Yr C ~ Creation 3 ~ Psalm 29; Luke 8:22-25
This is the third week in our Season of Creation. We began with exploring the ocean, then turned to addressing the animals, and now we’re going to think about storms. Today’s message is kind of in two parts as we delve into two aspects of what storms are, but I hope by the end the two will have come together to reveal some helpful things about God and our faith journey. We’ll start with the psalm.
The Book of Psalms is more or less the ancient Jewish hymn book which covers a fairly wide chronological time (but isn’t in chronological order) and their many themes speak to vastly different contexts and times. Psalm 29, which we’re beginning with today, was probably among the older ones and it’s suspected to have been written when the Israelites were a minority amid many other ethnicities and religions.
Many of the surrounding cultures were polytheistic, meaning they acknowledged and worshipped many different gods within their own tradition – things like fertility gods, and gods of the harvest. The Canaanite god Ba’al was known as many things but one of the prime metaphors was that Ba’al was the “storm god.” Ba’al was pretty much the biggest thing going in that region.
Now imagine you are an ancient Jew and you have this unique insight that there is actually only one god, and of course this god happens to be yours! Convenient! Anyway, the suggestion is that Psalm 29 was probably written as a way to express that the Jewish God (YHWH) was the one and only god, and therefore was supreme. Yes, it’s a little bit of “our God is better than your god.” That sentiment continues to this day with “our steeple is taller than your steeple!”
If you were going to write a hymn about God’s supremacy what attribute or characteristic of God would you use?
We modern Christians, having the benefit of centuries of progress from the ancient times, would probably lift up God’s love. But way back then, in the midst of a struggle for identity and survival the psalmist chose to focus on God’s power.
Curiously, it isn’t God’s mighty right hand, or strong back, or any of the typical strength metaphors—it’s sound that gets written about. The NRSV translates it as God’s voice. The Message translates it as God’s thunder! The Hebrew word means ‘sound’, but it would seem strange to us to say “God’s sound does this—God’s sound moves that…” Whichever way you say it, God’s voice, God’s sound, or God’s thunder is some powerful!
I chose The Message translation for this psalm today because it contains one of the absolute best lines Eugene Peterson wrote in his whole translation of the bible. Psalm 29:4 in the NRSV goes like this:
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
Here it is in The Message:
God’s thunder tympanic. God’s thunder symphonic!
Powerful and majestic are great words, but when I hear that God’s voice is tympanic I’m instantly transported to a concert hall and I’m hearing a percussionist wailing on the tympani at the climax of a symphony. And then it follows with God’s thunder being symphonic, and I’m hearing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and I know exactly what kind of power the psalmist is talking about.
It’s great poetry! God’s thunder smashes cedars, makes mountain ranges get up and skip like spring colts, spits fire, shakes and quakes the wilderness, sets the oak trees dancing a wild dance, whirling.
What’s the purpose of this incredible display of power? What does it do to us or for us? The first thing is does is create awe. Psalm 29:9 “We fall to our knees – we call out, ‘Glory!’” God’s thunder is awesome. God’s thunder is awe-full. The word awful these days means distasteful or unpleasant, but its true meaning is to be so full of awe that it utterly overwhelms and incapacitates us.
So the first thing God’s thunder/voice/sound does is induce awe, and the second thing it does is empower us! Unlike the rulers of this world who horde their power for themselves God’s very nature is to empower. The psalm ends like this – verse 11:
“God makes his people strong. God gives his people peace.”
I’d like to suggest to you that this word thunder, or voice, or sound is actually a wonderfully poetic way to talk about the awesome (awe-full) presence of God. All through the bible whenever someone interacts with God’s presence in whatever form it takes – burning bush, pillar of fire, cloud, voice (either big and strong or still and small), wind, storm, thunder – when someone encounters God’s Sacred Presence that person is both reduced to a little puddle of goo and also wonderfully empowered and inspired and is moved to face their challenges in a renewed way.
Moses and the burning bush—it frightens and humbles him, and the next thing he knows he’s leading people out of slavery.
Mary and the angel—it frightens and unnerves her, and the next thing she knows she’s facing a “shameful” pregnancy with courage and trust.
The disciples at Pentecost—huddled together afraid in an upper room when (listen to this carefully, it’s so good) “suddenly from heaven there came a SOUND like the rush of a violent wind (a sound like a storm), and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) And the next thing they knew those timid disciples were out planting the Christian church far and wide.
The sound of God, the voice of God, the presence of God, God’s thunder—call it whatever you like, but when it comes it brings awe and it brings empowerment. This Season of Creation that we’re in brings interesting things to light. Last week we had terrible beauty, this week we get awe-full empowerment. Sounds like God!
So with that thunder ringing in our ears let’s turn our attention to Luke’s gospel. At first we might be tempted to think that the thunder and storm of Psalm 29 is the same storm that appears in Luke 8. It isn’t—well, not exactly. It’s a different aspect of the storm metaphor. In Luke’s case I think the storm is referring to what we’d call the storms of life. You know, that stuff that comes up and threatens to knock you off course or hurt you. We’ve all weathered storms before. Maybe you’re in one now! Maybe it feels like it’s going to capsize your boat. Where’s God in those kinds of storms? Let’s look!
