Sermon; 5 Pentecost/Proper 7B; Mark 4:35-41
Over the past few weeks we have begun the process of getting acquainted with Mark not only as a Passion narrative, but as a story that sees Jesus' life as pointing to the cross almost from the beginning. As we started this journey, the very first gospel story we heard included the scene of the Pharisees collaborating with the Herodians to destroy Jesus. The next story we heard was that of Jesus attending to so many people that he was labeled “mad” and his family came to seize or restrain him. These are two early stories pitting Jesus against the power of the world. And in those first two stories, the powers he confronts are human in nature.
The power he confronts today is nature itself.
“In the evening Jesus and the disciples got into a boat to cross to the other side.” At some point on the journey a storm rose up, waves beating into the boat threatening to swamp it. I imagine some disciples grabbing a bucket or two in an effort to bail out the boat keeping it afloat. The storm is so bad that even Peter, Andrew, James, and John, all experienced fishermen, are in fear for their lives. And all through this whole thing Jesus is asleep in the stern. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is.
The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea such that the ship threatened to break up. And the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his god. But Jonah had gone down into the hold, lay down, and fell fast asleep. The captain found him asleep and said, “Get up and pray to your God. It may be that he will save us.” Eventually he convinces the sailors to throw him overboard. Immediately the storm ceased and Jonah spent the next three days in the belly of a great fish.
Jonah will be used by Jesus later in Matthew, “As Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so will the Son of Man be three days in the heart of the earth.” Just as Jonah was sacrificed to save the lives of the crew, so will Jesus be sacrificed to save the lives of many.
This pointing to the cross and Passion isn't just in Mark's story, but it draws on scenes from Hebrew scripture as well. We see here in this story that, just as God had power over the natural world, so does Jesus.
But we need to be careful here on two fronts. The first is attributing every natural disaster to the will of God. It's that kind of theology that leads people to say hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like are a direct result of certain peoples' moral evils and/or failings.
The second is seeing Jesus as a quick-fix to any problem or bad situation in which we find ourselves. As Christians, one of the things we believe about Jesus is that he is the second person of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit. As such, he is God and has power over both the physical and spiritual domains, as we've seen these past few weeks. But we also believe that he is not at our beck and call. He is not our personal vending machine. He is not there to do our bidding when we find ourselves in stormy weather.
Ride out the storm with us? Definitely. Make it stop? Not necessarily – because this story isn't about showing us that Jesus will stop every storm in our lives. This story is about showing us that Jesus is with us in the storm and that he is Lord of both physical and spiritual realms.
But there are also other aspects to this story of the stilling of the storm beyond the obvious which I've just mentioned; and one of those aspects goes back to the arc of Mark which we began a month ago. That is the arc that continually points Jesus and us to the cross. “How,” you may ask, “is this story of the stilling of the storm a story about the cross?”
I'm so glad you asked.
Let me clarify. This story isn't about the cross and crucifixion per se, but it has parallels to the events of the crucifixion; it has parallels to the Passion. And it is these parallels that draw and point us to the Passion.
Jesus and the disciples are all together in a boat, and it was night. At some point in their journey a storm comes up. The wind picks up until it is howling all around them. Waves beat into the boat, sending water over the side threatening to sink it and kill them all. The disciples are in the middle of this storm, fearing for their lives, wondering what's going to happen. And then Jesus cries out, “Peace! Be still!” And there was a dead calm.
The disciples were all together in one place when Judas went out after receiving the bread. And it was night. At some point the noise of a crowd is heard. It picks up and gets louder and louder until it is howling all around them. The mob gets stronger, threatening to kill them all. The disciples are in the middle of this storm, fearing for their lives, wondering what's going to happen. And then Jesus cries out. And there was a dead calm.
In that moment on the boat, all was calm. On Holy Saturday all creation was silent.
Today's text says that Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
But what if we broke that up differently? Other texts read that Jesus said, “Be quiet! Be still!” What if we read that as two separate commands, one to the disciples and one to the wind and sea.
And Jesus said to the disciples, “Peace! Be quiet!” And he said to the wind and sea, “Be still!”
God, through Jesus, is with us always, even to the end of the age. That doesn't mean, however, that there won't be storms of any number of varieties. But for us to hear the voice of God, we need to spend more time being quiet. Elijah discovered this when the storm of Ahab and Jezebel swirled around him; the voice of God wasn't in the earthquake, whirlwind, or fire, but in the sheer silence. Jonah discovered this when the storm threatened to break up the ship and he had three days of silence in the belly of the fish to listen to the voice of God. In retrospect, the disciples may have heard the voice of God on that first Holy Saturday; but they certainly heard it when Jesus appeared in that upper room in the evening after the resurrection and said, “Peace be with you.” And we will do well to find times of quiet, to sit peacefully and discern the voice of God when storms are swirling around us.
There will be storms in our lives. We may feel like our boat is being battered apart. We may feel like it's the end of life as we know it, or that our life may be ending. Or we may feel like we are being crucified.
Sometimes those storms are the result of outside factors – a death in our lives, the loss of a job, political situations for which we feel helpless, are just a few. Sometimes those storms are the result of our own actions – our own selfishness that causes pain for others, words spoken in jest or seriousness that tear down instead of build up, or any number of other actions that leave others feeling like that battered boat in the middle of a storm.
When we find ourselves in such storms, it just may be that our best course of action is to be quiet and listen for the voice of God in the silence and stillness. If we can trust that God is with us in the storm, if we can muster the courage to be silent, then we are more likely to hear that voice that says, “I am the God of the living, I will not abandon you.” In that silence we may also find the courage to apologize and ask for forgiveness.
Storms will happen. But if we are quiet, we may just discover that, although they lead us to the cross, the peace that follows will lead to new life in him who stilled the storm.