Lets start with a story. And its the story of a young boy who was in the kitchen as his mother was making dinner. Now you may remember the pantry or larder that we used to have in our kitchens. They were a bit dark and you were never quite sure what you might find if you ventured inside. Well the boys mother asked him to go into the pantry to get her a tin of chopped tomatoes, but he didn't want to go in alone. ‘It's dark in there and I'm scared’ said the boy. His mother persisted and asked him again, but again the young boy declined. So finally she said to her son, ‘It's OK - you don’t have to be scared. Jesus will be in there with you.’ So the young boy walked hesitantly to the door of the pantry and slowly opened it. He peeked inside, saw it was dark, and was about to leave when all at once he remembered what his mother had told him, and said: ‘Jesus, if you're in there, would you hand me that tin of tomatoes please?’
Fear. Most of us encounter situations that will lead to that type of instinctive human response. It’s the instinctive response of the disciples who are caught up in a violent storm whilst crossing the Sea of Galilee in a frail sailing vessel, and can resonate with us in the winds and waves that we sometimes face in our own seemingly fragile lives. None of us are immune. Whether its a fear of the future because of all the changes that have happened or are happening in our lives; losing our health, and being dependent on others to take care of us; fear of being unable to support ourselves financially; or fear of losing a loved one, and the loneliness that that would entail for us - we know what fear feels like. So how might we understand better the way in which God is active in the fragility of our lives?
Mark describes for us how in this story Jesus conveys three important things which we might take hold of in the midst of difficulty and distress. Firstly recognising that God is present with us; secondly discovering that we can trust him with our lives; and thirdly that he wants to transform us from the state of paralysis which fear can cause in us. Recognition - trust - transformation.
Firstly then we are encouraged to recognise that God is, if you like, in the boat with us. To begin with though we need to understand the context in which Mark is writing. Mark writes to a community which is in the midst of persecution, leading lives which were at risk and governed by fear. It’s a desperate community where fear is all encompassing and pervasive. So this story set on the Sea of Galilee would have urged that community, and also us, to recognise that God is with us in the midst of the storm. That he is with us. Not remote and uninvolved.
We might think that it was patently obvious that God was with those disciples. Jesus was after all in the boat. But listen to what those disciples say. ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing.’ Teacher, they call Jesus - not Lord. They do not recognise who he is. But then Jesus rebukes the wind and gives a command to the sea: ‘Peace. Be still!’ And the storm is calmed. Its a repeat of a the episode in Capernaum where Jesus rebukes and commands a demon to be silent. On that occasion also the disciples ask who this Jesus is, that he commands even unclean spirits and silences them. And as the phenomenon of silence is again delivered at his command on the sea of Galilee, Mark moves the disciples toward the recognition that this Jesus is no ordinary teacher. He is no other than the incarnate God of their ancestors. The same God described in todays Psalm - 107 - as the one who: ‘commanded ...... the stormy wind’ .
But there is something else. We often wonder where God is in the stormy wind. The disciples desperately wondered that whilst their boat filled with water. And Job in the old testament spends 37 chapters giving voice to the question - Where are you? The disciples - Job - we all plead, for God's presence with us. A sense that God is near, concerned, interested, and cares for us. We might not always readily recognise his presence just like those disciples. We want him just to do something. But Mark encourages us further that the deep calm sleep which Jesus initially displays is not inactivity or detachment on his part. Instead its a picture of that which he offers to us in contrast to the destruction of the storm. Sometimes we just need to be still and know that he is God.
The second thing that Mark urges us to do in this story is to consider the question of trust. I was at the Abbey with others last thursday evening to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury speak. One of the stories he told was of the former Archbishop of Saigon who was arrested and imprisoned in Vietnam for 13 years. In solitary confinement for most of that period, subject to torture and having to listen to others undergoing the same, he was challenged to consider whether he could trust God when God was all that he had left. How do we respond in difficult circumstances?Can we trust him? When Job complains about his own suffering, God answers him by taking him on a whirlwind tour of wonder at the power behind creation. And God points to himself as the one who is both intimately involved in all that he has created and who remains in control of it. To Job God says - I am in control - trust me. Similarly, Jesus asks the disciples in the boat, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith’, before they too are awestruck at his command over creation by calming the storm.
In the difficult moments of our lives can we still have faith? When we are losing something, can we hold onto a basic trust in God, no matter what the circumstances? Because that is the challenge - to entrust ourselves and our very lives into the care of this God - especially when we’re afraid. And how might we trust? Its a difficult thing. But it will involve us letting go of whatever it is we’re afraid to lose—whether it is our health, our financial security, our relationships, even our very life. Because the essence of fear is an insistence that we are in control.
The disciples battled with the boat in the storm rather than trusting Jesus whilst he remained asleep. They couldn’t bring themselves to trust in Jesus, who was with them, until they were so desperate that they shouted at him in frustration. Sound familiar? The real essence of faith is letting go. And its in the letting go that we find peace, contentment, even joy taking the place of fear—regardless of our circumstances. We can’t pretend that’s easy, because it’s not. Mark though urges us to look beneath our fear and see the sustaining hand of the God of grace and mercy, even when life’s twists and turns daunt us.
Thirdly, Mark presents a Jesus who calls us out of fear. Fear is no way to live. God desires for us to flourish, to be whole, and we cannot do that by living in our fear. This story in Mark’s gospel follows directly after Jesus has delivered the parable of the sower. And Jesus asks us to consider whether we will sow this seed of faith or trust upon fertile ground. The fertile ground that vests in him so that our fears might be transformed. Because he does not want us to remain in our fear and be governed by it. And so he encourages us not to remain in the midst of the storm, but to trust in him to transform that which we find disabling and debilitating. The disciples fears are not evaporated as Jesus calms the wind and the sea. Instead he transforms them from the paralysing anxiety that they create, and which assumes the worst, to a kind of holy awe at the presence and power of the God in their midst. That's the invitation for us as well: to bring our fears, anxieties, and concerns to God as best we can. And to watch as they are transformed so that we become increasingly aware of his presence.
So what in the end does Jesus have to say to us as we live out the unpredictable lives which give rise to our fears. Well you have to wonder if the disciples would have got into the boat if they had known that they were going to sail into the storm. Maybe not. But thats what the Sea of Galilee is like apparently. Calm and serene one moment but subject to sudden changes which produce gale force winds the next. There are just some things that you cannot predict. There is always a question as to whether we would have avoided changes in our lives had we known they were afoot. But life isn’t like that. Its not a question of if change will happen, but rather when. We can fear all sorts of things that life might throw at us sometimes - the wind and waves of fear that manifest themselves in our lives as disapproval, rejection, failure, meaningless, illness - all kinds of adversity.
But if we will listen to the God who is with us and who asks us to trust him, so that he may transform our fears, we might too hear these words from Isaiah:
‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.’
Then we might know the image conveyed for us by Mark this morning. The image of Christ with his arms extended wide over the whole of our lives saying, ‘ Peace . Be still’!
Revd Shaun Speller, Curate, Parish of Harpenden