1 Kings 19.9-18, Matthew 14.22-33
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The majority of Christian preaching and teaching is what we can call spring or summer Christianity, the rightfully joyful and positive approach to God and the scriptures.
Every Christian goes through a springtime of faith; that feeling of freshness as new ideas blossom into growth. Naturally summertime follows, when our faith is in full flower, and the fruits of the Spirit are producing good works in our life.
However, we don’t often talk about those times when our faith feels more like autumn – when everything seems to be fading, or falling apart like leaves dropping from the trees; or indeed the icy blast of winter when all seems dead, when we know in theory that life is buried beneath the barren landscape, but it feels hard to believe.
To pretend that these times don’t happen is to do a great disservice, to ourselves and to other Christians. After all, if we’re not honest with ourselves about how we feel, how can we ask God for help, and how can we help others Christians in their times of trouble?
St John of the Cross called this “the dark night of the soul”, and St Therese of Liseux, a 19th century Carmelite nun wrote to her sisters, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.” Letters by Mother Theresa released after her death show she too suffered spiritual dryness, and on retiring Pope Benedict said that whilst he never felt alone, it did sometimes feel like God was asleep.
It is often times of personal trouble that leads to spiritual crisis. In our first reading the prophet Elijah had run away following his victory over the prophets of Ba’al. He feared for his life as Jezebel sought to find and execute him. Elijah hid in a cave, feeling very much alone, frightened and lost. He had done his best and it didn’t seem to be enough.
But God was there, speaking not in dramatic wind or powerful earthquake or blazing fire, but a gentle whisper. Out of the loneliness, God made his presence known, giving new instructions, comfort and strength.
And then in our Gospel reading we have Peter, frightened by the storm but seeing Jesus across the water and wanting so badly to follow him, that he risks getting out of the boat. He begins well, but falters and sinks into the water. He is a drowning man, in more ways than one.
And out of the storm and the wind and the waves Jesus reaches out and takes hold of him. He is safe in the arms of Jesus, and the wind ceased. Jesus is God in the peace and calm.
But what about in the here and now? After all, these stories are 2 and 3 thousand years old. Do they have any relevance for us today?
In lockdown there has been plenty of discussion about how the Christian faith has grown online, with people discovering new ways to pray and form community. And that’s wonderful. But I know other people have struggled – with prayer, with not being able to gather in their church buildings, wondering ‘Where is God in all this?’
Well, what if I told you that every day the Word of God, Jesus Christ, was still bringing people back from despair. Would you believe me?
Over the years I have visited people who are dying. Sometimes they’re barely awake or in pain, but I’ll sit with them and pray, Psalm 23 or the Lord’s Prayer. And I have seen ragged breathing become calm and peaceful, and gentle smiles as the words etched on their souls were said for them.
We never know when times of trouble will strike us. Summer can become winter in the blink of an eye, without sense or reason, or it can creep up on us like a malaise when we are not looking. Winter is never the end because spring will return in time, but these times, just like a season, can’t be rushed. Even though we want to, we can’t press fast-forward and skip the earthquake, wind and fire of feeling we haven’t done enough, our faith isn’t strong enough.
So if you do ever find yourself in that situation, please remember this – God cares deeply for each and every one of you. And when we are least expecting it, we will find that God will reach out his hand into the sinking depths and bring us to new life.
(Artwork: ‘Hand of God’ by Yongsung Kim)