"Do You Not Care if We Perish?"
A Sermon based upon Mark 4:35-41
The passage from the Gospel of Mark that Bonnie Bartz read for us tells of a sudden night-time squall erupting on the Sea of Galilee... Furious waves and storm winds catch the disciples utterly by surprise! Despite their best efforts, those veteran fishermen find themselves caught in dark, stormy waters, with wind and waves crashing against them. They are sinking, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it.
Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the rest of Jesus’ crew of disciples aboard that storm-tossed ship have tried to cope -- they are busily doing whatever they could on their own to fight the storm -- but in the end they knew: “it’s finished.” It’s all over for us. We’re about to die. The disciples awaken Jesus in a panic: “Do you not care if we perish?”
Jesus responds with the command: "Peace! Be still!" And we are told that in that instant, the wind ceased, the storm is calmed, and the disciples are saved! (Yeah!) That's the story as told in Mark’s Gospel, and it has a happy ending. (!)
For many people, the example of Jesus’ "power over nature" is the punchline of this story; it is, after all, the most obvious and dramatic element in the story! The disciples look at each other and ask: “Who is this!? That even wind and sea obey him!”
To assume that God can suspend the laws of nature whenever God wants to was a common belief among the ancients. The Olympic god Zeus could do it with his lightning bolts; Baal of old in Canaan, and Jupiter of Rome, were said to control the weather. That was typical belief in mythological days of yore. If Jesus were to do the same, it would give him “street cred” as a divine being – he’d come across as more of a god by doing nature miracles like that! He would join the ranks of the other divinities, like Neptune & Poseidon who were thought to rule the waves. But I doubt that is what Jesus expected his disciples to get out of this experience -- nor is it why Mark would have recorded this story for the Church (for us to learn from)!
Yes, I’ll admit that the story does give us a picture of how closely Jesus is related to God Almighty (“El Shaddai”) for in the Bible only God, “the Creator, the Ruler of heaven and earth” could have such awe-some power... This story about Jesus performing an act of power over the realm of nature -- like the stories of Moses getting water out of the rock, or Joshua making the sun stand still in the sky -- is meant to indicate that Jesus is in league with God Almighty, the Creator. He’s obviously “on God’s team” and they are winning! “Even the wind and waves obey him,” say his disciples.
But, frankly, you & I don’t need stories like that as “proof” of Jesus' power & status (do we?). We're willing to give him that: he’s our Messiah, our Savior. We don’t need, nor do we expect, miracle-working to serve as a credential of Jesus’ status. In fact, stories like this may make it harder for some of us to believe... It makes Jesus too much like a “Superman”… a super-hero, not really a mortal human being at all. I mean: how are you and I supposed to imitate Jesus (to be Christ-like, and try to do the same) if we do not have those miraculous powers?
We are told that Jesus’ followers have been caught in “stormy water” and they fear for their lives. (!) If Jesus' solution to that problem indicates something of the way we are supposed to resolve our problems (in our world), who among us can do as he did? I can't...! (And I don't ever expect to! I must have missed that class Miracles 101 at seminary.)
So… if we’re not expected to have superhuman powers like those used by Jesus, nor are we to expect miracles from God that will save us when tragedy strikes, what does this story mean for us, caught in the storms of our daily lives...? What does this story mean for us, who are trying to live in the real world (not just what it says about Jesus in the literal world of the Bible)?
Well, more important than the silencing of the wind (in my opinion) is the fact that Jesus is portrayed as sleeping peacefully in the midst of every-one else’s frantic terror and, second, that his role is as the one who brings calm, not as the one who stirs up the storm. That’s a role model we can emulate, even if we don’t have the power to silence the storm.
Frankly, I think the miracle was really the calming. I think Jesus wanted to calm the disciples, when he said: “Peace. Be still!”… but the storm stopped instead! The wind ceased, and the waves died down, and there was a great calm. The world of nature did precisely what Jesus asked for, but the disciples continued to fret and to worry and to anxiously ask one another: “Who is this guy?” In other words, the disciples never did get the benefit of the lesson. They were not at peace, in the end. They were not calmed.
My former Church Secretary (whom Patty & I visited recently in Austin, Texas), Beth Elwood and her husband Larry, lived through a tornado. She was at home when a tornado touched down. She heard the sound of the wind like a jet plane coming over, and she saw the things in the yard begin to fly up. Beth knew she was facing death and that there was nothing she could do. She prayed to God: “Help me.” And the help came in a way Beth would never have imagined. A stillness -- a calmness -- overwhelmed her. Beth says that the fear was taken away in that instant, and a physical (bodily) sensation of “being all right” filled her. Beth told me it was a miracle: regardless what happened -- whether she lived or died -- she knew God was with her… centered, still, and calm.
