Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 12 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Faith or fear: Who then is this?

[Note: The miracle of the stilling of wind and waves in Mark 4:35-41 raises a group of related questions about who Jesus was, the nature of faith, what God is like, and for modern people the rationality of accepting miracles in general, especially miracles of nature. These questions are treated in greater depth in parts of other sermons, in particular: You of little faith, why do you doubt? (The nature of faith in relation to the understanding of Jesus as Lord of creation comes to the fore in another story from an experience on the lake, of Jesus walking on the water); The miracle of wholeness (With more detailed treatment of the general topic of miracles and again faith and belief in his mastery of powers which oppress or threaten people); Are those who suffer worse sinners? (The uncertainty of life in a good but incomplete world is part of faith in God the creator); and He taught with authority (The exorcism in Mark 1 parallels this nature miracle in demonstrating how Jesus exercised the authority of the Lord of all creation). In this sermon I have acknowledged those points but I have concentrated more on the implications of the disciples' experience of the storm for personal faith. In this respect it carries on the sermon for Trinity Sunday, A practical understanding of the Trinity, especially in regard to belief in God as ever present and merciful rather than remote, mechanical and uncaring.]

(Mark 4:39-41) 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?" (Mark 4:39-41)

Who then is this? Who indeed! Who but God! Who else commands the wind and the sea? That is the key point of the Mark's telling this story. Whatever you make of it in human terms, Mark is telling us that here is an incarnation of God the creator. There is much that can be learned from reflection upon this challenging miracle story, some of which we will come to shortly, but first the main point of the evangelist in passing it on: it is about who Jesus was, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

If we consider some parallel stories from the life of Jesus and the Old Testament we can see clearly how in the minds of the apostles, as they shared such things with others later in early church, it was not matter of Jesus being very clever or magical or even powerful, although their first response was one of fear. It was a question of faith in God. It was not a demonstration of strange occult powers designed to impress and frighten, as a lesser man might, although just as when they saw him walking on the water, it had that effect for they were filled with great awe (or fear Mark 4:41) or they were terrified, as on that other occasion on the lake:

You might have trouble with that story too, if nature miracles trouble you, but suspend disbelief a little longer and let us see how these things can hold together. However it happened, whatever did happen, the point is to understand why the story was told. The intention of the story teller is not to frighten, but to encourage, just as was the intention of Jesus. His intention was not to inspire fear, but faith, just as he said on that other occasion, You of little faith, why do you doubt? (Matthew 14:31), so he said here, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:40). But in what were they to have faith? In his ability to demonstrate strange and fearful powers? Or were they being encouraged to have faith in God? And where is God, in this story?

There is no doubt that the disciples were seeing Jesus as a man with great spiritual power, but he was more than that, as they had experienced on the occasion recorded in Mark 1 when he healed a man by commanding an evil spirit to come out of him. Then the first recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, the Holy One of God, is given in Mark's gospel to the man possessed:

There they saw Jesus confront evil, and saw how evil knew its enemy before his friends knew who he was, and how it submitted to his authority. So Jesus rebuked the evil which was oppressing that man in an exact parallel with his rebuke of the wind and waves in the story of the storm:

Just as in the storm:

On the first occasion they wondered how he could exercise such power over evil:

Just as after the storm,

Mark is asking, who has such authority over fearful forces? Who but God?

The parallel between the evil possessing the man and the storm threatening the disciples in the boat is closer when you realize that to the Hebrews, who were not normally a seafaring people, the sea was an awesome thing. It was a sign of chaos, the opposite of the order in the world in which they saw the hand of God. Although it was still subject to the power of God, the chaos of the sea was something to be overcome. God's Lordship of the tossing sea was a sign of his greatness and an inspiration for worship. So in Psalms:

What then would people with that heritage of belief and worship make of Jesus rebuking and calming the rebellious sea? Who was he? Who but the Lord God could so command? For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. .... Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. That is how the psalmist described the saving acts of God. That Jesus exercised the same authority of God is seen in Mark's account of their adventure with the sudden storm. His authority to act as only God can act was quite explicitly in another healing miracle early in Mark, soon after the one in which the evil power he commanded had called him the Holy One of God. Remember the occasion in Capernaum when they let down the paralysed man on a bed through a hole in the roof, and Jesus said to him, "Your sins are forgiven"; and the scribes, who were quite correct in the their knowledge of the scriptures said,

Who indeed, but God? That is the whole point, in his stilling the storm as in forgiving sins. Who was he? Who had the right to do that? Who but God? That is what Mark is asking us to answer for ourselves. This Jesus who commands the sea is none other than God, the Lord of Creation. He is God in the flesh. You don't have to believe it. You can have your doubts. God has given you that freedom. But whatever you think of it, there is no doubt about the belief and the intention of the evangelist, Mark; he believes and he wants us to be challenged, just as the disciples were when they were confronted by the question, "Who then is this?" His hope is that we too will have faith in the way we answer that question.

But what kind of faith is it? The faith Jesus encouraged was faith in God, who could be trusted, so that they need not be afraid. The contrast in the midst of the storm is between Jesus who remains calm and the fear of the disciples that they would be swamped by the waves. The disciple had two kinds of fear. They had a natural fear of the waves, and they also experiences a stranger fear, a sense of awe, at his command of the situation. When he said to them, however, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" it was in regard to the first fear, their natural fear of death. He would encourage them to have faith in God, to believe that they were in his care, and had no need to fear even death. His calmness in the face of danger soon spread to the waves and to them. The faith to which he called them, then, was not so much to believe that Jesus could do such a thing as calm the storm, though he could, as it was faith in God whose Lordship he represented and which they could trust. It was God who calmed the storm, as Psalmist said,

It was God who calmed the storm, but is this case of the disciples on the sea of Galilee it was God in Christ who desired them to have peace and live in faith. You might even say with William Barclay "In the presence of Jesus we can have peace in even the wildest storms of life". I could go on now to speak of how we can have peace in times of sorry, or tension and uncertainty, or of how in times of anxiety we can find that fear passes away when we become aware that Jesus shares our troubles and walks with us through the danger. People who have learned to live close to God can have such peace through faith, day by day. And it is a great blessing. You can spell out what that might mean in our own life, and that is good, trusting in the presence of Jesus, day by day. But just one thing! You first have to believe that he is God, otherwise your trust has no foundation. Whatever you do with the story, do not forget the main point of Mark's storytelling, "Who then is this?" Who but God! Then you can trust him. Then you can have peace in the storms of life.

It is said by some, and you might feel the same way, that perhaps there was a vague memory of the disciples being out on the lake when a sudden storm struck and that they knew peace within themselves when he reassured them of God's care and demonstrated his own sense of peace when danger threatened. It is true that the lake was subject to sudden squalls due to wind rushing down narrow ravines from the high country to the North East and East especially in that part of the lake that they appear to have been approaching when Jesus asked them to cross over. They landed on the East side where Jesus had the encounter Mark tell of next with the madman of the Gerasenes. Such storms might disappear as quickly as they came, you might say, quite naturally.

You might perhaps think that if there was such an event they forgot the actual details and remembered it later as a demonstration of what they now believed about him, that he was God incarnate, who was indeed Lord of all creation and so could command the elements. If he was who they believed him to be, then of course you might reason that he could have done such a thing whether he did or not, and you might imagine them thinking the same. That begs the question of how they came to believe that about him, if it was not for some such events. In any case the story is artlessly told by Mark, with detail likely to have come from the memory of someone who was there and remembered details which do not serve any particular purpose and would not be included in a story that was entirely allegorical. For example, Mark says he went "as he was" for no apparent reason, and that there were other boats with them, but we hear no more of them. We told of his being asleep on a cushion, probably the helmsman's seat where an honoured guest would be placed, but nothing is made of that. We get the rough straight talk of the fishermen: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" (Mark 4:38). Of course, something is made of that, and for sophisticated readers it might point back to the story of Jonah, but it rings true to what we know the fishermen. Then you have his direct address to the wind and the waves. Strange stuff, to us, and to them! It not told as if was all what you would expect if you were in the know.

