Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on June 21 2009.
Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41
For a miracle story, which is what this narrative from the Gospel of Mark is, Jesus sure comes across as human. Not as human as the disciples, of course, but still human. This is what I mean…
We can’t help but get the impression that the storm at sea finds Jesus absolutely worn out from the efforts of the day. He’s been teaching the multitudes, which, as far as exertion goes, may not seem like such a big deal. After all, it was the custom of that day for teachers to sit, not stand. What could be so physically difficult about that? Well, let me try to explain it to you the best I can. After all, I do understand something of how it is.
And I don’t want you to hear me whining, okay? I’m not whining. As I have told you before, this is the way of life I have chosen, and frankly, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. But if you want to know why preachers look so forward to a Sunday afternoon nap, it is because the rigors of Sunday morning can be quite taxing. It’s not that getting up in front of folk and preaching about twenty minutes is so hard, at least on the surface of it. It’s that the preaching event has to do with more than just talking.
By the time the preacher comes to the pulpit he or she has been living with the sermon all week long. When away from the study, and given a spare moment to be involved in some other activity, the sermon just won’t go away. The preacher’s thoughts go back to the passage of scripture that forms the foundation of the sermon. You think about it, you dwell on it, you try to figure out how to interpret the scripture in such a way that it speaks to those who are present to hear it. The preacher spends more time thinking about and living with the sermon than anything else he does. It is a living, breathing thing, and it occupies almost every waking moment.
Not only that, but the preacher is taking on the role of trying to speak a word for God, and that in itself is a tremendous responsibility… a responsibility that wears on you and takes a lot from you emotionally as well as physically.
I once heard of a pastor of a large and prominent church in Tennessee who let it be known that he would not answer his telephone on Sunday afternoon. In fact, he made it a point to turn it off so it wouldn’t ring. He did not want to be disturbed. Sunday afternoons were for getting over Sunday mornings, so I suppose if you were a member of his church and had some kind of personal crisis, you better not do it on Sunday afternoon.
That’s a bit extreme, but it makes you wonder how Jesus would have handled it. He’s been teaching all day and when the sun starts to go down he tells his disciples it’s time to get in their boat and row over to the other side of the sea. Though Mark doesn’t mention it here, there are other places in the gospels where we are told plainly that Jesus often reached points at which fatigue set in. He knew how to pace himself and take time away from the demanding crowds. This is such a time.
So, he turns off his cell phone, shuts down Facebook and Twitter, and as soon as they leave shore he’s sleeping like a baby. Even though a sudden and violent storm comes up (not uncommon for the Sea of Galilee), he continues sleeping to his heart’s content. The boat is being tossed to and fro and is filling with water, and Jesus just keeps snoozing away.
There are some words that explain themselves. They are so obvious in their meaning there’s not even a real need for them to be included in the dictionary. The word itself just says it all. One such word is “swamped.” Think about it… “swamped.” Could “swamped” possibly mean anything else other than the boat is filling with water faster than they can bail it out, and is threatening to sink the whole crew right out there in the middle of the sea? Mark tells us the boat is being swamped and Jesus is sleeping through the whole thing.
“Teacher…” They’re shaking him by the shoulders, they’re waving smelling salts in front of his nose, anything to get him to wake up. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” How can he not care when he’s not even aware of what is going on? He’s been asleep, for goodness’ sake!
Of the four gospel writers, Mark is the leanest. Not only is the second gospel the shortest, but Mark writes with a style that does not embellish. He tells us what happens and then goes on to whatever follows. He leaves the longer prose to Matthew and Luke, and the theological philosophizing to John. But he does manage to slip in certain details that in some cases help explain more clearly what is going on and in other cases, quite frankly, confuses us as to just exactly what he means. That is no more evident than in this story. Here’s the way it comes across, simply from the reading of it…
The storm comes up suddenly, the boat is being swamped, and Jesus is asleep in the stern on a cushion. Do you wonder why Mark tells us the obvious, that Jesus is using a cushion? You may not have thought of that when we read it earlier, but I’ve been wondering about it all week. If you wanted to sleep on a boat, or anywhere else for that matter, other than your own bed, wouldn’t you look for the nearest cushion? Makes sense. But I wouldn’t think that it would necessarily be worth telling about, would you?
And, I’m also a bit puzzled as to what difference it makes that he’s asleep in the stern. He could have been in the bow and the story would have still been the same. Except that the stern of a first-century fishing boat was generally covered, and would provide him some protection. But still, is that worth mentioning? The disciples wake him up and say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus stands up, rebukes the wind by saying, “Peace! Be Still!”, the wind ceases into a dead calm, and Jesus says to his shipmates, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”And then he goes back to bed.
