Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Weatherman

Mark 4:35-41 by Daniel Harrell

Almost everybody has a scary water story. I have a couple. My most recent occurred last summer off Halibut Point near Gloucester. I was paddling my beautifully hand built, wood strip kayak off the coast with cloudy skies but calm water. I was several miles from my launch point near Wingaersheek Beach and wanted a taste of open ocean before I called it a day. Rounding Halibut Point and heading south, I could see some darker clouds gathering in the distance, but wrongly assumed them to be too far away to be harmless. Within minutes, the winds picked up, the water started to chop and this nasty squall barreled north. I was in trouble. The Coast Guard helicopter that suddenly appeared and hovered overhead confirmed my assessment. Now my kayak is a long one, with no rudder, making it difficult to turn, especially in dangerous water. Your real problems start once you get perpendicular to a stiff wind and waves and the force hits you from the side. My heart was pounding into my throat as I thought for sure I was about to capsize. I held it together only to have this gust of wind send me sailing for a string of enormous boulders that line the shore at Halibut Point. Needless to say, unlike Jesus in the midst of his storm, I never once considered taking a nap. I did, however, like the disciples, scream to Jesus for help. These prayers of desperation did not result in the immediate cessation of the storm, however, as cool as that would have been. Instead, I paddled like a mad man and managed to make it into a nearby cove, thank the Lord, where I waited out the squall.

Why didn’t Jesus calm my storm like he did for his disciples here? I don’t know. As far as I can tell, he only does it this one time, and at least here in Mark, seems kind of irritated about doing it. Chapter 4 began, you’ll remember, with huge crowds gathered to hear Jesus teach by the Sea of Galilee. The crowds were so huge that they squeezed Jesus backwards and almost into the water. I guess Jesus (being Jesus) could have just stepped back onto the water (as he will do later), but instead some of his fisherman disciples put him into a boat they’d moored off the bank. Jesus then commenced to talk and talk about seeds: a farmer sowing seeds, a man growing seeds and finally mustard seeds, the smallest seeds around. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is just like seeds. Some folks in the crowd had to wonder: Did I take off work to hear this? For an oppressed people eager for the return of God’s kingdom in power, hearing Jesus describe it in such tiny terms had to be so discouraging. Still, the seed metaphor fit squarely within the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Isaiah and Ezekiel both tell about God’s departure from Israel and Israel’s subsequent demise in terms of a mighty tree cut down with only a stump remaining. Yet, Isaiah promised, “as an oak tree leaves a stump when it is cut down, so Israel’s stump will be a holy seed.” “A shoot will come up from that stump; from its roots a Branch will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him.”

This was Messiah talk, but by the time Jesus actually showed up, centuries of heightened Jewish expectation made it so that a seed would no longer do as an appropriate metaphor. Israel expected a mighty sequoia of a Messiah, not some little mustard seed. No wonder so many had such a hard time recognizing that God was doing his thing in this seedy young carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus’ miracles made him popular to be sure, but they didn’t quite make him Messiah. His family thought he was crazy. The religious leaders called him a blasphemer. Those who followed him didn’t really understand what was going on. Jesus used parables to try and clear things up, but even his own disciples who he would entrust to help bring the kingdom on, even they struggled to make the connection. So in verse 35, Jesus says, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.” Typically in the Bible, whenever Jesus had to explain something, he often followed it up with an object lesson. It’s almost as if this whole boat ride was a set up.

The Sea of Galilee sits surrounded by hills in a depression some 700 ft below sea level. Frequently a rush of wind and the right mix of temperatures create furious storms, something the disciples, as experienced fishermen, would have been familiar with. What made this particular storm so furious that even these accomplished sailors feared for their lives? I don’t know, but I figure if Jesus can command storms to be quiet, he can probably command the weather to whip up a big one. I think this was a faith-test. Almost every heavy hitter in the Bible had to take one, with some of the heaviest tests being liquid: Noah had the flood, Moses had the Red Sea, Joshua had the Jordan River, Jonah had a whale in the water. How would the disciples stack up? Would they have faith? It is important to remember that for the ancients, stormy seas represented chaos and evil. Jesus slept through the storm not because he was tired, but because he wasn’t scared of evil. Not so with his disciples. They absolutely freaked. They shook Jesus awake and screamed their disbelief: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

It’s interesting to compare this account across the gospels. In Luke, the disciples merely state the obvious: “Master, we’re drowning!” In Matthew, they show at least a baseline of faith: “Lord, save us!” But in Mark, the disciples just sound sarcastic: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” It might be significant that in Luke the disciples do call Jesus Master and in Matthew they call him Lord. Here in Mark, he’s still just a teacher, and apparently not one who’s yet had a lot of success getting through to his students. What were the disciples in Mark expecting Jesus to do by waking him up? Apologize? Share their fear? Help bail out the boat? Hold their hands and tell them not to worry, everything would be OK? Or were they just ticked that he was sleeping so soundly while their whole world was falling apart (sort of like they would do later in the Garden of Gethsemane)? Maybe they just expected Jesus to pray. If he was as close to God as he said, couldn’t he pray and get God to do something?

