by Pastor Cherie Johnson
Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)
35 On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took [Jesus] with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
One way that Jesus taught was through parables, but they were often quite confusing, like word puzzles. Jesus often took the disciples “behind the curtain,” so to speak, to show them the solution to the puzzles, the meaning in the stories. Today’s event as a kind of “live action” parable, a practical exam that the disciples are living out with Jesus. It certainly offers a confusing chain of events. We can see that, despite hanging around Jesus and seeing him do all these amazing things, the disciples do not get it. In fact, they are not really going to get it for a while.
Let us start with a little background on the Sea of Galilee. First off, it is a fresh water lake, the largest fresh water lake in the area. It’s not a “sea” at all. When you think about the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, or even the Red Seas, those are “seas,” huge bodies of water. However, at eight miles wide and 13 miles long at its longest point, the Sea of Galilee is a pretty fair sized lake. To the west there are some mountains, and in them is Pigeon Pass. It can be quite cool in the mountains. When the air shoots down Pigeon Pass and hits the warm water of the lake, these huge violent storms blow up. Of course, we understand how air can rush through a mountain pass better than many. Then, the wind stops, and everything is peaceful again.
The next thing that we need to understand is how Jews around Jesus’ time felt about huge bodies of water and seas. How many people see, and maybe even take, the personality quizzes that seem to appear everywhere online? I’ve been taking quizzes online for many years, and maybe it is just me, but it seems like there are more quizzes than ever.
- What kind of dog are you?
- Which classic literature character are you?
- Can you pass the FBI Special Agent test?
- For more of a religious theme … What’s your job going to be in the afterlife?
I am not quite sure who makes up these quizzes or makes them qualified to tell me that I’m going to be a “Guardian Angel for All Animals.” However, one of the quiz themes that comes up periodically has to do with ideal vacation destinations. One of them will be in the mountains by a quiet stream, another in a vibrant city with great restaurants and theaters, etc., etc., etc. One of them usually includes a wide open meadow full of flowers, and inevitably one is on a warm sandy beach by the ocean, palm tree, blue sky, a gently rolling wave inviting you to come and play. I’m not telling you my results, but it is possible that this might be what I got, from time to time. Maybe a nice boat, a gentle breeze. That would be the exact opposite of the Jewish perspective about large bodies of water in Jesus’ time.
I have friends and family that will only swim in a pool. They want their water filtered and chlorinated. They don’t want to be worried about what they are stepping on.
When I was a teenager, my dad bought a small piece of land with my uncle on an unimproved lake in Wisconsin. The idea was little by little to improve it for progressively less and less rustic camping year to year. This place was so “unimproved” there was not even a road to the lot. My uncle and his family had to load everything in a canoe and paddle it over for the first several years.
By the time I was able to visit it, a dirt road had been bulldozed in, and they had built an outhouse and a shed. We were getting downright fancy. The bulldozer that made the road also went through the camp making a loop, so it almost was like a traffic circle. When I brought my dog, Fozzy, up there the first time, she went crazy. She was a tri-color Brittany spaniel mix. As soon as she got out of the car, she started running around that circle like it was a dog track. She would stop all of a sudden and put her head in a pile of leaves or something, and then she was off to the races again. Zoom, zoom, zoom! She had not even seen the lake yet, but finally she did. She stopped for a moment and looked at it. She had never seen a lake before. Then, she was off like a shot, down the hill, and straight into the lake. Only one problem, she did not know that she could not walk on water. (Something Jesus does not do until Mark 6.)
When I got down there, she was about 20 feet out into the water. She still did not understand how this whole water thing worked, and it looked like she was trying to climb out and get on top of it. Plop. Plop. Plop, splashing water all around. This action was keeping her head above water, but it was nothing like a smooth dog paddle underneath.
Fozzy was looking at me as if to say, “Mom! What happened? I don’t understand. Help me!” So, of course, I had to fetch her. This is where I could really relate to my friends who only like to swim in pools. This unimproved lake did not have a smooth sandy bottom. It had thousands of years of muck that had washed in and the decaying matter of lily pads and rushes that lived there summer after summer probably since the last ice age. Considering all of that, I suppose I should be grateful that I only sunk in 6-8 inches as I walked out to my poor panicked puppy. All the muck squishing between my toes.
And that would be more of the Jewish perception of the sea in Jesus’ day. It is where evil would drain and congregate. It is not like the crystal clear water in the mountains where you can see down 10-15 feet in a lake. For them, it was dark, mysterious, and dangerous, full of chaos. It is right out of Genesis. If you can turn in your Bibles, it should be pretty easy to find, Genesis 1:2. “Now, the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The sea represented that pre-creation chaos. It is where evil things went to escape. In the next Scripture passage, a heard of possessed pigs are going to run themselves into the water to drown.
Quite frankly, that is a big part of the reason that fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James, and John were near the bottom of the social scale in Jewish society. They may have been providing a vital service, but they did it by interacting with a dark, dangerous, and evil sea.
