On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?" English Standard Version
THE LORD OF THE STORM
Water plays a huge part in biblical history. God loves to play with water!
The world had hardly been created as a chaotic mess over which the Spirit of God hovered when he began to bring order into it. Separation was his first task - the separation of darkness from light and then the separation of "the waters from the waters," both the waters above the earth and the waters on the earth to make way for dry land.
That initial creation became such a false start that God chose to use those same waters that had been separated on earth to make dry land to cover the whole earth once more. He made a new start with Noah and his family - a kind of second creation. In order to do that he had to separate the waters once more to make space for dry land.
Once again he parted the waters from the waters to make space for dry land when the children of Israel fled from the land of their slavery - and he, in turn, closed those waters over the pursuing army of Egyptians, destroying them in the same waters that had permitted the Israelites safe passage by their parting. God certainly knows how to use both water and dry land!
The desert is notoriously free of water, but even there God was at work. "The people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.'" So Moses turned to the God of waters and asked him to resolve this great and desperate need. "Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink." He did, and the momentarily rebellious band of Israelites was, at least temporarily, reassured that God was, indeed, in control of their anxious situation.
Once again waters of a river parted before them - this time the waters of the Jordan, the gateway into the Promised Land. "The waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away ... and those flowing down ... were completely cut off....And all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan."
God even had to both dump Jonah into the sea and then rescue him from it once he had been thrown into that body of water in order to calm the storm that threatened the ship on which he was trying to run away from God. Some of that story, in fact, seems to find something of an echo in today's text. While God has used many another medium to enact his will, waters seem always to be in the background.
It is not strange, therefore, to find Jesus and his disciples on the waters in today's Gospel. The account starts out safely enough: Jesus had been teaching a large crowd by the seaside through a series of parables, and he was exhausted when he said to his disciples, "Let us go across to the other side." At least four of those disciples were seasoned and experienced sailors on this sea, for they had spent many an hour fishing on it for a living. So apparently at first they were not overly surprised when a sudden storm started pitching their boat from side to side. They knew this lake. It was notorious for these suddenly forming squalls that came out of nowhere because of the lay of the land around it.
But it quickly became apparent that this was no ordinary squall. It rapidly grew in intensity until the boat began filling with water. The veteran fishermen, practiced and skillful though they were, became convinced that the boat was about to sink.
When a narrative such as this appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke in almost identical fashion we take it as a sign that the early church considered this story among the most important to guide them in their confession of this new development in the faith of God's people. We, therefore, do well to make special note of a number of things to consider in the remainder of the account.
The first notable thing is this fellow sound asleep in the midst of such a furious tossing and turning of the boat so swiftly filling with water. The rain and the spray alone would have awakened most of us, I am sure. But there he is asleep in a cushion in the stern of the boat. It takes a lot of fatigue to keep a man in this situation sound asleep. Or ... it takes a person very confident of divine protection to sleep through a situation like this. Rarely if ever does one find such a total conviction and trust that God will guard and keep one from all harm as one sees in this man named Jesus.
That brings us to the second notable thing: We do not find such a conviction on the part of the others in the boat - not even in the experienced fishermen. If anybody should remain relatively calm it would be these fishermen who were acquainted with the storms on this sea. But no! Their awakening cry is one of horrendous and dreadful fear of their imminent demise. The boat is not merely rocking and rolling. It is in impending danger of sinking - and there they were without even a life jacket! They shook Jesus awake with the cry, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" That was not a gentle way of urging Jesus to exercise an advisory caution that the craft was in trouble. They did not say, "We are in serious trouble and you should know it." Nor did they say, "The boat is giving signs of real danger." They woke him with a panicky cry that the likelihood of surviving was minimal.
Why wake Jesus, then? Would it not have been the better way to just let him die peacefully in his sleep? They did not waken him with the idea that he could do something about it so far as we can tell from Mark's account. When Matthew records this incident he does seem to suggest that they hoped he could do something about it, for Matthew says that the disciples cried out, "Save us, Lord; we are perishing." Mark, however, chronicles it as though they were saying something to the effect, "Prepare yourself for your end. You should know that the boat is sinking and there is nothing we can do about it! Prepare for the worst!" They waken him with the words, "Do you not care that we are perishing - you and us together!?!?!" It is important that we catch the alarm and terror in their voice, for it is such an absolute contrast to the calm of the one who was sleeping through it all.
The third thing of note has already been suggested, but is made still more clear in this contrast: There is no sign in this account by Mark that the disciples woke Jesus because they believed he could help. They woke him up out of fear, not faith. They felt helpless in the face of great danger, and they just woke him up, as it were, to share in their fear and to prepare himself for the worst. "Do you not care that we are perishing?" they asked. That does not appear to be a question about whether he could do something about the situation, but rather a question of whether he recognized how concerned he should be in the face of this danger. Was he not bothered by the impending disaster? It almost sounds like waking a person out of deep slumber to ask if they had been asleep or not. Why or how could Jesus have been aware of all this when he was sleeping so deeply - even with the storm raging around him and the boat filling with water? Their cry was more like "Wake up so that you can be afraid like the rest of us, for we are in imminent danger of sinking!" While there are other ways of interpreting the question, to be sure, somehow that is how it sounds in the larger context of this account, for they clearly were surprised when Jesus did, indeed, do something about their peril. They do not seem to have been aware that he could so anything about it when they woke him up, though. But more on that in a little while.
At this point we begin to see ourselves in this account. How often our prayers are a mingling of fear with faith rather than a faith mixed into our fears! It is not unusual to hear someone say that they have a hard time praying when things in their lives are going badly precisely because they never bothered to pray when things were going well. I remember a woman years ago who lived through the London blitzkrieg telling me that she could not pray during that time in spite of all the danger of the moment because she was sure that her indifference to prayer before the blitzkrieg must surely have made God impervious to any prayers she would utter in the time of trial when she was running scared - and that same paralysis of prayer was still affecting her inner life at the time when I was speaking with her. Fears awaken things in us that have deep seated roots in the labyrinths of our souls of which we are largely unaware until a sudden danger rouses them, jerking us up into unexpected paroxysms of fear that paralyze us rather than opening us to an appeal for help to the only helper who can help. We may, in other words, be experienced fishermen, but storms like this one still paralyze us with fear.
But there are still more notable things about this account to which we must now pay attention: The obvious one - and undoubtedly the central and basic one - is the authority with which Jesus addresses the winds and the waves. He "rebuked," them, Mark tells us, saying to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" as though he were their master addressing them as his servants. At this command "there was a great calm." The words "Peace! Be still!" have within them a much stronger sense than the bare words themselves convey. "Peace - Be silent," Jesus commanded the waves. "Settle down. Stop your rampage!" And again: "Be still - be muzzled. Let your snarling come to an end! Stop frightening these people." The God of the Waves is the Lord of the Storm! He who separated the waters from the waters in the very beginning of time now spoke to the waters with the word of command - and they obeyed him!
But still more! There was a general feeling among the Jews that the sea was the realm of the devil, an inimical place, the place in which evil resided, an uncertain place compared to the stability of dry land where one could count on God. This account recorded in today's Gospel may have become, by the time of Mark's writing when the church was meeting more and more hostility on several fronts, a way of instructing the church in the way that God was protecting the newly emerging body of Christ from those forces that were causing them such consternation.
Whether that was the case or not, one might also find in this account an instruction on baptism! The quiet waters poured over new converts repulsed the stormy demonic forces from which they were now emerging just as the waters of this storm were tamed by the word of Christ and made quiet again. The very next event, in fact, once the little band reached the shore, was the casting out of demons that had so possessed a man that "no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain," for he broke the shackles every time someone thought they had him secured. Quieting stormy waters was akin to quieting such a demon-possessed man. Baptism does that, too, removing the shackles of sin and death from the baptized person by joining that person to Christ's redemptive death and resurrection that freed us from sin's hold. When we baptize a person, in fact, we address the question of whether the baptismal candidate renounces the devil and all his works and all his ways in preparation for the pouring of the water. There are at least shadows of baptism in Jesus' command that the waves cease and desist their destructive activity.
That introduces yet another notable thing about this event. "Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" Why does Jesus use the word "still" when he asks about their faith? They have only been with him a short while before this, and although they have seen and heard him in a variety of circumstances their faith is only in the early stages of being formed. There are various translations of the second question Jesus addressed to the disciples. It is translated as a descriptive phrase in the RSV, "O men of little faith." It is a question in other translations: "Have you no faith even now?" (NEB) "Why are you lacking in faith?" (NAB) His question is a bit ambiguous, but it is clear amidst the ambiguity that he is asking why, now having seen this display of his power over nature itself, they were finding it hard to quite assimilate all that they had heard and seen into a coherent whole.
It is a problem that we all face, for every time we get a grasp on one side of the marvel God displays for us, we find another side that is still difficult to quite comprehend. We both understand the problem the disciples were having and the question Jesus addressed to them, for they are difficulties we all face and the question that haunts us at every turn. Why is it so hard to sustain faith at crucial times - like when a storm blows through our lives?
Do we do any better, then, than did the disciples? For all that we confess and believe about Jesus, do we not come up against "little faith," "undeveloped faith," "shaky faith," time after time? When one is in the presence of one whose very word alone controls the winds and the waves one hardly knows quite what to make of what happens when that word that is spoken. Has your life not been affected by the unseen hand of God in ways that confound you at times? While we do not see a miracle such as this every day, yet our very lives are marvels and miracles all their own. It is put very well in the lyrics of a song in the musical titled The Flower Drum Song. "A hundred million miracles are happening every day." The problem is that we get so used to seeing them that they no longer strike us as miracles. They are miracles, although we do not recognize them as such - and Jesus could well address us, also, as men and women "lacking in faith" because we are blind to the stilling of storm after storm that afflict and affect our lives in ever so many ways both large and small on an almost regular basis.
