Crossing the Bar – with apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson

Sermon delivered on 16 August 2015 at the Kensington Presbyterian Church, 6225 Godfrey Avenue, Montreal. Based on John 6:16-21.

The Victorian age – the 19th century. In the Victorian era people delighted themselves in natural history – the sciences – and in the arts, as we do today. But the Victorian era is special I think, because it is the last period in world history when people really believed and wanted to believe that everything about nature made sense because God created it.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was also a true Victorian gentleman at heart – a poet – a man of the arts. Keenly aware of the new trends in science in his time, trends that seemed to turn away from God, his later poetry centred on his firm belief that the universe is subject to the laws of the Eternal God. Perhaps his most remembered poem, a poem that I memorized in 6th grade in the Philippines, “Crossing the Bar,” speaks of the hope of meeting God face to face after death. For Tennyson, death is like putting out to sea, letting the tide carry you out – in the firm conviction that God awaits at the other shore.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.Alfred Lord Tennyson

Today’s Scripture text is also about putting out to sea. But instead of an image of death as in Tennyson’s poem, this is a story about life, a story about not giving up.

Jesus had just fed a multitude of people, miraculously multiplying 5 loaves of barley bread and 2 fish into more than enough for 5,000 men not counting the women and children. After all were satisfied, there was enough food left over to fill 12 baskets. The people were so excited they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king – a political messiah who would liberate the people from Rome. Jesus would have none of this. He was not going to allow himself to be manipulated into a political problem. He left the crowd and alone went up the mountain to pray.

As evening came, his disciples got into a boat and put out to sea towards Capernaum. A contrary wind assailed them. They set out in the evening, and now it was early morning according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. They had only been able to advance 3 or 4 miles. If the size of the Sea of Galilee then were the same size as it is today, around 7 or 8 miles wide, the disciples would have still been right in the middle caught in the opposing wind.

Note, neither Matthew, Mark nor John said that the disciples were afraid. Yes the boat was being battered by the waves, yes the wind was against them and they were not getting anywhere near their destination; but these were fishermen, experienced at sea, and I am sure, not easily terrified by rough water. It was in another story when the Scriptures said they were afraid of the storm at sea – in that instance, Jesus was in the boat with them, sleeping. In this particular incident, these men did not seem to be unnerved by the rough sea – they just couldn’t get to where they wanted to go.

Then they saw it… They thought it was a ghost. Can you blame them for thinking it was a ghost? How many people have you seen walking on water? None. Who can walk on water? Must be a weightless spirit floating in air, therefore a ghost. Otherwise, if the apparition had any weight at all like a normal human being, it would have sunk. And there it is – it’s coming closer! The disciples, grown-up men that they were, unafraid of rough seas, were terrified!

I don’t think in our time here and now that we could still truly understand the terror of the disciples. We are so conditioned by yearly fake Halloween ghosts, goblins, witches and the like, that we probably wouldn’t even blink an eye if there was a real one that appeared. In contrast, in many third world countries like the Philippines where I was born, apparitions are taken seriously and feared. I remember as a young child growing up that people actually avoided using a certain street in Manila during the night because of its reputation for resident ghosts. In another part of Manila, there was a government-owned building that no one wants to buy, rent, much less use because former occupants truly believe the building is inhabited by angry spirits. It is not important whether ghosts truly exist – in that part of the world, people who think they have seen a ghost are almost always terrified beyond reason. I imagine the disciples were so afraid – so terrified – that they didn’t – couldn’t – recognize Jesus as he came near their boat. You think they would have, having spent so much time with him. Then Jesus tells them: “It is I; do not be afraid.”

“It is I.” In the original language, that sentence reads “I Am,” the same way God named Himself when he appeared to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Jesus claimed divinity – one with the Father – to his disciples. And he proved it in at least 2 ways within less than 24 hours. First, he miraculously fed 5,000 people, just like God fed miraculous manna to his people travelling through the wilderness. Second, he showed by walking on water that he was master of nature, master of the creation, just as God showed that even the Red Sea obeyed his command as the people crossed it on foot. Furthermore, we must not miss the Hebrew understanding of the rough sea as a symbol of the primeval chaos that God tamed as He created the world. In fact, in Hebrew belief, the sea is inhabited by demons. In Matthew chapter 8 when Jesus cast out the demons from 2 men, the demons went into a herd of pigs which then rushed down a steep bank and into the sea. As Job chapter 9 declares: “God who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” so did Jesus trample the waves of the rough Galilean sea.

The miracle of the Good News is that it is precisely in those times when Jesus comes alongside and repeats to us those comforting words – those words that empower us, that make us alive: “It is I, don’t be afraid.”

What are the lessons for us?

Hearing the “I Am – do not be afraid” the disciples wanted to take him into the boat. The Gospel of John doesn’t mention if Jesus actually got in the boat – we assumed he did, particularly from the accounts of Mark and Matthew. What we do know from John is that as soon as the disciples just as so much change from terror to wanting Jesus to get into the boat, they arrived at their destination – immediately! From the middle of the rough Galilean Sea, to the shore – instantly!

Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Crossing the Bar” is about a peaceful departure from this earth and into the embrace of God. John 6:16-21, on the other hand, is not about a final farewell and peaceful setting out to sea. Instead, it is about life and all its challenges. Just like the disciples trying to cross the sea in a boat with oars, we live the business of life hanging on to some faith object – something that we think will carry us through. It could be family, money, social position, education, employment – you can name your own list.

But life can be rough. Just as the disciples began to be battered by the wind and the waves – just as they tried with all their might to get where they wanted to go but could get nowhere, so life is not always so smooth and we don’t necessarily accomplish all that we set out to do. I can name a number of instances in my own life when I wished things unfolded differently, or when I would have preferred that certain other things never happened at all. I can remember times when I cried out to God “Why did you let this happen?” or “Why are you not here when I need you to tell me it is alright?” I recall moments when hope seemed like a far distant ghost – so thin, so ethereal – so unreal. I will be so bold as to say that each one of you here would also remember similar times of difficulty.

The miracle of the Good News is that it is precisely in those times when Jesus comes alongside and repeats to us those comforting words – those words that empower us, that make us alive: “It is I, don’t be afraid.” When the disciples heard these words, they immediately wanted to take Jesus into the boat. And immediately, they landed on shore – a miracle. In times of difficulty when we hear the same words of Jesus in our hearts and souls, our response would be to want to cling to God – to Jesus, and he will carry us to shore – to where we are going. Deep down, we believe that this is true – and which is why we are here this morning, why we come back every Sunday to worship our God, gathered as a community of faith.

Permit me now to play with Tennyson’s poem – with apologies to this great Victorian poet:

Dark and troubled sky
Cold wind assaulting me
And will even God not heed my cry
Of terror out at sea.

The water, chaos, massive, deep
Heaving, breaking, foaming beast
Snatches hope away to keep
And on my soul begin to feast.

A shimmer on rough water
A ghost to raise deathly fear!
He draws ever so closer
Then whispers gently in my ear.

“’Tis I” says He
“Afraid, you do not have to be!”
Then bore me to safety through rough water,
My Friend, my Pilot, and my Master!Victor C. Gavino

To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

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