The Restoration Project 2
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 20, 2020
Reading: Mark 4:35-41
Her name was Inga, and she was a nasty piece of work. I lived with her for three days. She tormented me. She tormented the people I loved. She battered my school, took off the roof of a neighbour's house, and caused people to lose their boats. Inga goes down in history on September the 20th, 1969, as the fourth most powerful and long-lasting hurricane in Atlantic history, and she devastated the Island of Bermuda where I was living. I have never forgotten the effects of Inga. I remember that storm as if it was yesterday. The blowing up of the banana plantation in front of our house. There's nothing like seeing bananas fly through the sky and land in the grill of your car then bake on a radiator for the next six months. We had a flambéed Austin Mini. It was an amazing thing, but it was terrifying. The sound of a hurricane is like the sound of a freightliner coming through your living room. It terrifies. It paralyzes. So much so that afterwards you're frightened to go outside to see what happened.
So, it is of no small importance as we're hearing about these other hurricanes, and in today’s passage that we need to take seriously just how dramatic and how terrifying a real storm can be. The devastation of a hurricane and the power of nature to destroy human life. That is exactly why this story from Mark's gospel is so powerful. It is one of those stories in the Bible that is covered in three different gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is Mark's gospel where we get the most details. It was classic Mark.
When I told one of our summer preachers, I was preaching on this, said “Andrew, this story is the gospel in a nutshell.” It goes right to the heart of what we believe. It teaches us about Christ and it teaches us about ourselves. It has school been captured in art. The great Rembrandt Van Rijn had the magnificent painting of Jesus in the boat calming the storm. It has caught the imagination of people for 2,000 years. Why? Because it is more than an event. It is more than an historical occasion in Jesus' life. It goes right to the heart of fear and faith, terror and loneliness. And hope. It is within itself a gospel, and it's into that gospel that I want to take you this morning.
I can't think of anything that would be more relevant for us gathered in this place than to look at the calming of a storm. Metaphorically, in many ways, a storm is what we're in. A storm that is challenging our lives. I want to do this by looking at five phrases because each of those helps us get a grasp of precisely what this story is all about.
It begins with Mark telling us in simple words that Jesus says to these fishers, “Take me to the other side.” What he was getting at, of course, was crossing the Sea of Galilee, sometimes known as Gennesaret. This is where Jesus had his early ministry. He was born there. His friends were there. Peter and Andrew and James and John, the fishermen who owned boats. This was their locale. But Galilee is a strange place, a strange sea. It can be very dangerous. We're told that Jesus had a long day and was probably tired. He'd been dealing with the crowds, telling the parables of the sower and others. People were like the paparazzi following him around, maybe not like Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed but they were following him around and he wanted to go home to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
We are told that Jesus was in the stern of the boat, which is a place where a person of honour would go. I love the phrase from Mark saying they even had a cushion for him. Like “Jesus, we know this has been a long day. Take a seat. We want you to be comfortable.”
There he is. There are other boats around. I don't know why they're there but they're on their way across as well. Then we learn a storm arose. You might think that surely experienced fisher people like Peter and Andrew, James and John, along with the other boats would know a storm was coming. But not in Galilee. There was no radar, no detection system. From the hills of Hauran to Mount Hermon, to Trachonidis, a bowl was created around the sea, and into that bowl came winds that were unpredictable. These winds would whip up and create a storm out of nowhere.
It's not as if – and here I disagree with John Calvin – Jesus knew necessarily there would be a storm coming and was putting people in harm's way. No. This was Jesus wanting to go across the lake, go back home, and a storm came. We're also told (and I love this, I looked up the Greek for a furious storm or a strong storm, the word that they use is “mega”) these sailors faced storms all the time, but this was a mega storm and very dangerous. Jesus had no idea this was coming.
When the storm came, we have the second phrase. “Teacher” they said, “don't you care that we might perish? You're just lying there at the back of the boat fast asleep. Wake up man. There's a storm around us. What about us? Don't you care for us?”
In last Sunday's sermon on Psalm 80 there was the same concern for the people of Israel. They were challenging God as if God was asleep at the wheel. In the Book of Jonah, Jonah was accused of the same thing in the Old Testament. In Jonah, Chapter 1 it says, “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the seas, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his own god; and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea to lighten it. But Jonah had gone asleep. So, the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god. Perhaps your god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.’”
What they're doing is blaming Jesus. Blaming Jonah. And in Psalm 80 blaming God. We have this unexpected, unanticipated storm, and the first thing they ask Jesus is, “Don't you care?”
My friends, often when we face difficulties and stresses and dangers, that is the first place we go. We not only get upset and wonder whether God cares, but we also want to apportion blame. It's almost as if – and I'm reading into the text – the disciples are saying, “Oh come on Jesus. You're responsible for this. You told us to get in the boats. You're the Lord and teacher and rabbi. Surely you should have known this was going to happen to us. Don't you care? We're blaming you.”
