St Bride's: Sermons

God moves in a mysterious way

Matthew 14: 22-33

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22 And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.

23 And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.

24 But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.

25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.

26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.

27 But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.

28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.

29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.

30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.

31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

32 And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.

33 Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.

God moves in a mysterious way

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

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If I asked you what you knew about the town of Olney in north Buckinghamshire, you might have heard of it because of the pancake race held there each year on Shrove Tuesday. But it is also notable for two men who lived there in the 18th century - John Newton, reformed slave-trader, hymn writer and Vicar of Olney, and William Cowper, his lay-reader, also a poet and hymn writer. He wrote some of our best loved hymns, including the one we have just sung 'God moves in a mysterious way.'

Cowper tragically suffered from fits of depression and spells when he was insane and suicidal. It was in one of these times of darkness that he wrote this hymn, and it speaks of finding God in dark and difficult times. God's ways, says the poet, are not our ways and in the end God is mystery: nevertheless, this we can know and trust, that God is love, his purposes are loving, and that love has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

These words echo very directly, the incident we have heard in the Gospel reading, the account of the stilling of the storm, Jesus went off to pray and his disciples embarked on the Sea of Galilee. A storm blew and they became afraid as they struggled to control the boat. Suddenly Jesus appears walking on the water, and they cry out in terror. Peter impulsively asks Jesus if he can walk to him; he tries and as he begins to sink he is pulled to safety. As the wind dropped and the storm abated the disciples declare that Jesus must be the Son of God. Cowper comments in his hymn:

You fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

The Biblical scholar William Barclay, in his commentary on this passage, spends some time trying to explain how this miracle could have happened naturally, but he concludes that whatever you think really happened, the story isn't just about what Jesus did once in a storm on a lake in a far away country: it symbolises what He does always, at all times, for us when we are in danger of being overwhelmed by life's storms. If we listen we too can hear Jesus say: 'Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.' At certain times in our lives we all need to hear those words.

William Cowper certainly needed to hear those words. He was a hesitant Christian, never sure of his salvation. He couldn't remember having a conversion experience: he lived a sheltered life, he didn't have social gifts, he was hesitant in his faith and in his life, troubled by bouts of very severe depression. But even though, for him God was often hidden and mysterious, God was always there and full of grace. Cowper would, I'm sure, have agreed with those words spoken by King George VI in his Christmas message of 1939:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'
And he replied: 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God:
That shall be better than a light, and safer than the known way.'
Better and safer to put your trust in a God who, while he is mysterious and hidden, in so many ways, yet comes to us in the storms of our lives and says 'It is I: do not be afraid.'

I have found that to be true in my life, and certainly in the lives of many people I have known. As I leave full-time parish ministry and step into the relative unknown of retirement, leaving so much that is dear, and starting life again in a new place, I place my hand afresh into the hand of God. And, as you look ahead to a new chapter in the life of this church and the arrival of a new incumbent, yo too can trust God's promises that he will lead you forward. And for all of us, in all the circumstances of our lives, we all can learn to trust God for his grace, and like Peter reach out and go on in faith. William Cowper speaks to us all

You fearful saints, fresh courage take:
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.


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