Storms Happen

Philippians 4:7

Let me repeat my dependence upon and give credit to Gordon MacDonald’s excellent little book, The Life God Blesses in this series of sermons. I will be drawing on many of his ideas and some of his wording as I try to communicate what I found in his book that has profoundly challenged my life, and I hope will be a blessing to yours.

Not being a man of the sea, and never having sailed on a sailboat, I know little of keels and rudders and weight distributions above and below the waterline. What I do know is that the sea is never taken for granted by experienced sailors, even in the best sailing craft. And that, out on the sea, one always assumes that storms can and will happen – and the worst along with them.

And storms happen in our lives. We would prefer to ignore that fact and avoid them. Somewhere in the last thirty years, we as a society have convinced ourselves that life should and can be lived without pain, without struggle, without inconvenience.

But most of us here this morning, realize all too well, that’s not possible. Storms happen – to all of us. And when storms happen, we learn more about what’s below the waterline of our own existence than we could have learned in any other way. Perhaps with one exception. We may learn just as much, if not more, when this boat that symbolizes our being is put into dry dock and fully exposed above and below the waterline.

Sub-waterline issues seem so unimportant when the seas are calm and the winds are favorable. It’s only when the storms hit and something catastrophic happens that we are likely to ask a different set of questions – questions that have to do with what is going on beneath the surface, questions that make us dig deep into our soul to answer.

Many ancient mapmakers indicated unexplored territory with drawings of threatening dragons and the words ne plus ultra, meaning “nothing beyond.” And I suspect that is how many of us view that inner space of our lives that we call our soul.

As I said last week, the soul (or heart or spirit) describes that part of every human being that cannot be physically located or measured. That area of the soul – this inner space – is as infinite in size as we perceive outer space to be. If we measure outer space in terms of light-years, we may measure the size of the soul in terms of eternity, a timeless measurement that understandably baffles the mind.

And while that inner space, in many ways, defies our understanding, it is not beyond our learning to feel comfortable and at home in that realm.

When God was forming his people, they needed to be reminded of who they were. Those 400 years in Egyptian slavery had slowly but surely erased the memories of the God of Abraham, their spiritual father. When God sent Moses back to Egypt to deliver his people, he prepared him and equipped him, not just to convince Pharaoh but to convince the Hebrews as well. Even Moses was concerned that they wouldn’t know who he was talking about: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I say to them?’” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3:13-14)

When Moses brought them out of Egypt, one of the first things God did was have them construct a tabernacle that would always be located in the center of their community. And the center of the elaborately designed tent was a place called the Holy of Holies. God’s presence and his glory were said to be there.

And many have suggested that this sacred place among the people was intended to be an object lesson to point people toward that sacred space within them where God is in residence.

No one understood the inner depths of a person better than Jesus. He came in a time and among a people who seem to have become content with a lifestyle that put form and appearance over substance. What enraged his critics from the very beginning was his insistence that everything in life ultimately comes back to matters of the soul.

John wrote, “He knew what was in a man.” And that must have been maddening to men who had spent their lives decorating their outer lives with the ornaments of religiosity, power and wealth. I mean, how do you respond to a person who cares nothing about how much you know concerning the Law and the Prophets, how well connected you are to the Temple infrastructure, how many prayers you pray in a day’s time, and how many pilgrimages you’ve made? What defense do you put up when someone looks into the center of your soul and causes you to face up to the evil and sin that reside within?

Centuries earlier, King Ahaz was a man who lived his life soul-lessly until he suddenly realized the storm was upon him. Assyria was about to bring their military power crashing upon him, political waves were pounding over his life, his economy was sinking. Isaiah wrote, Ahaz was “moved as the trees of the woods are moved with the wind.” (Isa 7:2)

And then Isaiah writes, The LORD spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people. He said: “Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread…” (Isa 8:11-13)

Because Ahaz only looked at life above the waterline, he feared the wrong storm. He could see disaster rising up to swallow him, and he shook with dread. But he was completely oblivious to where the real dangers lay – ignoring and rejecting God would bring worse calamities than he could even imagine.