Once the ferocity of the storm was stilled, if one were writing creative fiction, one would have the men in the boat shouting loud "hurrahs," expressing huge sighs of relief, screaming with excitement, thanking Jesus for stilling the storm, or some other such thing. They had just been saved from tragedy! They had passed by a narrow brush with death and they would be exultant!
Not so in this account, though! For still another thing of note is that, once the storm had subsided so suddenly and totally, "they were filled with great fear!" They literally "feared with great fear!" No exultation here! No celebration! No merriment! Only fear! If you read the story carefully, even in their recognition of the danger of death the word "fear" had not occurred! It first appears here - and in an exaggerated form at that! Whatever fear they may have experienced when the winds blew and the waves thundered was minor compared to the fear that now suddenly came over them!
The only way they had of expressing this fear was to ask one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?" As we suggested earlier, the disciples did not seem to have a hint that Jesus could do anything about this storm. They had seen him exercise authority over sickness, leprosy, even death - and all that was impressive, to say the least. Those things had undoubtedly exhilarated them. But now, when they suddenly were brought to the realization of who it was who had called them to follow him by his very power over nature itself, they had to raise the obvious question that followed: "What does it mean to keep company with one like this?" Here in this astonishing "revelation" of his true nature we hear them suddenly having become aware that he who had become quite popular with his preaching, as the immediately preceding section to this miracle testifies, and although they had been mightily electrified with Jesus' ability to heal people with various infirmities prior to that, this sudden disclosure of a power over the very forces of nature with a simple word - as though he were the Lord of the storm and Master of the waves - was more than they could digest all at one time. "Who then, is this?" they questioned. Earlier the crowds had questioned "What is this?" when evil spirits obeyed his word. Their "what," however, had more to do with the nature of his power. For the disciples the question was no longer "what" in the aftermath of the storm, though. It now became a "who" "Who is this?" "What have we gotten ourselves into, being connected with one who holds power such as this?"
We often wish we could have walked and talked with Jesus, but this report makes it clear that walking and talking with Jesus was a puzzling and mystifying walk at best. It took more gumption than Judas Iscariot had! And it would try the other disciples to their outer limits as time went on! Mark devoted his entire Gospel to answering that question of who Jesus was, the question that haunted all the disciples right up to and through his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. It took Pentecost and the powerful outflowing of the Holy Spirit to begin sorting all this out into the coherent whole that Jesus saw was lacking in the disciples after they had experienced the stilling of the storm. We today continue to ponder over, meditate on, live under these the same questions that haunted the disciples as the Pentecostal Spirit continues his work of unraveling the mystery and wonder of how God was working in and through this Jesus of whom the disciples asked, "Who then, is this?"
The question that originated with these disciples, then, is the question of the ages. If the answer seems all that obvious from this account of how he, with a mere word showed himself to be the Lord of the Storm - a word much like that initial creating word, "Let there be, and there was" - one must follow him with Mark and those who rode out this storm in the boat with Jesus from this moment through the many more moments until the question smacks us square in the face when we see him hanging on the cross. "Who is this man hanging here, helpless and forlorn?" is the ultimate question. Difficult though it was to answer that question as Jesus mastered the storm, it was far more difficult to answer it as time went on - and even especially there standing under the cross. Rather than simplifying the answer, it became more and more complicated and thorny in the months and years to follow.
So who do you say that this man is? Oh, yes, we answer so glibly. We often confess the creeds with hardly a thought of what we are saying. But the answer must be thoughtful and meaningful, for in this man we are confronted by the gift of God in human flesh, one who is the link between God and man. He is, himself, that linkage by virtue of his own body bearing at one and the same time the God who stills storms and the body so exhausted that he sleeps in the stern of a boat while the winds blow and the waves threaten to capsize the boat. And his mission is to reconnect God and his rebellious people, reconciling those who are at odds with one another through the invasion of sin. In his body he broke the bonds of death by his dying - and in his body he raised hope out of the grave. Birthing waters were broken by him and a new creation was born! All this we say with confidence as Christians. But it is not a once and for all answering of the question "Who is this man?" It is a question that must be answered over and over and over again as storms blow and waves come crashing over the sides of the boat of our lives.
For this text does not convey the sense that once Jesus stands up and shouts, "Peace! Be still!" there will never be another storm. They will come with regularity so long as we float over the sea of life for the configuration of the land around this sea of life is such that it always brings sudden and fierce storms breaking over the calmness that we experience at other times.
The one thing that this text does promise us, however, is this: So long as the Lord of the Storm is in your boat, you can be sure that the winds and the waves will never sink the ship of your lives.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit, the name that was joined to your name in the waters of your baptism. Amen.