12th of the Year, 20 June 2021
What does the sea mean to you? Romantic boat rides with glorious sunsets? Being pushed into a boating lake by your big brother? Luxury cruises? Going fishing? Something distant seen across a British beach? We’ll all have different associations, I guess. For many the great power of the sea is seen in the places where they’ve lived. I’m going to be quoting some of the poems by the welsh priest who died twenty years, R S Thomas and he certainly lived near the sea and was much influenced by it. This is also true too of Job, the star of our first reading, who we’re told came from Uz, which wasn’t too far from the Red Sea, south of Israel and beyond the land of the Edomites. Here Job perhaps gained a sense of a rough sea: it’s certainly big enough to be a major trading route today going up to the Suez Canal. “Who pent up,” God asks Job rhetorically, “the sea behind closed doors when it leapt tumultuous out of the womb?”
The seas as a place of trading comes out in our Psalm too. Psalm 107 gives examples of different types of people crying out to God and how they were to become thankful from Him: those wondering in the desert, those imprisoned, the sick and those travelling on the waters. The storm on the high seas was so tempestuous that, so we’re told in the verses missing from today’s psalm, these brave sailors “reeled and staggered like drunkards” on board their ships. But God tosses the waves of the sea back up to Heaven and in to the deep, returning them to their rightful places and thus bringing peace and calm.
Only God could still the seas and this we find Jesus doing in today’s Gospel. The disciples were filled with awe and said, “Even the wind and sea obey Him,” because they realise this must mean Jesus is God, as indeed the true faith professes. The power of the sea is indeed immense. The Welsh poet and priest R S Thomas observed:
“…it chews rocks
To sand: its embrace
Leaves you without breath. Mostly
It is stomach, where bones,
Wrecks, continents, are digested.” (The Sea)
And God is stronger. God’s power must never be called in to question, my friends. “Nothing is impossible with God,” as Mary proclaimed (St Luke 1:37).
God in creating the water was making something that was good. We must remember that God saw all that He had made and it was very good (Genesis 1:4-6). The sea’s force makes it dangerous but this strength means it is useful for other things. Watermills, for example, were once a fairly common part of life here in the UK and in countries like India I understand they continue to be much needed for creating power. In the face of the pandemic and the precariousness of life let us always hold to this central truth of our faith: that the world God created is good.
Part of the sea’s strength and wonder in Biblical literature comes from the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabited the waters. In Psalm 74:14, for example, God is praised: “You crushed the heads of Leviathan,” (see also Job 41:1). This multi-headed sea monster is a mythical beast not to be thought of as some creature we could put in an aquarium: the professor who taught me the Old Testament would say excitedly, “It is a chaos monster!” The use of our imagination is a natural part of our human existence: whatever we can imagine is always excelled by God’s awesomeness.
Christ time and time again comes and speaks peace to a situation. Remember in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday, the day of Resurrection, the disciples were there and they’d let fear overcome them: fear of death was all that was influencing their decisions. Well, Christ comes and speaks peace (St John 20:19:29). There’s no room for fear in peace. Our prayer life should be infused with peace and silence as we attentively empty our thoughts and minds of our own concerns and let God fill us with His Truth. This is true in our behaviour both in church needing less chit-chat, and at home ins read of presenting God with prayers that babble on and on.
I quote R S Thomas again in one of his other poems, “Sea Watching.” He looks out and sees the sea, observing, “… Grey waters, vast
as an area of prayer which one enters. Daily
over a period of years
I have let me eyes rest on them.”
Remember Ezekiel wading through the water that had flowed from the Temple in his vision (Ezekiel 47), being led deeper and deeper in to the ocean. So our prayer life immerses our soul in to the limitless pool of God’s grace. Also, the daily observing of the sea by those who live there is a lovely comparison to our daily prayers in which we should notice God’s activity, maybe not instantly after every prayer offered but looking back over the vast expanse of prayer offered over days, months and years, we will see God’s Spirit hovering and bringing order.
Repetition and structure in our prayer life enables us to see the vast expanse of the prayer offered. These enable us to ground ourselves in Christ. If we do not prepare our lives, how can the Word of God take root in us? Don’t offer to God the dry, over-used, broken up soil of your life but water it, till it, feed it, so that He can plant a seed there.The mustard seed, remember, “is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade” (St Mark 4:31-32). Well-tilled soil in our life is about not biting off more than we can chew, prioritising God’s plans over our own and the agendas of others, not rushing around so we’re always late, not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the what’s online.
The sea also denotes in the Scriptures a sense of isolation, being cut off. This is the context of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation received by St John the Apostle. He who describes himself as resting on the Lord’s chest at the last Supper such was their warm friendship (St John 13:23) is by the time of the end of his life very isolated indeed. He’s gone off to the island of Patmos, possibly to escape the persecution of the Romans, presumably after the Assumption of Mary, with whom He lived in Ephesus. John is cut off. You may have seen at the seaside signs that say, “Danger of rising tides cutting you off.”
In the last eighteen months we’ve all had relationships brought in to difficulty because of lockdown. Who knows how those interactions and communities would have blossomed had it not been for COVID? This pandemic cannot wipe out that which is of God though, because God is stronger than it. And we do now increasingly have the opportunities to forge once again a strong community: often it is only ourselves holding us back. Isolation is not of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One of R.S. Thomas’ rather oblique poems begins, “It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals.”
It’s clearly an image of being isolated: this cat atop a cliff. What on earth could it be doing up there? St John in his isolation and old age yearns for the fellowship of Heaven where all the saints join in the adoration of the Lamb.
One last water image from R S Thomas which is water connected. In his poem “Balance,” he writes, “No piracy, but there is a plank
to walk over seventy thousand fathoms …
I have abandoned
my theories, the easier certainties
of belief. There are no handrails to
Is there time on this brief platform for anything
other than mind’s failure to explain itself?”
The precariousness and wobblinesss of the plank off the boat over the huge expanse of waters leads us to realise that the only one we can with any certainty trust is God. There we realise that all the other things we build our life upon don’t really add any real scaffolding or safety.
So, the sea’s strength is impressive but Christ stills it. The sea is chaotic and Christ brings peace. The sea isolates and God breaks down boundaries. The sea is part of a creation that is good. Its depths are a call to us explore the wonders of what God has made and His surpassing love for us. Its vast expanse reminds us of our need to trust Him. The bystanders observe in the Gospel, “Even the wind and the sea obey Jesus.” Should we not too?