Sermon: Out of the Waters of Chaos…


Sermon: Out of the Waters of Chaos…

St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT ¹. Taken from Mark 1:14–20 ²

Photo of the baptismal font at St Andrews, awash in a riot of color from the stained glass behind.
Out of the waters of chaos, new creation comes | Photo by Ron Steed

I wonder…

Peter, Andrew, James, and John live as fishermen, and Jesus calls them into something new. I wonder if there is more going on in this simple story than just one of encounter and call. And whether there is more going on today as well.

In Mark’s Gospel, this story is the first call of disciples by Jesus after his Baptism. To understand what might be going on at the shore of Galilee, we might need to start in the Jordan river.

The Waters of Chaos

There is an Orthodox icon, written long ago, that pictures Jesus’ Baptism this way. ³ Jesus is fully immersed in the waters of the Jordan up to his neck. On one shore, the angels hold his clothes, and on the other, John the Baptist pours water over his head. High above Jesus, the Holy Spirit sweeps over the scene.
Photo of a portion of stained glass at St Andrew’s Madison, CT showing the stormy waters wreaking the house built on sand in Luke 6.
In the Bible, the waters often symbolize chaos | Photo by Ron Steed

In bible stories, water… the sea… the deep… these symbolize chaos. In Genesis chapter 1, right at the very start, it says; In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.

One purpose of the Orthodox icon is to remind you of this opening sequence. When you see the spirit hovering over Jesus, who’s up to his neck in the Jordan, you’re reminded of the wind from God sweeping over the waters of the deep. In both scenes, the Spirit over the waters of chaos does a new thing.

There are many other stories where new things happen over the waters of chaos:
  • Noah’s ark floating on the flood waters of chaos.
  • The Hebrews caught between the chariots of Pharaoh, and the chaos of the Red Sea. God does a new thing by parting the waters of chaos.
  • In the story of Jonah, part of which we just read, Jonah gets swallowed by a fish for three days, surrounded by the waters of chaos, until he "remembers of the Lord". God spits him out on the shore where Jonah goes on to do the task that Jonah was running away from in the first place; to turn the hearts of the people of Nineveh. God does a new thing with Jonah AND with Nineveh.
  • There’s a hymn that we sang at the Cathedral last Sunday to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the end of slavery in CT; "Wade in the water, wade in the water children… wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water."

When God comes alongside chaos, new things happen, new creation springs out. That’s what happens when God troubles the water. So it is with the Baptism of Jesus. In the icon, Jesus is up to his neck in chaos. He is not afraid of chaos; he WANTS to be Baptized in it. And out of that chaos, something new emerges; a new ministry for Jesus… a new way of life for us.

Photo of a piece of stained glass at St Andrew’s Madison, showing the Earth with the waters of Baptism dripping from a scallop shell above.
The Earth, surrounded by chaos | Photo by Ron Steed

Now, take a moment to look carefully around this church-space. It is filled to overflowing with the symbols of chaos. Do you think it is any accident that the primary color of the glass here is blue? On the back window behind you, right in the middle of the cross, is the Spirit’s new light emerging from chaos. Look above you at the rafters. This building is meant to LOOK like an upside down fishing boat, the very thing that Andrew would sail into the waters of chaos. It seems like we are looking through windows along the port and starboard sides, into the chaos of the water outside. The world out there IS chaotic, isn’t it?

Photo of the altar window at St Andrew’s Madison, CT showing Jesus, up to his neck in the waters of chaos, and victorious on the cross.
Jesus up to his neck in the waters of chaos | Photo by Ron Steed

Look at the altar window behind me. I think this window is based, at least in part, on that Orthodox icon I mentioned earlier. Doesn’t it look to you like Jesus is submerged up to his neck in water? See how blue his robe is? You can see the seaweed floating by the lower part of the cross. There are nets and anchors and sea shells. And incredibly, there are five or six tiny star shapes that really look to my eye like bullet holes… so there’s the chaos of modern American life symbolized there as well. That’s even more amazing since I don’t think the designers of this window could ever have imagined American schoolchildren being routinely shot up in classrooms.

All of this is meant to represent the chaos of the sea. Jesus is up to his neck in chaos and he’s not afraid. Out of the waters of Baptism, something new happens.

Taking a Deeper Dive

Now, I think we’re equipped to take a deeper look into today’s gospel story.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John make their living by fishing in chaos. The Sea of Galilee represents chaos in this story, and it points to other kinds of chaos going on. John the Baptist has been arrested, and the entire nation is just a captive territory of Rome. There are Roman taxes to be paid, so there’s a lot of political and economic chaos in Israel. In this story, the sea stands-in as the symbol of all this.

Photo of Ron Steed and his brothers Kevin and David, fishing.
The author and his brothers, fishing in the waters of chaos | Photo by J.A. Callahan

There’s another symbol as well; the nets. Peter and Andrew cast their nets into chaos. Sometimes they catch fish, but often enough, chaos seems to win out and their nets get damaged, which is why James and John are mending the broken strands. I think the nets are symbolic of a human life spent barely making a living in the world’s chaos. It seems like these four people, who are really symbolic of all the people of Israel, are the ones actually getting caught in their nets. These nets stand for the futility of trying to make a living in chaos without God.