We humans love to assign blame, don't we? Man, there's an apportion of blame going around right now that's an epidemic. Throughout history we’ve done this. When Rome burned, Nero blamed the Christians. Can you imagine? After Versailles and Germany was humiliated. Hitler blamed the Jews. And (I've been discovering this in the light of researching Black Lives Matter) often times there was a correlation between a drop in cotton prices and an increase in lynchings. Someone to blame. When Ghandi was assassinated Sikhs were blamed.
We want to blame someone when the unexpected occurs. When we're in the middle of a storm we want to point to something, or someone. This is occurring because of someone or something or some force. The disciples turned on Jesus, at the back of the boat, and said “Don't you care?” But you know, my friends, they were responding out of fear. I think they also felt alone. I think seeing Jesus asleep when they're going through this storm, and how he slept through the storm I don't know, they are wondering how on Earth can you just sit there when this is happening and we are so alone? Loneliness is a powerful force, especially when the storms of life come our way.
I was reading an article in the Globe and Mail this week entitled, “The Deterioration is Very Real: How the pandemic loneliness has affected those with dementia.” It's by Wendy Leung. You really should read it. In it she describes people who suffer from dementia having an even greater sense of loss and loneliness when they're not able to see people. This exacerbates their feelings of fear and isolation.
I know many of you here in person, listening on the radio, watching the live stream, feel that incredible gut-wrenching loneliness. I would understand why you would say as the disciples said, “do you care?” When you feel alone and you wonder whether anyone cares, it's natural to do.
The third phrase is: “Peace, be still, be quiet.” Did he say it to the disciples? Did he tell them to be quiet? No, he told the storm to quiet. He told the waters to quiet. He acted and he calmed the torment. This was no ordinary person in that boat. When God created the world, God spoke. According to the Book of Genesis, the beginning of creation started with these words, God said, “Let there be light.” God speaks and even nature is still.
When Jesus was in that boat, his was a command to the source of the problem. It was not to the disciples. It was not a rebuke. The last time someone preached on this sermon was many years ago and it was the Rev. John Harries. It was on a Sunday when I was very ill. I had to phone him up at midnight, or Marial did, and said “John, do you have a sermon that is ready to go?”
John got up and preached on this very text, having just had a diagnosis of cancer. He understood the power of those words, to that which is challenging, just be still and be quiet. We need to pray that God in this storm will speak, and the world will listen.
Be still. Be quiet. Let us be restored.
Then Jesus really speaks to them after that in words that are very powerful, he says, “Then the winds ceased, and there was dead calm.” He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” After there was quiet. I like the phrase, “a dead calm.” There was a stillness. Then he says to them, “But you're still afraid. Why are you afraid? Don't you have faith still? Don't you still believe?”
You see the disciples were frightened. Those that were in the other boats were responding with fear and this fear paralyzed them. They weren't sure if they could believe Jesus. Even though the evidence was there before them, they were still afraid.
Clearly, they must have been talking amongst themselves. Jesus is responding to something that must have been going on in the boat afterwards. Whether they were saying that it'll come again or there will be more devastation or, I don't know whether we can get home or – who knows what was being discussed but clearly Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? What's going on in here?”
What is going on in here right now? What fears do we have? What is holding us back from trusting? Doing the right things, yes. But entrusting. Why are we so afraid? I do believe, my friends, that this is a time when the storm around us is causing people to fear and we need to listen. We need to come into the House of the Lord, and we need to pray.
Soren Kierkegaard once observed that a person prays and at first, they think that prayer is talking, but the more quiet they become they realize that prayer is listening. We need to pray and to listen. Why do you still have faith? Faith is what's needed now. Faith in our God is needed now.
Oh, you know, COVID-19 has done some strange things to our television viewing. I don't know about you, but I've watched more television in the last seven months than in the last 20 years. Not much of it was sports either, which is quite remarkable. I watched The Crown on Netflix. I know it's controversial but there was a beautiful moment involving the Princess of Battenberg. Princess Alice was, of course, the mother of Philip. She had been born congenitally deaf. She had been diagnosed as schizophrenic and removed from the public eye. She had gone into an orthodox convent and worked with the poor. I realized something else in my research of her, that she – and I think on Rosh Hashanah this is significant – is seen as righteous and recognized at Yad Vashem for saving Jewish refugees.
There is this moment when Philip, who was been ashamed and frightened of her being publicly seen and known, has a meeting with her and she talks to him. In his anxiety about her being public and his shame about who she was, she says to him, (it's from the movie, mind you, not from the history books). “Find yourself a faith. It helps.”
No. It is everything.
From the woman who'd gone through the storms, had not been recognized or given honours, but for the person who'd served, been ostracized, rejected in loneliness, she said, “Faith is everything.”
And when Jesus saw those disciples in the storm he said, “Don't be afraid. Have faith.”
The last phrase is a question. “Who is this that even the seas obey him? Well, they knew the answer. This was the Lord God in His Son. This was the King of Kings. The Lord of Lords. He had come. He had brought them through the storm. He had restored them. All He asked is “Please, have faith.” And that is precisely what he's asking us today. In this storm: Have faith. Amen.