn us into dog meat if we break ranks with the frightened masses and try to make a bid for freedom, the stories are making the same point. God is with us. We are not alone. And death shall have no dominion.
In the gospel story of the boat in the storm, the disciples wake Jesus and accuse him of showing no concern for their safety, but Jesus speaks severely to the wind and the waves and there is an immediate calm. But then he challenges the disciples: "Why are you afraid? Are you still unable to trust?" Whatever storms are battering us, Christ is present and can be trusted to get us through. And while it may look to us as though he is asleep or just doesn't care, he will still get us through. The only question is whether we will trust him enough to not jump overboard.
In the David and Goliath story, young David sets the example of putting our trust in God to get us through. He knows that on his own he is no match for Goliath, a giant of a man and a battle-hardened crack soldier. But David trusts that he is not on his own; that God is with him and that God will act to set the people free. David believes that while he is no match for the giant soldier, the giant soldier is no match for the living God. And so he puts his trust in the living God and steps out to face the giant. He refuses the offer of armour, because he is not having a bet each way; he is trusting in the living God. And sure enough, in what has become the archetypal mismatch that clichés are based on, God vindicates David's trust and proves again that overwhelming odds cannot destroy those who trust God and go where God has called them to go.
But before I finish, I want to pick up one little detail of the David story and link it back to our endeavours to live as faithful followers of Jesus here in this congregation, surrounded by the storms or giants that threaten to sink us. The story tells us that David took with him five smooth stones from the creek bed when he went out to face Goliath. It might seem like rather more detail than is necessary, but perhaps it is symbolic of something more than mere detail. Eugene Peterson has written a book on spiritual disciplines called "Five Smooth Stones" . He picks up on the fact that the stones in a creek bed have become smooth because they have been worn smooth over many years, even many generations, in the creek. And he makes the point that the main traditional spiritual disciplines are like that too. They have acquired their shape over many generations in the ever running stream of God's gracious ways. And now they can be trusted to be the gifts of God that provide us with what we need as we face the chaos and dangers of the world around us.
This could be a good metaphor for our congregational covenant which we are currently revising and renewing. The commitments described in our covenant are not unusual or especially rigourous. They are not a special package of optional extras for super Christians. On the contrary, they are simply a summary of the normal disciplines of Christian living. They are an expression of the normal expectations of those who would follow Jesus in the community of his body, the Church. And though the wording might be specific to us, the values and practices they describe are the basic disciplines that have proved themselves reliable in the creek bed of Christ's Church over the last two thousand years. The covenant is like a handful of smooth stones which God has given you to ensure that you survive as you go out to face the giants that would convince you that it is all to hard and that it is time to throw in the towel and concede defeat. And among those smooth stones are some we are going to draw upon now: the prayers of God's people, and the sharing of a modest feast in the presence of our risen Lord.