Jesus comes alongside and proclaims "The Kingdom of God has come near". Certainly, the Kingdom has come near to these four fisherman, but more importantly, God has come near to the chaos of the sea, and we know that when God does that, something new is about to happen. Jesus tells them "turn, face a new direction, and step off into new life with me".

And they do… all four of them walk away from the sea, from their nets, from their boats and hired hands and fathers. They walk away from a life spent in the chaos of the world without Jesus, and walk toward a life that will plunge them back into chaos WITH Jesus.

Now, I don’t want to pretend that life got any easier for them after this; it didn’t. Jesus leads them into all kinds of chaos; alongside the sick and the lame, alongside people who have died… they are going to eat with people (like tax collectors) who they previously despised… they are going to walk right up to the ultimate chaos… the foot of the cross. To walk with Jesus is not to avoid chaos; it is to go deeper into it… even into death. To walk with Jesus is to have your boat turned upside down and to look out the portholes into the chaos of the world.

The difference is, that they are going into chaos WITH Jesus. And when THAT happens, there is new life… abundance… new creation. The sick are healed… the hated ones are given a place at the table with us… the hungry are fed and satisfied… the dead are raised to life. They discover that not even chaos and death can stand between them and the love of God.

And here we have really big issue for us in modern times. Some think that the whole point of Christianity is that chaos should be over, and many don’t understand why that hasn’t happened. Jesus came and defeated the forces of evil didn’t he? Why does it seem then like evil is still in charge? What has changed, really?

Photo of a piece of the Altar window at St Andrew’s Madison, CT showing, what seems to be, two bullet holes.
The chaos of modern life… bullets in the bodies of children | Photo by Ron Steed

Israel and Gaza, Ukraine and Russia, white supremacy and gun violence… all of these and other issues, seem like complete and total chaos to me. I haven’t got a clue about what to do or even what to say about them. I have no solutions for any of it, only lamentations. I feel both empathy and revulsion, both at the same time, for everybody involved, including my own country. It all seems as intractable as the ocean to me.

Where we find Jesus

But here’s what I DO know. Jesus is up to his neck in the chaos of our world. If you are looking for Jesus, you’ll find him in the chaos. You’ll find him close to a Jewish hostage in Gaza, and roaming the halls of a Palestinian hospital. You’ll find Jesus in the trenches of Kharkiv. You’ll find Jesus as bullets are received into the bodies of young American students. You’ll find him sitting in the back seat of a car whose black owner was just pulled over in a traffic stop.

You’ll find him in the quieter places of chaos too. At the bedside of a woman who just learned that she has inoperable cancer. Standing among a family gathered around a dying father. Looking at photos with a young man whose liver is failing from alcoholism.

Here’s the thing. The creation story of Genesis has never ended. God rested for a day, and then kept right on creating. And chaos, in some mysterious way, is the raw material God seems to use for creation. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection did not change any of that. What changed is that Jesus has brought us into the creative process WITH him. We are up to our necks WITH Jesus IN chaos. I think that the Peace of God that passes all understanding, which Shariya is going to bless us home with, includes the chaos… that’s part of reason we don’t understand it!

All the colors collected in the water of the baptismal font at St Andrews Madison, CT.
The deep waters of chaos | Photo by Ron Steed

And somehow, from within the deep waters of chaos, hearts are being changed by Jesus toward God’s Peace. Israelis, Palestinians, Ukrainians, Russians, and Americans of every sort and being touched by God. Hearts of stone are being softened by Jesus, and some people are turning toward peace. It happened in South Africa… it happened in Northern Ireland.

Catch and Release

To become "fishers of people" as Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, we follow Jesus into chaos with a sort of catch and release program. The energy from our tiniest acts of prayer, peacemaking, and creativity flow into the spiritual dimensions, to be used where it is needed in the world. Help to build a house with Habitat-for-Humanity, and the creative energy of that work flows to a Palestinian child whose life will be dedicated to peace in Gaza someday. Share a cup of coffee while getting to know somebody more deeply, and the joy of your budding friendship flows into the trenches of Ukraine to be released as healing. Nothing is wasted. All of this energy is gathered in one place, and scattered like seed in another.

This church-space stands as a symbol and a testament to the presence of chaos all around us, and the presence of Jesus WITH us as we live our baptismal lives. Chaos is always close at hand wherever Jesus is. Just as the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep, Jesus is up to his neck WITH us in chaos, no matter what. And out of that mix of chaos and followers, rivers and seas, fish and nets… out of all of that, comes the light of new creation.

¹ This sermon was delivered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT, on the third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2024

² Mark 1:14–20 (NRSV):
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

³ Some of the themes of this sermon are drawn from:
Williams, The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, Sacramental Living- Trinity College, Melbourne.