That brings up an important question. Why are these people who were raised and made their living on the sea so afraid of this storm? One would think that they would how to deal with the storms here. Maybe, that is exactly the point. They knew from experience what a dangerous situation they were actually in. The storm was so violent that they were sure that they were going drown, in this lake full of evil.
The disciples are scared, and they wake their teacher. In his commentary Clifton Black suggests that they ask Jesus for deliverance, but do they? Look at the second part of verse 38, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” You can hear that as an implied question, Why aren’t you doing anything about it? However, what I hear is more like, How can you sleep at a time like this? We’re all going to die! Life is out of control, and it is more like they are inviting Jesus to share in their distress.
Do you have faith in the midst of the storm? David Lose suggests that lack of faith is an indicator of a lack of trust, and fear makes it hard to trust. Fear is the unknown. We don’t know how it is all going to be resolved, whether we trust God or not. Just because God has the ability to take care of our crisis, it does not mean that God will do it in the way that we want or hope. Our fear can paralyze us, keep us from trusting, keep us from making good decisions and asking the right questions.
Then there is the opposite, only call out and cry to God during those scary times. Those are the times that people bargain with God to get them out of trouble. Once we are out of trouble, we go back to doing it on our own. That always reminds me of a Burt Reynolds movie called The End. His character has a painfully terminal illness, and he spends the film trying to kill himself before the pain starts. Did I mention that this is a comedy? Near the end, no pun intended, he is just about to succeed, and he changes his mind. He wants to live, but he is not sure that he can make it back to safety. He starts bargaining with God with all of the things he will do and give if God saves him. The only thing is that as he gets closer and closer to safety, the terms of the deal get better and better … for Burt.
It’s like we’re treating God like a giant set of training wheels on our bike. “Okay God, I’ve got this. I can do this on my own now. Leave me alone.” And we ride away … until the next time we go over a bump in the road, and we think that we need to rely on those training wheels again. Like the idea that if we do everything that we’re supposed to do, if we are without flaw or error, that we will never need God. In reality, that is completely upside down and backward. God made humans to be in relationship with God. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve have eaten the dreaded apple, God was walking around the garden looking and calling out to Adam. Now, whether you think that God was really waking around the garden or that it is a metaphor illustrating the relationship between God and humans, the point is the same. God intends there to be a relationship all the time, not only when we find ourselves in trouble.
In today’s passage the disciples are clearly in trouble, and they are calling out to Jesus. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” What are these fishermen expecting a carpenter to do? Clearly, they want Jesus to do something, even if it is simply to panic with them. Just as clearly, they did not expect him to still the storm, or they would not have been so awestruck. It says in verse 41, “And they were filled with great awe.” In some translations it says, “They were terrified” (both of which are accurate possible translations from the Greek). Before, they were afraid of the storm. Are they now afraid of Jesus and what he can do?
If the danger was real, why does Jesus sound so annoyed or even disappointed? In verse 40, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” One thing we can say for sure, it is not going to be the last time Jesus is disappointed in the disciples. They will squabble with each other for position. They will keep people from interacting with him. The list goes on, but of course, *spoiler alert * they all desert him on his night of trial. What was Jesus’ problem with the disciples? Should they have been sleeping in the boat like Jesus? Should they have been oblivious of all danger? Is the message to us supposed to be, just lay back in your hammocks eating bon-bons. Jesus will take care of everything? You don’t have to do anything. Based on all the things Jesus did and the training of the disciples that he has done, so that he can send them out (Mark 3:13-15), not to mention what they all do later, I would say no. If you look at the world you can instantly see that there is plenty to fear.
Maybe, Jesus is disappointed because the disciples asked the wrong question. Instead of, and I’m paraphrasing here, “How can you be asleep at a time like this?! Don’t you realize that we’re all going to die?” What about, “Help us!” Perhaps, he was disappointed because, despite everything he did and said before, it did not occur to them that he could do something.
Again, I am reminded of my poor panicked puppy trying to climb on top of the water at the lake. There was no question in her mind that I would rescue her. She had total faith in me.
The disciples did not recognize Jesus for who he truly is. Now by stilling the storm, he has done something that is unquestionably in the realm of God, control over nature. He saved them from something that they were sure would kill them all. They thought they knew him, but now they are not so sure.
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, people ask who is this person, Jesus? People are amazed at his teaching and healing. Who is this man? When he starts rocking the boat, Pharisees and scribes asked the question in a slightly different way. Who does he think he is? Now, the disciples are asking, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41)
How do we think of Jesus? Is he a nice friend that we can talk to when we have a problem but cannot really do anything? Is he a nice person who had some good advice that we can try to live our lives by? Some of it is not realistic, but it is a nice thought. Or, is Jesus God incarnate, in human flesh, who cares about us because he created us. Is he someone who knows the best ways for life and society because he designed us. Do we regard him as someone who has authority over everything, as God?
Do you know what the good news was for the disciples this day? Even though the disciples did all the wrong things, asked the wrong questions, had a completely wrong idea about Jesus, he still saved them. That is the good news for us too! Even when we ask the wrong questions, do the wrong things, Jesus still loves and cares for us. He is still fighting for us with an unwavering faith. Jesus is always on our side.