Instead of attending the noon service at the Cathedral today, I had been asked by Daniel Arbizu of Internetchurch to preach there. Problems in SL meant that no one could get to Epiphany Island and the Cathedral. A quick conversation between Gareth Janus who was due to lead at the Cathedral, Daniel and myself, led to everyone being encouraged to gather an Internetchurch. It was a wonderful chance to share in worship together.
The reading was from Mark 4:35-41. The sermon I preached follows.
A small ship was weathering a terrible storm and taking on water. After a time, the pumps broke down, and the vessel began to sink. The crew quickly herded the passengers into the lifeboats. While all this was going on, the captain called out, “Does anyone here know how to pray?”
A humble clergyman stepped forward. “I can pray,” he said softly.
Just then, a rival minister jumped up. “I think I would do a better job!” he declared outright. “You’re so quiet that your prayer can’t even be heard across a quiet church, much less a noisy storm.”
“Very well,” the captain said, pointing to the second, boastful minister. “You pray – we’re short of one life jacket.” *
The story of Jesus calming the storm is a well-known one. It appears in all three synoptic gospels with Mark giving the most detail. This seems unusual to me as Mark’s seems to be the breathless gospel, where everything happens ‘immediately’ and there seems to be no time to waste on unnecessary words as he rushes to convey the whole story as fast as he can. The other gospels don’t take the trouble to mention that Jesus was asleep ‘in the stern, on a cushion’. This bears the hallmarks of a first hand account. Why else would that detail be given? It adds nothing to the story except the ring of authenticity. Along with that detail there is one other which I would like to return to shortly.
I imagine that it is very common to draw the parallel between the storm that the disciples experienced and the storms which hit us in our lives, things like illness, redundancy, broken relationships, dreams that come to nothing, all the many things in life that leave us feeling helpless in the face of their power. The disciples waking Jesus can be compared to us calling on God or Jesus in prayer as we go through those storms.
The thing that really struck me when reading the incident again is Jesus’ response and what that means for us. Once he had calmed everything down, Jesus asked, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (v 40) I had to wonder, just what had Jesus expected the disciples to do in the circumstances? The fact that he questioned their faith as a result of the action they actually did take, suggests that there was a different way that they should have behaved, one that would have shown they actually did have faith. Jesus gives an answer perhaps in his first question where he queries their being ‘so afraid’.
Thinking about the practicalities of the situation the disciples found themselves in, they seem quite justified in their fear. They would have known of boats which had sunk before on the Sea of Galilee. The waves were so high that the boat was filling with water. If a boat were to get too full it would surely sink and the chances were that the disciples would drown. Being frightened of drowning doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to me.
It’s here that I think that extra detail I mentioned suggests something else. In this story in Matthew and Luke, the disciples wake Jesus to tell him that they are perishing. In Mark’s version there are a few extra words: Teacher, DO YOU NOT CARE that we are perishing? (v 38) I think that is the fear that Jesus was rebuking them for, that they feared he did not care about them. They doubted his love. It was fine to be afraid of the storm, just as it’s fine for us to be afraid of threatening circumstances which happen in life, but it is not fine to doubt Jesus’ love for us.
To be fair to the disciples, at the time of this incident, they didn’t seem to have reached the point of understanding just who Jesus was. Once the sea was calm and the wind had died down, far from being relieved and thankful at the fact that they were safe, the disciples were filled with great fear. That fear was generated by the fact that they didn’t know who Jesus was, what it was that allowed him to command the wind and waves to be still.
Reading the earlier chapters of Mark’s gospel, there is a huge amount of evidence that Jesus is not just an ordinary man. He had taught as one with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum and had driven out a demon who had recognised him as the Holy One of God. As a result his fame spread far and wide. He healed Simon’s mother in law and the sick and those oppressed with demons from all of the city. He healed a leper, a paralytic and a man with a withered hand. People touched him and found healing, and countless demons declared that he was the Son of God. There was so much evidence that this was not just a man, but someone of a completely different type, beyond human ability. Despite this, the disciples had not worked out who Jesus was by the time they hit that storm at sea.
I wondered what we might learn from this incident which we can apply in our lives. I certainly don’t think Jesus would rebuke us for turning to him in times of trouble. Peter would have been on that boat in the storm. Years later, when he wrote his first letter, he advised his readers to: ‘Cast all your cares on him (God) because he cares for you’. (1 Peter 5:7) He would hardly have advised that if he knew it wasn’t true. We need not be afraid and say like the disciples on the boat, ‘do you not care’. Even if it seems that Jesus is sleeping, that we can’t hear him speaking, we can be sure that he really does care about us.
Maybe, like the disciples, it will take time to become convinced of who Jesus is. We might need to review the evidence of his action in our lives or in the lives of others, particularly when we are going through tough times in our lives. When the disciples woke Jesus, he acted and stilled the storm. I’m sure when they looked back, that incident helped to build their faith in his love for them and his power. I see the same thing happening in my life when I look back and see where Jesus has been active in my life, even if I couldn’t see it at the time.
Jesus told us that whatever we ask in prayer, we will receive if we have faith. From the disciples’ experience on the boat, it seems we don’t need very much faith either! We don’t need to repeat ourselves time and again when praying just in case that isn’t true. As Jesus said when introducing the Lord’s Prayer: ‘When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’ We can be confident that God cares, he listens and he acts in our best interests.
*The story was taken from ‘A Bucket of Surprises’ by J. John & Mark Stibbe.
After the sermon we had a discussion together where I posed the question: Do you think that some of our problems in prayer or in life are due to our thinking ‘Do you not care?’ about God?
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor