Jesus calms the storm
Mark 4 : 35 - 41
The Sea of Galilee was used to storms. They appeared often and suddenly with great force, even if the sky was otherwise clear at the time. They could not be predicted. They happened because of the hill and ravine formations around the lake which channelled pressurised wind forces down onto the lake itself. Jesus suggests sailing across to the other side to his disciples. The area they are going to would be the present-day Jordan. This would take Jesus into territory controlled by Gentiles, pointing to the eventual expansion of his message and community beyond Jews and to the Gentile world.
In these fishing boats there was a little seat at the back of the boat for any guest present. It was seat placed on the deck of the boat. There was a small piece of carpet and a cushion. The helmsman stood further forward. Jesus was tired and fell asleep. Why was he tired? He was a normal human being subject to our condition. He was spiritually tired having expended a lot of energy in public speaking and in healing the sick. He was tired because he gave out a lot more than he received. His was not a stimulating environment in which he received from others in the same way as he gave to others. We often get weary in such situations. Caring for someone on a long term basis is tiring because it is disproportionately one way giving. Even when done out of love, it is still tiring and exhausting and that is why respite care is so helpful to allow carers to have times of refreshment and recovery. Jesus was always in this caring mode and it was hard work to get his message across even to his closest disciples. No wonder he got tired.
So - he fell into a deep sleep. There used to be a phrase “the sleep of the just” which meant that good people got good sleep. Anxiety and guilt and worry and stress prevent good sleep for all of us. We are subject to electronic stimuli through TV. Depending on what we’ve been watching, we might not get a good night’s sleep. If it’s been a scary thing, for example - or you have just watched your football team lose. Jesus had none of these artificial issues to prevent him having a good rest when the opportunity came. One of those violent squalls erupted. These men were sailors and were used to this and so the squall must have been an exceptionally strong one. Even they were afraid of its force on this occasion. Perhaps it lasted for some time. They would have waited to see if it passed quickly - but it didn’t.
So they shook Jesus and woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”. There was a distance between Jesus and his closest disciples, teacher and students, rabbi and followers. They were respectful even in their concern for their own lives. What did they expect Jesus to do? They did not expect him to calm the storm with a word. What they wanted was his consciousness and his sharing their fear with them. They resented his peacefulness in sleep. They wanted him to take his share of the emergency. Maybe they were baling out water and needed all hands on deck. They were not bothered about Jesus himself. They did not say, “Wake up Jesus - you may be about to drown”. Shaking him awake, they said, “Don’t you care about us”.
Jesus stood up which in itself must have been difficult with the boat being tossed around in the violent sea. The word ‘rebuke’ means to scold or reprimand. So Jesus spoke in a critical way to the wind and waves. If Jesus had been a Glaswegian, he might have said “Gonnae no dae that!”. If he had been brought up in Edinburgh he might have said, “Please refrain immediately”. In Scots, perhaps, “Quate, devaul richt noo”. After Jesus’ rebuke, the wind died down and complete calm ensued. Awesome. Sometimes we feel that the weather hates us. We can take it personally. This is especially true of destructive winds which endanger life and property. There seems to be a violence that is targeted at us and we feel not just the weather but the hostility of the elements. That is why Jesus’ rebuke is important. This squall was hostile to Jesus and the disciples. It could have overturned the boat and they could have drowned.
Jesus then admonished the disciples, saying, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” “Did you really think I would let us all drown?” “Did you think God would let us all drown?” This made the disciples even more afraid. Their ideas of the Messiah had just been blown apart. They thought they knew Jesus and they thought they were familiar with him. Outstanding healing miracles - they had witnessed, understood and accepted - but control of the elements - that was in a different league. Jesus was not just a charismatic preacher and healer - he was something else. Of a different order. Their sense of Jesus’ presence was stronger than their relief for their own lives’ safety. They were as scared of Jesus now as they had been of the storm.
