Mark 4:37: ‘Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.’
A couple of years ago a friend of mine became pregnant. Sarah – which is not her real name – was a convert to Judaism. And so, as a baby-gift I gave her a book called ‘How to be a Jewish Parent’
Some time later Sarah remarked to me that the book had revealed to her something she didn’t know. That was the three things that Rabbinic law (4th century) requires a Jewish parent to teach their child.
The first thing is religious, it’s something we share with the Jewish people and it’s pretty easy to guess. The Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament
The second thing is quite a bit more difficult to guess. It’s not religious. It’s very practical. And it’s something people need in order to make a living. Under Rabbinic law, Jewish parents have to teach their children a trade
The third thing is very difficult to guess. And, indeed, you might even think it’s a very odd thing. Jewish parents have to teach their children how to swim.
Here is what a modern rabbi had to say about the requirement to teach one’s children to swim:
Learning how to swim is about basic life skills. It is parents' obligation to teach their children how to recognize danger and how to avoid or overcome it. This may include conversations about not putting your hand on the stove, and continues with how to have a successful and respectful argument. "Learning to swim" is teaching about vision and limits and risk taking. It also includes lessons on knowing where the shore is and how to return to a place of safety in order to venture out again on another day.*
What I think is interesting about this requirement to teach your children to swim is the fact that, in the tradition of the early Jewish people, the sea represented unrestrained chaos. The sea represented the powers of evil and the powers of darkness.
This would have been the way that the Evangelist Mark and the Jewish readers of his Gospel would have regarded the sea – as something dangerous, as the home territory of the forces of evil and destruction. But Mark’s Jewish readers would most likely have pictured hell as the sea at night: cold, dark, unpredictably dangerous and able to overwhelm a small fishing boat at a moment’s notice.
So when we consider the story of Jesus calming the storm, we can begin to see that this scene is very troubling. First, it is troubling from the point of view of what happens in the story. Second, it is troubling from the point of view of the disciples’ faith.
The Trouble with the Story
So what is troubling about the story itself? Remember first of all that some of the disciples were fishermen who were used to handling boats. They knew the Sea of Galilee intimately and they could handle an every-day rough sea.
But the storm in this story is no every-day rough sea. The disciples who were experienced boatmen were afraid for their lives. They were more than afraid, they were in a panic.
We also know that it was no every-day rough sea because it was a storm at night. Night-time storms are highly unusual on the Sea of Galilee – dare we say unnatural. Because it is the wind conditions that are caused by the heating of the atmosphere during the day time that are the usual causes of a storm on Galilee.
So, this unnatural storm whips up out of no-where, in the middle of the night when a storm should not be happening and professional sailors are terrified for their very lives
Since we now know that the sea represents the forces of evil and the forces of darkness to Mark and his readers, we can see that this is a situation where Jesus and the disciples are being viciously attacked by the forces of evil and the disciples are pretty convinced that the forces of evil are about to win!
‘Have you still no faith?’
And then, miracle of miracles, Jesus wakes and with one word – it’s one word in the Greek text – the storm ceases at his command. And how do the disciples react? Now they are scared of Jesus!
‘Have you still no faith?’
So, I think the story line itself is very troubling: First, the forces of chaos have reared their ugly heads with full force. Secondly, when Jesus shows that even the forces of chaos bow to his command, the disciples regard him as an object of fear.
The Trouble with the Disciples’ Faith
So what’s the trouble with the disciples’ faith?
That seems to be the theme of Mark’s Gospel, where the question ‘Have you still no faith?’ happens over and over again throughout the Gospel. No matter how long they have walked with Jesus as his disciples, no matter what Jesus has said to them, no matter what manner of miracle he performs, Mark portrays the disciples as never quite ‘getting it’ about Jesus.
And, truth be told, that’s one of the things I actually like about Mark’s Gospel – that the twelve men who were closest to Jesus during his lifetime never quite ‘got it’ until – as Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles – they received the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ ascension.
Because being a Christian – having Christian faith – isn’t primarily about ‘getting it’ about Jesus. Being a Christian – Christian faith – is primarily about trust in God. It’s about trust in the Father, trust in the Son and trust in the Holy Spirit.
I often say that Christian faith is the faith to throw yourself out of the window of a burning building knowing that your beloved will catch you. But you could also say that Christian faith is the faith to remain in the fishing boat with your beloved asleep whilst the forces of death and evil rage around you.
Once you throw yourself out of a burning building, once you are in the middle of a stormy sea in a small fishing boat – you are committed. There ain’t gonna be no changing your mind in either of those situations. This is a faith where your actions speak for themselves – louder than words. This is real trust.
But the disciples’ faith is still in the beginning stages – and that’s OK, by the way – because everyone has to start at the beginning. The disciples, who are professionals with respect to the sea, want Jesus to display the same sense of urgency that they have about the sea.
In our story, the Mark says that a great wind blew up and then later, when Jesus calmed the storm that there was a great calm. The disciples wanted Jesus to have great urgency, but Jesus was actually inviting them to have great calm. Through faith, the Triune God who created the sea out of chaos, invites us to have a great calm, he invites us to have a peace that passes all human understanding through faith in his power and his purposes
But many times, we don’t want to have God’s great peace. Many times, we want God to have our great urgency.
It seems to me that this was what the disciples were doing: Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus, as he demonstrates in this story, has authority over the very fabric of creation and he has authority over the forces of evil. But the disciples were not content with Jesus’ mere presence among them. The disciples were in a great panic and they wanted Jesus up and panicking too. Instead, they could have traded their great panic for the great peace that deep faith can offer.
The disciples accuse Jesus of not caring about their fate. I wonder if you recognise this attitude too. I know I do: ‘God, I’m beginning to wonder if you care about the problems I have because I think if you did that you’d do things my way.’
Sigh. ‘Have you still no faith?’
This story is difficult. I think it presents us with questions and hard challenges.
The story doesn’t even attempt to give an answer as to why God permits the forces of evil and chaos to rise up in our lives, the story only assures us that, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that the Triune God has dominion over the forces of evil.
The story challenges us to trust deeply in God, even if he doesn’t seem to be acting in a way that we would like him to act. The story gives us no reasons for the storm, it only gives us the assurance that God is in control.
The story also tells us that the twelve men who were closest to Jesus during his lifetime faced the same challenges of faith that we do. So it’s OK to come into God’s presence with our doubts and it’s OK to pray loudly to God when we are in a panic.
But if we are looking for an answer, don’t expect God’s answer to be ‘OK, I’ll join you in your great fear.’ Expect God’s answer to be ‘I offer you my great peace’.
Have faith in God, have Faith in God’s peace.
Let us pray:
O living Christ, rescue us from foolish passion and still the storms of our self-will; and, as you are our anchor in this life, so bring us to the haven you have prepared for us; for your mercy’s sake. Amen **---
* From InterfaithFamily.com. http://www.interfaithfamily.com/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=ekLSK5MLIrG&b=297381&ct=2010081.
** From Common Worship Daily Prayer: http://cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/commonworship/texts/daily/psalter/psalms101to118.html