A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Today's Gospel gives us a familiar story:
When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “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 windstorm 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?” (Mk 4.35-41)
We know this story. But, in spite of what we might've heard, Jesus does not rebuke the disciples because they're afraid of the storm. Remember, four of them, at least, are fishermen by trade. They know the sea. They know the weather. They know from long experience when they have reason to be alarmed. They can feel the threat of this storm in their bones. Besides, they're not alone: other boats are with them.
I wonder why we are so quick to shame the disciples for their fear. Jesus himself feared death, after all. Later, in the garden, terrified by what he knows awaits him, he asks Peter and the others to ask them to stay close and to pray with him. And Aquinas is surely right: we're supposed to fear death! So, the disciples are not wrong to be afraid. And they're right to wake Jesus, to ask for his help. Why, then, does he rebuke them? Because they're wrong to think they have to beg him for help, wrong to think he, and the God in whose name he acts, does not care for them. If the storm had not been a threat, Jesus would not have rebuked and muzzled it. And if the disciples had not been at risk, he would not have rebuked them and unmuzzled their faith.
In today’s OT reading, Job, at long last, is confronted by God—and God comes wrapped in a storm:
The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding." (Job 38.1-4)
This, in a sense, is what Job has been waiting for—demanding, even. But it turns out almost exactly as he had feared that it would. Early in his disputes with his friends, he tells them he knows what will happen if God does in fact respond to his charges. Even though he is guiltless, his mouth will fail him, he says. He will incriminate himself because God is God and no mortal, not even the innocent, can stand against such power. "I must appeal for mercy to my accuser... For he crushes me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause... Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me... It is all one; therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked" (Job 9.14-22).
"It is all one."
Job fears that there is no difference between the righteous and the wicked, that the blessed are cursed and the cursed are blessed, that God is no better than Satan, that his accuser is almighty. So, he despairs, grovels, and condemns himself. "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42.5-6).
"Do you not care that we are perishing?" This is what the disciples say to Jesus as he is waking up to the storm. Their question lays bare the fear that lies at the roots of all their other fears. It is the same fear that eats away at Job. One one reading, at least, Job misunderstands God just as he earlier misheard his wife. What he hears when God speaks is not "gospel." It crushes him, humiliates him, leaves him dispirited and demoralized. But when Jesus speaks, he crushes not the disciples but the storm, and they are neither dispirited nor demoralized. Job hears God's words as an insult: "Who are you to question me?" But the disciples are left not questioning themselves but wondering at Jesus: "Who is this that even the winds and waves obey?"
The disciples, unlike Job, are left humbled, not humiliated. Jesus' words do for them what his words had done for the sky and the sea, calling them back from the state of nature to their creatureliness, freeing them to move toward what they in fact have always most deeply wanted to be. The sea becomes like the sea before God's throne: smooth as glass. And the disciples become like the creatures around the throne: staggered and adoring (Rev. 4.5-11).
"Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
These are not rhetorical questions. And they are not accusations. Asking them, Jesus not only tells the disciples that that they are afraid, and what it is they're afraid of, but also creates in them the confidence they lack. In their heart of hearts, they, like Job, are afraid that God, like the weather, may turn on them at any time; they're afraid that God, like the boat, may prove unable to save them from what is sure to happen.
And the hard truth is, Jesus does not calm every storm. In today’s NT reading, Paul insists that those who are faithful to God are not kept from every trouble. In fact, those who are faithful are always led into trouble to intercede for the sake of those who are suffering. "We have shown ourselves true," Paul says—then provides a harrowing list of pains he's had to endure: "in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger..." (2 Cor. 6.4-5).
Because life in the Spirit follows the pattern of Jesus' life, those who live in the Spirit are led into conflict. The Spirit-led life is lived "through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report." We are, thanks to God, "genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Cor. 6.8-10). And out of the pains we endure, like honey out of the eater, God brings "purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God" (2 Cor. 6.6-7).
Jesus does not calm every storm. But he is always calm, and always sharing his peace with us so that we're never at the mercy of our circumstances or our own anxieties. In the midst of whatever happens, and in spite of what seems to be playing out on the surface of our lives, the Spirit is always working wonders "in the deep" (Ps. 107.24). Outwardly, so far as can be seen, by us or by anyone else, we are wasting away, suffering one trouble after another. Inwardly, however, as we live by faith, we are being renewed day by day, drawn deeper and deeper into the intimacy of God. And when all is said and done, we, along with everyone and everything, will be called into the serenity God enjoys and has always intended for us.