Just the same, convincing though the manner of storytelling may be, modern people find it difficult to accept nature miracles where the physical environment is seen to be acted upon directly. It is easier to believe that Jesus healed people. It seems less of a challenge because we know that the mind can affect the body. We know about psychosomatic illness, but we are not inclined to believe in psychosomatic weather! We prefer not to think of God as an outside force coming into a natural situation and arbitrarily making wind and water behave in a way that they would not otherwise. I don't want to try too hard to offer an explanation, but it is true that the physical world is understood in science now to be much less cut and dried, predictable, and mechanical in a simple sense, than modern people used to think. We might say the weather is a chancy thing; it is a complex probablistic system in which very small changes can be greatly exaggerated, so that they say, theoretically in chaos theory, a flap of butterfly's wing in China can cause a storm in the Atlantic. Who knows what might tip the balance between calm and storm or storm and calm? But really, it is not possible for us to rationalize fully what is presented to us as a mystery which inspired great awe in those who experienced it. There is always a danger of missing the point of a biblical narrative if we are concerned to make sense of in terms of our current understanding of the world. From the viewpoint of the apostles, what they experienced told them something about who this man was and what God is like. Enough of an insight was given them to affect their faith in God and the way they were to live in future.

As I have suggested some people interpret the story allegorically. The calm of Jesus in the face of danger was an assurance to the frightened sailors. There was an element of that in it, but it was hardly enough for them to remember and retell it in such a dramatic form. In the form of the story, one is reminded of other dramatic stories of calm in great storms at sea. Perhaps you know some. They are stories which tell us something of what we need to believe about the world and about God in order to enjoy the peace of the presence of Christ. One such story of a great storm is the story of Jonah, who was down below asleep when the storm struck. The sailors, terribly afraid, were all calling in their various gods to save them, and they came to Jonah and demanded that he call on his god too, asking who his god might be. When they were told that he worshipped "the Lord", the maker of the land and the sea, and that Jonah was running away from his god, they were even more afraid, blaming him for the storm.

Not wanting his blood on their hands they tried to row the ship out of it but eventually, after also praying to the same "Lord" [Yahweh, the God of Israel], they tossed him into the sea - and the sea was calmed. Jesus was not the same as Jonah. He was asleep down in the boat, but not guilty and afraid. He did not offer his life to propitiate the God of the Sea -- well, not exactly! Not here, not now, and not in quite that way! No, when his time came to sacrifice his life, it was as the guiltless one; but he did take Jonah as a sign of his dying and rising (Matthew 12:39-41). His rising was indeed an even more challenging miracle of nature than the stilling of the storm. In either case it was God's world and God cared about what was happening to people in it, and it was God who said to the waves "Be still". It was the same God who raised up Jesus in whom people could put their trust.

Another story of peace in the midst of a storm that I am reminded of is one from the origins of one of our traditions in the Uniting Church. Those of us who are old enough to remember and who came from the Methodist tradition might remember the formative story that used to told to encourage faith among Methodists, of how when John Wesley was going to America as a missionary the ship was caught in a great storm in the Atlantic and everyone was terrified -- everyone, that is, except one group of passengers who stayed below praying and seemed completely unperturbed. Wesley was struck by their great faith and their sure stillness and peace in the face of death. They were missionaries from Moravia. Wesley learned a great deal from the Moravians over the following years about complete trust in God through faith in Christ. It was many years before he came himself to such an assurance of the love of God that left no room for fear of death; but when he did eventually know that faith, it transformed him, and it changed much of England and the new world through the great evangelical revival from which the Methodist Church was born. When he did come to that depth of faith on the famous night at Aldersgate Street, he was able to say, I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Saved from the waves, saved from chaos, saved from the power of evil, saved from death - it takes many forms, but the gift of saving grace is a well known gift of peace that comes from knowing that it is in Jesus Christ that God overcomes our fears and the uncertainties of life in this world, so that through faith we need not be afraid, even of death. When that fear is conquered life is indeed different! It comes from being able to answer the question posed by Mark out of the experience of the disciples in that storm, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Who but God! To whom be the glory, for ever. Amen.

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