The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (sermon)
Romans 13:8-10 Matthew 8. 23-34
Jesus arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there arose a great calm.
In this season of Epiphany we are coming to know Jesus as the Wisdom of God and the Power of God. His power is shown in his miracles, in the last two Sundays, and in the miracles in today’s Gospel, as well as in the realm of earthly powers, as described by St Paul.
Let’s look first at the miracles:
In our Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are being surrounded by crowds and he tells the disciples that they should go over to the other side of the lake. Jesus goes to sleep on the boat ride. In Mark’s Gospel, it includes the detail that Jesus was in the stern of the ship [that is, at the back, where the rudder is that steers the ship], asleep on a pillow. The disciples were fisherman. They knew the dangers of the sea, and are in a panic as the waves begin to splash onto the deck. They go and wake up Jesus, who is completely at rest. “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!”
Jesus rebuked the wind and waves and there was a great calm.
And he rebuked the disciples – “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”
In this short passage Jesus shows his humanity, that he was tired and catching up on some sleep…, And, a moment later, he shows His divinity, when he stills the storm. He doesn’t pray to the Father to do it, in Mark’s account of the miracle, it says he rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still.” [Mk 4:35f]
The disciples did have faith, they went to Jesus to save them. But it was “little faith”, in that, they had allowed themselves first to become completely upset, terrified of death. Do you see how they allowed the storm without to become the storm within, before they finally go to Jesus.
Isn’t this often the way with us – that we think we have faith in God – and then something happens – something beyond ourselves, and we allow it to overwhelm us inwardly with confusion and fear, maybe with anger. A storm arises within. It is as if we forget or think God doesn’t somehow have power in that realm. And it is only after considerable torment that we turn in prayer to God, who can calm our souls. O we of “little faith.”
In the second miracle, we’re confronted with not something from the visible, but the invisible realm, the spiritual.
Jesus and the disciples are met by two men possessed with demons. The account says they were exceedingly fierce, so that no one could come near. They are living in a cemetery, their demons torment them by holding before their minds death. Jesus, brings immediate judgement on these demons by his presence, Have you come to judge us before the time?, they cry out. Jesus allows them to leave these men and go into a herd of pigs – who are then led to their deaths falling headlong into the sea. What help God is giving the men even before they were delivered, that these powerful demons could not destroy them!
The situation reveals the nature of Satan as one who comes to bring confusion and terror and to destroy life – and, in contrast, our Saviour who comes to bring clarity of mind, peace, and new life.
Demonic possession is something rare in Christian countries, but it does still happen – the Anglican Church has an exorcist appointed in each Diocese, and I have from time to time had to consult them about situations in my ministry and they have guided me well. It is important to remember that Jesus has power over this realm – we are not strong in and of ourselves to overcome the devil and his works, but through our union with Christ we have the Saviour who has overcome evil, and in staying close to him, we can prevail.
Demon possession does not happen to human beings unless there has been a deliberate invitation. God is protecting us from possession by demons, even though that realm exists.
While we may not suffer possession, the devil does try to destroy our peace by tempting us to be unfaithful. When we fall for a temptation, the devil will tempt us again and again. The devil would have us tormented, enslaved by our thoughts, by a passion out of control, or leading us to dwell endlessly on guilt and shame, and try to make us despair of life itself. The inner torment remains until we confess our failure and put our faith in Christ to forgive us, and to heal us from the harmful effects of our falling.
Our racing minds may not be something we are morally culpable for, but even in that case also, we can ask for God’s help to calm our minds. How often it is that we wrestle far too long in the inner storm before finally returning to Jesus, in repentance and faith or simply turning to Jesus to give us better things to think on.
The first miracle is related to the visible natural world, this one is related to the invisible spiritual world. It is no less dangerous, but it is a realm of danger we can, by grace, overcome, always. That is the promise of the Gospel.
In today’s Epistle we are reminded of another realm of power – earthly governments. We are reminded God is a God of order, not chaos, and is interested in the right ordering not just of souls but also of societies. St Paul says,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. [Rom 8:13f]
Strangely, Paul wrote this at a time of tyrannical Roman emperors who began to persecute the Church, in fact, tradition holds that St Paul himself was beheaded under the persecutions of Nero. Paul places limits on government – he says legitimate authority is not to be “a terror to good conduct”, but legitimate authority “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer”, and bears the sword “not in vain.” If a ruler uses the sword for vain pursuits, or to punish those who do right, or to be a terror to good conduct, we are to resist…even with our lives.
- Think of the three companions of Daniel, who were cast into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow down and worship the image set up by the Babylonian king. [Daniel 3:16-18]
- Think of Peter and the apostles, who, after being warned by the high priest not to preach Christ, went immediately out into the marketplace to preach. They told those in authority when forbidden to speak, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” [Acts 5:28-29]
- And we can think of the countless Christian martyrs who refused to offer sacrifice to the Emperor in the opening centuries of the Church. Or of the overturning through the centuries of Christian authorities who had lost their legitimacy to rule.
- Today, think of the whistleblowers and journalists who in the service of Truth suffer great consequences for calling governments to account by revealing corruption.
We submit to every earthly authority to the extent that they fulfil the God given intention of ruling authority – we pay our taxes! we honour the offices of leadership and those who hold them, praying for them, as we will soon. And we do not submit to but call to account every action contrary to the law of God – it is in fact the duty of love of our neighbour not to submit to laws that are unjust, and to take steps to affect change, whether by our vote, in democratic societies, or in more costly ways, by being ready to be persecuted or going to jail or worse...
The Epiphany of God in today’s Gospel and Epistle is this:
First, there is no circumstance that can happen to us that is somehow outside of God’s providential care of us. Jesus is God in the flesh, the one to whom we may turn to for help. Whatever the cause of the storm within us – whether because of a circumstance in the natural world; or because of evil in our midst; or in the realm of the political – there is nothing that is somehow beyond the power or providential care of God. He will give us courage to face it, and calm in our souls in the midst of these storms.
Second, our readings could hardly be more clear – God will not take away every outward storm in our lives. God, in full knowledge, has set us, “in the midst of so many and great dangers”. [from the Collect for Epiphany 4] God allows natural disasters, God allows the realm of evil in our midst, God allows governments to become corrupt. We’re not to be surprised by any of these things when they happen. And we are to be vigilant in the midst of our lives, not living in some fantasy world of our own making that if I am faithful nothing ill will happen to me. Remember Job’s suffering! Remember the suffering of the faithful throughout the Scriptures! Remember the Passion and death of the most faithful man ever, Jesus Christ!
In our baptism service [Book of Common Prayer, p. 264], there is a beautiful prayer to God that includes this petition:
that we may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity [in love], [we] may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally [we] may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with [you] world without end, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Believers, we are sailing through life’s storms, together in the Church, and with Christ. By our faith, by our Baptism, Jesus is in our hearts, in the stern of the ship, the place of guidance, in our soul. He is always there, ready to calm us, to steer us right, to strengthen us and protect our hearts in the midst of all the dangers and temptations of this world… if we should ask. Let us return to Him inwardly, continually, and quickly, when trouble arises.
Tonight Jesus promises to calm all our storms. As we receive Him afresh in the Holy Communion, let us ponder His presence within us, and give thanks and adore Him who can bring inwardly, whatever the outward storm, the peace that passes all understanding.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2