First Reading Ezekiel 17:22–24
22 Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24 All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.
Psalm Psalm 1
1 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! 2 Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper. 4 It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous. 6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall be destroyed.
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:1–17
1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling — 3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Gospel Mark 4:35–41
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 him 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?”
WHEN THE BOAT BEGINS TO SINK
In the Gardener Museum in Boston hangs Rembrandt’s painting of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The artist recreates the scene so powerfully that a viewer can sense the danger the small craft is in and the panic of those who are on board. The small boat is being lifted on the crest of a giant wave; sail and lines are torn loose from the riggings and flailing wildly in the gale. Five disciples are struggling to reef the sail while they hold on desperately to the mast. The rest of Jesus’ followers are in the stern of the boat, clustered around Jesus, some frightened almost to death, one miserably seasick, hanging over the side, and others frantically waking Jesus from His sleep. It’s apparent, from the calm expression on the face of Christ, that this is the moment when He says, “Why are you afraid?” Fourteen figures are in the boat: the twelve disciples, Jesus, and Rembrandt himself. There Rembrandt stands, clutching one of the stays, holding his head in terror. That’s where the artist saw himself. And it’s there that many of us find ourselves, with little hope and much fear, as the furious storm threaten to sweep us overboard as well.
It’s to such persons, as we are, that this incident is directed. The Gospel writers felt that this event was important enough for three of them to include it. Though they were reporting an incident from their close association with Jesus, they were aware that the significance of the event went beyond the experiences of that day. And because of the importance of this event to us, I think that the story has several things to say to us today as well. First, it tells of the fury of the storm.
The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is beautiful. W. M. Christie, who spent years in Galilee, tells of an occasion when a company of visitors were standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and, noting the glassy surface of the water and the smallness of the lake, expressed their doubts as to the possibility of such storms as those described in the Gospels. Almost immediately the wind sprang up. Within twenty minutes the sea was white with foam-crested waves. Great billows broke over the towers at the corners of the city walls, and the visitors were compelled to seek shelter from the blinding spray, though they were more than 200 yards from the lakeside! Such was the experience of the disciples in our story.
The day had been a busy one. Mark states that Jesus had preached His message to the people using many parables. Exhausted, He left the crowd, took His disciples with Him, and got into a boat. Jesus went to the back of the boat, stretched out on a pillow, and went to sleep. Suddenly, a strong wind blew up the waves, and water began to spill into the boat. The disciples panicked and rushed to wake the sleeping Jesus.
Certainly the early Christian church heard this story gladly. They saw the boat as the church trying to make its way in a turbulent time. They saw the sea as the realm of evil, dominated by demons. They saw the storm as the persecution they were undergoing in the time of Nero. At times it seemed to them, like the disciples, that the Lord was asleep or uncaring. They needed to be reminded that their Lord was with them in a time of persecution, and that He would rise to strengthen their faith at the critical moment. This incident became for them an allegory, designed to bring them comfort and hope. And, of course, we too, like the disciples and the early church, are confronted with storms.
As traditional, confessional, orthodox Christians, we may take a stand for something we believe to be right, only to discover opposition, ridicule, a storm of protest. Headlines tell us that it happens today: “Holdout Juror Results in Hung Jury.” “Union Activist Fired.” “Whistleblower Demoted.” Business owner sued. Local political leader maligned in the press. We may find ourselves standing there, seemingly alone, clutching for life to some guy wire of integrity, not knowing whether it will hold us.
We may discover that those things we previously relied on for security are swept away: “Merger Leads to 5,000 Layoffs Locally.” “Church Divides over Abortion Issue.” “Families Lose Life Savings In Investment Scam.” When those headlines are about us, it feels as though everything is falling away beneath us. The boat is beginning to sink. Trusted landmarks have disappeared; navigation is out of control. At times we feel afraid and wonder if God is asleep or uncaring. The second thing this story takes note of is the fear in the disciples.
The disciples shared the world view of their time. As far as they were concerned, every kind of trouble, disaster, or disorder was due to demonic forces. These forces were personal; they were creature-like servants of the evil one. Nature was governed by powers which possessed personalities and wills. Disease, deformity, and mental disturbances were signs of demonic possession. Storms, earthquakes, and natural disasters were the raging activity of demons. When the storm suddenly arose from nowhere, the winds beat against them, the lightning struck, and the waves whipped them about, threatening to capsize their little boat, they must have thought that a whole legion of demons had attacked them. Their cry for help is not only the cry of persons afraid of dying, but of persons afraid of falling into the hands of the evil one. It’s not a view that’s commonly shared today so how do we find present-day relevance?
