Job encountered the Lord in a ‘whirlwind.’ ( Job 38:1-2) Before us the world and all within it can seem but chaos, like a whirlwind. Ours is a call to encounter the Lord there, too. ‘In the beginning … the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.’ (Genesis 1:1-2) God parts the waters of chaos to create a space where life may be lived, a place of order with no more chaos. We must find our way to that place, that we may live. ‘The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’ (Genesis 6:5) We are always at the beginning, for chaos is always still with us, and over which the Spirit still hovers — as potential, in that place; the chaos always needs to be parted, or to be parted once more. The beginning is not just something there at the start; new beginnings are always having to be made. Much of the chaos results from what we do, and it threatens to overwhelm and flood that tranquil place that God opens up for us; The Flood, too, is something not back there then, but is always there threatening: ‘For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away’ (Matthew 24:37-39) — we are still eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, … and still (wilfully?) unaware.
At times the chaos we create is so great that it promises to wipe out all of life: ‘Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.’ (Psalms 69:1) ‘but Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.’ (Genesis 6:8) The good person, though, is precious in God’s sight: ‘From oppression and violence he redeems their life’ (Psalm 72:14. C.f.: 116:15) — and it is out of oppression and violence, out of what we do to one another, that we most often need to be saved. In some senses, as the chaos gathers and threatens, we are all called to go with Noah into the ark, that raft that is the righteous life, there to rise above the tsunami that is coming. Chaos does threaten, even the good. In our boat those with us (and even we ourselves — we each of us, like Pi in The Life of Pi, bring along our own tiger (Genesis 4:6) can, and do, do some ‘not nice’ things — this can sink us, bring us to our end; much chaos results from what we do, and none are exempt: ‘And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.’ (Mark 4:37) When we would take fright (Matthew 14:30), the Lord gently chides us: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40) We must learn to sit there before/on/in the chaotic whirlpool that is this world, though it swirls all around threatening to engulf, we must learn to be at home there with him till he shows us how to walk across these raging waters. (Mark 6:48) We must be willing to sit there amid the turmoil without taking fright, though we be afraid, though we wonder: “How is it possible to live here?” (C.f.: Mark 4:38) And we must wait for the Lord to open a way through the waters and beckon to us, “Come.” (Matthew 14:28) And then … we, too, will need to find the courage to get out of the boat (that place where we have managed, though only with much toil, to ride the chaos and stay afloat (Mark 6:47-48; 4:37), and walk on the waters and be at home with him there. (Matthew 14:28) We, too, need to discover that God is in the chaos, that Incarnation is about God-with-us now … in our chaos (and nothing was more chaotic than Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, when the path of destruction traced out by the tornado went out all the way up the Mount of Calvary); we need to go on into the chaos to find there that place of peace where life is possible, where encounter with God is possible. (C.f.: Genesis 3:8) ‘He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified.’ (Mark 6:48-49) We need to master our fear (C.f.: Genesis 4:7), lest it overwhelm, lest we cannot see and cannot not hear … and miss the encounter. (C.f.: Mark 4:11-12)
“Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff over the sea and divide it, that the people may go through the sea on dry ground.” … Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.’ (Exodus 14:15, 21) Before the chaos we are not exactly powerless; there is something we can do: instead of cowering before it, we can go forward … on into the chaos (which takes lots of courage, but what real alternative is there), there to find the way opening before us; this is something we can do only through prayer and faith: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40) “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28) We are called to walk on into/across the chaos, there to find that — wonderfully — there is solid ground beneath our feet: “Come!” (Matthew 14:29) Only amid the chaos will we find the opening that permits life to continue, though chaos rage all around, to find a way opening through it that lets us see how we might live despite it. And if we care to ponder on the marvel of it all, we will ‘see’ God’s hand at work: “You cannot see my face, for a person shall not see me and live. Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:20-23) ‘And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.’ (1Kings 19:12) The chaos rages all about, and we are not spared being afraid … perhaps even for our lives — so much so that our prayer becomes: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) ‘And after the fire, the sound of a low whisper’ (1 Kings 19:12): “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.’ (Mark 4:39) That we can and do go on without being destroyed by it, is … amazing, a wonder to behold. (Mark 6:51) ‘And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.’ (Exodus 14:22) And they were filled with great fear, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41) In the peace, in the sheer silence of the calm, God is to be seen at work in our midst. ‘And their eyes were opened, and they recognised him, though he had vanished from their sight.’ (Luke 24:31)
‘While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognising him’ (Luke 24:15-16); ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.’ (Matthew 18:20) That we do not see him plainly is but God’s ‘hand covering us,’ for we ‘cannot see him and live,’ as Scripture has it. (Exodus 33:20) ‘He meant to pass by them’ (Mark 6:48), as God’s glory ‘passed by’ Moses on the mountain (Exodus 33:22), but it is a hidden thing only for those who have eyes to see. (Mark 4:12) “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road, when he opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) It’s not that we cannot perceive him and know him: “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7) Rather, in this hidden form he is easily overlooked, ignored even. (Matthew 28:17) We may note that our heart is ‘strangely warmed,’ as John Wesley noted, but it is all so easy to put it aside/turn away/ shrug it off and go on … to forget. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 7:10) Instead, we need to ‘turn aside to see this great thing,’ there to discover that we are ‘standing on holy ground’ (Exodus 3:3, 5); we need to ‘ponder it in our hearts’ (Luke 2:19) till the chaos parts and our eyes begin to see. (Luke 24:31. C.f.: Mark 4:13)