Isn’t that what the Psalmist was saying in our Call to Worship?
In the middle of the trouble, when it looks as though death is imminent, remember that God is your Refuge. Realize that God is your strength, your very present help in trouble. God is right there with you -- through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, God is resident in you. “Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46. Beth was still when death came knocking. Calm was the miracle. The good news is: she survived!
Psalm 46 tells us what to do when trouble comes. To remember: “God is our refuge & strength, a very present help in time of trouble, therefore we will not fear” is good advice, but it’s very hard to do when we are in a panic. The particular trouble that’s described in Psalm 46 -- mountains being carried into the midst of the sea, ocean waves roaring and foaming -- points to an earthquake, or to a Hawaiian Kilauea volcano eruption, maybe a hurricane… but not a forest fire, or a car crash, a ruptured aorta, a brain-bleed stroke, or a trip-&-fall… still, the sudden destructiveness and shocking finality of what is happening strikes us like an earthquake! The words of that Psalm could easily apply to any kind of life-threatening trouble which is suddenly there… and there’s nothing you can do.
Sometimes trouble comes to a person just like that -- snap! -- without any warning, with no way of resisting it, with total finality. From one moment to the next, it’s as though everything has “dropped out of the bottom” of your life. … Sometimes it is a spouse walking out, or a job being lost, or a diagnosis of a brain tumor. … Most of the time, however, the feeling is related to death: the death of a loved one, or a significant death we read about in the news: another school shooting, an airplane crash, the latest terrorist attack or warfare. These are the real-world storms which threaten to overwhelm our psyche, our emotions. This is when we cry out to God: “We’re drowning here! Don’t you care?”
Some people seem to lead charmed lives. They never really have to encounter death. Count yourselves lucky if you have not yet walked through the valley of the shadow of death... But if you have a friend who has died, a child that committed suicide, a grandchild who died in a car wreck, or you’ve lost a spouse to sudden death, you know what trouble is.
As the waves broke over the boat such that it was nearly swamped: Jesus was where? He was “in the stern, asleep, on the cushion.” These veteran sailors, sturdy fishermen, had to wake him up! They said: "Do you not care that we are perishing!?"
Since you and I know the outcome of this story, we think these guys ought to have shown a little more faith. I mean, Jesus was in the same boat with them. Nothing is going to happen to them, right!? -- But let’s be honest. However faithful and devoted we are most of the time, if we were caught in a furious turmoil (feeling hopeless, helpless, & hapless), would we not do as they did? Cry out to God: “Don’t you care?” Whatever words or actions we use to convey that message, we are very much like those disciples caught in that storm, wondering why God doesn’t care enough to help. While we know that Jesus is with us, yet for one reason or another -- in a moment’s panic or disappointment, or fear -- we have a hard time believing that it matters! We need to be told again – reminded in the depths of our souls – that all will be well because of Jesus’ presence with us. The One whose voice is obeyed (by wind and by wave) is with us... always.
For each of us (maybe for all of us), our faith has a ways to go… a ways to grow. When we admit that we have doubts and fears, it means we are in good company. Jesus’ closest followers (his beloved disciples) woke up the Master with the cry: "Don't you care if we perish!?"
Some of us personally (on our own "home front") are battling storm-waves, day after day, and are feeling swamped. Perhaps it is because of a dire diagnosis, or because we are unemployed, or we are addicted, or grieving, or sick in some other way... you & I may find ourselves turning to God (as they did to Jesus), saying: "Don't you care...!?" "God, we're drowning here!! Don't you care? Haven't you noticed? Are you asleep?"
These are legitimate questions, friends. And it is biblical to ask them! I think that (from time to time) the church needs to be aroused with a passionate cry (yes, even a panic cry) for help. The Body of Christ (so often asleep on our pew cushions) needs an occasional JOLT to action. So, if you feel it, share it! Raise the question! Cry out your concern! Wake us up! Raise the cry! You see, silencing our doubts, or squelching our fears, when they are real is a problem in “polite” churches like ours. Sometimes we need to shout out our fears, if we want to get past them! Admit our needs, if we want to address them! (It’s OK to be like that.)
These seasoned fishermen (his first disciples) wake Jesus all frantic in a panic: “Do you not care if we perish!?”
And, of course, he cares! If there ever was a person who walked the face of the earth with total compassion, deep caring, it was Jesus! He cares about every person who crosses his path! And these Twelve Disciples should know that better than anyone -- it's what has made him so tired in the first place! Caring for them and for all the people. Part of the reason Jesus got on the boat and told them to go across the lake, was to get away from the demanding crowds. To get some R&R after some incredibly long and tiring days of teaching. Leaving the crowd, Mark tells us, “they took him with them in the boat just as he was.” Tired.
Jesus is sleeping because he's been teaching and healing and helping the crowds from dawn-up to dusk, and into the night! But they wake him up (in a panic), saying: "Teacher, don't you care?"
Of course he cares... especially about those twelve guys! Remember, he has staked his entire ministry on that little community of twelve in that boat.
What a coup for ol' Satan if that boat could be sunk! It would abort the Church before it was even born! Does Jesus not care...? Will he let the church SINK before it even gets started? Of course not! That's not why he came... and spent all his energy...and spent all those years teaching & healing.
"Do you not care if we perish? Don’t you care if we drown?"
They seem to have forgotten that they were "all in the same boat" (shall we say). They seem to have forgotten that Jesus' ministry relied upon their survival; and that he was with them -- right there, right then!
Since we are often just like them, we too, (in our times of real distress) may have forgotten (1) that Jesus does care! We may have forgotten that we carry his name, that we are his personal investment, and that the survival of the Christian message depends on common folk like us to live it. We may have forgotten (2) that Jesus is with us, and that (3) all of us together are the Body of Christ (& we’re occasionally asleep.)
Friends, before you work yourself to the bone, trying to make it on your own... before we work ourselves into a panic... before we work ourselves to the point of exhaustion... let's remember, first, that Jesus is in our boat! There is a lot of "power" here, asleep in our midst; let's claim it! Let's ask for it; let’s arouse the Body of Christ that we are! After rebuking the storm, Jesus turns to his disciples and rebukes them! "Why are you so afraid? Have you no faith?" He uses the experience of the storm to raise the question that we must face with every new decision, in every situation, every day... Will we respond to things first with fear, or with faith?
Frankly, the disciples chose fear first... And so do many of us! They woke Jesus by crying out IN FEAR: "Don't you care if we drown!?" and then, when they were safely in the calm again, (Mark tells us) they were filled with awe! Frightened, first, by the stormy water, and the prospect of death; and now, awestruck by the calm. Both times they react to their situation with FEAR, not faith… with jaw-dropping disbelief.
This is another pattern which some of us too often follow! And so, we can learn from their story: not to react to our changing situation with FEAR first... Don't get stuck trying to explain to yourself how it all happened... Remember, it's a story! A story that tells us (1) not to forget the presence and the power of Jesus, here in our midst! And (2) it tells us not to react with fear, but to have faith! As Jesus did...
I believe that Jesus could relax because, even if the storm sucked them down, and all their lives were lost, he knew the depths of God’s love… and he knew God’s resurrection power, even beyond the grave! He could sleep through that storm because he knew the ship could go down into the depths of the sea -- even down into the depths of hell -- but their lives were never going to be lost, because he was with them. “Grave, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” Christian faith that claims the promise of eternal life overcomes the fear of death. “Peace. Be still!”
This storm showed Jesus that fear still held the upper hand among his followers, not their faith. And this suggests to me that church folks may react this way when crises arise in our lives, too. Fear is "quite natural" a response when things change suddenly... but it's not a "Christ-like" response. It's natural, but it's not what God intends for the church! Weathering a storm is intended to demonstrate our FAITH, and to produce gratitude toward the One who sees us through. Even death itself is not a barrier to faith, when we know we are following our shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death... When the storm is past and the waves are hushed, God expects gladness and a sense of newness in the calm that follows... not awe-struck wondering, analyzing, or doctrinal commentary on who Jesus is.
I believe that the church itself, like the disciples in this story, is in the business of giving assurance (to those who fear) that they are on the right track (they are rowing in the right direction, shall we say?)…. We are in the business of coming alongside those who are running short of faith -- not just commiserating with them -- but assuring them that God knows, and loves them, and is even now "intervening" on their behalf.
Christ comes to reassure us when we cry out, when we have doubts, when we are hurt, when we are afraid, when we feel vulnerable and alone, when we draw near to exhaustion, when we are lost.
“Peace,” he says to us, his disciples. “Be still!” All will be well.
This story is given to assure us that God is with us in the middle of our storms, to bolster our faith, and allay our fears. Jesus wants to be in the same boat with us, to help us weather the storm and to give us the miracle of calm. “Be still and know that I am God...” (Psalm 46:10) “the Lord of Hosts is with you” (Ps. 46:11) through it all.