Jesus told a story about a similar kind of man, and though it is told as a parable, it has a familiar ring of reality to it: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

Here was a man who spent all of life concerned with “above the waterline” issues. He had been successful in all of his endeavors: a successful farmer, a successful building project, a bright future in retirement. What else could he have wanted in life? Well, a relationship with God. In fact, ignoring that one “below the waterline” necessity of life put everything else in peril.

Having a deeper relationship with God, living out of the soul, doesn’t eliminate the storms in life, but it puts them in perspective. Think about the time Jesus and his disciples were out in the boat on the Sea of Galilee and they were overtaken by a storm of life-threatening proportions. There is something profoundly instructive in the fact that Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat while the disciples – many of them experienced fishermen – were beside themselves with fear in the bow. And when they concluded that things were out of control, they crawled (what else would you do when your boat is pitching in 20 foot waves) to where Jesus was and shouted out one question: “Don’t you care if we drown?”

At that moment, I suspect their concern was more practical than miracle oriented. The boat is about to capsize and they’re taking on water, and what they are really saying is, “We’re all about to drown. How can you sleep through this when we need all the help we can get? Wake up and help us row or bail water or something!”

It must have been a bit unnerving to them to feel so threatened, only to look back and find Jesus oblivious to everything that was happening. Thus their question.

When Jesus awakens, he stands up and says, “Peace, be still!” and instantly the storm ceases, the water is calm and the sky is clear. And then Jesus asks them a question: “Where is your faith?”

In other words, we know what’s above the waterline in their lives – fear. But what’s below? Apparently very little. That’s the virtue of storms: they force open the doors of the soul and show us what’s there.

The time to prepare for the storm is before the clouds gather. When the storm is upon you, you are at its mercy, there is no time to make ready. The storm reveals what is already in place. The depth of preparation you have made below the waterline will be the difference in whether you panic in desperate fear, or sleep peacefully knowing that God is in control.

The time to prepare for a storm is now. I made a decision a long time ago, that regardless of what came my way, I would be faithful to Christ and trust that he will take care of me. And that means in everything. I may face terrible loss and unimaginable pain in my future. I won’t be able to predict or control them, but I can decide my response. And the time to make that kind of decision is before they arrive.

I pray that God will give me the courage and faith to keep my eyes focused on him when the storm rages around me. And that means I need to spend time now attending to my life below the waterline. To feed and nourish my soul and let its roots grow deep into the soil of God’s love. I need to spend time with him developing that relationship that will sustain me when nothing else can. I need to be on a first name basis, immersed in his word, comfortable in his presence.

The life God blesses is one in which there is peace and confidence below the waterline. Where it is truly well with my soul. It is in that realm of the soul where we have the capacity to experience what Paul calls “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Eph 1:3)

One of those spiritual blessings is what Paul called a peace that passes all understanding. He says that it guards our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:7)

I heard of two artists who were asked to illustrate peace. Each was assigned the task of depicting a peaceful scene on canvas.

The first artist painted a beautiful picture of a countryside on a warm, spring day. A soft sun illumines green grass and bathes a picturesque farm-house and grazing cattle in its warmth. A farmer walks contentedly behind strong plow horses preparing his field for spring planting. The picture is one of beauty and quiet tranquility.

The other artist took a different approach. She painted a majestic, rugged cliff. Gnarled trees, twisted by years of violent winds, jut from the craggy mountainside. Dark clouds hang low and fierce while jagged streaks of lightening slash across an angry sky. The picture is one of violence, chaos and rage.

But as one looks closely, something else becomes visible. There in one of the crevices of the rocky mountain, tucked back just out of reach of the wind and rain -- a nest with two small birds. Apparently unconcerned about the impending storm, they appear calm, cozy and peaceful as they patiently wait for the turbulence to pass.

And isn't that the way it so often is? We may want to be surrounded by peace, but storms rage. Problems and pressures without threaten to steal peace of mind within.

Inner peace doesn't leave when circumstances change. It's a peace that is greater than the problems of life, built on the assurance that following the storm we will be stronger because of it, and in the meantime, we will not endure it alone. It's the result of a peace that passes understanding. For serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amidst the storm.