Toorak Uniting Church

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God’s abundant presence

2 Samuel 11: 1 – 15     John 6: 1 – 21
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
26 July 2009

Let us start with the last sentence of the gospel reading of today and read this story back to front for a change:

"It is I" he said, "do not be afraid". Then they wanted to take him into the boat and immediately they reached the land.

For a moment disregarding all that has gone before in the passage we read this morning and concentrating on this sentence without worrying about the immediate context, a couple of things jump out (and again I’ll start from the end):

"And immediately they reached the land..." With Jesus on board the storm, the darkness, their fear, everything that was a moment before worrying them out of their minds, falls away: immediately there is firm ground under their feet instead of the very choppy and stroppy seas of Galilee, one step away from death. (hell was believed to be located immediately underneath the sea, an open connection, with monsters familiar with both realms ready to swallow anybody who dared to enter their realm).
If you were a first century Jew you would feel the relief of this closing sentence deep in your bones: they are back on dry land, safe, on solid ground, away from mortal danger.

And why is this? Because "It is I, do not be afraid" has come on board.

They have taken Jesus on board. That’s what. And suddenly all their troubles have vanished away. Wouldn’t you like that to happen? Wouldn’t we like that to happen? When we find ourselves on the choppy and stroppy seas of life? Both in Church and private life? For your troubles to vanish and to find yourself on land immediately?

If I were an evangelical preacher I would now tell you that if you only took Jesus on board it would happen, here and now, today. If you opened your heart and your heart to him all your troubles would vanish away. The storm, the darkness, your fear and you would find yourself on dry land, IF you took Jesus on board. If your troubles don’t vanish then, well, then you either haven’t taken Jesus on board enough or it is not his will that the storms in your life cease. Case closed.

Have you tried it? And did it work? I have and it didn’t. And I don’t believe it was a lack of faith or preparedness to trust. I believe it was simply because it isn’t as straight forward as that.
There is a whole story preceding that moment you see, where Jesus comes and they find themselves taken to land immediately.

At first instance they are terrified when they see Jesus coming. They don’t like it at all. Here they are, struggling with their boat, rowing against the storm, battling with the elements, completely absorbed and suddenly there is this apparition walking towards them across the water. Jeepers, creepers, as if they don’t have enough to cope with! They can do without something that is really hard for their minds to grasp. What they see is impossible. People don’t walk on water, the laws of nature won’t allow it. And even first century uneducated superstitious fishermen knew this. So they are either dealing with a figment of their freaked out imagination or they are moving into the half world between the here after and the here and now and Jesus is meeting them there, moving in and out of it with them. In other words: they are close to moving to the other side in a completely different sense than they intended and Jesus is meeting them while they are sailing into the realms of death. Being first century uneducated superstitious fishermen they would probably have assumed the last: They are in mortal danger, moving into the realms of death and Jesus is somehow there with them.

That’s why his appearance is no comfort at all at first! They think he has come to take them to the other side of death and this only intensifies their fear, because that is really the last place they want to be. They are dying and what else can Jesus be there for than to support them in the Spirit while it is happening?

So what changes their terror?

"It is I, don’t be afraid"

Remember Moses and the burning bush? Remember with what name God introduces himself? "It is I, don’t be afraid". Do you remember what happened after that? Life, not death, liberation, not repression, a journey to the other side that took Moses and his people out of Egypt on to a journey with God to the promised land.

"It’s not time to die yet, say these words, there is still a lot ahead of you...., liberation, life, a journey to the promised land. Don’t be afraid, I am is with you."

And it is those words which make a dent in the fear of the disciples, manage to help them take Jesus on board in a way that is helpful and life giving. Words that bring back an old and powerful story about life and resurrection, about the powers of death losing to the power of I am.

And suddenly we might realise that this story foreshadows the Easter story: Jesus doing what was thought impossible, walking across the choppy seas of death to the other side and bringing his disciples back to land in the presence of "I am", the same "I am" who led Moses and his people through the waters of death to the other side so long ago. The same God who feeds his people in the desert with manna, the same God in whose name Elisjah feeds the widow of Saraphat and a hundred people in his day.

There is more here than Moses or Elisjah or any of the other prophets. There is someone here who has not only come in the name of "I am" but who is one with "I am" in such a way we can’t tell the difference from a human perspective.

It is "I am" who once again feeds his people, not just a hundred this time, but five thousand. Not using 20 barley loaves, but only five barley loaves and two fishes. It is "I am" who once again saves his people and brings them to the other side of death, not walking on dry land between the threatening walls of death but leisurely walking on the seas of death and taking his people to land immediately.

If we read the stories like this, back to front, we see a miracle happen. Not the miracle of bread multiplied, that’s easy, it has happened before in the wilderness and has been done before by God’s prophets. Not the miracle of a man defying the laws of nature, even that has been done before, where Elisjah managed to make an iron axe head float. But the miracle of "I am" being generously present in this man Jesus, taking what the prophets were to a different level, overpowering the powers of death with the power of life and love, bringing his disciples to land after their terrifying struggle with the elements.

What the story tells us is that while the storm is raging and the darkness falls we may suddenly find "I am" heading for us, with whatever it is that frightens us out of our minds beneath his feet, ready to allay our fear. His advance heralding the victory of life over death, his presence generously offering the abundance of more than enough food for the journey, more than enough support to keep us afloat, more than enough power to take us across even the most choppy seas of life. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2009

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