Scripture - Mark 4:35-41
Gracious God, great Teacher, we come today seeking your wisdom. Open our ears to hear your word, & open our hearts to perceive possibilities, seen & unseen. Amen.
Each part of the story Mark tells reveals a little more of who Jesus is – his power, his purpose, & his self-understanding. Mark is revealing Jesus gradually, like an expert storyteller, peeling back the layers.
But at the same time, he is also a faithful reporter. Today’s text is full of detail. In his book Jesus & the Eyewitnesses, biblical scholar Richard Bauckham examines the characteristics of eyewitness memory. One of the marks of an eyewitness account is ‘irrelevant detail.’ Composed, fictional stories contain details that move the story along or convey a message that the author wants to get across. But eyewitnesses tell many details simply because they remember them. It is true that fiction writers today often add small details to their stories to make them realistic. But that is not the way legends were composed in ancient times. According to Bauckham, scholars who believe the Gospel of Mark is fiction have trouble explaining why Mark, in the story I just read, tells us Jesus started out across the Sea of Galilee with other boats around his, or why he adds that Jesus was asleep in the boat on a pillow. These sorts of details do not advance the plot & do not develop the characters. Vincent Taylor, a prominent 20th century biblical scholar, said that these details were “unnecessary to the story” & therefore have the marks of “genuine memory.”
Mark, then, is giving us Peter’s eyewitness reporting. We can know that this story – which is all about the power of Jesus – really happened. Let us get into the boat & learn about this power alongside Jesus’ disciples. < 4:35-38 >
The Sea of Galilee sits 700 feet below sea level, & just 30 miles to the north of Mt Hermon, which is 9200 feet high. The cold air from the mountains continually clashes with warm air rising from the Sea of Galilee, & as a result there are impressive thunderstorms & squalls. Professional fishermen from Galilee (like Jesus’ disciples) were used to them. This storm therefore must have been an incredible one, because experienced sailors though they were, thought they were going to die. They cried out to Jesus: Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning? And how does Jesus respond? Mark writes: < 4:39-40 >
Jesus woke up & 2 amazing things happened. The first was his words themselves, an utterly simple command. He did not brace himself, roll up his sleeves, & wave a magic wand. There were no incantations. He simply said: Silence! Be still! That is it. To a hurricane, Jesus simply says, Silence! Be still! – as you would talk to an unruly child.
The more astonishing thing is that the storm obeyed like a compliant child. The wind settled down & there was a great calm. That sounds like redundancy until you realize that Mark is talking first about the wind & then about the water. Great calm could just as easily be translated dead calm. Have you ever seen water that is as smooth as glass, with no waves at all? You can see your face in it. When the winds stopped after Jesus’ rebuke, that could have been a coincidence. But if you have ever gone on an ocean cruise or lived on a lakeshore, you know that even when the winds stop & a storm ends, the waves keep pounding for hours afterward. Yet when Jesus said, Silence! Be still! not only did the winds die down but the water went instantly dead calm.
A consensus point among the ancient cultures was that the sea was uncontrollable by any power except God. In ancient cultures & legends, the sea was a symbol of unstoppable destruction. The ocean in full fury was an untamable power, & only God could control it. Did you ever hear the story of King Canute, a Danish king in the 11th century? His fawning court were flattering him excessively, & he responded, “Am I divine?” He walked to the shore & said, “Stop,” & of course the ocean waves just kept coming. He was saying, “Only God can stop the sea. I cannot. I am not God.” Jesus, however, is able to exercise that power that only God has. And remember, Jesus did not conjure; he did not call on a higher authority. If you read any of the old healing legends, the healers call on a higher power. They say, “In the name of _____, I say…” Jesus says simply be still to a storm.
When Jesus was with the Pharisees on the Sabbath he said, “I am not just someone who can instruct you to rest; I am rest itself.” Now by his actions here Jesus is demonstrating, “I am not just someone who has power; I am power itself. Anyone & anything in the universe that has any power has it on loan from me.”
