Why Are You Afraid? – Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Pentecost B+4 Video

There’s a lot going on today – it’s Father’s Day, another one of those Hallmark Holidays that doesn’t necessarily get celebrated outside the United States. We have also just honored our high school graduates and prayed a blessing over them as they set out on the next stage of their education.

In the middle of all that, we are still keeping track of the Corona virus, working to keep everyone healthy and safe as the pandemic seems to be winding down. We continue to mourn the losses we have experienced over the past 15 months, and while some of us yearn to party like its 2019, others are wary of falling into the patterns of the past, noting that sometimes the “good old days” weren’t so good for everyone.

We are in that in-between, liminal season of change, but we can’t quite see what that change is bringing. Some of us face this uncertainty with dread, while others see possibilities the future promises. In fact, we aren’t so different from the disciples who followed Jesus through Galilee as he taught and healed and shared the good news of God’s kingdom coming into the world

Those disciples knew they were on the cusp of change, but they couldn’t imagine what lay ahead. Some of them were convinced Jesus would soon lead them in a military takeover. Others were confused by the way he turned upside down everything they had known to be true.

But there was one thing they could all agree on: Jesus was worth following. Staying close to Jesus was worth risking everything, even their lives. In today’s gospel reading, they get to do just that.

First, let’s remember the setting:

Jesus has been teaching all day. Mark tells us that the crowds were so thick along the shore that Jesus “got into a fishing boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.” (4:2, NIV) He’s been sitting in this boat through the morning, through the noontime, and into the afternoon, telling parable after parable about the Kingdom of God.

He has told stories about planting, and lamp stands, and weed seeds that grow uncontrollably. Now it is evening, and the crowds are still thick on the rocky shore of the Sea of Galilee. They show no sign of leaving. As long as Jesus is there, they want to be there, too. They don’t want to miss a single word he might say, even though they don’t understand half of it. Let’s pick up the story just where it left off last week. Let’s pick up the story right where it left off last week…

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ – Mark 4:35-41

The disciples experience two kinds of fear in this passage: the natural fear of a raging storm, and a holy fear of the one who calms that storm. We’re all familiar with natural fear. It’s the anxiety that rises in us when we are faced with things we can’t control. Natural fear takes over our imaginations when we bump up against the unknown and unexplainable.

We fear the possibility of death, because we have no direct knowledge of what lies on the other side of it. We fear challenges to our understanding of how the world works, and what our place is in it. We fear change, because we know it means loss, and we are afraid of losing what is dear to us. We are afraid of pain. These are all natural forms of fear. And natural fear often leads to anger, which sometimes leads to violence.

Yet, holy fear recognizes the power of God at work, even in the face of the unknown, the unexplainable, or the uncontrollable. Holy fear sees God’s presence in change, and pain, and even death. Holy fear reminds us that God’s ways are too wonderful for us, and it fills us with awe at the immensity of God.

In this short story about a boat ride on a big lake, we are caught up in the fear of the disciples, fear that changes swiftly from natural fear of a storm to an awesome recognition of God’s presence with them in the person of Jesus. The story unfolds in three scenes.

First, we have the boat ride. 
Because the Sea of Galilee lies approximately 700 feet below sea level, the climate around the lake is unusually temperate – except when the wind comes rushing down out of the Valley of Doves. And the time of day when this is most likely to happen is in the evening.

These evening storms are dangerous. Not only are the winds stronger and the waves higher than during a daytime squall, the growing darkness of evening makes it difficult for help to find you, should your boat capsize and you need to be rescued. Yet this is precisely the time of day when Jesus sends his disciples across the lake.

Now, the disciples sailing the boat would probably have preferred to stay near the shoreline. They were familiar with this lake. They knew what it was like to be caught out on the water in a sudden storm, and they also knew that it was safer to stay close to shore, where they could get to land in a hurry. Heading out across the lake at the very time of day when a storm was most likely to occur was just asking for trouble.

Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus did. And it is exactly what Jesus does in our lives. He sends us out in the most dangerous direction, at the most dangerous moment. But he doesn’t send us out alone.

Notice that Jesus is already in the boat. When Mark tells us that the disciples took Jesus “with them in the boat, just as he was” we remember that Jesus has been in this boat all day, teaching from the water to the crowds gathered on the beach.

When Jesus sends us out into the deep water, where danger waits for us, he’s already in the boat with us. This is when we remember that another name for Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us.

Through every danger and challenge, Jesus does not leave us to face the storm alone. God is with us. God is still with us when the storms rise unexpectedly and violently, seeming to come out of nowhere.

On the Sea of Galilee, the winds come whipping down from the Valley of Doves onto the water with great force, and with little to no warning. The four fishermen among the disciples are very familiar with this lake, and their experience has taught them to stay near the shorewhere it is safe. They are, quite literally, out of their depth as the threat of drowning becomes real to them.

And where is Jesus? Back in the stern, the perfect place to be steering the boat to safety. But that isn’t what Jesus is doing. Jesus is sleeping soundly, lying on a cushion.