But why pray and ask God to do something you can do yourself? Jesus wakes up and yells, “Quiet! Be Still!” which if you didn’t know better you’d think was addressed to the disciples. But Mark makes sure to insert the direct objects so that we’d know he was talking to the wind and the waves. And sure enough, the winds died down and the water stilled. Perhaps the moon peeked out from behind the dissipating clouds and seagull appeared for some night fishing. Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them why they were so afraid: “Don’t you have any faith in me yet?” Having heard this story so many times before, it’s easy to imagine the disciples looking down at their sandals, sheepish grins on their faces. “Yeah, you’re right. It was just a hurricane.” But try to imagine what it must have been like to witness obedient weather. Who seriously yells at the wind to stop blowing and it does? Who can talk to the sea and make it calm down? The storm terrified the disciples; but Jesus’ stopping the storm scared the crap out them. I imagine them turning white as sheets, their mouths agape and their eyes a-bug, and their lips saying: “Oh-my-God!” Which really is the point of this story.

How could God’s kingdom come through a poor and seemingly insignificant mustard seed of a man? Perfectly, if that poor and seemingly insignificant mustard seed of a man is God. The disciples ask each other, “Who is this man that even the wind and the waves obey him?” “He is the image of the invisible God,” the apostle Paul answered to the Colossians, “the firstborn of all creation. By him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” If you were here last Sunday you heard Bishop N. T. Wright preach from this passage. He articulated it this way: “Jesus as the image of God means that God looks like Jesus.” Rather than trying to make Jesus fit your ideas about God, you need to look long and hard at Jesus and then shape you ideas about God around him. Jesus is not like God, God is like Jesus. It’s a subtle but significant shift. From now on, everything we know about God comes from what we know about Jesus. We read the Old Testament through the life of Jesus. To say that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus, it changes our understanding of divinity. This is what Jesus meant when he said “no one comes to the Father but by me.” You can’t understand God if you don’t understand Jesus.

“God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ,” Paul continues, “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” The juxtaposition is jarring. Which is why I think we have so much trouble understanding. The one who created all things reconciles all things not by force but by failure. He makes peace not through violent conquest, but by enduring violence. The one to whom nature submits, submits himself to die on a cross. Jesus said, “unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The power of God’s kingdom is the power of sacrificial, suffering love. Isaiah predicted this too, remember: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” And yet people still object, insisting that God is not like this. God does not experience defeat. God does not endure injustice. God does not suffer evil. God does not die. You can’t understand God if you don’t understand Jesus.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already: The supreme act by which God demonstrates his power is not an act of power but an act of powerlessness. He wins by losing. He shows his power by not using his power. So what’s up here in Mark? What’s Jesus doing? I find it interesting that only the disciples get to see him calm the storm. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t happen within view of the beach. Just like he explained the parables for their ears only, his display of authority over nature was for their eyes only. Why? Didn’t he want them thinking they could count on him to swoop down and fix everything whenever they got scared? No. He just didn’t want them to be afraid anymore.

I remember another scary water story that happened a few years ago. A graduate student from China had found her way here to Park Street on a friend’s invitation. She started believing in Jesus and approached me about getting baptized before she returned home. She told me about her family, how they disapproved of her decision and threatened to refuse to welcome her back. She told me of other Christians she’d heard of in China who were often in trouble with the government, some of whom had been jailed for going to church. I asked whether she was scared, did she really want to go through with this, and she said sure, she was nervous, but really more excited than scared. She was excited that her faith made sense of the hardships in her life, and that her bad choices had a chance at redemption. And she was excited that God loved her, and that she could love others, including her family, even if they rejected her. Getting baptized might make her life harder, but it was also going to make it less fearful. And she wanted that. So we baptized her. She said in her testimony how she didn’t feel fear because she knew Jesus was with her. I wish I could remember her name. I do remember praying for her. But I don’t ever remember worrying about her.

Early Christian art often depicted the church as a boat amidst a surging storm with Jesus at the helm. The storms are thought to represent the persecution that Rome violently inflicted upon so many Christians in the centuries immediately after the resurrection. Whenever I look at these depictions, a few things stick out to me. First, I notice that Jesus isn’t asleep, which is good I think. Instead of sleeping, Jesus typically stands with his arms outstretched, looking just like he does in the artwork where he hangs on the cross. The second thing I notice is that the storm is never calmed—the wind keeps blowing and the water keeps churning. Jesus didn’t swoop down from heaven and stop Rome’s vicious persecution. If anything, he had only promised it was going to happen. Later in Mark’s gospel he’ll even call it a baptism. But the third thing I notice is that unlike in the story itself, in the early Christian artwork, the people in the boat never look afraid. In fact in Rembrandt’s depiction, stolen from the Gardner museum 20 years ago and still missing, it looks like Jesus and his disciples are having a small group Bible study.

The Psalmist sings, “Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free. With the LORD on my side I do not fear. What can anybody do to me?”

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