Luke 3:15-17,21-22, Psalm 29, Isaiah 43:1-7
We seem to be going through a period of tremendous storms at the moment in so many different areas right now, don’t we?
First there is the wind and the floods. Communities and homes across northern England devastated by floodwater from rivers. Our hearts go out to all those affected, as we see how their homes and businesses are ruined, furniture and valuables destroyed, precious memories ruined.
And it’s not just in in England this has been happening. My own manager, who lives in a small town in rural Illinois in the United States, had her home flooded on New Years’ Day, despite the best attempts of the fire department and her neighbours to stop the water rising into her home. At the moment she is having to live on the first floor while a specialist company cleans up her newly finished basement and ground floor.
But it’s not just the weather that’s stormy at the moment. If you work in the City, like I do, you will be aware of the turmoil going on in our money markets. How Chinese stocks are crashing as production falls. Apparently, government figures are so corrupted in terms of measuring this, that even the Chinese Prime Minister ignores his own government’s statistics – he monitors his own economy by looking at the amount of rail freight shipped.
And we know that our own retailers had a bad Christmas – warm weather kept people from shopping apparently, and then retailers ended up discounting far more aggressively than has happened in the past.
And we are in danger of entering a house price bubble once again.
So that’s the weather, and the markets. What else?
Well we all watch with concern and heavy hearts at the events in the Middle East. At Syria, and the civil war there. At Daesh – or ISIL or Islamic State in other words. At the clashes between Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the terror in Israel and Palestine.
And so many millions of people are fleeing, displaced from their homes and their lives, migrating elsewhere, including up her into Europe. It’s going to be a long hard winter for them.
And there there is our lives.
Some of us will know the loss of a loved one.
Some of us will have financial pressures, or health problems, or personal worries.
As a church, we are exploring a building project, a possible merger with another church, whether we want to allow gay marriage in our church. Where will we find the money? How will we need to change? How are we to stay united?
It’s all so much for us. So many stores. It feels like a troublesome start to a new year.
We heard earlier how the Holy Spirit is often represented like a storm. From our Psalm, he comes like the wind. In tongues of fire. As an earthquake. As thunder.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
I’m sure we’ve all seen cedars of Lebanon. Some of the largest and most majestic trees around. And yet the voice of the Lord breaks these large trees.
The Psalmist goes on:
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
And then once again back to the mightiest of trees:
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
When we read this Psalm, we really start to appreciate the fear of the Lord. This mighty, all powerful, majestic God who can bring terror and destruction just by his command.
You know, it is not fashionable to fear God these days. We like our God to be all nicey nicey, friendly friendly, pally pally with us. Not to challenge us, or bring us discomfort. We are afraid to talk about Hell – to share the message of the Bible that this is our destiny if we don’t turn to God.
And yet, the Bible is consistent in showing a God about whom we need to be afraid. A God to be feared. A God to be respected. A powerful God who is going to come to us in judgement.
And we need to remember this and to respect the Lord. For without this, our message, the Good News of Jesus Christ, becomes a series of watered down platitudes, lacking the power to bring people to his feet.
But as we mentioned earlier in the service, there are two sides to our weather.
- The wind blows destruction but it also refreshes
- Floods destroy everything in their path, but they make the land fertile
- Fire burns to the ground, leaving scorched earth. It can be used to kill other men. Yet it brings us light, and heat, and helps us cook our food and refine gold and other metals.
And as surely as God is a God to be feared, he is a God who brings grace, who brings forgiveness, who loves us all and wants to embrace us and comfort us and support us. He is a God who brings joy, strength and hope to his people.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
Lebanon – that country surrounded by those troubled lands we mentioned before, bordering Syria and Israel.
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
I had to look Sirion up – not a name we know today. Apparently it’s Mount Hermon. It’s on the border of Lebanon and Syria. By a troubled corner of Syria, no less, where different towns are controlled by very different groups. And, on a clear day, within sight of Damascus.
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
What an encouragement this all is. God is the Lord of the flood, and he wants to give strength to his people, and to bless them with peace!
And from our reading from Isaiah we have this:
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
In fact, we see this comparison, not just in our Psalm this morning, but also in our reading from Luke.
John the Baptist talks about Christ:
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
We’re back to those raw elements of nature – how the Holy Spirit will come with unquenchable fire and separate out the wheat – God’s people – from the chaff – the sinner.
When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
A dove – the symbol of peace. Not fire. Not death. Not destruction.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you.
God looks after us. He protects us from the storm. He brings us peace.
For those who choose to put their trust in God, he brings strength.
I was always so greatly encouraged when I was at university. For many people found the pace of work and the pressure to do well hard to bear, especially at exam-time.
But what was so clear about the Christians I saw was how they were so much more relaxed. They had someone to turn to; someone to bring their troubles to; someone to give them strength. And, just as God was able to give them strength, so they were able to listen and to encourage those around them.
And, speaking personally, I have always tried to learn from this experience. To trust in God and to allow him to bring me peace and strength.
Sure there have been difficult times – storms to weather – but God has always looked out for me, brought peace and gathered me back into his arms.
So to finish, I would like to encourage each one of us to turn to God, to find his strength, his care, his protection, his peace. He calls us by name – it is just up to us to answer.
For we are living in a stormy time – we need God.
And with talk of a building project, a possible church merger, discussion around gay marriage, and so much else, we may have a difficult time ahead of us a church – we will surely need Him.
But if we trust in him, he will look after us. And he will give us more than we can ever imagine.