THE WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT

Sermon delivered on the 9th Sunday after Trinity, the 13th August 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: 1 Kings 19: 9-18     Romans 10: 5-15     S. Matthew 14: 22-33

S. Matthew 14: 27 Immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

The Scriptures we have heard today, all in one way or another contain encouraging words, although, to be sure, divine encouragement is often followed by challenges of some degree of difficulty. The encouragement we receive may help us to surmount a difficulty that comes to challenge us, or on the other hand, the task we are encouraged to take up may itself be one of special challenge, and we see the divine encouragement with both these sorts of challenge displayed in the Scriptures assigned to us this morning.

The Lord Jesus encourages his fearful disciples in the boat, and even presents Peter with the special challenge that Peter himself actively seeks. We should recall that this was after Jesus had directed them into the boat in the first place and told them to take it to the other side of the lake, and when the adverse weather was giving them great difficulty in completing that instruction. But now we read that in the circumstances of their great fear, the word of Jesus first assures them that He is with them, and secondly challenges Peter to put his money where his mouth is and walk on the water to Him, since that is the challenge Peter asks Jesus to give him so as to prove Jesus' identity. In the Old Testament also we see the prophet Elijah being encouraged and directed in circumstances that have worn him down. St. Paul too in his epistle to the Romans encourages us with his classic affirmation that the word of the Lord is near to us, and accessible to us, and not remote and unreachable. When we have encouragement, we can rise to the difficulties that present themselves to us. It is my own experience, beginning many years ago, that the word of the Lord to us always in one way or another contains the message that we are to take courage.

In our Old Testament reading we meet a physically and mentally exhausted Elijah lodging in a cave, and the Lord asks him what he is doing there. The point of the question seems to be to have Elijah come to the conclusion speedily that forgetting to think theologically, running for his life, and finally hiding himself away were by no means ever what would give him the rest or peace of mind and heart that had eluded him up to that point. He needs to hear the Lord’s own word and accomplish its direction for such benefits to be granted; and that word of challenge tells him to get out of the cave and stand upon the mount before the Lord. Elijah had been afraid of what man might do to him, or actually what the forces of the Queen might do, and he is challenged to turn his attention and his concern away from the forces of man, and towards the force of the Lord. Even that divine force is not to be revealed to him in the great natural forces such as hurricane, earthquake or fire, but rather in the inaudible promptings of the Spirit in his soul, the “still small voice of calm”, as the famous hymn describes it. As Elijah pours out to the Lord his complaint, the Lord makes His own position clear. Things might look bad to you, He tells his tired and desolate servant, but all is encompassed by My plan, and there is a future for Israel which you must help to prepare and provide for. The constant property of the word of encouragement is to turn our attention and concern from the difficulties or failures of the past towards the demand of a future that beckons to us for our participation. So the word of the Lord to Elijah becomes the word of the Lord to us as well, in an individual sense, in the sense of the church as a whole, and certainly in the sense of this particular parish of the church. No matter what the discouragements have been that wash over us from time to time, the Lord tells us to turn our attention rather to Him, beckoning us think and act theologically, and to build a future that is His intention to bestow upon us, though not without our active and faithful participation in His plan.

In the second lesson we see St. Paul turning his rabbinically trained mind to the issue of how God gives life to His people, an issue which in a simpler way is portrayed in Elijah’s struggles as well. [It is especially appropriate for St. Paul to use a rabbinical style, because in this chapter he is specifically addressing Jews and dealing with their position, though that does not jump out in the passage which was extracted for our lesson.] What is the manner of our participation in the future that God wishes to bestow upon us? St. Paul says that Moses declared we must practise what the Old Testament law provides, and then we would have the life that God wished to provide for us. But Moses, says St. Paul, does not have the last word on the matter. It’s the word of God itself, Paul says, that will give us this life, and this word of God, like the still small voice of God that Elijah heard, is no further away from us than our own hearts and lips. If we confess, as baptismal candidates do, with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead - in other words, if we are baptised into the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and our baptism is meaningful for us - then God, very present to us, saves us and gives us this life. That is the true way of life for the Christian Jew just as much as for the Christian Gentile, says the rabbinically trained St. Paul. “The same Lord is Lord of all and bestows His riches upon all who call upon Him.” Being then washed and marked with the Resurrection of Christ, we are marked with an eternal future that past failures and faults have no power to mar or take away, for so long as we remain in this way of faith; and remaining in the way of faith, perhaps, is the challenge that although not stated in this particular Scripture, is well represented elsewhere in St. Paul’s writings..

In the Gospels we more than once see the disciples in a boat being buffeted by the waves and blown off course by the winds, and today’s Gospel reading is a case in point. The scene may symbolise for us the difficulties of our own life’s encounters, and indeed those encountered by the church. Ironically, when the disciples saw Christ Jesus coming towards them, they saw this to be the crown of their difficulties. We read that they thought they were seeing a ghost and were terrified. Is it not our experience too that the storms of life reach their peak in the very course of their being calmed? At the peak of their terror, then, the Lord calls out to them not to fear, for it is indeed He. “Take heart, it is I; be not afraid.” St. Peter decides to test whether it really is the Lord, and the Lord gives him his head, as He so often does for us as well. For as long as St. Peter remains in faith, with his attention firmly fixed on the Lord ahead, he is fine, but he is distracted by the strong wind and becomes afraid and begins to sink, and only then, I suppose, out of necessity relies completely upon the Lord He had presumed to test a few minutes before.

The circumstances of our lives, and of the condition of the worldwide church or of Christendom are like the winds and waves of the sea, causing the boat we are in to become almost unmanageable, or if we are like Peter trying out the Lord, walking on upsetting waves, in the face of terrifying wind. But Jesus says to us too, O ye of little faith, why did you doubt? For His word is just as near to us now as it was in simpler times, the Word of faith that is always to be proclaimed. He still says to us now, as He has always said in our minds and souls, "Take heart, take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid. Remain with Me in faith, and build and be built into My future that I intend to bestow upon you.”