When doubts arise in our hearts, chaos again begins to fill our world. ‘But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:30-31) We can let the chaos overwhelm, or we can do as Peter did and pray, “Lord, save me.” Doubts are not necessarily a bad thing; often they are but an invitation to deepen our faith and so arrive at a new and better vision in a world once more made new in the calm. (Isaiah 65:17ff ) But, in the time when doubts assail, the ground (seemingly solid) beneath our feet turns to water. As someone once put it: ‘Act as if you have faith and it will be granted to you. 'However, when doubts do arise the faith we have may well be only a faith that has a desperate edge: “Save me, O God! For the waters have risen to my neck” (Psalm 69:1); the hand held out may be no more than the faith we had, though now edged with only a desperate hope — when all else fails, what else have we to cling to? This is the meaning of the words in the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘if we keep the grasp of our first confidence firm to the end’ (Hebrews 3:14); or as Isaiah has it: ‘Whoever walks in darkness and has no light shining for him, let him trust in the name of YHWH, let him lean on his God.’ (Isaiah 50:10) We live in dark times, and we are not immune to the darkness of our times. Doubts do arise, and it may even be fashionable to entertain them. But what is the alternative: to live in a dark world? Storms do blow, and they do whip up huge waves that threaten to engulf and overwhelm … such times are times when we must just trust; a hard ask. (Job 1:13ff) ‘By his word he raised up a storm-wind, lashing up towering waves up to the sky and then down to the depths! Their stomachs were turned to water; they staggered and reeled like drunkards and all their skill went under’ (Psalm 107:27) , ‘while they say to me all the day long: “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3) We cannot know why such storms rage, but they do. Like Job, all we can do is sit before the whirlwind and know God is in it — the God who made me and willed that I be, the God who so loves me that he gave his Son (John 3:16) … and around whom, too, the storm clouds did gather and break over his head! But God raised him up; such is my hope, the hand held out in times of distress. This makes of Job, with his ‘resurrection’/rehabilitation, a figure/type of Christ, whose example we need to follow. Like him, in such times we need to just sit there with all our questions before the whirlwind, powerless: “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
‘Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Ah! You who would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!” So also, the chief priests and the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.’ (Mark 15:29-32) In times of anguish we can be so all alone. To those who us offer ‘comfort’ (C.f. Job 3:11ff ) (“Get over it,” they say. “Time to move on” — it can all only seem to mock), it does not much matter that they have as little faith as I have, nor that their world is not just as chaotic. The truth is that they use us: in having another whose situation seems more desperate, they can draw comfort by pointing to our lot: “Mine might be bad,” they tell themselves, “but at least I’m not as bad off as him!”… and so do they become part of/add to the chaos. This, though, is as close as they want to get to it: the truth is that they don’t want to have to think about it at all; they choose to remain ‘unaware’… and my distress only serves to remind; they want me to move on … for their sake. Still, hard times do beg the question: “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3) — and even from ourselves: “How could God let this happen … to me?” And this only adds to our distress and our sense of abandonment in our aloneness. But darkness does not mean there is no light. As a Jew once wrote in his own blood beneath a Star of David he had drawn on the walls of the cellar, where he was hiding in Nazi Germany: “I believe in the sun, even when it does not shine; I believe in love, even when it is not shown; I believe in God, even when he does not speak.” Darkness and hopelessness beg/ demand that we find/show forth hope: ‘Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.’ (Prayer for Peace; Prayer of St Francis) In the darkness, where there is no light, it may be that I am the only one who can ‘see’ it; it may be only me who can be the light (John 1:7-8) — after the example of John the Baptist: ‘John was a lamp alight and shining and for a time you were content to enjoy the light he gave.’ (John 5:35) The darkness of the chaos in our world demands we let our light shine — and it doesn’t matter that our light is so very small; a lit match on a very dark night can be seen from such a long way off! It will be as Wisdom has it: ‘At their time of visitation [when we are tested], they will shine out; as sparks run through the stubble, so will they.’ (Wisdom 3:7)
The rub is that all sorts will be drawn to our light … including those who ‘hate the light’ (John 3:19-20) — like Herod in the time of John the Baptist, of whom it is said: ‘Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.’ (Mark 6:20) This Herod, when it became expedient, beheaded John. (Mark 6:16) As with Jesus before us (John 13:16; 15:18-21), there will be those who will not thank us for the light we shine, though the darkness of the night be terrible. And they will work to extinguish our light and seal it in a tomb. (Matthew 27:66) At such times we can only pray as Jesus did: “Not my will, but yours, be done … Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 22:42; 23:46) This is not the time for us to put our lamp under a basket! (Mark 4:21) It will be as Wisdom promises: ‘The upright live for ever, their recompense is with the Lord, and the Most High takes care of them. So, they will receive the glorious crown and the diadem of beauty from the Lord’s hand; for he will shelter them with his right hand and with his arm he will shield them.’ (Wisdom 5:15-16) Amen!