I’ve always wondered what a cushion is doing on a fishing boat, but the image is very clear. Jesus is sleeping comfortably, unbothered by the storm that is raging around him. After a full day of teaching large crowds, he’s tired. If you’ve ever been exhausted from a long day, you can understand how the gentle rocking of the boat might have lulled Jesus into a deep sleep before the storm hit. Snuggled into that comfy cushion, Jesus is sound asleep.

We often talk about trusting Jesus, but I think this moment in the story shows us how Jesus trusts us. He wasn’t worried about riding across the lake at sunset, because he trusted his companions to trust God for their safety. But the disciples were new at this “following Jesus” thing. Notice that their first question to Jesus isn’t “will you help us?” but “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

Emily Scott writes:  “In Biblical literature, the sea is where the great chaos monster resides, and going out upon the sea is to be subjected to that fear, that chaos — the closeness of everything we cannot control. … But Jesus is in the midst of the storm. He’s standing next to those who have been weathering it for a long time. And our job, plain and simple, is to follow Jesus.” 

What might that look like for us? Take a look at this painting by Rembrandt for a moment, and see if you can identify with any of the disciples in this scene.

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee – Rembrandt (image in the public domain)

At first glance, it just looks like a boatful of confused and worried people. Take a closer look…

How many of you can identify with the disciples’ situation, after the past 15 months we’ve had? We’ve all experienced some confusion, and we’ve all been worried and uncertain about our own safety, and the safety of people we love. Even the experts haven’t agreed on every point.

Just like those fishermen in this painting – I imagine them to be the ones at the front of the boat, wrestling with the sails. I wonder which one Rembrandt intended to be Peter – the one at the very edge, looking like he could topple into the water at any moment? or is he arguing with his brother as they face off around the mast? How often do we find ourselves arguing with each other about how to best ‘sail the boat’ instead of pulling together to bring in the sail? I love the way Rembrandt shines light on these disciples working hard to manage the unmanageable, determined to do things the only way they’ve ever known how to do them, even when it’s clear that way is not working.

And then we have the back half of the boat, where Jesus is sitting in the dark. One disciple is hanging on for dear life behind Jesus, two are arguing with him, and only one is on his knees asking for mercy. One leans over the edge of the boat to be sick, and a spare disciple stares straight at us while he tries to keep his cap on his head. Art historians believe this is actually a self-portrait of the artist, showing how Rembrandt sees himself as part of the scene, just as helpless and confused as any of us would be.

And behind Rembrandt, another disciple sits hunkered down in the boat – not trying to help, not asking Jesus for anything, just waiting out the storm, staying as uninvolved as possible. How many of us identify with him? During this interim time in our church, how many of us are sitting with our backs to Jesus and our faces looking down into the boat, just waiting for the storm to be over?

And then there’s this guy. Both hands pulling hard, trying to steer the boat all by himself. How many of us have tried to do this, determined to single-handedly keep the church going in the direction we think it should go?

Here’s the important thing, though. Jesus is the one who rebukes the storm. It’s up to us to have faith that he will do so, and to call on him to act, but only Jesus has power to calm the storm.

And he does. Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples. He rebukes the storm. He tells the wind and the water to be still. The storm immediately responds. All is calm. It is here, in the calm after the storm, that Jesus questions his disciples about their fear and their faith. Not in the middle of the struggle, but after he has already calmed the waves.

Jesus doesn’t address the way we express our fear, and he doesn’t rebuke our feeble efforts to maintain control at all costs. Jesus goes right to the most important question – why are we afraid?

It is in the aftermath of our storms that we must listen most closely for God to speak to us, and it is in the aftermath of our storms that we must allow Christ to challenge us and reorder our way of thinking. Our little boats founder under the crashing waves of sorrow, disrupted relationships, job loss or other financial crisis, illness, and grief. Our faith falters, and we ask, “Lord, don’t you care that we are perishing?” We are filled with anxiety and fear.

But notice that the fear in this story is confronted, not by the disciples’ courage or resolve, but by Jesus’ presence alone. Only Christ’s presence can calm both the raging storm, and the disciples who are caught in it. Only Jesus can calm our fear and settle the storms we face. When the disciples see Jesus rebuke the storm, they are filled with a new kind of fear. They experience the holy fear of recognizing the presence of God in their midst. They may not quite yet understand the enormity of what they have just witnessed, but they know that God’s power has just been shown to them in an unmistakable way.

That same power is available to us, in the person of Jesus Christ. But we must call on him to act, if we want to be free of the storms that rage in and around us.

Jesus never says, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, he asks, “Why are you afraid?” No matter how wild the storm, no matter how frightening our current circumstances might be, God is with us. Christ stands between the storm and us. And he calls us to stand with him, filled with holy fear, for Emmanuel, our God, is with us as we head into the unknown.

1 thought on “Why Are You Afraid? – Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

  1. Pingback: Holy Fear – Sermon on Mark 4:35-41 | A pastor sings

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