Sisters & brothers, that is a mighty claim! And if it is true, who is this & what does it mean for us? There are 2 options. You could argue that this world is just the result of a monumental ‘storm’ – you are here by accident, through blind, violent forces of nature, through the big bang - & when you die, you will return to dust. And when the sun goes out, there will not be anyone around to remember anything that you have done, so in the end whether you are a cruel person, or a loving person makes no lasting difference at all. However, if Jesus is who he says he is, there is another way to look at life. If he is Lord of the storm, then no matter what shape the world is in – or your life, for that matter – you will find Jesus provides all the healing, all the rest, & all the power you could possibly want.
Look at the emotional state of the disciples in our passage. < 4:38-41 >
Before Jesus calms the storm, the disciples are afraid. But after Jesus calms the storm, they are terrified! Why? Before Jesus was awakened, Mark says, the boat was nearly swamped. It was almost full of water. The disciples could not bail fast enough; they knew the boat was just seconds from being totally filled & they would die. They woke Jesus & said: Don’t you care that we’re drowning? This picture goes to our hearts, because everyone who has ever tried to live a life of faith in this world has felt like this sometimes. Everything is going wrong, you are sinking, & God seems to be asleep, absent, or unaware. If you loved us, Jesus, we would not be about to sink. If you loved us, you would not be letting us endure deadly peril. Jesus calmed the storm, & then he responded to them. Did he say, I can understand how you felt? No! He asked: Why are you frightened? Can you imagine what the disciples must have been thinking? What do you mean, why were we frightened? We were afraid we were going to drown. We were afraid you did not love us, because if you loved us, you would not let these things happen to us.
But Jesus’ question to them has this thought behind it: Your thinking is turned around. You should have known better. I do allow people I love to go through storms. You had no reason to panic.
If they had little reason to panic during the storm, they certainly had no reason to be afraid after it died down. But Mark writes: Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind & the sea obey him!”
Why were they more terrified in the calm than they were in the storm? Because Jesus was as unmanageable as the storm itself. The storm had immense power – they could not control it. Jesus had infinitely more power, so they had even less control over him. But there is a huge difference. A storm does not love you. Nature is going to wear you down, & eventually destroy you. If you live a long time, eventually your body will give out & you will die. And maybe it will happen sooner – through a tornado, a fire, or some other disaster. Nature is violent & overwhelming – it is unmanageable power & it is going to get you sooner or later. You may say, that is true, but if I go to Jesus, he is not under my control either. He lets things happen that I do not understand. He does not do things according to my plan, or in a way that makes sense to me. But if Jesus is God, then he must be great enough to have some reasons to let you go through things you do not understand. His power is boundless, but so are his wisdom & his love. Nature is indifferent to you, but Jesus is filled with untamable love for you. If the disciples had really known that J loved them, if they had really understood that he is both powerful & loving, they would not have been scared. Their viewpoint, that if Jesus loved them, he would not let bad things happen to them, was wrong. He can love somebody & still let bad things happen to them, because he is God - & he knows better than they do.
If you have a God great enough & powerful enough to be mad at because he does not stop your suffering, you also have a God who is great enough & powerful enough to have reasons that you cannot understand. You cannot have it both ways. Elisabeth Elliot, in her book Through Gates of Splendor, put it beautifully in 2 brief sentences: “God is God, & since he is God, he is worthy of my worship & my service. I will find rest nowhere else but in his will, & that will is necessarily infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what he is up to.” Friends, if you are at the mercy of the storm, its power is unmanageable & it does not love you. The only place you are safe is in the will of God. But because he is God & you are not, the will of God is necessarily, immeasurably, & unspeakably beyond your largest ideas of what he is up to. Is he safe? As CS Lewis wrote in The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe, “Of course he’s not safe. Who said anything about being safe? But he is good. He’s the King.”
Let us pray. You are not what we expect, Lord: victory without a sword, windstorms calmed with a mere word of peace, & sleepless nights rewarded. Help us place our hope & trust firmly in you, that our lives may bear the fruit of faithful living & hopeful promise. Amen.