Many years ago, when I was living in Taiwan, a typhoon struck the island. Now, a typhoon is simply a different word for a hurricane, so these two words describe the same type of storm. Taiwan is a subtropical island, so having a typhoon come was not a great thing, but not completely unexpected, either. The apartment I was living in was on the fourth floor, so I made sure windows were closed and I sat inside to wait out the storm. But then, I discovered that, even though the windows were closed, the wind was slamming the heavy rain up so hard against the building that the water was pouring in the cracks. This is when I started to be afraid. This time I made sure the windows were locked as well as closed. I ran to the kitchen and got paper towels and stuffed them around the cracks. I moved furniture and my other possessions away from the windows. And, I ended up sleeping on the couch in the living room that night, where there were no windows. And I prayed that whatever water managed to make it into the apartment would not be enough to flood it, because I honestly wasn’t sure who to call if that happened or where I would go.
The next morning when I woke up, the rain had largely passed over us, although the wind was still blowing. My apartment hadn’t flooded. Bleary-eyed because I had not slept very well, I stumbled to the bathroom, only to be shocked wide awake by an earthquake. Have I mentioned that Taiwan is an island that is formed by tectonic plates rubbing together? And that, since those plates still rub together, earthquakes are a frequent occurrence? Thankfully, it was a short tremor with no damage. But between that and the typhoon, I was looking up to heaven and saying, “OK, God, what do you want from me?”
From ancient times, storms have frightened us. Until recent times and scientific discoveries, we haven’t known why storms happen. Storms are something we have no control over, and at a fundamental level of our being, we don’t like not having control over things. Storms can do great damage: as I mentioned, they can flood our homes and damage our possessions. Great amounts of snow can block entrances to our homes and cause roads to be dangerous, so that we can’t get out and get supplies that we need. Tornados can destroy our homes with little warning. And storms of all kinds can cause us injury and they can cause us to die. It is little wonder, then, that ancient peoples assigned gods who were in control of thunder and lightning: Thor among the Scandinavians, Zeus among the Greeks, and Baal among the Canaanites. If there was someone in control of the thunder and lightning, people reasoned, then those gods could be appeased by sacrifices and prayers. Then people would feel like they did have some small amount of control over the uncontrollable weather.
Our lesson from Job and our Psalm today testify that God, the one whom the Israelites named YHWH, is the one who is Lord over all of the earth, including the weather. And our Gospel today asks us a question: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” The disciples had been following Jesus around for a little while up until this point. They had seen him do all sorts of healing miracles and exorcisms, and they had heard his teaching, but there were many rabbis at that time who did that sort of thing. When the disciples woke Jesus up during the windstorm, they weren’t expecting him to make the storm cease. They were expecting him to help keep the boat afloat, hoping that they’d make it to the shore in one piece. When Jesus instead stood up and commanded the waves and the wind to cease, and they obeyed, that’s when the disciples started getting an inkling that this was no ordinary rabbi. Good Jewish people knew that only YHWH could do what Jesus just did. So, his disciples are left to wrestle with the question of who Jesus is and what his relationship to God is.
We wrestle with the question of who Jesus is, too, even today. The storms on our planet are getting worse. Super typhoons and hurricanes are a more common experience, wreaking ever more damage. Monster rainstorms, such as in West Virginia earlier this year and in Louisiana just several weeks ago, are also causing damage. Last winter, the East Coast had several snowstorms that they had to dig themselves out of and cancel church because of, and even while we here in Wyoming laughed at them, we had an unusually mild winter and a distinct lack of snow. The global climate is changing, and the scientific evidence says that we humans are largely to blame for it. We who believe that Jesus is present with us in these hard times often wonder if, like that day on the Sea of Galilee long ago, Jesus is actually asleep on the boat with us while we are perishing. And we wonder if he really cares if we die.
And so, because we don’t want to admit to our role in changing the climate, we look to find ways to blame God for these storms and other changes. Well, after all, if God is the one who controls the storms, then God must be angry with us when massive storms come our way. And so we have people blaming massive storms on certain moral sins of society—which is all well and good until those storms start affecting the people who are supposedly “sinless”. This happened just recently with the storms in Louisiana. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, stated a year ago that devastating hurricanes were a sign of God’s wrath against same-sex marriage and abortion. Then, this year, it was his home in Louisiana that was flooded by the epic rains that happened in August. In order to explain this, he now says that floods such as these are sent as “an incredible, encouraging spiritual exercise meant to take you to the next level” in your walk with God. So, which is it? Are these storms the wrath of God? Or are they a “spiritual exercise”?
The truth is that we simply don’t know why storms are sent in the way that they are. If God sends them as punishment, then what are they punishment for? And what does that say about a God who loves us and forgives us if he would still punish us for things and not tell us why? If, on the other hand, these superstorms are caused by the things that we do here on earth, then does that mean that God is, in fact, not in control of the weather and earth as we believe that he is? What does it mean if God does not, like Jesus did on that long ago day, say to the wind and the raging waves, “Cease! Be still!”? Finally, we have to simply say with the Apostle Paul in our reading from 1 Corinthians today that, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” In other words, the answer to these uncomfortable questions is, “We don’t know.” For if we pretend that we know the answers to these questions, then we claim that we know the mind of God, and we put ourselves into the place of God, and that is never a good thing to do.
What we should do is to latch on to the smaller things that we can recognize about God. And one of those things is that, in the midst of these frightening weather events, God can bring good out of the storm. In your bulletins, there is an insert giving information about many of the benefits that storms bring. Water is the first benefit, and, as the farmers around here especially know, the water needs to be in the right amount: too much, and crops get flooded; too little, and crops wither and die. But what I found fascinating about storms is the benefit that lightning brings: lightning, that scary thing that can kill you if it strikes you and can start massive fires in dry conditions, is needed to separate the nitrogen atoms in the air, so that they can combine with minerals in the soil and form nitrates that fertilize plants. This planet needs those scary storms in order to survive. Even when the storms that bear down on us are frightening, God brings good and needed things out of them.
Another thing that we can latch on to is that, throughout the storms in our lives, both the meteorological ones and the metaphorical ones, Jesus is with us. Yes, there are times when it may seem like he’s asleep in the boat. But we have been given the great privilege of being able to run to him and say, “Jesus! Wake up and help us!” And, if you notice, even when Jesus is thoroughly annoyed about being woken up and chides the disciples for their lack of faith, he still answers their pleas. But, he does it in an unexpected way, revealing himself to be the Son of God in the process. Just so, Jesus often answers our pleas for help in unexpected ways, and each time asks us to trust in him and to confess that he is, indeed, the Lord of our lives.
The times we live in are very stormy ones, both literally and figuratively. Our climate is changing, and the physical storms that are coming our way are stronger and more frightening. We are overwhelmed because we don’t know what to do to change the systems that are in place so as to stop climate change, and some scientists are starting to say that it may be too late to stop it. We may now have to ask ourselves what the best ways are to help one another through these storms. The metaphorical storms in our lives are just as frightening—from dealing with illness in our loved ones to politics, both local and national, to issues in our society that just seem overwhelming to us. It seems that we cry out on a daily basis, “Master, master, we are perishing!” And yet, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus comes to us in the midst of the storm and brings peace, and brings the wisdom that will help to see us through. And so we can say with the Psalmist, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood. The Lord sits enthroned as king forever.” Amen.