a sermon on Mark 4:35-41 for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, RCL Year B
preached on June 24, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Note: This is my final sermon before my sabbatical begins. I return to the pulpit on September 9. In the meantime, I’ll be posting pictures and reflections from my sabbatical time here.
It didn’t look like it would be a dark and stormy night when they set out – it was just a normal, everyday evening on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus suggested that they take the boat to the other side. Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen – they had been out on the water many times before, and that night they were even accompanied by other boats. But then a storm sprung up out of nowhere. Now this wasn’t all that unusual – these waters were known for being a little rough from time to time. But every storm brings its uncertainty, drama, and fear. They needed all hands on deck to help adjust the sails and even bail a little water here and there.
As everyone else was startled awake by the boat being pushed back and forth by the wind and the waves, as all the disciples sprung into action to help out the more experienced ones in managing this crisis aboard the boat, Jesus kept on sleeping peacefully down below. As the storm grew stronger and the winds and the waves beat down upon the boat, nearly swamping it, Jesus slept. The disciples were simultaneously annoyed, angry, and scared – annoyed because they needed all hands on deck to deal with the intensity of the storm, angry because Jesus was somehow still sleeping while they were working all night long, and scared because the storm was more dangerous than anything even the experienced fishermen had seen before. What had looked to be a simple, pleasant, late-night sail was putting their very lives at risk, and they needed help.
I suspect each one of us knows a good bit about unexpected storms in our lives. Just when everything seems to be going right, a call comes: something has happened. Right when we seem to have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t,’ we are told of new requirements or changed rules. What looked like a beautiful and simple project suddenly becomes a nightmare full of tiny details and hidden issues. When these storms of life come, and they inevitably will, it is important to remember one thing: we can’t control the storms, but we can control our response.
You see, there’s just not much we can do to prevent the storms of life. On the weather front, climate experts are predicting that we’ll be facing more extreme weather in the years ahead because of the effects of global warming and climate change. In other areas of life, even when you anticipate every imaginable contingency, it’s entirely possible that some outside force will enter a situation and change it. And the uncertainty of life itself factors in to so many situations in such a way that you just can’t do anything to prevent some problems.
Instead, what we can deal with is our response. We may not be able to control what is going on around us, but we can change and control how we respond. Do we insist that we can handle it on our own, taking a chance that things will only get worse? Do we freak out and start acting like the world is ending just because we haven’t planned for this particular moment? Do we reach out for assistance from those who can really help? Or do we even just shut down and pretend like nothing is happening, denying both the reality of the storm brewing around us and the possibility that we can make a difference in our response?
When it comes to the disciples’ response to the storm, they took the easy way out – they freaked out. To a certain extent, this makes sense. The boat was being swamped, and even the experienced fishermen in the group were concerned that they might not get out of this alive. So the disciples directed their fears and anger and frustration at Jesus, the one who was asleep the whole time. They found him down in the stern and shook him awake: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I suspect that they not only needed his hands on deck but also his presence with them – if they were going to die, they wanted to go down together!
Whatever they expected him to do when they woke him up, he astonished them all the more. He cried out to the wind and the waves:
Peace! Be still!
Suddenly everything was calm again. The waters ceased roaring and foaming. The waves died down. The rain stopped. The wind faded into nothingness. Then Jesus asked them,
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
He knew that everything would be okay and that they had nothing to worry about. He was confident in God’s presence with them even through the storm, confident enough to sleep through it all!
Everything was right again on the boat – except that the disciples just didn’t understand what they had experienced. What had just happened? Who was this Jesus anyway? They didn’t expect him to be able to do this – they just wanted his help up on deck! They were more confused and afraid than ever. This man who they had started following because of his compelling words had suddenly taken control of nature. Sure, he had healed people before, but controlling nature takes things to the next level! Everything they knew about him was drawn into question, but for some reason they kept following him.
The disciples’ response to the storm and the threat to their lives was understandable, but I hope it can be instructive for us in these days. Where do we – and where should we – turn when things get rough? And what should we expect in that moment? As I prepare to leave you all for two months and begin a time of sabbatical and renewal, I hope that you won’t come running to me, angry and frustrated, thinking that I am asleep in the boat. First of all, I just won’t be able to answer! But even more than that, although I may not be here with you, aware of every little thing that is going on, tracking every wave and shift in the wind, God will be here with you. The winds and the waves will not overcome the boat that is this congregation. I trust that the work we share here will continue without me – that worship will go on as scheduled, led faithfully and competently by our friend Krystin Granberg, that the administrative tasks that we face will still get done, even that God will keep growing us in our faith as we take a brief time apart on this journey together.
Don’t get me wrong: these days will not be easy for any of us. Believe it or not, I think I will actually have a hard time not checking my work email or talking or worrying about things here! Many of us will have additional responsibilities to step up and do different roles and work in these two months. And we will still have to respond to any storms that pop up along the way. Yet I hope that Jesus’ words will echo in our minds in the midst of these days ahead:
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
Remember: He knew that everything would be okay and that the disciples had nothing to worry about. He was confident in God’s presence with them even through the storm, confident enough even to sleep through it all!
Our closing hymn today ends with a prayer that asks for this kind of help to trust God’s presence in the days ahead:
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside.
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee, I will ever give to Thee.
Friends, may we have this kind of confidence in God’s presence in these coming two months apart and all along our journey as we walk with Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.