Faith in the Storm


BoatMark 4:35-41

One of the great highlights of a trip to Israel is taking a boat across the Sea of

Galilee, which is the location of many of the events of Jesus’ ministry in the
Gospels. It’s a beautiful place and on a sunny day when the wind is calm the
surface of the lake is like glass. The boat operators like to take you to the
middle of the lake and then shut off the engines so that you can experience the
silence.

Of
course, those same boat operators will tell you that it isn’t always this way.
The signs on the western shore near the hotel in the town of Tiberias tell you
not to park your car too close to the water, since the Sea of Galilee is known
for some horrific storms. One storm in 1992, for example, caused ten-foot waves
that crashed into the town, causing a lot of damage.

The
boatmen say that the winds come from a deep valley to the west of the lake,
which is called the Valley of the Doves or the Valley of the Winds. This valley
contained the main trail from Nazareth to Galilee, and Jesus likely walked the
40 mile road many times. When the wind blows off the Mediterranean Sea to the
west, especially in the winter, it can get funneled into this valley and becomes
like an out-of-control freight train, turning the Galilean lake into a raging
maelstrom.

Fishermen
on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day would have certainly known about these
instant storms, which is why they spent most of their time keeping their boats
closer to shore. Unlike the tour boat we take in the 21st century, the boats
that Peter, James, and John used were a lot smaller and a lot more rickety. On
the western shore of the Sea of Galilee there is a museum at Kibbutz Nof
Ginnosar where you can see an actual first century boat that was excavated out
of the mud several years ago. It’s about 15 feet long and 6 feet wide and was
clearly patched up many times–some 14 different kinds of wood were used in it–indicating
the kind of boat that a poor first century fisherman might have tried to keep
afloat.

Boat being tossedAs
you look at that boat you can’t help but think about this story that Mark
relates to us. Jesus and his disciples, in a boat just like this, out in the
middle of the lake on the way across, when the wind comes screaming out of the
valley with no warning. The placid, beautiful lake becomes the place of chaos.

In
fact, in much of Scripture the sea represents chaos, evil, and death. The
Israelites weren’t really a seafaring people, so the vast Mediterranean Sea to
the west, and even the smaller seas like Galilee, represented the unknown, the
dark deep, the place where the terrible sea monsters waited to devour. The sea
was the place from which some people never returned–a place of fear and death.
It was the place of chaos, evil, and death.

All we have to do is turn back to
the first verses of Genesis to see that the sea represents chaos. When God
created the heavens and the earth, “the earth was a formless void and
darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the
face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2-3). Darkness, wind, deep–the image of a
churning storm. And yet, in the midst of the stormy chaos, God begins to
separate things out–he brings light to pierce the darkness, he separates the
waters and the waters from the land. The creation story is how God begins to
bring order out of chaos, which becomes a metaphor for the whole biblical
story–the story of how God deals with evil.

Global Flood Noah's ArkIt’s no coincidence that the first
major story after creation is another boat story—Noah is a righteous man who
obeys God, builds an ark, and prepares for God’s judgment on a world where the
wickedness of humanity was so great that “every inclination of their hearts was
only evil continually.” And then one of the most heart-breaking statements in
Scripture, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and
it grieved him in his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). And so God removes the separation
and allows the chaos of the waters to break loose in a horrific flood,
reverting back to the watery void of Genesis 1. And yet, while the waters rage,
God saves Noah and his family and the creatures of the earth on an ark tossed
by stormy seas: God’s judgment, God’s grace, and God’s rescue come together on a
boat.

Noah steps out of the ark and into a
new creation washed clean by the flood—chaos is pushed back again. Indeed, this
is how God is going to deal with evil going forward: not by unleashing the chaos,
but by working toward a new creation. The story of the Bible is the story of
how God does that through the story of Israel—a story that reaches its climax
in Jesus.

It’s the story of God parting the
waters of the Red Sea to save Israel from the evil of slavery in Egypt. It’s
the story of Job railing at God in the midst of evil and suffering and God
showing him the great sea monsters under his control – a sign that chaos
doesn’t have the last word. It’s the story of Isaiah looking forward to a day
when all can come to the waters and drink without fear. It’s the story of Jonah
tossed into the raging sea but saved by the belly of a whale. It’s the story of
Jesus, going through the waters of baptism and into the desert to do battle
with the forces of evil. The story of Scripture is the story of how God brings
his people through the waters of evil and into a new creation.

