Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, June 21, 2015 - 9:30am

Now, please don’t run away with the idea that The Vicarage is a hotbed of classical culture when I tell you that for a long time my children’s favourite bedtime stories came from the Greek Myths. One of these that always stood out for me as particularly poignant was the story of Phaeton, the son of Apollo, the Sun God.

Now, Phaeton, teased by his playmates, sought assurance from his mother that Apollo, the God whose task was to ride the chariot of the sun across the sky from dawn till dusk, was truly his father. She promised it was true, and sent him to his father to receive confirmation.

When he did so, Apollo greeted Phaeton with delight, and rashly promised that he would grant him as proof of his love whatever he asked. However, when he learned that what he wanted was to drive his father’s chariot across the sky, he begged him to reconsider. He knew his temperamental horses would never answer his son’s commands when he took the reins.

Nevertheless, Phaeton insisted, and Apollo, bound by his foolish promise, let him go. Sure enough, the chariot veered off course, and as the boy struggled in vain to bring the horses under control, the earth was scorched to desert wherever he dipped too low.

It was clear that the Earth risked total destruction, and to bring the chaos to an end, Zeus felled Phaeton with a thunderbolt. Order was restored, but Apollo’s son lay dead.

 

As this week we consider again the gospel story of Christ stilling the storm, I am reminded of this legend in two ways... First of all, both stories are concerned with the triumph of order over chaos. Just as Phaeton’s foolish tampering with the forces of nature threatens the earth with destruction, we are reminded that for the Ancient Hebrews it was not so much fire as water that was the element of chaos.

 

Think back to the beginning of Genesis, how the earth was

‘without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.’

Water is the stuff of nothingness, of chaos and oblivion. Consider how God then separates waters from waters and earth from sea. Earth is created by restraining, holding back this deadly and unpredictable element.

In the time of Noah, when God chooses to have done with his creation, he reverses this process, and opens the floodgates. In our Old Testament lesson from Job, he says

 who shut in the sea with doors

    when it burst out from the womb,

when I made clouds its garment

    and thick darkness its swaddling band,

and prescribed limits for it

    and set bars and doors,

and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

    and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

 

So it is, that in the little fishing boat on Galilee, Christ does likewise. Here is creation acted out in microcosm, in a way that fills his friends with awestruck terror. Here is Jesus, the Word of God, acting as God acts to restrain and control his creation; to set proper limits and create order and peace out of chaos and confusion.

 

But that is not the only parallel with the legend of Phaeton. Another similarity is the contrast between mortal man’s desire for mastery and control over nature and the recognition that this is a divine prerogative. They are both stories in which man is shown to be small in the face of nature, and subject to the grace and protection of God.

 

One interesting point to note is that through the course of the gospel account, the disciples are afraid twice, but for two different reasons. The first time, they are afraid that they are going to be drowned, which is natural enough.  The second time, they are afraid of Jesus..

 

The language here is interesting. When Jesus is awoken, he asks them why they are being so ‘δειλος’, so fearful, so cowardly. When he has commanded the storm to be silent, they are ‘φοβος’ , they are awestruck. The fear of the storm instils in them the fear of the Lord. The negative, panicking, fear gives way to a positive, wondering, fear.

 

Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?

 

I suspect we can all think of times in our own lives where even a brush with danger has moved us first to prayer and then to gratitude and relief. I’m reminded of a problematic landing at Heathrow in high winds a couple of years ago in which our plane, pitching and yawing violently made several vain attempts to land before finally touching down to a great round of applause. Nobody had known how worried to be, but it was disconcerting, and the silence of the cabin was punctuated only by the retching of those poor unfortunates with weak stomachs. We were all reminded of our littleness, and our mortality, and at least one of us was moved to pray.

 

But it is not only in such circumstances that we feel this way. Life has a habit of ambushing s with storms of its own. We are left feeling weak and powerless, and we are left with nothing to do but yell out into the void like the disciples: ‘Lord, help me! Are you asleep! Don’t you care?’

 

But of course, he cares. He is not Zeus, ready with his thunderbolt to bring us down to earth. He is the God who is in the same boat, who shares the same fate. Who smiles in sympathy with our pain, and says ‘trust me’.