A Sermon by Nathan L. Bostian
For Year B, Proper 7, based on Mark 4:35-41
For Year B, Proper 7, based on Mark 4:35-41
When I read stories like today's Gospel reading- stories where Jesus does something awesome that literally moves heaven and earth- I often find myself asking a question that goes something like this:
"Jesus, why don't you calm MY storms like that?"
Have you ever found yourself wondering the same thing? Have you ever found yourself drowning in trouble, knocked back and forth by waves of anger and sorrow and frustration and fear, wondering "Where is God in this?".
Is God asleep at the wheel? Does Jesus not see what I am going through here? Is he literally in the back of the boat taking a nap, leaving me to bail out buckets of my own tears?
I think this is a deep question that goes straight to the heart of our relationship with God. What is Jesus doing in the storms of our lives? This is something we all need to ask. And I want to give us permission to ask it.
And so we can answer the question of what Jesus is doing in OUR storms, let us first answer the question: "What is Jesus doing in the storm of THIS story?"
Some say that Jesus was acting out of a deep sense of compassion. He saw his friends in need, about to drown, buffeted by waves beyond their control.
And seeing that, Jesus' deep sense of compassion took over- that sense of compassion that led him to feed the hungry, and heal the sick, and forgive the sinful. It broke his heart to see his friends in trouble, so he acted to save him.
And this is important for us to know. We need to know that God has deep compassion for our deepest needs. We have to know that God's mercy is stronger than ANY of the storms we face. We must know that God's Love will eventually grant peace and tranquility to our stormy souls.
Others say that this was an object lesson for Jesus. Jesus had "stacked the deck" and knew that the storm was coming. He knew his disciples would freak out. He knew the storm would push them to understand how little trust they had, and how they needed to grow in faith.
So, Jesus went to sleep until just the right time to reveal his Divine power and glory. It was a hurricane-sized lesson to teach his disciples that he is indeed God in human flesh, and that they need to put all their trust in him as their Lord.
Indeed, for the original hearers, at the end of this Gospel story I am sure that the storyteller turned to his audience, looked them in the eyes, and spoke the question: "Who IS this that even the wind and the waves obey him?"
The implied answer is, of course, that Jesus has power over nature because he is the One that created nature. He is the Creator embodied as a creature.
And surely this too is an important lesson for us: Jesus is God in human form, and he is worthy of all our trust and faith.
Still others say that this Story is a lesson on spiritual warfare. In the preceding days and weeks, Jesus had been teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out evil powers in the Name of Love. Jesus was manifesting God's power over the forces of evil- the forces of sickness, sin, bondage, and hate- and that was making the evil powers ANGRY.
So, the forces of evil took their opportunity to STRIKE while Jesus was asleep, while the disciples were defenseless in the middle of a huge lake. Evil lashed out and struck that little boat with gusts of fear, and waves of panic.
But at just the right time, Jesus arose and demonstrated his power over evil once again. If you notice the way he rebukes the storm, and orders it to be still, it follows the pattern he uses to cast out demons.
In fact, the command "Be still!" literally means "Be muzzled!" like an angry barking dog. It is the same thing Jesus would tell the unclean spirits, right before he cast them out into the abyss.
This third interpretation also carries a powerful message for us: Jesus is our Victor. Christ is our Champion. In the end, evil and suffering do not have the last word. Jesus has the last Word. And his Word is peace.
So, which is it? Did Jesus calm the storm to save his friends, or to give them faith that he is God, or to demonstrate his victory over evil? Tell us preacher: What does this mean?
Well, to be honest with you, I think all three are a bit of the truth. And all three miss a bit of the point. I think the reason why Jesus acted here is a bit different from everything we have talked about so far.
Let's review the tape shall we? What had Jesus been doing before he got in the boat? [Wait for answers]
Yes, Jesus had been preaching and teaching and healing and casting out evil. He had been ministering to people in the hot Judean sun for days upon end. People had been coming up to him, in unceasing numbers, needing and asking and wanting and talking and debating.
Jesus was exhausted. Jesus was tired deep down into his bones. Jesus was so weary he was able to go to sleep in the back of a small, creaky fishing boat, surrounded by loud, smelly, working fishermen. He literally slept through a storm!
That storm is a regular occurrence on the Galilean sea. As the water cools down after the relentless sun has finally set, the hot air dissipates, and the cool air descends from the mountains. The friction causes squalls and storms and wind and waves to break across the sea.
There was nothing surprising here. In fact, it had happened dozens, hundreds of times to these experienced fishermen. This storm may have been particularly severe, but it was not so severe as to wake Jesus up from his well deserved sleep.
Sure, the disciples had let it get away from them a little bit. Sure, the water was flooding the boat in their negligence. But it was still not enough to wake Jesus up. It was still not beyond the realm of what experienced fishermen could expect.
And yet, as the wind and waves beat against that boat, as they bailed water out, as the gusts made the little boat yaw and twist in gut wrenching directions, you can see the look of frustration on the disciples faces as Jesus keeps on sleeping.
I can hear them griping now: "Here we are doing all the hard work. And what is Jesus doing? Nothing! We have heard his words cast demons out and cure the incurable, and now that WE are in trouble, what do we hear? Snoring!"
