+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The portion of psalmody that we have heard this morning is one of my favourites in the whole book of psalms. Perhaps you would be so kind as to indulge me a little whilst I explain why.
I think I have spoken before about how I grew up living in a house overlooking the Severn Estuary at that point at which it really begins to open out into the Bristol Channel; part river, part sea, but rather more sea than river, with gulls, mud flats, and huge tides, and surprisingly nasty conditions for shipping when the fast and complex tidal movements combine with strong winds.
At the end of our road was a headland, generally called Battery Point because of the anti-aircraft guns which had been placed there during the war, the most recent in a long line of fortifications on that site. Through some geological quirk the headland is unusually close to the deep channel through which the largest ships pass. In those distant days when children didn’t spend their leisure time glued to screens, my brother and I would sometimes watch for large ships at high tide – the deep thumping chug of the engines of tug boats usually meant that something big was coming in, perhaps a car carrier or a large container ship, or a ship carrying timber or coal – and we would run to the headland to catch them as they passed, close enough that you almost felt that if you reached out you might just be able to touch them. And how different it must all have looked and felt from the point-of-view of the sailors, as they rounded the headland and guided their ship safely into the vast entrance lock of the Royal Portbury Dock.
Then were they glad because they were at rest,
and he brought them to the haven they desired.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his goodness
and the wonders he does for his children.
The ancient Israelites were not a seafaring people like the Greeks or the Phoenicians, and so the description of the experiences of sailors which we find in this psalm is unusual and a little surprising in the Hebrew scriptures. It is also wonderfully evocative, describing the feelings of the sailors on a ship tossed about in heavy seas:
They were carried up to the heavens
and down again to the deep;
their soul melted away in their peril.
They reeled and staggered like a drunkard
and were at their wits’ end.
And once again we come back to the point which I have found myself talking about a good deal over the past few months, because it is so frequently in the background of the psalms: namely that of the place of water in the ancient Near East, and the taming of water as one of the central tasks of the various gods of the various peoples and cultures of those lands. The psalmist here establishes the Lord, the God of Israel, as the God whose power extends even over the fearsome sea, the God who saves sailors from its destructive power.
The same point is made in today’s reading from the Book of Job: God is here addressing Job’s complaints against Him by demonstrating the difference between God and a human being, using the example of the sea:
…who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?
The Sea of Galilee is of course not really a sea at all, but a lake – it certainly doesn’t compare with the Mediterranean, which is surely what the psalmist has in mind, nor even with the muddy estuary of my childhood. And yet the fierce climate of the region can produce storms intense enough to make difficulties for the sort of small rickety craft on which Jesus and His disciples likely travelled, whipping up the surface of the lake, and forcing those on the boat to give up any real attempt at steering, instead simply running before the wind.
The story of the calming of the storm is one of many in the gospels in which Jesus is explicitly shown doing things that only God would normally be expected to do. We don’t usually notice this, because we are so familiar with these stories, but reading them with one eye on the Old Testament helps open up this dimension. And so, for example, the miraculous distribution of bread is in John’s gospel connected with God’s feeding of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness. Elsewhere Jesus is shown forgiving sins, exercising an authority which belongs to God. And in the story of the calming of the storm, Jesus is shown to have power over the waters, something which was a defining feature of the divine not only in ancient Jewish religion, but across the religions of the ancient Near East.
Jesus calms the waters of the storm, doing what only God can do, and there is a dead calm.
A dead calm is an interesting choice of words. As far as I can tell it is only the New Revised Standard Version that translates the passage this way; most others follow the Greek more closely, and call it a great calm. But the idea of a dead calm does point us to an important truth, which is that what weather forecasters euphemistically call “changeable conditions” are pretty much an inevitable consequence of being alive at all. One way or another, we all find ourselves to a lesser or greater extent being tossed around by the storms of life, trying to adapt as best we can to endlessly changing conditions in different aspects of our lives. As we sail through life from one storm to another we may well find many good things to enjoy along the way, and some of us are lucky enough that the good things we enjoy in this life seem at times at least to outweigh the difficulties. Our earthly life is certainly a gift of God to be treasured and cherished, but the business of living it isn’t always straightforward. Jesus’ power over the waves reminds us also that we can turn to Him in the storms of life, when we feel that the wind and the rains and the waves threaten to overwhelm us.
I said at the beginning that this psalm, in fact this specific selection of verses from Psalm 107, is among my favourite bible passages, and I explained the connection to my childhood. But I will now go further and confide in you all that I should like this selection of verses to be used at my funeral, whenever that may come along. And the reason is not only the sentimental connection with my childhood, but theological too. Perhaps it is too easy for me to say as someone who can still just about think of themselves as being young, but I would like to be able to think of death not primarily as a tragedy, although of course it is often that for those left behind, but still I should like to be able to think of death not primarily as a tragedy but as a homecoming. Yes, this earthly life is a gift of God that we should treasure and cherish, but one way or another we all must learn to accept that it will not last for ever. And so whilst I am not hoping or planning to die anytime soon, I hope that when the time comes I can accept it calmly, and even with confidence, in the hope of an end to these storm-tossed days, trusting that the Lord will bring me to the haven I desire.
And this is something we should not be afraid to talk about in an age which I think really struggles to think and talk well about death. This earthly life is a gift from God to be treasured and cherished, and certainly not treated with casual disdain. But bodily death too from a Christian perspective is a part of God’s loving purposes for us, and so as Christians we do not need to face the Covid-19 virus or anything else with cringing fear. That’s not to say that we should be stupid or reckless about it. Just that we should keep it along with everything else in a proper perspective: one way or another, sooner or later, whether we like it or not we are all going to die; but we trust that the One who is able to calm the waters of the storm is also able to guide us all through the changeable weather of life and the dark waters of death into the haven that we desire.
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit