March 14, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news this morning from Mark 4:35-41.
On that day, as evening drew on, he said to them, “Let us cross to the other side.” Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him. A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
We have seen in recent readings that Jesus could produce an effect just by saying a word whether to heal or to still a storm. In ancient times people thought of the sea as the symbol for the powers of chaos and evil according to the New Jerusalem Commentary. “By controlling the storm at sea, Jesus does what God does and defeats the forces of evil.” It may have evoked Psalm 107 as well, “In their distress they cried to the LORD, who brought them out of their peril, hushed the storm to a murmur; the waves of the sea were stilled.” Or Psalm 89, “You rule the raging sea; you still its swelling waves.” In any case, the idea put forth is that Jesus had divine powers.
There are several episodes in the gospels where Jesus questions the faith of his disciples even to the point of exasperation. In the preceding verses Jesus had used the parable of the mustard seed and Mark tells us that Jesus explained its meaning to his disciples. Here, he has invited them to “cross to the other side” and they take Jesus in their boat meaning in their hearts and minds. He has endeavored to instill in them faith the size of a mustard seed and now their faith was first being put to test. However, their fears snuff out their still-small faith and they turn to Jesus in hope, hope of being saved from their fears, particularly their fear of death. The epistle of James picks up on this theme, “[F]or the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.”
Mark contrasts the stifling fear of the disciples with the slumbering Jesus who trusts explicitly in God’s protection from, and power to defeat, evil. Did Jesus really miraculously calm the wind and the waves or did he actually calm the fears of his disciples? Either way, with their fears no longer in command they receive the first glimmering of understanding that Jesus is the son of God. The mustard seed of faith had at least taken root.
I don’t think I fear death, but I have a great fear of dying by suffocation or drowning, by not being able to draw a breath. It is a stifling fear at times; the kind of fear that repels faith. The kind of fear that makes me realize that my faith is the size of a mustard seed as yet unsprouted. My prayer often is that in my final moments of life I will be given a calm, peaceful spirit secure in the certain knowledge of God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy. I realize now that I am just like the disciples in this story crying out to Jesus to be saved because my faith is still immature. However, my fear of suffocating can also be understood as a representation of my fear of turbulence in my life, of being out of control, and my failure to rest in God’s love and protection. Things can go suddenly and unexpectedly awry in my life — terminal illness, debilitating injury, loss of a loved one. Unless I am able to be calmed by my faith in God’s loving providence, fear will overcome me, the turbulent waves will swamp my boat.
John Sanford in The Kingdom Within puts it this way, “When Jesus speaks of faith, he is speaking of a certain capacity of a person to affirm life in spite of what life may bring, and even in the face of doubts….Faith, like a grain of mustard seed, is obviously not a matter of the intellect or will but a function of the soul….The prayer of faith is prayer of the soul and is efficacious against evil.”
We are in this boat together with Jesus. When I fear that my boat may sink, I sometimes foolishly ask him, “Don’t you care about me? Don’t you care that I may be perishing?” But when I open my heart to him in prayer, he quiets my fears. At the same time, I’m sure he looks at me wonderingly and asks, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” That seems to be the story of my life, a recurring theme. Like the disciples I am eager to “cross to the other side,” to be filled to the full with faith.