Storms & Questions (A sermon on Mark 4:35-41)

hat day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let’s cross to the other side.” So they left the crowd and took him along in the boat just as he was. Other boats were with him. A violent windstorm came up, and the waves began breaking into the boat, so that the boat was rapidly becoming swamped. But Jesus was in the back of the boat, asleep on a cushion. So they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to die?” Then he got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Hush! Be still!” Then the wind stopped blowing, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you such cowards? Don’t you have any faith yet?” They were overcome with fear and kept saying to one another, “Who is this man? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

I’m conscious this morning that we’ve had another baptism, which is wonderful, but I do get the feeling sometimes that when parents bring a child to baptism they are sort of quietly hoping that the experience might have a soothing effect on the child. After all, isn’t that part of what good religion is all about – helping people get civilized.

I remember hearing of a conversation between a couple in an airport lounge whose wild and unruly son was racing around causing havoc with the other waiting passengers. The husband said to his wife, Maybe we should send him to Sunday School. Getting a bit of religion into him would be bound to make him a little more easy-going. Again, isn’t that a large part of what religion is about – settling things down?

Well if the air of holy chaos here didn’t put an end to that idea the moment you walked in this morning, the Bible readings we had should have! We read of David cutting off Goliaths head – engaging in what I saw one preacher term ‘sacred violence’ (something we’ve surely seen enough of that in our world).

After that we had St Paul speaking of the beatings he’d taken, and the imprisonments and riots he’d been involved in. And then we capped off our Bible readings with a crazy story about Jesus and his disciples in a storm – a story of pain and panic, fear and frustration, chaos and confusion!

And I find it to be quite a disturbing story – this story of Jesus and His friends getting into a boat and then this sudden transition from a peaceful voyage across the lake to this terrible scene of impending death.

I’m influenced of course by my own unease with the sea, and by my experience many years ago, when my birthday party at Lane Cover River National Park suddenly turned very dark very quickly as my three-year-old daughter suddenly became trapped under a capsized boat that started sinking towards the bottom of the river.

And that’s how these things happen. One moment you’re happily gliding along through life and then suddenly everything gets turned upside-down and the waves are coming crashing inside the boat from you don’t know where!

These things are often so difficult to make sense of. Mind you, in the case of the Gospel story the whole scene is difficult to make sense of. How did the storm come up so quickly? Why weren’t the crew able to steer away from it? And indeed, why weren’t these men better prepared to deal with a storm. After all, they were supposed to be career sea-people, weren’t they?

Of course, the competence of Jesus’ disciples in their initial careers as fishermen is always a bit of a mystery. How is it that every time we see these guys in a boat they are either sinking or sitting there frustrated because they can’t work out where the fish are! Thank God Jesus saw other employment opportunities for these men.

Mind you, the whole scene is weird, and not just the disciples! The way the storm comes up so quickly, the way they fail to deal with it, the way they fail to handle Jesus properly – all very odd. But the weirdest part of the story of all, I think, is the way in which Jesus stays asleep through the storm!

I’ve tried to envisage what sort of boat this must have been, such that Jesus could have remained asleep in it through the bulk of the passage of the storm! I think the boat is often depicted as a small dingy of sorts, but it’s impossible to imagine anywhere in a boat like that where one could sleep during a storm without being deluged with water after the first few rough waves, and I can’t imagine that it is possible to stay asleep while someone is pouring water all over you!

It had to be a bigger boat, I think to myself, yet even on a luxury liner like the Titanic, you would reach a certain point, would you not, where it was no longer possible to sleep through the crisis! Are we supposed to see this as part of the miracle – Jesus demonstrating the power of divine sleep – a sleep such as that which came upon Sleeping Beauty, a sleep from which no human power could awaken you?

I don’t know. I’m a heavy sleeper, and yet it seems to me that there are certain things you just can’t sleep through. A car accident would be a one. I can’t imagine waking up and saying, ’Oh, the car is upside-down, and half-full of water! Did I miss something?’ Your boat going down with all hands on deck would be a second!

How is it that Jesus remained asleep for so long?

Could it be that he was actually awake the whole time, but was testing his friends to see how they would handle it? That’s possible, but it seems so unlike Jesus to have fun at other people’s expense – one eye half-open, pretending to be asleep and quietly chuckling to Himself, while his friends race around in a blind panic.

Of course the weirdness doesn’t stop there, does it? If how Jesus manages to rest during the storm is an issue, how He manages to put the storm itself to rest is a bigger issue.

In none of the Gospel accounts are we given any real details concerning exactly how it all happened. It seems he just shouted ‘shut up’ to the storm, and it did!

The parallels with the story of Jonah are hard to avoid of course. There the boat was also going down, all hands on deck, you will remember, until they hurled Jonah into the water.

There it’s like some terrible offering to the storm god, who, once it received the body of Jonah, calms down completely. No bodies in the water in the Gospel story of course, but it seems that the transition from complete chaos to absolute calm is equally striking.

The other weird thing in this story is how Jesus seems to resent being woken! When they eventually do manage to rouse Him, we are told, He rebukes the wind and the waves, and then He turns and rebukes them: ‘Oh ye of little faith!’ Should they have let Him sleep? Is that what we learn from this story?

If so, it’s a funny sort of lesson for the Christian life. We’ve always been taught that if we are in trouble we should call upon Jesus, whereas if you follow this line of thinking you might think it best to tackle the problems on your own. After all, Jesus needs His sleep!

Of course I don’t think that’s the real lesson we’re supposed to glean from this passage and I don’t think that the reason the disciples get told off is because they wake Jesus. The reason that Jesus tells the disciples off is, presumably, because they give in to fear, and because they let fear control their responses and their relationship with Him instead of faith.

There is a contrast being drawn here between fear and faith. Both involve looking to Jesus and calling on him for help, but one comes out of a relationship of trust, and one comes out of distrust.
And so, as Fosdick put it

Fear imprisons, faith liberates
fear paralyses, faith empowers
fear disheartens, faith encourages
fear sickens, faith heals

Fear not!, says Jesus. Oh ye of little faith! And if there is a simple lesson to get from this story, it is this: that though the storm might look menacing, Jesus has the power to calm and to heal, Fear not! Have faith!

Indeed, historically this has been the message that the church has taken from this story, as this story has always been drawn upon as an archetypal story of what it means to be a member of the church.

One of the earliest symbols of the church, adopted by the early Christians, was a simple drawing of a boat with a cross for a mast. Likewise, in early times Christians starting calling that part of the church building where the congregation sits’ the nave’, from the Latin word ’navis’, meaning ‘boat’.

This image of the disciples huddled together in a boat, tossed around by the stormy sea – that’s us! We are small, fragile, and our craft does not look overly sea-worthy, but instead of being moored safely to some dock, our little ship that is venturing out into the deep, with only faith to keep it afloat!

The winds are blowing and the waves are rumbling and water is spilling in over the bow, but Jesus is with us! It might not always be obvious that Jesus is with us. Sometimes we might wonder, if Jesus is with us, what is He doing at the moment? Is He asleep? But then we hear His voice, ‘fear not, oh ye of little faith!’

It’s a tricky image, of course, as it leaves a lot of questions unanswered:
• Why is it that Jesus so often seems to be asleep?
• Why doesn’t He seem to wait so long before calming the wind and the waves?
• And why did He steer us into this storm in the first place! For we note that in the Gospel story (as in so much of life) it is Jesus Himself who points the boat towards the storm!
And the truth is that we don’t know the answer to all these questions, as indeed there are lots of questions we don’t have the answer to. And, notably, we haven’t even looked at the biggest question that comes out of this passage, which is the question that the disciples themselves ask, namely, ‘who is this guy, Jesus, such that the winds and the waves obey Him?’

And there’s no answer given here to that question either of course, but we do pick up from this story that whoever Jesus, He is a good person to have alongside you if you are in a storm.

And perhaps that’s the basic perception which leads us to bring our children to baptism. Perhaps we’re not sure exactly what we are getting ourselves into when we join the church or exactly who this guy Jesus is, but we know that He is the one we want alongside us and alongside our families as we traverse the storms of life.

We don’t pretend to fully understand Him, but we know that He is someone who can be trusted.
We don’t understand why where exactly He is taking us, but we sense that He knows where we need to go.

We can’t make sense of why He keeps steering us into the storm, but we know too that He is also the one who can calm the storm and bring us to a brighter day.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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