S.O.S … S.O.S. … S.O.S. …
A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
October 24th 2021
There are lots of mentions of boats in the Bible. In the popular imagination, Noah’s Ark gets first place. You don’t have to set foot in church in order to have heard it, since Playmobil provide a version for youngsters to play with. In Psalm 107, there is mention of those who ‘went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters.’ (107:23) Such ones, however, find themselves in midst of storms, with waves that sweep them up to heaven and then carry them down to the depths (107:26),
Our sailors in today’s Bible readings are the prophet Jonah, whose seafaring experience tells us something about hearing the call of God to prophesy to power, and Jesus’s disciples, out on the lake, reminding us to look to God in times of troubles.
Jonah received the call of God to prophesy to the great power of his day – Nineveh. (1:2) Nineveh, with a reputation for tyranny, was located in the East. Knowing how Nineveh treated its enemies and critics, Jonah got on a boat to Tarshish, which was as far West as anyone could go.(1:3) As a result, he has an experience like something out of Psalm 107: ‘such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.’ (1:4)
And here we are, a week away from the meeting of the countries of the world, including great powers that make Nineveh look puny in comparison. And there is a call from God to Christians to prophesy to these leaders; to say, this is God’s world and God loves it. It’s full of creatures that God loves, including a humankind. It’s your responsibility, as leaders, to make sure that humankind treats the world in the loving way that God does. You have a responsibility for neighbours, especially the poorer one. And it’s our responsibility, as Christians, to speak out when the way the world is treated is far away from what God wants as Nineveh is from Tarshish.
Of course, we believers could choose to ignore God’s call to speak out. If we do that, though, and if others do the same, we’ll simply end up back in the metaphorical and literal storms of climate change, though with things a lot worse by the time we finally decide to do the right thing. So, if we are going to find the courage to speak and act as is needed now, we need to turn to God. As hard-pressed sailors put it to Jonah, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your God! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (1:6)
Confronted by God, confronted by a situation so threatening as climate change, confronted, with the need to make world leaders act, we have to call out to God. After all, we’re not going to get this sorted out ourselves alone; Jesus’s disciples came that conclusion. Travelling across the Sea of Galilee, with Jesus asleep in the stern, they suddenly found themselves battling a storm. It doesn’t say that the waves swept them up to heaven and then down to the depths, as in Psalm 107, but it was bad enough that ‘the boat was already being swamped’ (4:37); all despite the best efforts of its crew, some of them professional fishermen.
So they did what sensible people today ought to do in response to climate change, and the need to get good decisions from our leaders – they called for help. In their case they called upon Jesus, though perhaps not in the most respectful way: ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (4:38) You try to get some sleep, and then those you leave in charge wake you up with a complaint! Maybe that why Jesus seems a bit irritated with his followers: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (4:40)
In Mark’s Gospel we’re told they were filled with awe (though not contrition): ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (4:41) The latest report from the world’s scientists concerning climate change confirms what’s been said up to now. The world is warming. This brings events – storms, floods, droughts – which have a malign impact on the world and its inhabitants. The warming is caused by human activity – travel, heating, manufacture. If we don’t make changes to the way we do all of that, the world will get warmer still. The effects will be catastrophic. Yet the report’s authors provide a glimmer of hope. If we pull together, if we work work hard, we might avoid the worst.
I don’t know what view you have of human nature. I have a moderately negative view of it. Yes, as a species, we are capable of both great achievements and generous actions. At the same time, though, left to ourselves, we so often fall short of what we could and should be. A quick perusal of the news headlines, or negative personal experiences at the hands of others tell us that.
Now the crew on Jonah’s storm-tossed ship do all that’s in their power, dumping the cargo to lighten the ship (1:5). The disciples on the Sea of Galilee must have done all they could, but the waves were swamping the boat. At this critical point, both called for help. On Jonah’s boat they sent out a prayerful distress call to any passing god who might be prepared to help them. (1:6) The disciples, with less diplomacy, woke Jesus up. Today, while there’s a lot being done by concerned human beings, in government and out of government, to deal a climate emergency, our boat is being swamped.
So, by all means, as far as we can, let’s dump the fossil fuel cargo that threatens to take us down to the depths. Let’s take our turn at the oars of climate activism, such as pilgrimages to Glasgow. But now is also the time to call out for help. Now also is the time to pray; to pray to the one who can still this storm; to pray that God will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.