In this reading from Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV) we hear about a journey Jesus makes across the Sea of Galilee, from familiar territory to a foreign place. The Gospel writer tells how his new fishermen friends take Jesus with them in their boat.
35On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But 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?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
There was a time and place in the Christian church not too long ago when believers would argue about whether this kind of miracle story about Jesus was factual or figurative; as if convincing or condemning our opponents made a valuable difference to Christian faith. Actually some still do battle over orthodoxy; but gracefully there is a growing number of Jesus’ followers, like you and me, who realize that whether or not this narrative happened just like it’s told in this Gospel, the power of a story like this to transform our way of living faithfully is its true value.
Some of the evidence, that this account of Jesus traveling with his new disciples across the Sea of Galilee by boat might be based on fact, is suggested by its telling in 3 of 4 Gospels in very similar ways; and that the story immediately following this one in all 3 of those Gospels is the same healing story, Jesus’ first ministry in a foreign land. Because both these stories form a single unit of scripture found in all 3 synoptic Gospels, we might conclude that at some point in his ministry Jesus did choose to leave the familiar territory of Galilee where he had been teaching and healing, and risk carrying God’s good news in word and action to a place completely foreign to him and his followers. And the difference this truth can make to anyone who fears leaving the safety and security of the familiar to risk sharing her or his faith in new and unknown ways – well, friends, I for one am grateful for Jesus’ invitation: “Let’s go across to the other side …” and see what happens. Perhaps you’re appreciative too.
There’s so much in this little story to talk about … and so little time. That’s what a few of us discovered last week in OUC’s new Summer Online Bible Study (SOBS). You can check out the details online. We’re already up to 18 participants now, and there’s still room for you. Just send me an email. Why not take a risk on something new and unfamiliar? It just might be Jesus’ invitation for you to come across and see what happens on this side of Bible study.
Yes, there’s so much in this little story and so little time to preach. One possible sermon that is often preached from Mark’s version of this story zeros in on the two questions Jesus asks the disciples after the storm subsides, “Why are you afraid?” and “Have you still no faith?” Jesus’ questions focus for me the spiritual tension that often exists between a response of fear when life’s circumstances threaten our well-being, and one of faith. Will we respond out of fear or in faith? And because like disciples of every age we so often respond out of fear, those questions are still compelling to Christians of the 21st Century.
I’m so thankful to Michael Lindvall, one of the commentators in a preaching resource I read weekly called Feasting on the Word. Addressing what some scholars call the “Fear Factor,” Lindvall shares a parable of his own, that helps me wrestle with this tension:
“A child awakens in the dark of night screaming, terrified by a dream, frightened by some phantom hiding in the bedroom closet. The mother rushes in and scoops the little one into her arms. She wipes sweaty locks off her child’s forehead, gently caressing and rocking, kissing the tear-stained face, and whispering what thousands of mothers have whispered since the beginning of time, ‘Hush now, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’”
Then, in Jesus-like fashion, Lindvall poses two questions of his own. “Is the mother telling the whole truth to her child? Is there really nothing to be afraid of?” *
Of course, what Lindvall wants us to see is the difference between “there’s nothing to be afraid of” and Jesus’ question “why are you afraid?” Jesus never says, “there’s nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, Jesus asks his question, apparently appreciating that fearsome things are very real, like tumultuous wind and deadly waves, and also like “isolation, pain, illness, meaninglessness, rejection, losing a job, money problems, failure, death … ” * In our ongoing struggle between fear and faith, so often we feel Jesus is condemning the disciples’ fear and lack of faith. But what if we welcomed Jesus’ probing questions as words of grace not condemnation. So that when Jesus asks you “why are you afraid?” he’s ready to hear what really paralyzes you and ready to bear the burden with you … likewise when he asks, “have you still no faith?” he already knows your response, “of course I do, Jesus, but evidently just not enough right now.”
Later in his article, Lindvall concludes by observing that, “instead of saying, ‘there’s nothing to be afraid of,’ the truth would be for the mother to whisper to her frightened child, ‘don’t be afraid, because you are not alone.’” He observes that “the easy part of this truth, which every child figures out sooner or later, is that some things which frighten us are real and some are not. But the rest of the truth, the deeper truth that only faith in God can teach, is that even though there are real and fearsome things in this life, they need not paralyze us, or control us, or own us, because we are not alone in the boat.” *
There’s so much in this little story, and so little time to preach. Most of you here this morning have realized that even though I’m a committed believer in Jesus, I’ve never been much of a literalist when it comes to believing these stories. I have no idea what took place in that boat as Jesus and his disciples made their way to the unfamiliar and foreign. I certainly can imagine such a storm on a journey of that kind. But honestly, I am simply not so sure about Jesus here who, in a word, imposes peace on the wind and waves. Honestly I don’t believe that peace can be imposed on anything or anyone at any time (not even by Jesus) … God’s peace can only be welcomed as a gift of faith in the face of fear. So curiously, I’m more with the disciples here, pondering with them in their final question, how and why the wind and sea obey Jesus. But that said, I too am filled with great awe (to quote verse 41) toward a God who wants to honestly know and graciously hold my deepest fears, and am touched deeply by a Saviour whose spiritual presence ever encourages me toward deeper and broader faith, as I daily try to cope with those fears and grow into the disciple Christ imagines me to be. I hope you are too, as we head out together, across to an unknown shore. And I hope we will always remember – God is with us, we are not alone, thanks be to God.
* Michael L. Lindvall in FEASTING ON THE WORD, Year B, Volume 3, pp.164-168. With all due respect, I have altered some of the language in the quotations to suit my own language and story-telling style.