"Hey! Sleeping beauty! We are about to drown here! You think you could wake up long enough to DO SOMETHING?"
At the voice of his best friends, Jesus finally comes to. You know how it feels. There is that moment when you get jarred into consciousness, and for a second your dream world merges with the real world, as your dreary eyes snap to attention.
He hears their last comment "Don't you care that we are perishing?"
Can you imagine the frustration as Jesus realized that they were waking him up for a slightly-bigger-than-normal Galilee sea storm? Can you imagine the frustration of Jesus being accused of not caring?
I can almost hear Jesus thinking: "You would accuse me of not caring? It was my caring that brought me to this world! It was my caring that led me to preach and teach and heal and cast out evil!
It was my caring that led me to be here with you, in the middle of this sea, in the midst of this storm! OK, I will show you caring! I will give you what you asked for!"
Then I can see Jesus turn with that look- that look of power and frustration and compassion and exhaustion all combined into one glance- I can see him turn to the sea and scream in exasperated power "Peace! Be muzzled!"
Then it all stops. An awful, dreadful, wonderful, deep, powerful, scary peace descends upon the sea. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. Nothing.
No wind. No waves. Dead calm. All you can hear is the breathing of the fishermen, and the drops of water falling off of the boat into the sea. Drip. Drip. Drip.
Then Jesus flashes that look to his disciples, and with deep compassion and frustration in his voice says: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
Without a word, Jesus turns, lays down on his pillow, and goes back to sleep.
Everyone is afraid to talk in the eerie silence. Finally, someone whispers in the darkness "Who IS this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?"
After a few minutes someone says: "You know, there's no wind now".
Another replies "Yep, I know."
"That means the sails won't work."
"That means we are going to have to row seven or eight miles to get to the other side."
"Well, he didn't have to get rid of ALL of the wind. He could have left us some, you know? Maybe I should wake him up again and ask him to…"
"I wouldn't do that."
"Ummm. You are probably right. It's time to row, isn't it?"
And so they spend the rest of the night into the early dawn rowing and rowing and rowing until they finally make landfall.
Now, I know I have taken some liberties here with the story. But, when I put myself in that boat, that's the way I imagine it.
You don't have to go there with me. But, if you do go there with me, I think we learn a couple of different things about how Jesus is at work in our storms.
The first thing I find is that our relationship with God is a real relationship, not some idealized relationship where nothing ever goes wrong, and we never get mad at each other.
You know, sometimes, we get frustrated with God. We get frustrated that we pray, and seek him, and try to do the right thing, and still, storms happen. Storms that perhaps we could have handled better. But storms that we still cannot control.
Can't God just make things easier? What is the deal?
In our relationship with God- as in ANY relationship where we deeply love another person- we are going to get frustrated. We are going to have to work through issues with God. God knows, because that is how God made us.
And God will get frustrated with us as well. After all the times, in all the many ways, in all the different circumstances, that Jesus has shown God's Love to us, we STILL have problems trusting in God's goodness.
We cannot seem to have faith in the fact that Jesus is right there with us, going through everything with us, giving us strength in ways we are not aware of, and cannot comprehend.
Our lack of trust, our failure of faith, frustrates God. My lack of trust, my failure of faith, makes Jesus mutter "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
But Jesus never gives up on us. As Saint Paul says in one of his letters to Timothy: "When we are faithless, Jesus is faithful, for He cannot disown Himself".
You see, no matter how frustrated we are with God, and no matter how we frustrate God, God never ever gets out of the boat with us. Sink or swim, in storms and in peace, Jesus stays with us. And he will be with us all the way to the other side.
And that leads me to the last thing I learn from this story: Often, if God acted the way that I wanted God to act, and snapped his fingers and made everything calm, it would actually make MORE work for me to learn how to be Christlike.
When Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples probably had to do hours of backbreaking rowing to get to the other side.
If they had just trusted that Jesus' very presence on the ship would protect them- If they had worked together in faith- If they had just relied on the silent strength of Jesus to get through the storm, they would have made it through to the other side without rowing.
But they didn't. And in the long run, Jesus' immediate rescue of them led to more work to get to the other side.
We are all on a journey to cross to the other side. We are on a journey in our spiritual growth, personal development, and emotional maturity. We are on a journey in our relationships, marriages, and families. We are on a journey in our careers, our successes, and even our failures.
And in that journey, we will face storms. Some of those storms will be bigger than we can face, and we will need God's power to stop them from sinking us. But some of those storms will also be tools that God uses to help us grow more Christlike.
In fact, many storms are tests of character. They are the methods God uses to show us how to love more like Jesus, to have more joy or peace or patience or compassion or faith or self-discipline.
And if we run from those storms- if we demand God to stop them, or just give up and go back to the shore- then we will find that we will have a lot more rowing than if we just faced the storm with Jesus in the first place.
In our journey with Jesus, may God give us the wisdom to know when we need Him to stop the storms, and when we need to ride the rapids.
And when we ride the rapids, may God give us Christ's silent strength and courageous faith to learn and grow and overcome.
And may we always know that Jesus is always in the boat with us, in joy and in frustration, in peace and in the storm, and he will never leave us. Amen+