Today it seems we are too sophisticated to believe that demons have any power in our world. However, there’s still plenty of superstition to go around. I’ve heard of people changing newspapers because the one they were reading didn’t carry the daily astrological forecast. In some modern office buildings you can take an elevator to the fourteenth floor without ever passing the thirteenth floor because none is listed. I’m told that the proper way to hang a horseshoe over a door is with the opening up, so that all the good luck doesn’t pour out. No matter how educated we become, there’s a feeling that there may be some forces at work in the world which have a say in what befalls us, and we’re concerned about their power. Like those disciples, we too have fears about who, or what, is in control. The problem is that fear can be ruinous of life.
Fear, unchecked, can rob us of the ability to enjoy life. Recently, all the television news programs in Atlanta, Georgia devoted themselves to the story of a man who killed twelve people and himself in an upscale business neighborhood. He was a day trader in the stock market, and had recently lost more than $100,000 in a week of trading. He was enraged, but also frightened about what this meant for him and his family. He couldn’t face the future without his money, so he went home and killed his wife and two children, in order to spare them the agony and fear he was experiencing. Of course, the man was unbalanced, but fear causes people to do irrational things.
Whoever we are, these words about the fury of the storm and the fear it can create still speak to us. The movie Titanic captured the interest of people of all ages. One of the things that was obvious to moviegoers was that many of the lifeboats that were lowered were only half full. Yet hundreds of people were left behind to drown because of fear on the part of those in the boats. Survivors told of a swimmer who succeeded in making his way to one of the half-empty boats. He clutched the side and tried to climb in, but no one lent him a hand. In fact, one woman took an oar and pounded his hands until he couldn’t hold on any longer, and he slipped back into the sea. She did it, not because there was no room in the boat, but because she was brutalized by fear. Fear can cause us to do things we would never have done if we felt secure.
I could go on and on describing the things that make us fearful and what happens to us as a result. But suffice it to say, fear is a common human experience and it often robs life of its fulfillment. In their fear the disciples cried out, “Teacher, don’t you care?” Of course they knew that Jesus cared. But at that moment, as they fought for their lives and Jesus slept, it appeared that He didn’t care. They got sucked into the panic of the moment, and they asked the question, “Don’t you care?”
That’s a feeling that we frequently expressed when life becomes stormy and we don’t know if we can hold on. It’s interesting that the word in this story that is translated “great storm” is also the word for “earthquake.” As one who lived for a time in the Nevada desert, I can certainly relate to that! Those of you who haven’t experienced earthquakes have certainly seen news footage over and over again of the people of Nepal who had everything they struggled to accumulate turned into rubble. Many may find themselves asking the question, doesn’t God care? In other places, the problem might be wildfires.
People pray that it won’t come near them, but it does come, and it brings devastation in its wake. They find themselves asking, doesn’t God care? For others, like those in Louisiana and Texas, it’s the rising of a river. The whole community turns out to fill sandbags and to patrol the levee, but the water breaks through anyway. Someone looks into the news camera and asks, doesn’t God care? Tornados, hurricanes, riots, the list goes on: Each of us knows, from one experience or another, what it’s like to be caught in a storm, to feel alone, and, like those disciples, to be afraid.
The third thing this story records is the response of Jesus: “Peace, be still.” For many they see these words, from the Master, as being directed at the elements. Jesus is demonstrating His command over creation thus giving reassurance to the disciples that He is in control and there is no need to fear. Looking at the story in this way provides reassurance that God is almighty and in control and can calm the storms in our lives. But there’s another way to interpret Jesus command and that is that Jesus is really speaking directly to the disciples.
For those who choose to see Jesus’ command in this light, they understand Jesus as saying to the disciples, “Hush, get hold of yourselves!” Then, when they did get hold of themselves, they settled down, and when the storm ended as abruptly as it began, as is often the case on that lake, they felt that Jesus had brought it to pass. When they got calmed down because of His calm manner, they were able to cope with their situation. Certainly, there’s something to be said for such an interpretation, for frequently, when we cry out in our distress, we find that we’re not necessarily delivered from the situation, instead we’re given the grace to endure; maybe we’re given a new attitude that makes it possible to cope.
Such an interpretation certainly does have an appeal because that’s the way many find life to be. When we’re in trouble, we pray for God’s miraculous intervention to get us out of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the way children respond to difficulty, and we are children of the heavenly Father. But I don’t see God always interfering in the course of nature to set things right for His favorites or for those who have prayed for deliverance. If that were the case, the righteous would never have to face the consequences of their acts or suffer the risks that everyone else must deal with. We all must face the trials of life from time to time, if we didn’t, how would our faith be strengthened? How would we ever learn to depend on God’s mercy and grace?
To think that God should keep the rain off of our parade, no matter what’s happening to others, is a bit naive and the life and teachings of Jesus don’t always support this line of thinking. Yes, there are passages in the Bible that tell us that God protects and prospers the righteous. In John 10:10 we read, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” However, we take these passages to mean that prosperity means this life only. Remember God has a much broader view. God knows that for us to learn to fully depend on Him, to fully place our trust in Him, we must sometimes endure trials. Jesus was absolutely righteous, yet He had to endure ridicule, rejection and suffering.
Jesus, while praying in the Garden, asked to be spared the agony of the cross. That is after all a normal, human request. But Jesus wasn’t spared, that wasn’t God’s plan. Instead, Jesus was strengthened to go through it. In the storm mentioned in this passage, the disciples were being reminded that whether their lives were spared or not, they couldn’t fall outside of God’s concern. Just because we’re going through difficult times doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us. This means that the next thing Jesus says is very important: “Why are you afraid?”
God was silent and that made the disciples feel that He was asleep or unaware of their plight, so they were crying out for assurance. Richard Carl Hoefler tells of a little boy who was taking a train ride across the country with his parents. When it came time to go to bed, his mother put him in an upper berth and told him not to be afraid because she was there, Daddy was there, and God was there, and they would all look after him. When the lights were turned down, the little boy called out, “Mommy, are you still here?” “Yes, dear.” “Is Daddy still here?” “Yes, dear.” “Is God still here?” “Yes, dear.” About five minutes later the voice was heard again, “Mommy, are you still here?” “Yes, dear.” “Is Daddy still here?” “Yes, dear.” “Is God still here?” “Yes, dear.” Five minutes later it was the same thing and on through the night until about one o’clock, the little voice was heard again: “Mommy, are you still here?” Whereupon a great gruff voice from the end of the Pullman car roared, “Yes, your mother’s here. Your daddy’s here. Now shut up and go to sleep.” There was a moment of silence and then the little voice spoke up once more, “Mommy, was that God?” I wonder if God, at times, feels like responding to us just as that man did in the Pullman car. We keep asking for assurances because, frankly, we’re not that convinced that God is there.
Jesus then asks the disciples: “Have you no faith?” Faith isn’t the conviction that everyone is going to have things work out in their favor. We often talk about faith as though that’s what it means. No wonder we’re disappointed. In a world that makes sense, everyone cannot have everything work out favorably for them. A ministerial colleague tells of a conversation he had one day with a female medical assistant in a doctor’s office, as he was waiting to see the doctor. The woman recognized him because she had occasionally attended his church, though she was a member of another church.
“I want to tell you about my experience,” she said. “I got saved in one of the other local churches … I gave my life to God … and guess what? … Life tumbled in! I developed a heart problem. My husband lost his executive job … and he recently died of cancer.” The minister says he tried to mumble a few theological sounding explanatory words about God’s mysterious ways, thinking that was what the woman wanted. But she went right on with her story, indicating that she had repeatedly asked God, “Why me?” “And what do you think God told me?” she continued.” ‘Why not you?’ That’s what God said. ‘Why should you be spared all the crises of life that everyone else must go through?'” Then she wound up her story by saying, “One day I said to God, ‘Lord, you’ve forgiven me. Now I forgive you.'” I personally think the woman is a bit pretentious, a bit misguided in her theology and even a tad disrespectful. God doesn’t sin therefore He doesn’t need our forgiveness. However, I do appreciate the woman’s faith.
The woman’s faith isn’t a series of propositions, rather it’s a relationship. And with all relationships, it’s one built on trust, a trust that says yes there will be challenges. But the God I serve will help me through the tough times. It’s also a relationship that’s honest, because it also accepts that she isn’t the one in charge, God is.
In so many ways our experiences are like those of the disciples: We know what it is to go through stormy times. We know what it is to feel afraid and at the mercy of unfriendly forces. We know what it is to cry out at what feels like an unfriendly universe. So, how should we respond to the question of Jesus: “Have you no faith?”
In a devotional article, Milward Simpson, a former governor of Wyoming, tells of flying in a plane that developed engine trouble. When the pilot announced that they were going to try to make an emergency landing, the governor took the hand of his wife and together they offered a simple statement of faith they often shared: The light of God surrounds us. The love of God enfolds us. The power of God protects us. And the presence of God watches over us: Wherever we are, God is. In the article, Governor Simpson added that they knew that asserting this affirmation would not make everything turn out all right. But, he said, saying what they said was their way of declaring their confidence that, living or dying, they were in God’s care.
Where is God when our boat begins to sink? He’s right there in the boat just as Jesus was with the disciples. God’s presence isn’t a guarantee of protection, but an offer of maximum support. Support to calm the storm in us, support that helps us to realize that, whatever we are called to go through, God is with us. God’s promise to the Israelites is just as sure for us. In Deuteronomy we read, “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (31:8) Listen and be reassured, it is Jesus who is saying to us, “Peace be still.”