A storm was brewing, just off the coast. The British were coming; everyone knew that. The question was not one of if but one of when: when would they arrive, when would they land, would they come by land or by sea? The rebels had armed themselves and the British government, safely ensconced in London, was eager to remove the weaponry of these nuisance colonists.
But as we all know from the famous story, Paul Revere and a crew of rebels had a plan: they would warn of the advancing army, once sighted, by riding through towns, alerting allies to come and join in the fight. And so it was that, on April 18, 1775, Paul Revere made his famed midnight run. Through town after town he rode, alerting sleeping residents of the advancing army. Many of them armed themselves and rode out to their designated sites. Others joined in the alarm such that it’s estimated forty horseback riders had joined in sounding the alarm by the time the night was ended.
And, I just learned this, contrary to our folklore, Revere didn’t say “The British are coming!” To have done so would have been to alert Tories, allies of the crown, that the rebels were arming and preparing to take action. Those allied with the crown and those allied with the rebels were neighbors, living next door to each other. So instead, Revere used somewhat coded language shouting, “The regulars are advancing!”
He ended the evening joining up with John Hancock and Samuel Adams to further their plans and preparation. Revere’s ride had worked: he had alerted the rebels to the storm gathering off the coast as ships of British regulars, the redcoats of fame, arrived.
A storm was brewing while the average colonial American slept. Revere and his compatriots roused them to action.
For the disciples, the storm wasn’t brewing; it was already a reality. And in that moment, they needed their own personal Revere to rouse Jesus to action. They went to the stern of the ship to awaken a sleepy Jesus who seemed indifferent, unaffected, by a raging storm. There’s a terrible storm that’s suddenly come up while the disciples are at sea, frightening them to their wit’s end. Remember that at least four of the twelve disciples are seasoned fishermen who should be undisturbed by storms at sea. Their life experience would mean they knew how to handle a ship in a storm. The alarm they declare in our scripture this morning indicates that this was no ordinary storm; it frightened even the most seasoned fisherman among the twelve.
So the disciples are terrified. They’re standing at the stern of the boat, rain pouring down upon their soaked clothing and heads, the wind howling, the thunder roaring, lightening striking in brilliant flashes, the ship rolling violently, waves crashing overboard. It’s terribly loud, and above this din the disciples scream at Jesus, “Do you not care that we’re perishing!” For Jesus, no matter the waves and the wind and the thunder, is sleeping.
With your mind’s eye engaged, hear now Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “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?”
How in the world is Jesus asleep? I hear in my head the King James Version of Ephesians 5:14, for John Wesley often quoted it. That version states Paul this way: “Awake, thou that sleepest!” I hear the disciples yelling that at Jesus, for somehow, he’s asleep, unaware at best or indifferent at worst to the violence going on around him that threatens to capsize the ship and kill the disciples.
Chaos surges all around the ship, catching the disciples off guard, for it appears they set sail on the sea of Geneseret while the weather was good. But that’s how the sea is. Any of you who fish regularly, taking boats out on the water, can testify to how quickly weather conditions can change. We can explain those changes with meteorology, we have built ships that can better withstand violent weather conditions than the wooden fishing vessels the disciples knew, the kind they’re probably on at this moment in Mark. We have better understandings and are thus better prepared.
But for the ancients, in the mindset of the disciples in the first century, the sea represents nothing short of chaos. Because of its unpredictability, because of the violence it could enact against sailors, because of the lore of the sea of ships that miraculously survived and crews never heard from again, the ancients feared the sea, both in terms of respect and fright. Throughout scripture, the sea is used metaphorically to speak to the forces of chaos.
Forces we know well, even if we don’t perceive of the sea in the same way. Suddenly, the forces of chaos grip our lives when a perfectly good day is ruined by a bad encounter. The forces of chaos take control when a huge bill comes in the mail unexpectedly. The forces of chaos reign when a tragic death strikes. We know chaos when the doctor comes into the room with a life-altering diagnosis. Chaos takes over whenever hate triumphs over love, despair over hope, war over peace, sorrow over joy. Chaos has a vicious streak within it, because it comes without warning, like the storm on the disciples, and threatens to undo us.
In those moments, we cry out like the disciples, “Can’t you see that we’re perishing?!” trying to yell at God over the storm that envelops us. “Awake, thou that steepest!” we scream at God because it seems, all too often in those moments of chaos, that Jesus is asleep at the stern of the ship of our lives; the one about to capsize because of the storm of life that has suddenly and viciously taken hold.
How often have we felt that Jesus is asleep at the wheel of our lives? We hear that we’re to trust in God, that we’re to have faith, that God will provide. At Vacation Bible School just over a week ago, we taught our children that “Jesus rescues” no matter what storms of life come. But how is that exactly true when rescue can take a very long time. Or perhaps we never feel rescued because the grief over an untimely death never seems fully healed, the financial downturn never feels fully righted, or the terrible diagnosis results in death. In these cases, Jesus’s comment in verse 40, “Have you still no faith?” feels not like a challenge but an insult. “I’d have better faith if you weren’t asleep at the stern!” feels like a warranted retort.
Jesus asleep at the stern. We remember this story for the way Jesus calmed the storm and brought peace to reign. But not before he was asleep at the stern, not before he was unaware at best or indifferent at worst to the suffering of his disciples. Not before they were so scared, they thought they might perish. Not before chaos had enveloped them, threatening in the particularly vicious way chaos does.
What are we to do when Jesus seems to be asleep at the stern of our ships of life as we’re threatened with destruction? Of course we have faith! That’s not the issue at stake, regardless of what verse 40 says. What’s at stake is Jesus’s inaction on our behalf.
When the chaos comes, when the storms of life rage, does Jesus rescue?
Peace, be still!
Jesus rebukes the storm, yelling over the din, and suddenly, all is quiet and still and serene. This would not have gone unnoticed. Note that Mark says there were other ships out at sea, too, struggling to stay afloat, struggling against the storm. Suddenly, miraculously, the storm is gone and all the ships are saved. I can imagine a cheer going up all across Lake Genesaret; even if they didn’t know Jesus was the cause, these ships knew they were saved, they knew they were free from fear.
Jesus, in speaking “Peace, be still” to the storm, uses very similar language to the words he’s used to cast out demons. Already in Mark, Jesus has been known to cast out demons and, immediately following this story is the famous story of Jesus casting demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs, a herd that promptly runs itself into the sea and drowns. Jesus is famous across Galilee for casting out demons and here he speaks to the storm as if it is, itself, a demon.
There’s more at work in this storm than just a naturally occurring weather phenomenon; there’s more at work than just a twist of nature. Creation is marred by the entry of sin into the world, meaning that because evil exists, creation sometimes goes against God’s created order to cause chaos. We see that in naturally arising tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, avalanches, and the like.
But here, it’s more than that. The underlying Greek makes clear what Mark is telling us: that the evil that Jesus encounters in demonic possessions is at work in this storm. Jesus is talking to this storm as if its a demon itself; as if the storm is carrying on its winds the forces of evil. Remembering that this storm terrified even the most seasoned fishermen among the disciples, understanding it as a storm of the forces of evil begins to explain why they would be so scared. This is more than a storm: this is the forces of evil working against Jesus, the disciples, and their mission. This is a cosmic battle between good and evil.
We’re used to such cosmic battles having high drama. Our superhero movies paint that very picture. Good always wins in the end, but not without evil almost winning, not without the stakes being very high, not without the hero of the story facing extreme danger and threat to his or her life.
But not our superhero Jesus. He is so unperturbed by the forces of evil that he simply gets up, after sleeping through it we might remember, and says “Peace, be still!” His power over the forces of evil is that complete. Evil is no match for him at all; not even close.
And so he turns to the disciples, and he turns to us when we face evil of various kinds, and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
What initially sounded like an insult sounds different in light of the cosmic battle between good and evil. How quickly and how easily we forget how powerful Jesus is. Unlike Superman, Batman, Superwoman, the Green Lantern, Antman, and whomever else, Jesus’s power over evil is so complete, so total, it doesn’t even phase him. He can strike down the evil at any time. Does Jesus rescue? Absolutely! His power is that complete.
So why doesn’t he rescue every time? The wounds that never heal from a broken relationship or an untimely death, the healthcare diagnoses that threaten our lives and the lives of our loved ones, the financial ruin that never seems to recover, the loss and hurt and pain that never seem to go away from our lives, those things are ultimately caused by evil in the world. God doesn’t cause them to happen in our lives; like the storm on Lake Genesaret, it simply comes upon us and we find ourselves in the midst of it. This story is a great reminder that God’s power, Jesus’s power, over evil is absolute and without question, but where’s that power when we need it?
Just like for these disciples, evil causes storms in our lives, too. Can’t God see that we’re perishing?
Which brings us back to Jesus’s question: why are you afraid?
We’re accustomed to considering a life of comfort, free of conflict of various kinds. But Jesus offers us a life, as Christians, just the opposite of that. In John 16:33, Jesus says, “In the world you face persecution.” Some translations have that read, “you will face many trials” or “you will face trials of many kinds.” When Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me,” that wasn’t a call to wear a pretty gold or silver necklace; it was a call to take on the burdens of the cosmic battle between good and evil.