Well, that last part isn’t in there, the part about him going back to bed. But that’s kind of the impression we get, isn’t it? No big deal to Jesus. Storms don’t mean anything to him. He’s got it covered. Why should his disciples be afraid of a little old storm? After all, at least four of them are professional fishermen. Surely they’ve experienced storms at sea before. Why indeed are they afraid? As long as they have faith, storms can’t harm them.
Maybe Jesus speaks to them that way because he’s just plain irritated. They’ve awakened him from a well-deserved rest and he doesn’t appreciate it. But I doubt that, and I imagine you do too. I think it is Mark’s way of drawing a sharp contrast between Jesus’ faith and the faith of those who are following him. In plain language, at this point in their public ministry together, the disciples just don’t get it.
But we – you and I – are hardly in a position to blame the disciples for their fear. Who wouldn’t be afraid of a storm at sea? I am not a sailor, but I have it on good authority that if a boat heads into a wave that is higher than the boat is long, it will pitch end-to-end and flip over. If a wave is higher than the boat is wide, and comes into the boat from the side, it will capsize.1 The disciples may not call it physics, but that’s what it is… and it is deadly. They do know that, and are quite afraid.
But did you notice that even after Jesus calms the storm they are still fearful? Not of the storm but of Jesus. Mark says literally, “They feared a great fear.” If you followed along earlier in the gospel reading, and you used a pew Bible, you might have wondered why I changed the wording. The translation of that Bible in your pew says they were filled with “awe.” That word just doesn’t cut it. It’s not strong enough. They were trembling at the sight of a man who had such power as to be able to command storms. “They feared a great fear.” That’s what the gospel really says.
And as Jesus goes back to the stern to get back on that cushion to catch a little more shuteye, the disciples are left asking the question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Did I mention that at this point in their public ministry together, the disciples just don’t get it? I think I did.
Still, it’s a good question, isn’t it? A good question indeed. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” But before we try to answer it, I want to take us back to the beginning of the story. Remember, Mark doesn’t waste his word, so there’s a reason for everything he writes. Mark adds a statement that is puzzling; at least it is puzzling to me. By dealing with it we might find some answers to the disciples’ question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Jesus tells his disciples he wants to go across to the other side of the sea. “And leaving the crowd behind,” Mark says, “they (referring to the disciples) took him with them in the boat, just as he was.” What does Mark mean, “just as he was”? Did they forget to give him his life jacket? Is it a reference to his fatigue? Did Jesus dress differently for teaching by the seashore than he did for riding in a boat? Did he still have on his pulpit robe? “Just as he was.” Does that seem strange to you, that Mark would put it that way? It does to me…
Until you realize that the other side is Gentile country, not exactly a hospitable place for people like Jesus and his disciples. With a little more notice perhaps, the disciples might have better prepared themselves to confront those who are hostile to them. Peter would pack his sword, you can bet on that, just in case things get out of hand. They can plan for an escape, if they have to get out of Dodge in a hurry. There are a lot of things they can do to prepare themselves if they know well enough ahead of time that Jesus wants them to cross the sea.
But this seems to be a spur-of-the-moment trip, commanded by Jesus, and they took him “just as he was.” The chances are, they went as they were too, and were not prepared for the hostile environment of the other side. Nor were they ready for storms.
There are times when you just can’t prepare for a storm. I, like many of you, grew up in Tornado Alley and have seen my share of storm shelters dug out in the yards of the homes that dot generally the more rural landscape. But my guess is that most storm shelters were built after a tornado came through, not before. After.
What do you do when the storms of life come your way? This may seem strange to you, but I think this might just be Jesus’ response. You don’t stay inside seeking shelter. You don’t prepare, or look for what you think might be the safest place to hunker down. You go out the door and confront the storm, trusting that Christ will be by your side. He may not still the storm in your heart in exactly the manner you hope and expect, but he will calm the storm nonetheless. More times than not, you have to endure the storm and look back before you realize just how Jesus has chosen to do his redemptive work in your life and heart.
So, if you ever find yourself asking the same question as the disciples – “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – you can be certain of this… There is no difficulty, there is no trouble you can go through that Christ will not be by your side. Indeed, he would have you face your storms head on, but you will never have to do it alone. He will take you as you are, just as the disciples did with him, and he will lead you through the wind and the waves on the sea. And the only preparation you need is to simply get into the boat. He will be there waiting for you, and soon you will find that Jesus makes an very good traveling companion.
When the storms of life come our way, O Lord, be with us. Help us be not afraid, but to trust in your mercy and grace to see us through. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.