Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Terrifying Question

Two Sundays ago, I had the honor of preaching at TIF (Tenth International Fellowship). Here is the sermon.

Mark 4:35-41              The Terrifying Question
6/2/13 (TIF)     D. Marion Clark

Mark and the other gospel writers had an agenda, which was to tell the “good news” about Jesus Christ.
  They were not writing biographies to give insight into the man Jesus.  Though what they wrote was historically accurate, they were writing propaganda in the true sense of the word – material intended to demonstrate and persuade that Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God.  The good news was that the Christ had brought salvation.  The events of Jesus’ life and his teachings were selected and put together to present him as the Messiah, the Savior, who was crucified for the salvation of his people and who is now the risen Lord.

The theme of Mark’s gospel is stated in the first verse: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark is saying, “I am about to lay before you such wondrous words and actions of this man Jesus, that you will see that he was and is no mere man but the actual Son of God.”  Throughout his gospel, he begs the question, “See, do you get it now who he is?”  He has been doing this in the chapters up to this passage. 

John the Baptist speaks of the one “who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8).

An unclean spirit declares in the middle of a synagogue service, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (1:23-24).

Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic and the religious teachers respond, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:5-7)

Other unclean spirits cry out, “You are the Son of God” (3:11).

Our present passage closes with this question: “Who is this?” (4:41). Let’s turn to our passage now and pray for the ears to hear what is being taught.


35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

Jesus has spent the day teaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  From the description in 3:7-8 we understand that a large crowd would have gathered around and he likely had taught from a boat.  The evening has come, and, as he had stated early in his ministry, he has to keep traveling in order to preach to as many people as possible.  Mark tosses in the otherwise unknown element that there were other boats that accompanied the boat he and his disciples were in.

The Storm

Next, we are told that
And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.

Here the action begins.  A big windstorm has come up, which is not unusual for that lake.  It is mostly surrounded by high hills and is itself more than 600 feet below sea level.  In a couple of places there are gaps between the hills that create a funnel for winds and intensify their strength.  These winds can come suddenly, as in this case, and catch boaters off guard.

This is a serious situation.  The boat – and it is a boat, not a ship – is not merely being rocked by the waves.  They are breaking over the boat, filling it with water, so that it will soon sink if the waves do not stop.  The disciples realize that drowning is a very real probability.  At least four of them are experienced fishermen of that lake.  They would have taken what measures they could to save the boat, and they know the real danger.  Death is before them.

38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It is not difficult to imagine the disciples’ emotion when they look at their master sleeping peacefully in the back of the boat.  No doubt Jesus had had a tiring day.  We have all experienced such tiredness that caused us to sleep through noise and activity.  But really!  To sleep in a small boat that is being tossed by waves that are crashing into the boat!  There is also the roaring sound of wind and waves, and no doubt, the voices of the men shouting to one another.  That must have been one comfortable cushion!

They must have shaken him to get him up.  Their words are certainly intended to be a rebuke.  One commentator noted that such rebukes by the disciples indicate that Jesus’ status as the divine Son of God was still veiled.  Otherwise they would not have spoken so rudely.  I’ve no doubt that is true, and you will hear more about it, but, goodness, what else would you expect?  “Uh, excuse us, Teacher.  Sorry to bother you.  If you don’t mind, we’ve got a little problem we thought you might help us out with.”  These men are not anticipating danger.  It has fallen on them.  They are struggling to keep from being swept into the lake.  And Jesus is sleeping!  Sure they are going to fuss at him, “Don’t you care?”

39 And 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 acts like a dog owner whose large dog goes berserk whenever the doorbell rings.  You, the visitor, look through the window and see a vicious dog standing against the door and barking furiously.  The owner comes out of a room rubbing the sleep from his eyes.  He is fumbling at the lock on the door, all the while the dog is feverishly trying to get through it to you.  You start to tell the owner you’ll come back another time when he sharply commands the dog to be quiet.  The dog hangs his head and sheepishly walks away.  So Jesus commanded the wind and the waves to be quiet.