How quickly we forget our mission: to be Jesus to the world. When Leigh talked about God-sightings, about seeing Jesus through Vacation Bible School, she was serious about seeing Jesus because we are Jesus: we are his hands and feet, we are the Jesus most people know. That means that the forces of evil will align against us, that means that the storms of life will come sometimes just because evil exists and sometimes because that evil wants to undo us and our mission in the world. Just as evil set about to destroy Jesus and the disciples on the lake, evil sets about our destruction, too.
And we can live in fear of that reality, we can fight against that reality trying to undo that evil, but that will only take us away from our mission. For if our lives are consumed by trying to undo conflict, by trying to fix the storms, by trying to heal our own brokenness, by trying to pick up the pieces, then evil has won: we’re consumed by our own needs and unable to focus on the divine mission given to us: to spread the gospel to the whole world by growing in holiness such that we look more and more like Jesus.
It’s easy to be consumed by the storms in our lives. They’re not always caused by the forces of evil trying to undo us, but they always come with the temptation to focus on ourselves. Self-pity, a drive and fight to get back to a place of comfort and ease, staying in terror and fear; all of these are ways in which evil defeats us because they are all attitudes contrary to the one Jesus calls us to have. We are not made for lives of comfort but for lives that spread the gospel, however uncomfortable that may be at times. Faith is not only comfort for our lives, it’s also an undergirding of strength to stand up in the midst of the storms knowing that Jesus says to us, no matter the chaos that rages, “Peace, be still!”
And that, for us, is the lesson today. In the midst of the storms of life, we must not allow our fear to get the better of us. Jesus told us in John that many trials would come our way, and we know that, but how quickly we forget the very next thing Jesus says in John 16:33, “but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” In the world you will face persecution, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.
He told the disciples, and he tells us, that we will face trials and persecution; evil will come our way and the storms of life will rage; he tells us this so that we can have peace. We can have peace because we can have a faith that says, no matter the storms of life, “Jesus rescues…for Jesus has overcome the world.” No evil can stand up against Jesus. No force can undo what Jesus has set out to do. I do not know why Jesus doesn’t act in our preferred timing, I don’t know why Jesus allows some battles to be lost, I don’t understand why Jesus hasn’t yet returned in final victory to undo evil once and for all. No one has answers to these questions and we are all too often left with suffering.
But in the midst of our suffering, is our predominant attitude, “can’t you see I’m perishing?” Or “I have taken heart, for Christ has overcome the world.” There’s a role for grief and anger, there’s a time to yell and scream and kick at God, there’s a time for lament as we’ve discussed before, but that moment of emotional release must lead us back to the mission: to take up our cross and follow Christ through whatever the forces of evil bring our way. After our lament, is our attitude, “can’t you see I’m perishing?!” Or “I have taken heart, for Christ has overcome the world, including my current storm”?
That’s the task of faith and the challenge before us this morning. The storms of life will come and frighten us. The winds of chaos will howl and the waves will threaten to undo the ships of our lives. As we’re tossed and turned by this chaos, after giving ourselves time for emotional release through lament, can we stand up and take heart in Jesus’s total power over evil? Does our faith give us the rock upon which to stand? Can we leave behind our self-pity, our drive to live a life of comfort and ease? Or does our faith collapse when the storms rage?
We are a small portion of a cosmic battle. Will we be a part of the cosmic forces for evil by caving into self-pity or fear about our suffering, or will we allow our faith in Christ to cause us to be unafraid?
There is no more potent symbol of and sustenance for how Jesus has overcome the the storms of our lives than this table. It gives us all the reason to be unafraid. In the bread and the cup, we see a powerful symbol of Christ’s body and blood, broken and shed, which “took upon [itself] our sin and death and destroyed their power forever.” In the receiving of the bread and the cup, we receive the grace of God that gives us more than we need to stand up in the midst of the storms in life, to be encouraged in our souls that Christ has, indeed, overcome the world. That grace empowers us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, so that “we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” At this table is all we need in our souls to move from an attitude of fear and doubt to an attitude of courage in the face of the storms of life, because we know that God’s “strong and loving arms encompass the universe.” Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is indeed almighty, powerful, in the middle of the storms saying, “Peace, Be still!”
So no matter the chaos that ensues, no matter the crisis you face, no matter how terrifying the storm, take heart, Christ has overcome the world. And once you’ve taken heart, once you’ve taken time for lament and found your faith grounding, move boldly forward, for to some folks in this world, you are the only Jesus they know. It’s through you that they will first discover that Jesus says to them, as he says to us today, no matter the storms that rage, “Peace! Be still!”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.