‘And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?’ (Mk. 4:41)
I guess that account of the storm at sea echoes with experiences many of us have had. Life is never smooth! Whether it’s family quarrels, political upsets, new ideas challenging traditional concepts our boat gets rocked and we can feel ‘all at sea’. And in our own personal lives we sometimes find ourselves a bit lost, unsure of ourselves – worried by all sorts of things over which we have no control.
THE GOSPEL ACCOUNT
Today’s gospel reading of the stilling of the storm presents us with a graphic picture of Jesus asleep until the disciples, increasingly fearful of drowning, rouse him from his sweet slumbers. It resonates with the way many of us, at moments of crisis, long for someone to intervene to sort out the mess. And of course, on one level, that’s what Jesus does; he stills the storm with a simple, gentle command: “Peace, be still.”
But let’s look at the story a little more deeply.
CHAOS AND EVIL – JOB AND JESUS
In the time of Jesus, and of Job who we heard about in our first reading, it was believed that there were forces of chaos constantly threatening to break out – and the sea epitomised the essence of that chaos.
So the disciples would have been amazed that the word of Jesus quietened the storm. It would have showed them he had authority over those forces: his word brought peace where chaos reigned; his was a goodly purpose. Here was someone who could, in the end, bring order out of chaos, who was on the side of life and who was working for their good.
CONTEXT OF GOSPEL READING
But notice another thing about the story. This is a situation into which Jesus had led the disciples. Having spent a full day teaching and dialoguing with a vast crowd on the shores of Lake Galilee, Jesus tells the disciples to take to the water and set sail across the Lake. It was already evening and, clearly, this was going to be a night crossing. We know that some of the disciples were familiar with the Lake as they were fishermen.
They would have been aware that storms could occur with little warning.
So, there they are in the dark with Jesus asleep on a cushion when a perfect storm breaks. And these professional fishermen begin to panic. They don’t act in a very manly way but give vent to their fears and shout out to Jesus for help. And he responds with those simple words which fill the disciples with awe.
If we read on in Mark’s gospel we discover that, after landing safely, Jesus will encounter a man whose life was equally at the mercy of storms, someone described as being possessed by unclean spirits whom Jesus will cast out. And people will be equally amazed by that.
These two accounts, and what follows, focus not just on how Jesus brings order out of chaos, or how he delivers people from life-threatening situations, but on how people respond to his authority over those dark, negative forces which seek to take control of people. Fear of being overcome by external chaos may have been more prevalent then, but it is still present for us, now. And fear can paralyse us. Recently an investigation into the way people respond in life-threatening situations discovered that many become paralyzed in the face of a disaster. It’s the ones who take action who tend to survive.
Now most of us will experience, from time to time, the fear and confusion of the disciples. We are caught in the storms of life, may feel ourselves powerless and wonder why God doesn’t seem to act. And we may be tempted by the thought: “How can there be a god if such awful things can happen?” But taking God out of the picture – or Jesus out of the boat – doesn’t stop bad things happening. Storms at sea will still occur. So, apart from feeling that Jesus is asleep, how does our faith help in times of crisis?
FAITH IN TIMES OF CRISIS
Well, firstly it has to move us on from a simplistic response that we don’t need to do anything because Jesus is with us. We have to face our fears, but equally not be paralysed by them.
One of the important points of this account is the fact that Jesus brought the disciples to this point of crisis. For all their skill and experience these men will recognise they are up against forces that are beyond their control. In spite of all our ingenuity and technological know-how, we are still profoundly threatened by powers of death and destruction as we know only too well.
As one writer has said: ‘whether it is in acts of terror or mindless violence that suddenly erupt, or whether it is in ongoing problems like global warming which render us helpless and impotent, we realise that ultimately we are powerless before the storm. We are humbled before the chaos and the evil and the death and destruction that it embodies. … And any hope of final rescue, any hope of ultimate deliverance can only come from one who embodies a power so great – the very power of God - that we can only be left awestruck and trembling before him. And our problem is that … we have tamed Jesus and changed him from victorious Lord to bosom buddy.’
( Lance Stone, Minister, Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge)
There will be times when God will lead us into places of crisis, but only because He recognises that we need to grow. Crisis’ have the power to stretch us and strengthen us. They can fill us with that same sense of awe in the way God acts through pain as well as pleasure. They can unmask the saint and the sinner. Like the disciples we may find ourselves wondering whether God, if there is a God, cares. But we can also stand in awe before the mystery that is God. Like Job, we recognise there is here something greater that passes our understanding and find ourselves echoing his cry:
‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
… I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.’
In the reading from Job, God spoke to him out a whirlwind. Sometimes God reveals fresh understandings through chaos when we are made aware of our limited grasp, and interpretation, of reality. In the Gospel Jesus had authority over the storm and the disciples were so astounded they couldn’t understand what was going on: ‘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?”’ What they began to realise - and what we constantly need to remember - is that an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with the mystery of the living, loving God who needed to disturb and change them. They had to move from their beliefs about Jesus to having faith in Him. The miracles were but an illustration of the power of God in Christ to transform.
And it is the transformation of lives – of life – that Jesus was concerned about. Getting life into the right relationship with God. And we, in our turn, need to move from our beliefs about Jesus to having faith in Him. That was the trial Job went through as he wrestled with the same God of power and mystery who allowed him to be stripped of all he held dear and whom he ultimately encountered, and affirmed faith in, through a whirlwind.
In his remarkable book, Man’s Search for Meaning the Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl quotes an insight of the German philosopher, Nietzsche: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” In his forward to the book Rabbi Harold Kushner says: ‘Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you feel and do about what happens to you.’
Whatever the storms that we encounter, whether they seem to tear at the very foundations of life, or the storm-in-the teacup variety, we are called to be faithful, and to trust in Christ, the image of the invisible God whose purposes are good, who longs for our wholeness and who says to us through the wind and through his saints - ‘Peace, be still’.