It’s no accident, then, that Mark
preserves this story of Jesus and his disciples on a boat being tossed by an unexpected
and violent storm. The chaos rages once again, the rickety boats are being
swamped by the ten foot waves and are starting to sink. Fear, panic, and
desperation come over these fishermen who have never experienced this type of
chaos before.

And Mark tells that in the midst of
all the chaos of the storm, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat—napping quietly
on a cushion. The disciples, meanwhile, are in a panic. Jesus apparently
doesn’t see the chaos, the evil that surrounds them, and so they are furious.
“Wake up!” they yell over the howling wind. “Don’t you see that we’re dying
here? Don’t you care?”

Jesus wakes up, maybe looks at them
for a long moment with one eye open. He doesn’t answer their question. Instead
he stands and addresses the wind and the waves. Mark says that he “rebuked” the
wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Interestingly, these are the same
words that Jesus uses to cast out demons—he rebukes them and tells them to be
quiet. It’s no coincidence that the next scene in Mark is Jesus casting out a
demon on the other side of the lake. Mark and the other gospel writers make it
clear: Jesus has command over the wind and waves, command over chaos, command
over evil.

BE STILLIndeed, the wind and waves obey his
commands, just like the demons do—they cease and desist. The disciples had seen
Jesus’ miracles, but they hadn’t seen this. Mouths agape, they look at Jesus.

Now we, along with Mark’s first readers,
might expect Jesus to give them an explanation of how he had the power and
authority to still the storm. We might expect a presentation outlining Jesus’
humanity and divinity. We might even expect Jesus to smile and go back to
sleep, leaving the disciples to wonder about what they had just seen.

But rather than riff on this display
of power, Jesus instead turns and asks them a question: “Why are you afraid?
Have you still no faith?”

Mark doesn’t tell us, but I wonder
if the disciples were thinking something like, “Well, duh, of course we’re
afraid! There’s the storm and the almost dying and then this incredible display
of power…who wouldn’t be afraid?” I don’t know about you, but I certainly
would!

In their fear, however, the
disciples had forgotten one important fact: Jesus was in the boat with them.
They woke Jesus up so that he could share in their panic. Jesus, on the other
hand, wants them to share in his faith, his power, his ability to deal with the
evil. “Always remember, I’m in the boat with you,” Jesus says in effect, “and
I’ve got this.”

The storms hit us, too, often with
great fury. We began this series by talking about a devastating wave—the Lisbon
earthquake and tsunami of 1755—an incredible event that shook the foundations
of the post-Enlightenment world and caused both great thinkers and common
people to begin thinking about evil as a logical problem to be solved. Where is
God in the midst of the storm? Where is God when the typhoon of devastating
illness hits? Where is God when the lightning strike of a loved one’s death
leaves us in shock? Where is God when the waves of death, destruction, and
doubt threaten to sink us?

Where is God? In the boat, with us,
and there he invites us to turn from fear to faith. What kind of faith? The
kind of faith that Jesus himself had.

The Gospel of Mark is built around
three predictions Jesus makes about his own death—the storm of conflict and
opposition that is building throughout his ministry will culminate in one giant
wave of evil and death that will break over him on the cross. Jesus knows where
his life is leading and yet the Gospels tell us that he continued be calm in
the midst of that gathering storm—calm because of the faith that he, the human
Jesus, had in God. In fact, Jesus’ whole life was an act of faith.

Read the Gospels carefully and
you’ll see this: Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan. As Joe said last
week in his excellent sermon on the cross, it was Jesus’ faith in God’s mission
and God’s way that allowed him to refuse Satan’s offer to be the Messiah the
people wanted. It’s easy for us to think that Jesus’ temptations were merely
symbolic—that they were a show put on for our benefit because Jesus wasn’t
really tempted. He’s God, after all. But that’s not how the Scriptures read—the
human Jesus was “tempted in every way like we are” (Hebrews 4:15). He had to
face fear, hunger, danger, and death—just like us—and had to do so with faith
all through his ministry. He maintained faith when his disciples were clueless,
he maintained faith when the crowds left him and the religious leaders
threatened him, he maintained faith when his cousin John the Baptist was killed
and when his friend Lazarus died. He maintained faith in the Garden of
Gethsemane when death loomed above him behind the city walls, praying for God
to do it another way but having the faith to go through the agony anyway. The
one who stilled the wind and waves will allow them to crash over himself
because he has faith in the purposes of God.

Crucifixion-of-jesus-christ-with-drAnd so, with faith, he hangs on a
cross. In the midst of pain he cries out those desperate first lines of Psalm
22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s the same cry of the
disciples in the boat. “Don’t you see I’m dying? Do you not care?” And yet,
even at the end, Jesus knew how the Psalm ends, “For he did not hide his face
from me, but heard when I cried to him… before him shall bow all who go down to
the dust, and I shall live for him” (Psalm 22:24, 29). Even as he dies, he puts
his faith in God, praying the prayer that every Jewish boy and girl prays
before going to sleep, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” It is a
prayer of faith, trust, and hope when there seems to be no reason for it.

This is not an easy faith that Jesus
demonstrates and teaches to his disciples. It is a robust faith—faith grounded
in the promises of God, faith that doesn’t run from pain and hardship, faith
that confronts death with hope. Such faith doesn’t come easy—it can’t be contained
in a greeting card or contained in platitudes from preachers—it’s faith that is
cultivated over a lifetime of trusting God. Jesus rested in the boat because he
had that kind of faith. We can ride the storms, too, because we know that he is
in the boat with us.

This is the kind of faith that
defeats evil, for evil cannot overcome it. Jesus faced the wave of evil
crashing over the cross and broke it—his cross rebukes it, his resurrection
stills it and ultimately casts it out. And it is our faith in Jesus’ that leads
us to imagine a new creation, where the promise is that the storms will one day
be no more.

At the end of the Bible, in the book
of Revelation, we see a vision of the new creation made possible by Jesus’
faithfulness on the cross and the triumph of his resurrection as the completion
of God’s plan. In chapter 21 we read about the new heavens and the new earth
“coming down” and casting aside all the storms of evil from the old creation,
making all things new. But what’s most interesting to me is that as John sees
this vision, he notices that in this new creation “the sea [is] more”
(Revelation 21:1). Immediately some people will protest, “But I like the sea, I
like the beach.” Well, keep in mind that Revelation is an apocalyptic vision
that, like our dreams, uses a lot of symbolism. The point here is that the sea,
which is a symbol of chaos and evil throughout the Bible, is no more. There’s
no place for evil in the new creation—no place for tears, no place for mourning
or crying or pain (21:4).

What will be there? Hear the good
news: “See, the home of God is among mortals,” says a loud voice. “He will
dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will dwell with
them” (Rev. 21:3). In the new creation, the sea and all the tempestuous evil
will be gone—but the God revealed in Jesus will be with us—Jesus will still be
in the boat!

Many of us in this room are facing
storms right now—maybe even to point that we feel like we’re about to go under.
We’re afraid, and rightly so. But can we put our faith in the one who himself
lived and died by faith? We see the wind and the waves—can we focus our eyes on
Jesus, the one whom the wind and the waves ultimately obey? When the ship is
tossed, we can only think of our doom—can we instead imagine the calm and hope
of a new creation?

Faith doesn’t mean that we won’t
suffer. Jesus himself suffered and died while holding on to faith. Faith does
mean, however, that we can trust him for our future—a future made possible by
his faith in God’s new creation, made possible by an empty tomb and the defeat
of death. Our baptism in water reminds us of this—what was once the sign of death,
is now the sign of life!

After a few minutes of silence on
the water, the boatman on the Sea of Galilee today invite all the passengers to
sing a hymn. One of the hymns we sing that feels so appropriate on that
occasion is Horatio Spafford’s famous hymn, “It is Well With My Soul.”

Spafford wrote this hymn after some
serious storms in his own life. He and his wife lost a child at the age of 4 in
1871, just before the great Chicago fire that ruined Spafford financially.
After recovering somewhat, the great economic downturn of 1873 hit hard, just
about the time he and his wife and four daughters had planned to travel to
Europe by steam ship. In a late change of plans, he sent his family ahead while
he stayed behind to work out a business issue.

SHIPWRECKWhile crossing the Atlantic, the
ship carrying Spafford’s wife and daughters collided with another ship and sank
rapidly. All four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife, Anna, survived and
sent him a heartbreaking telegram that only said, “Saved alone.” Shortly after this,
Spafford traveled by ship to meet his wife in Europe and while passing the site
where his children perished, he penned these famous words:

When peace like a river attendeth my
way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me
to say,

It is well, it is well, with my
soul.

Later, the Spaffords had three more
children and eventually went by ship to Israel, where they founded a mission to
save the poor. Out of the storm, faith in Christ carried them to peace, hope,
and work for God’s kingdom.

The storms will come. But may we
look to the one who is still, and always, in the boat with us–forever. And
knowing that, may it be well with your soul.

 

 

 

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