On 13th July 2014, Sea Sunday, the following sermon was preached in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The sermon was based on a sermon outline from the Sea Sunday website. The readings were Psalm 139:1-18, Jonah 1, Mark 4:35-41.
The sea has different moods, sometimes beautiful, sometimes fierce and stormy. Sailors from ancient times have risked their lives to use the sea as a means of trading and transport. The sailors on the boat Jonah took to Tarshish feared for their lives as a storm blew up, just as the disciples did on the Sea of Galilee. Both groups of sailors were saved. Seafarers today face physical storms and also challenges in relationships, health and so on. The work of the Mission to Seafarers is practical and helps seafarers to know that they are not forgotten. As we face storms in life, we too are never abandoned by God.
When I was a child it was a special treat to go for a day to the coast. I really loved the scents, the sounds and the sights. I particularly loved watching the waves come in, listening to the sound as they broke on the shore and then the different sound as each wave retreated before the next wave came. I remember particularly a holiday in France when my family and I walked on the beach at sunset with the gentle sounds of the waves making a wonderful peaceful atmosphere.
However, that is only one aspect of the sea. Anyone who has watched the sea at stormy times is faced with a fearsome monster of immense power. The waves rise high and crash over buildings and sea defences. Even concrete and steel reinforcements are not necessarily able to withstand such power.
It’s not difficult to understand why people in the ancient world associated water with chaos. Storms could blow up from nowhere turning placid water into a boiling cauldron. The sheer unpredictability must have made the sea seem even more dangerous. From ancient times, nevertheless, boats have travelled from place to place carrying goods for trade and transporting people. Sailors risked their lives every time they set out on a voyage.
The story of Jonah gives a typical picture of the terror of a storm for one group of sailors. A great storm blew up and was so fierce that there was a risk the ship would be broken up with the loss of all on board. The sailors did all that they could to avert disaster. They threw the cargo away to lighten the boat and each pleaded with their own god to rescue them. The only person apparently unconcerned was Jonah who was fast asleep until the captain woke him and urged him to also pray. Jonah didn’t need to pray though; he seemed to know that in running from God by taking this ship, it was he who had precipitated the storm and he knew how to solve the problem.
When Jonah was thrown overboard, the sea quietened. The sailors, who had known how foolish it was to disobey God, were overawed when the storm ceased. They recognised the power of this God of Jonah, the one who ‘made the sea and the dry land’ and was therefore Lord of both. They responded by worshipping the Lord and making vows to him. Similarly, when the disciples witnessed Jesus stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee, they too were in awe. Having been terrified of the storm, they found themselves terrified of Jesus, asking ‘Who is this?’ Even though they asked, it seems to me they knew, like the sailors on Jonah’s ship, that they were in the presence of God.
Boats in those days were small and very vulnerable in storms. Even today, with all our advanced technology, fishing boats can be sunk by storms. The large ships may be safer, but sailors are working on a moving surface and can suffer from accidents. Some sailors die and others are badly injured. Chaplains from the Mission to Seafarers, which is one of the organisations which cares for those who work at sea, can find themselves helping injured sailors to deal with the result of injury. One chaplain found himself helping two sailors who had each lost a leg in an accident.
The Mission to Seafarers performs other roles to support those working at sea who meet other kinds of storm in their lives. When the great typhoon hit the Philippines last year, it helped sailors who were worried about those at home to get information. Being present in 260 ports around the world, the MtS can offer welcome, a place to relax in one of the Mission centres, opportunity to talk to the chaplains, to share worries about issues at home or on board ship, to use the internet to contact family and so on. Sometimes a company goes bankrupt leaving seafarers stranded with no money in a foreign country. Without support such as from MtS they would have no way to find food or water or make their way home. It’s hard to avoid seeing in the news about the rise of piracy. For seafarers in some parts of the world this is an ever present threat. If seafarers do find themselves kidnapped by pirates they need all the help they can get, including from organisations like MtS.
Of course, we are told that the whole reason there was a storm in the book of Jonah was because God had sent Jonah on a mission and he didn’t want to go. It seems it wasn’t so much fear or inconvenience that put Jonah off, but being sent to the people of Nineveh. These were people who worshipped gods other than the God of Israel. Jonah would have preferred God to condemn the people and was hugely disappointed when God forgave them because they repented of their unbelief. It was all too easy for the people of Israel, the chosen people, to forget why they were chosen. God stated that the purpose of their being blessed was so that they in turn could be a blessing to others.
It’s just as easy for us as Christians to forget that we are also called to bless others, whatever their faith or lack of it. We are to emulate God in showing love to all. This is something the Mission to Seafarers does in its work around the world. It works with seafarers and their families from diverse languages, cultures and faiths. It is through the actions of its workers that people can meet Christ and learn of God’s unconditional love for all his children.
We may find it rather amusing to learn how Jonah tried to escape God’s call to him by getting on a boat. It might be pretty obvious to us that heading to Tarshish was not going to be enough to escape from God. As the Psalmist says: If I travel to the limits of the east, or dwell at the bounds of the western sea, even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast.
For Jonah there was little comfort in the message that God was everywhere. He most certainly did want to find a place where God could not catch up with him. God, however, was determined that the call to Jonah would be carried out and the people of Nineveh would hear his word.
Many people are like Jonah and try to escape God. They may not board a ship but they may throw themselves into other activities in an attempt to drown out God’s voice. If God can use a storm and a big fish to bring Jonah back to the task he was given, God can certainly find ways to reach anyone.
On the other hand, the knowledge that God is everywhere can be a great comfort. For seafarers facing the various storms, whether physical or otherwise, that are part of their work, the world can be a lonely place. Being reminded of God’s presence, love and care, can make a huge difference.
For each of us likewise, as we find ourselves tossed about and injured by the winds and waves of life, knowing God is always present, whether we can sense him or not, can be a great comfort. The Welsh poet RS Thomas wrote a wonderful poem called ‘The Other’ that affirms God’s constant loving presence:
There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.