TEXT: Jonah 1:1-15; Mt. 8:23-27
Back in my college days I did a paper about the Norse practice of burying people in ships, or at least in graves shaped like ships. In the course of doing that research I discovered how much of Christian tradition and architecture is linked to the ship. Medieval cathedrals were built like upside down ships, with the center section called the “nave” and the pews representing the benches where the oarsmen would sit…which is why you often have windows at the end of the pews.
For well over a thousand years, the Church has been seen as a ship, piloted by Christ, taking us out into uncharted waters. You can see visible reminders of that in many Lutheran churches, especially in Scandinavia, where sanctuaries often have a ship hanging over the altar.
We have many newer forms of transportation today, but I think the sailing ship on the high seas still evokes the best image of the Christian journey. Trains are a bit too fast and direct, airplanes a bit too removed from what happens beneath them, and cars are too passive—relying solely on the driver. Moving a ship takes a whole crew, and those aboard must learn to work with the wind and water. They must bravely face the storms, know when to jettison cargo, and know that their very lives depend on each of them fulfilling their part in the whole.
There are a number of biblical stories about ships, from Noah’s ark to the missionary journeys of Paul, and none of them were luxury cruises around the harbor. They encountered tempests and storms and difficulties, and what I found as I looked at them was that whether or not the ship weathered the storm had everything to do with whether or not the ship was following the will of God. The two stories I picked for this morning show that.
Jonah boards a ship headed for Tarshish. Now there was nothing wrong with Tarshish…nice town. Trouble is, God has just told Jonah to go someplace else--Nineveh. Jonah is getting on a ship to run away, to hide, to try to avoid the will of God. As a result, a storm comes up that threatens the lives of everyone aboard. The only way to still the storm and save the crew is to toss off the one who is running from God. Jonah is found out and over he goes. Of course that’s just the beginning of the story. We know God wants his obedience, not his death, and the rest of the book tells how that happens. But the point is, getting on a ship going one way when God has told you to go another threatens everybody and gets you thrown overboard.
The opposite is true in the story of the disciples in the boat with Jesus. In their case, also, a storm comes up and the disciples fear for their lives. And they’re pretty ticked off at Jesus who is napping through the whole thing. When they wake Jesus up and insist that he do something about their plight, he chides them for having no faith. If Jesus is in the boat with them, they are within the will of God, and no storm can beat them. With just a word from Jesus, all is still and all are safe.
The biblical stories make plain that just the fact of being on a ship is not a guarantee of anything. What makes the difference in the success of the voyage is the degree to which the destination is in line with God’s will. It doesn’t matter how well the ship is constructed or whether the same commanding officer is in charge from start to finish. There was once a ship that claimed it was stronger than the power of the sea and that set out to go where it pleased for the pleasure of its passengers. It was named the Titanic.
There was another ship that never claimed to be invincible. Most of us would not sail any great distance with it today. It charted a course that required as much faith as skill to a destination that was full of hope and promise but unknown and unseen. It sailed not for pleasure but for a purpose that its 102 passengers believed was in line with the will of God. That ship was named the Mayflower.
It wasn’t easy for the Mayflower to get started on its journey to the New World. Twice it set sail and had to turn back to port. Finally, after a month of delays, she pulled up her anchor and headed for the open seas. It was not an easy journey. They had to repair the ship as she sailed, including when the main beam buckled halfway through the trip. There were differences of opinion about whether they could do it or not. William Bradford reports in his history of Plymouth Plantation: “Truly there was great distraction and difference of opinion among the mariners themselves; fain would they do what could be done for their wages sake, (being now half the seas over,) and on the other hand they were loath to hazard their lives too desperately.” In the end, however, Bradford reports, “So they committed themselves to the will of God, and resolved to proceed.” The rest is, quite literally, history.
What I’m trying to say in all of this is that as we chart the course for this church over the coming weeks and months, we need to be sure we are booking passage on the right ship. The invincible luxury liner with all the comforts of home certainly has its appeal, but the story does not end well. The ship to Tarshish might promise a pleasant destination, but it isn’t the direction God is pointing.
Captain John Smith described the Mayflower as a “leaking unwholesome ship,” yet because the Puritans resolved to commit themselves to the will of God, no American child gets through school without knowing its name. The little boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee is overcrowded and not well-equipped. But Jesus is in the boat. The boat is no match for the storm, but the storm is no match for the Son of God.
When we pray and seek the direction of God, even the most unlikely of ships can be the one that history writes about. When we become more concerned about the purpose God has for us than we are about our own comfort and safety, miracles occur. Jesus said those who seek to save their lives will lose them. Book on the luxury liner and you’re going down, but leave your nets and follow Jesus into the little wooden boat and soon you’ll find yourself out saving the world.
Those are the choices we all have every single day. It is a choice we make corporately as we decide what we will do as a church. It is a choice we make individually each morning when we get up. Will we take the easiest road or will we strengthen our muscles with some exercise?
Now I want to be careful here. The message of being willing to follow Christ down a difficult road was one I accepted very early in life. In fact, I took it so to heart that when God offered me times of comfort and joy, I refused them. The way of the cross was so ingrained, I thought that to follow Jesus only meant sucking it up and heading for a snake-infested swamp where I would be desperately unhappy but where I would earn an eternal reward.
But that isn’t what Christian life turned out to be in the long run. At the beginning there is a time of decision where we talk about the “death of self.” That’s not an encouragement to suicide, far from it, but it is the call to take our own desires and need for control off the throne of life and to allow God to take God’s rightful place. It is obedience to the first of the Ten Commandments…don’t put anything else, including yourself, before God.
That takes a huge amount of courage and runs counter to everything the world tells us is smart and practical. And the more we have had ourselves as our top priority and authority, the more losing that feels indeed like death. That’s the price of the ticket to board God’s vessel, but it is not the destination of the ship.
After I gave over my own desires to God, I found that bit by bit they were given back. Only when I got them back they weren’t just desires and dreams—they were a calling and a purpose. When I gave God everything I loved, God put it all together as a direction for my life and then gave it back. It was as wonderful as it was before I gave it up, but now it was attached to a purpose that enabled me to chart the course and head for the open sea.
That is what God asks of this church and of any church—to make the difficult choice and give control of what happens into God’s hands. It’s not that we need to get together and decide where we want to go and how we want to get there. It’s that we need to find out what boat Jesus is already on and join him. We need to choose our ship based on the purpose for which it sails, not on the comfort of the cabins.
When this church does that…when making disciples becomes more important than making money…when we would rather be a church that meets in a parking lot with Jesus than a church that meets in a sanctuary with Brahms, the earth will shift under the homes of Westford and the spirit of God will blow through their doors. And, in my experience, once you’re truly willing to give it up, you’ll get it back. Transformed. Filled with purpose and powered by the breath of God.
The ships are lined up in the harbor and each is booking passengers. There is the luxury liner that claims it can never sink. There is a ship heading out quickly under the cover of darkness to the port of denial. There is a large, creaking ship with a crew of pilgrim passengers who are willing to risk the journey simply because a man named Jesus has asked them to go and is willing to sail with them. The cost seems quite high for such an uncomfortable vessel, yet no one getting on board seems to give it another thought. Their eyes are filled with the vision of a new life in a new world and they take no thought for what they are leaving behind.
Yes? You’d like a ticket? And on which ship will you be booking passage today? Amen.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson