(Mark 4: 35-41)
I remember the first and only time I have seen a waterspout – a tornado over the water, essentially. Years ago, working at Camp Seafarer, a YMCA camp on the Neuse River just outside of New Bern. I was a counselor for a couple of summers, including one Sunday afternoon when it happened. Summer afternoon thunderstorms are practically daily events there, and we knew by early morning that one was on its way. Seafarer is a sailing camp, so all the boats had long been docked by the time it came through. Some 600 campers were hunkered down in their cabins as the wind blew the rain sideways.
And then, without warning, it stopped. Everything was still, except that it was an unsettling still, as if things were not yet over. And that’s when we saw it. The waterspout was about a mile and a half out into the three-mile wide Neuse River. We watched it form – this tiny white sliver of water emerging from the river like a tentacle reaching for the low-hanging clouds above. And when it made contact with those clouds, it grew wider and began spinning faster, and you could see the water vapor cascading over the sides as gravity eventually won out. Unlike a tornado, that waterspout stayed in place for a solid ten minutes. After which the tentacle released its grip on the clouds and slowly receded into the waters below.
It was an amazing sight that I remember to this day; and the only picture I have of it is the picture that is burned into my mind, as clear to me now as it was then. I’m glad I got to see it, rare as waterspouts are. But I can tell you with zero hesitation that I’m glad I got to see it while standing on land.
The disciples in our story today were not nearly as lucky as I. Jesus invites them to get on a boat with him, much the same way he invited the three to join him up on a mountain in our scripture a few weeks ago. They go with him on a boat, out into the Sea of Galilee; and while they’re out there, a huge storm descends on them. Think “multiple waterspouts all at once” kind of storm. The disciples, we assume, are terrified at this, which is why they go running to Jesus – who, it turns out, is fast asleep. Our story makes note of the fact that Jesus is sleeping in the stern of the boat, which seems like a curious detail to bring up at this juncture until you realize that the stern is the very front of the boat, which would more than likely be the worst possible place to be in a storm. And yet, there he is, sleeping.
They wake Jesus up, not with shouts of “Help!” or “Jesus, we have a problem.” They wake him up with, “Don’t you care about us?” Interesting, isn’t it, that a big storm raging and their feelings are hurt. Jesus stirs from his slumber, stands and yells out, “Peace! Be still!” And that is exactly what happens. The wind subsides. The rain goes away. The sun comes out. All is well.
Except all is not well, because while the disciples had been pretty freaked out by the storm, now there’s something else to be freaked out about – namely, the guy who makes the storm stop. This is not what typically happens – human beings do not make a habit of telling Mother Nature what to do. We don’t need to assume the disciples were terrified by this, we are told that they were: “They were filled with great awe.” The English doesn’t quite do this justice – the actual translation is something more like, “they feared a great fear.” If the first storm blew them around in a violent swell, this storm rocked them to their core. “Who IS this guy?”
Our little story in the fourth chapter of Mark is a story about storms, physical and otherwise. It is also, not uncoincidentally, a story about fear, the kind of fear that happens when we come face to face with the reality that we are not in control. We can tackle most anything life dishes out at us when our feet are planted on solid ground and we can wrap our head around things. But when the surface beneath us trembles, when we experience things that make no sense, that is when the fear comes.
And in these short six verses we are introduced to two separate fears, intertwined yet distinct. There is, of course, the fear of the storm itself, a fear that compelled these men to seek out a sleeping Jesus for help. It is perfectly normal to be afraid of storms. This is actually one of the reasons why we’ve taken to naming them. The World Meteorological Organization began naming storms back in 1953. This was done to help distinguish storms from each other, especially when multiple storms were happening at the same time.
But there is also a deeply psychological reason for naming storms. The ancients often put names to forces of nature they perceived to be mysterious and destructive as a way of attempting to control or manipulate them, or at the very least give them an identity. Literally calling out the storm. There’s something powerful in that exercise, don’t you think? When we name the storms in our lives – physical or otherwise – we take the unknown out of it. We release a little of their power and control over us.
So there is the fear of the storm itself in our story today – even though that fear isn’t specifically mentioned, we assume it is there. There is also the fear that is specifically mentioned: the “fearing a great fear” at what Jesus has done. And one of the things we find ourselves wondering as we read this story is what exactly those disciples were so afraid of.
Noted biblical commentator David Lose lifts up the character of Reuben Land in Leif Enger’s book Peace Like A River. In the opening pages of that story, Reuben, who serves as the book’s narrator, reflects on how, at his birth, he didn’t breathe for twelve solid minutes until his father ordered him to breathe in the name of God. That miracle left a profound impact on Reuben’s life in a number of ways, one of which was a keen realization of how often we tend to domesticate miracles, choosing instead to describe all manner of things that merit our attention and appreciation but that are not, finally, truly miraculous. Real miracles bother people, Reuben goes on to say. You can bet there were a lot of upset folks when Lazarus came climbing out of the grave. Real miracles rebut every rule all good citizens take comfort in.
Throughout the book, Reuben returns to this astute observation: People fear miracles because they fear being changed. Note that it is not the fear of change, it is the fear of being changed. And make no mistake, when Jesus tells the storm to cut it out, he is forcing his disciples to do just that. There is no way they can ever go back to life as it was before after witnessing what Jesus had done on that boat. Everything has changed for them, and they know what this means: that they themselves have been changed. And there is something immensely wonderful and glorious and unsettling and terrifying about that. And that is why they “feared a great fear.”
People fear miracles because they fear being changed.
I wonder, people of God, if you were to locate yourself in this story, in these six short verses, I wonder where your fear would most lie. Would it be in the storm itself, that thing which you cannot control and are unable to put a name to? Would it be in the reason for the storm’s demise and the fact that you could never unsee the sheer power and might of Jesus in your life, and how it has already changed you forever?
Or I wonder if your fear might be found at another juncture in this story, one we haven’t yet considered; a juncture we might miss altogether because it is, at the same time, seemingly simple and benign and also unsettling in its own right.
I wonder whether your fear might be in getting in the boat in the first place.
Now, scripture doesn’t indicate that the disciples had any reservations about doing this. Maybe getting in the boat that day was no big deal. Some of them were fishermen, after all – getting in the boat amounted to going to the office. Maybe this was nothing more than a simple invitation to join Jesus for an evening boat ride.
Except we know that’s not what it was, was it? Remember the words Jesus invites them with: Let us go across to the other side. There’s some nuance to that invitation, don’t you think? The other side of what, exactly? Is Jesus talking about the shoreline at the other end of the Sea of Galilee? Or is it something else he’s inviting them to cross over to?
Think about this: if the disciples had said to Jesus in that moment, “What if there’s a storm?” they would have never gotten in the boat in the first place because storms were always popping up on the Sea of Galilee. If the disciples had said to Jesus, “Well, first tell us what’s on the other side?” it’s hard to believe they would’ve taken him up on his invite knowing, as we read in the very next chapter, that on the other side is none other than a demon-possessed guy whose demon Jesus would send into a herd of two thousand pigs. You think those disciples would have set foot in the boat after hearing that?
Getting in the boat with Jesus and “going across to the other side” is no small task. Because if we had our way, we’d rather stay on this side of things, thank you very much. We’d rather a pandemic not turn every single routine of our lives upside down and inside out. We’d much prefer not to be thrust into the chaotic swirl of difficult conversations over political ideologies or systemic racism or climate change. What’s the saying we have – ignorance is bliss? We much prefer this side, because at least here we know what’s going on, at least here we have an inkling of what to expect.
But Jesus doesn’t give us that choice. Let us go across to the other side. He’s not asking. And he’s not giving us a lot of time to think about it, either Let’s go, right now. He knows us well. He knows we’d think about it forever if we could.
How easy it is to stay in our comfort zones; to default to our pet theologies; to remain in what is known, even when that which is known is ultimately unsustainable. We would rather ignore the desperate need for change than make the change happen. And here’s the problem, as if there is only one, with Jesus. Jesus seems rather uninterested with letting us live on one side of the lake for too long. So he takes us to the other side. And getting to the other side is never an easy trip, nor should we expect it to be.
When we over-sentimentalize or spiritualize this story, when we make the focus the storm or the miracle, we end up overlooking the most obvious thing of all. As noted commentator Karoline Lewis puts it, The hardest part is getting into the boat. You just have to get in the darn boat.
And so today, friends, I ask a question that only you have the answer for. You may be well aware what the answer is, or you may not know that you have it. But you do, the answer is in you, if you dare enough to ask the question and look deep enough to see the answer. And that question is: what makes stepping into the boat hard for you? What change are you most frightened of? What’s the worst thing that could be waiting for you on the other side? And as you make that trip there, what storms might come out of nowhere; what wondrous miracles might still freak you out?
Whatever answers you find, never forget this foundational truth: Jesus is there. He is there inviting you to get in the boat, he is there when the storm inevitably comes, he is there in the aftermath of it all, and he is there when you finally do get to the other side. Jesus is there the whole time, because that is the promise he has made, because that is who he is for each and every one of us. Our ship’s captain. Our tour guide. Our storm-calmer. Our deckhand. Our savior.
Knowing that, people of God, just get in the boat.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.