I’m always encouraging you to look beyond the literal events in these stories and find the deeper meanings. Today’s no different. I’d even go so far to characterize this passage as a parable—a story designed to teach us something by having a surprising twist in it that bakes our brains! It looks like a miracle story—Jesus controlling nature and calming a storm. I see it as a parable—Jesus knocking his disciples on their butts because they couldn’t see a spiritual truth.
Here are some things to notice:
Jesus and his disciples are on a journey leaving one place behind and going to a new place. Crossing the lake is a metaphor for change.
Jesus is in the boat with them – he didn’t abandon them, or send them out on their own, he’s right there in the boat with them on the journey of transformation.
Jesus is asleep! If the story is literal this makes no sense. How is the most aware man ever unaware of a dangerous storm? But if it’s a metaphor what might it mean? If it’s a parable of our transformational journey what does Jesus sleeping represent?
How about those times when we’re travelling along in faith but we forget to name the Sacred? It’s not Jesus who’s asleep—it’s us! It’s our awareness that’s asleep.
In the parable a storm comes upon them suddenly. Again, I think it’s a metaphor. I think the storm is a conflict among the disciples. Believe it or not, people of faith sometimes get into disagreements about their religious understandings! 😉
The storm, or conflict, or argument, comes when Jesus is “asleep” – he’s off their radar, on the back burner, along for the ride but not being invited in on the navigation. Then when things go bad the disciples panic and call on Jesus for help. “Jesus, we’re sinking, help us!”
What happens when Jesus is awakened? He essentially tells the storm to shut up. In other words, he puts an end to the argument, and chastises the disciples for forgetting to keep Spirit at the centre of their journey. What happens when our Sacred awareness is awakened? It is instantly brought to bear on our situation and a sense of calm or peace emerges.
Ok, here’s where we need to be careful. We can’t be too quick to draw a conclusion here. Let’s be clear: the disciples’ problem wasn’t that there was a conflict, a storm.
There will always be storms.
Life is full of storms.
They come in all shapes and sizes and they can feel like they’re going to fill your boat with water and sink you.
Being with Jesus doesn’t stop the storms from coming.
And even more importantly, calling on Jesus doesn’t magically sweep your storms away. I know it reads that way in this parable but that is not what it means. Jesus is not a magician, and faith is not a ‘get out of life free’ card. There are going to be storms. They will threaten to overwhelm you.
What Jesus does is speak peace to the heart of the storm and remove the terror of feeling like you’re sinking. When your sleeping Sacred awareness awakens the Spirit blows in (or out) and calmness and trust replace panic and worry.
Now, how might the whole scene have played out if they had called on Jesus or drawn on their Sacred awareness the moment the storm started to form? Or what if they had kept Jesus in conversation the whole time and they saw the storm forming with him?
The storm would still have come. Disciples still argue and disagree from time to time. What would be different is as the storm loomed they could rely on their spiritual awareness and power to address the storm head on. Lots of people survive actual massive storms because they know it’s coming and they prepare adequately.
Look, metaphors have their limits. If we push this storm image too far we’re going to be tempted to make some conclusions that are untrue and unwise. My metaphor works if we’re talking about conflict, or things that upset us that we can call a storm of life. But what about the hurricanes? What about catastrophic illness, or a devastating relationship failure?
First, let me say that Jesus does not tell cancer to be quiet and it all goes away. Jesus says
“Let me travel in the boat with you.
Let’s make this journey of transformation together.
And the more you stay in conversation with me the more strength and courage and hope you’ll have as the storms form.
And as we sail through the storm we’ll get buffeted around and waves will crash over the side and soak us,
but we won’t lose our way,
and we won’t lose our heads,
and we’ll sail the boat together.
You are not alone.”
And when the disciples came to their senses after the storm was silenced and they remembered Jesus’ teaching and realized how right he was that if they’d have turned to him sooner, or better yet never turned away, that the storm would have been quieted much sooner.
And “they were in absolute awe, staggered and stammering, ‘Who is this, anyway? He calls out to the winds and sea, and they do what he tells them! (He speaks peace to the storm and the storm subsides. He tells us that the power of God is in the midst of the storm yearning for us to embrace it and face the storm with courage and trust. Who is this guy? And why on earth did we let him fall asleep?’)”
Here’s a take away for you: God is not the cause of our storms; but God is in the midst of them, offering power and blessing and peace. When the disciples awakened to the Sacred Presence in the boat with them in the midst of the storm they experienced two things: awe and empowerment. That’s what God’s presence brings.
As you journey through life and the storms arise, remember that God’s Sacred Presence is in the boat with you.
You are not alone.
There is an awe-full empowerment waiting for you to awaken to – not to sweep your storm away, but to face it with you. God’s thunder and presence is more powerful than any storm.
Awaken to God’s terrible beauty and God’s awe-full empowerment – and sail on into the wind.