The Rebuke

Now that he has some peace, not to mention the full attention of the disciples, Jesus speaks to them:
40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I look at this remark, and honestly, I want to ask Jesus, “Are you serious? What kind of question is that? Of course they were afraid! The boat was sinking and you were sleeping. Their muscles and nerves were strained to the limit, and you want to know why they were afraid.”

Jesus then fixes on their faith, or rather their lack of faith.  Again, what does he expect?  Were they supposed to just sit in the boat patiently and wait to see what happened?  For how long?  Till the water in the boat covered their feet?  Their knees?  Till it had sunk the boat so low that another cup-full would submerge it?  Should they not have awaken Jesus? 

Or maybe the problem is they did not exercise faith early on.  Maybe they should have awaken Jesus when the winds first came and asked him to handle the situation.  Perhaps he is upset with them for trying to save themselves and letting things get out of hand. Or was the problem with their sharp speech and exasperation with him.

I would have been nicer than Jesus.  After I calmed the storm, I would have turned to my disciples and said something like, “You okay?  Guess that shook you up a bit.  Everything’s all right now.”  Why is Jesus so hard on them?

Keep that thought.  The response of the disciples is intriguing and may help us out.

41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”

I would have expected a couple of other responses.  One would be excitement.  “Yea!  Way to go, Teacher!  That was amazing! Even the wind and the waves obey you!”  Or perhaps a contrite response.  “Sorry, Teacher. We should have known all along that you wouldn’t let us drown.”

But instead of being either grateful or apologetic, they are terrified.  Of what?  The storm is over.  Their beloved Teacher is in the boat with them and has shown that he will protect them, even if he is a little upset with them.  Why should they be afraid?  And note, they don’t even speak to him.  They talk to each other.  Indeed, they seem to be ignoring what he is telling them.  He has rebuked them for being afraid and lacking faith, but they ignore the subject altogether.  What is going on?


What’s going on is that the mystery of the incarnation is being played out.  The human Jesus slept from weariness; the divine Jesus gave orders that his creation obeyed.  It is that mystery – that the man Jesus was more than a man – that struck through their bones into their souls, and it scared them.  They thought they knew him, certainly better than anyone else.  They thought they had a handle on him, and they had as much faith as anyone in what the man Jesus could do.  But what he had just done was not the act of a mere man.  Who is this?

We are back to that question I said Mark would raise throughout his gospel.  That is where he is taking us the reader.  Who is this one called Jesus?  The moral we normally take from this story is that we should trust God and Jesus to take care of us when the storms of life come our way.  And we do struggle with that.  Aren’t we always saying we need more faith?  We are always down on ourselves for letting the troubles of life get to us.  “I wouldn’t be worried if I just had more faith.”  “I know I would be victorious if I just trusted God more.” 

But the problem with the disciples is not that they didn’t have enough faith to trust Jesus in the storm.  The problem is that their faith was not directed at the real Jesus.  Their understanding of Jesus was incomplete.  That’s what Jesus meant when he rebuked them for having no faith and why he was so tough with them.  They lacked faith in what he could do because they lacked knowledge in who he really was.  That’s why he said, “Have you still no faith?  He was saying, “Do you still not get it after being with me who I am?”

The disciples’ response indicates this is the problem.  They don’t say, “Wow, I didn’t know he had that much power!”  The power is not what they are terrified of.  The issue is not about how much Jesus is capable of doing.  They exclaim, “Who is this?  Who is this person whom we’ve known to be a special man of God, for sure, but still nothing more than a man?  Even wind and sea obey him!  These are Jewish disciples, remember, not New Age devotees who think you just need to with you inner divinity to produce miracles.  They know who alone nature obeys – its Creator.

I said that the moral we normally draw from this story is about our need to trust God and Jesus more to help us through the storms of life.  We should do that – trust God, show faith in him when times are tough.  But the solution is not to try and manufacture more faith, as though we need to increase the intensity or the quantity of faith we now have.  “If I would just trust more, believe more, have more faith.”  It is natural to think this way, but I cannot find a similar expression in the Bible.  What I find is that we are to trust, to believe, to have faith.  Indeed, Jesus states that we merely need to have the faith of a mustard seed to do great works.

If we don’t need more faith, then what do we need?  More knowledgeable faith.  If the disciples had truly known who Jesus was, they would have known what to do.  Indeed, if they had truly understood what his mission as Messiah was about, they would have avoided a lot of “poor faith” problems.  They often despaired because they could not quite figure out themselves who Jesus was and what he had come to do.  They were close, closer than everyone else, but still they could not fully grasp it all.

That is our problem today – not knowing, not even wanting to know who Jesus is and what he really came to do.

We Americans are a practical people. We want to know what works to make our lives better. That is not a bad attitude and is the reason why America has been successful as it has in coming up with inventions and better ways of getting things done. But it doesn’t work well when it comes to knowing and living for God. American Christians want to live good Christian lives, but we tend to think we will live good lives by inventing and improving the way we do things.

We want to learn better systems for praying; how to drum up more faith; what techniques will make us better at evangelizing; what methods will help us overcome sin. We think that if we can learn what to do, then we will become more godly and more effective followers of Christ.

But what matters more than knowing how to serve God is knowing God. More important than knowing what to do to follow Christ is knowing Christ and what he had done and still does for us. Sometimes, the only way we get that kind of a message is for God to put us in a situation where we cannot depend on our know-how.

That is what happened for the disciples. Several of Jesus’ disciples were fisherman. They had made their living handling boats on the Sea of Galilee. They knew how to handle a boat in a storm. They, not Jesus, had the necessary experience and skill. But it became too much for them. They could not rely on what they knew to do. They then called on Jesus, not in faith but in desperation. And it is in that moment of desperation that they came to a knowledge of Jesus they had not had before. They did not learn a better method of prayer. They did not learn how to still the storm themselves or how to better survive. They learned through experience more about who Jesus is.

How do we know they learned? Because they confessed their ignorance – Who is this? It is a good question for us to regularly ask.

Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus that even wind and sea obey him? That is a very perceptive question. The disciples realized at that moment that Jesus was more than a prophet who could perform a few miracles. Jesus’ ability to calm the wind and sea was not about possessing power but authority. He did not stop the storm through magic or through acting against it, but merely by ordering it to stop.

Let’s go back to the illustration of the owner with his dog. The dog who is attacking the door, trying to get at you, is stopped, not because the owner restrains him by force but merely by giving an order. The dog recognizes the voice of his master and obeys. The wind and sea recognized the voice of their master and obeyed. Who then is Jesus?

Here is the point. The more fully the disciples understand who Jesus is, the more fear they should have of him and confidence they should have in him. They have fear as they realize he is not like them (that even he is God); they have confidence as they realize the authority he possesses as God to act for their good.

But a greater storm would come that Jesus would not order to stop. It would be the storm that placed him upon a cross. That storm would make his disciples doubt what they had come to believe. They would say, we thought we knew “who is this.” It would take a resurrection to ask the question in joyful wonder, Who is this? Who is this who overcomes death itself? The answer – that he is the Son of God who has overcome death and the power of sin – would take them through even greater storms that they would face as Jesus’ apostles.

How you handle the storms of life will depend not on how well you learn to handle situations, but on how well you trust Jesus Christ. And how well you trust Jesus Christ will depend on the attention you give to knowing him – to studying him in the Scriptures and to observing his ways through life experiences. To know God; to know Jesus; to know what he had done and still does for you is what matters.


Blogger R Kiehlmeier said...

Thank you, Marion!

2:08 PM  

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