Biblical scholars and Christian commentators for the last two hundred years have not been able to take this story at face value. They have preferred to interpret it psychologically rather than naturally. William Barclay makes no attempt to explain what actually happened or why. He says, “We do this story far less than justice if we merely take it in a literalistic sense….it is something which happened once and cannot happen again…if we read it in a symbolic sense it is far more valuable. When the disciples realised the presence of Jesus with them the storm became a calm. Once they knew he was there - there was a calm, fearless peace in their heart no matter what any storm was like…In the presence of Jesus we can have peace in even the wildest storms of life”. Barclay then goes on to say that Jesus gives us peace in the storm of sorrow, life’s problems and anxiety. That is not what the story says. It was a life and death situation. Something that is real for sea fishermen all over the world. It is about the power of nature for destruction and our human incapacity to subdue it. The story for us is not about the spiritual well being of Christians, it is about earthquakes and tsunamis and God’s part in it all.
There was a TV programme last week which followed the international space station on one of its orbits of the world. The programme visited various places on earth as the space station passed overhead, like the Aral Sea now dried up and Sweden which has the highest charity giving in the world. The commentator stated that from space all our weather patterns can be seen, especially hurricanes and cyclones. He made the point that life on earth cannot exist without these all these weather patterns being taken together. This unstable combustible planet is where life as we know it has been able to survive. A similar point was made about a year ago in another TV series about the formation of earth, presented by the Scottish scientist Iain Stewart.
In Genesis 1: 28 we read, “God blessed the first human beings and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”. We have not yet been able to subdue the earth. We have made extraordinary discoveries which have made living conditions unrecognisable from those recorded in the Bible. But each human life is largely the same as it was thousands of years ago. Neither the earth with its earthquakes and tsunamis nor the atmosphere with its extreme weather fluctuations are under human control.
What then do we learn about Jesus? What is the message of this story for us today? It is not as Barclay suggests about our psychological peace. Jesus does give that peace for sure but that is not what this particular story is about. This is about confirmation of Jesus’ true nature as both human and divine. Jesus is not a gifted human personality. Buddha was. Mohammad was. Moses was. Jesus’ origin and nature were divine. The power of resurrection is a greater power than the power over elemental storms but both have the same origin. What Paul later said corroborates this view. 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself'.
Key to Barclay’s psychological interpretation was the fact that Jesus’ stilling of the storm does not happen today. If Jesus had been at Sendai, would he have been able to stop the tsunami? The answer is ‘Yes’. But - from heaven where he is now - he didn’t, did he? The answer is ‘No’. At this point we can go different ways. We can go Barclay’s way or we can accept that God will not intervene in such circumstances or we can look deeply at the heart and meaning of our faith to live at one with God through Jesus Christ as a means of sharing in the gifts and power of God while we live on earth. We are not Jesus Himself. But we can apprehend something of the life and power of Jesus. All of us do when we worship. All of us do when we pray. All of us do when we share in Holy Communion. Pentecostal churches try to apprehend more of the power of Jesus through healing, for example. Even George Fox’s ministry shows healing power different from others. The first Christian apostles were able to heal the sick. In every generation there have been Christians who ministered Jesus’ healing power. Nature miracles are of a different order however.
We all accept that there is a connection between our lifestyles and the state of the planet. We buy organic food. Soon cars will be electric. What has Christianity to offer? I ask you if you are conscious in a special way while we pray, after we have shared Holy Communion, during a baptism, of a sense of spiritual peace which is extraordinary? It is the peace of heaven touching us. If we as Christians had much more faith and devotion to Jesus Christ, it is logical that His peace would be stronger are more capable of greater things through us. If the large proportion of the human race became Christian and if we as a human race prayed sufficiently, we would become channels of the peace and power of heaven in a much greater way. We would be able to change weather patterns to good purpose in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus calmed the storm but Jesus could do the same through us if our faith was strong enough. The fault and failing is not with God for not answering prayers or preventing tsunamis. Jesus is not just the Lord of our thoughts and feelings. Jesus is the Lord of the universe or the universes, of creation as we know it. That is what the story of the calming of the storm means.