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There are times in life when we feel utterly helpless. The morning of September 11, 2001 in Downtown New York City close to the twin towers, was one such moment for me. You may have experienced such a moment in your own life – a moment when you felt alone and helpless.
Come with me to a scene in the Gospel of St Mark, chapter 4, verses 35 through 41: On that day, when evening had come, Jesus (he) said to his disciples (them), “Let us go across to the other side” (of the lake). And leaving the crowd, they took him with them on the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion…
For centuries the Jewish people feared the sea. They associated its unpredictable forces with the primordial powers of creation that God needed to bring under his control. It raised the kind of anxiety and fear that the word nuclear raises in the minds of many people today. The sea symbolized those unpredictable and untameable energies that exist beneath the world – the kind of energies that defy all of humanity’s attempts to harness them.
Fear. We can begin to understand the fear that overcame the disciples when a sudden squall blew up. The Sea of Galilee, some seven hundred feet below sea level, is shallow and set between high hills. As every sailor knows, this combination can be highly dangerous in a storm. Rapidly moving air streams can quickly cause the waters to rise, making it choppy and turbulent.
On this occasion the storm quickly turned the comparatively quiet waters into huge waves. The gale force winds and turbulent waters threatened to capsize the boat. Even though some of the disciples were professional fishermen, they felt totally helpless. Fearing for their lives, they woke the sleeping Jesus and said to him: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38).
A cry for help. Their cry for help was driven by fear. It was not a prayer let alone an expression of faith in Jesus. Behind their question is the implied thought that he had led them into this situation: he was the one who had suggested the trip over the lake. And here he was, calm and asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat – a detail that underscores the historical veracity of the event – seemingly oblivious to their danger.
A command. Jesus’ response is revealing and encouraging: He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
Jesus’ words are a clear, authoritative rebuke, without histrionics or grandstanding. Only one word can describe Jesus’ action: power. There was no process in the storm’s abatement. Instantly the wind ceased, and the sea was calm.
When we pause to think about this, we can only be awed by the power at work here. And if we think a little more, we will want to ask, as the disciples asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Those men knew their Bible. They knew that only God had this kind of power. Psalms 104:3 and 107:28-29 speak of God’s control over his creation. No ordinary man could have done this extraordinary thing. Only someone who wielded the power of God could do it.
Faith…? Immediately Jesus questioned his disciples: “Where is your faith?” he asked. The ball was in their court – as it is in ours!
Up until this point in his narrative, Mark has shown us that Jesus displayed the kind of supernatural power that could restore order in a world where there is sickness and evil. He is someone to be trusted in the crises of life.
In the western world today many, having turned aside from the Christian faith, are inclined to look for human ideas and political solutions to the world’s problems and their own fears. Gone is an awareness of the existence of the God of love and beauty, goodness, justice, and compassion – the God who has supremely revealed himself in the words and works of his unique Son.
When the disciples looked back at their experiences with Jesus, they came to understand that they were uniquely privileged: in Jesus, God was with them in person.
To return to the crossing of the Lake, Jesus’ sleep in the boat shows us that he experienced physical exhaustion: he is one of us. Yet his sleep indicates his lack of fear: he knew he could trust God with his life. As Alan Cole commented, ‘Faith and fear are mutual exclusives in the Bible: it was because of lack of faith that the disciples feared that they were about to drown, and so it was for their lack of faith that they were rebuked. No command is more often reiterated in the Bible than the simple, ‘Do not fear’ (see Exodus 14:13, 20:20)’ (Mark: IVP, 1989, p.155).
But in their consternation the disciples continued to be fearful, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). It would seem they wanted the warm, friendly presence of Jesus as they knew him, not someone who, in revealing his supernatural powers, was beyond their understanding and comfort zone.
Yet it is because Jesus is uniquely God in the flesh that, come what may, we need not fear when we put our faith in him.
A prayer. Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things, graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us a true faith, nourish us with all goodness, and so by your mercy keep us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.