In the MIdst of the Storm
In the Midst of the Storm
March 4, 2018
A few people this morning heard our text and checked out. “Oh no…” you thought to yourselves, “Mark picked one of those stories where Jesus does the magical, mystical things that none of us can do.” In fact, this text may contain the most extreme of those stories: Jesus calms a storm. Sure, Jesus turned water into wine to help a family save face at a wedding but give me a credit card and we’ll get the wine. Sure, Jesus cared for people who were sick but we can care for sick people and feel like we are part of their healing, too. Here’s the thing, though: next time there is a big storm coming, just try standing up and telling the storm to be still! Then, dash me off an email and let me know how that goes…
If the heart of this text is that Jesus could stop storms then I would encourage you to close your eyes and take a little nap of your own. However—surprise!—that’s not really the heart of this text. Ask yourself this question: Have I ever been totally overwhelmed by what’s coming my way? Have I hovered on the edge of panic? Have I ever felt like I was sinking and had no idea what to do? Have I ever felt like God must just be “asleep?” We have all felt this because, of course, the story of human life is that almost everything is out of our control, despite our best efforts to convince ourselves and others otherwise. We get to make choices. We guess at how those choices will play out. However, we are doing well when we make those choices the best we can in real time. Then, the storm bears down on us.
That “storm,” of course, doesn’t have to be a literal storm. The “storm” could be something bad that happens to a friend or a family member. It could be losing your job. It could be an encounter with that one person who knows how to push your every button. It could be the moment when you’ve tried so hard to do the right thing and you feel like like is punishing you for trying… So, tell the truth to yourself this morning. You have seen plenty of challenges come and go. You have weathered your fair share of storms. However, that day comes when you look up and see the mother of all storm bearing down on you. You feel your stomach drop. You feel that those grizzled sailors on the boat with Jesus are your kin.
Now, let’s add a second piece to this puzzle. Remember, we don’t really hear what Mark is saying if we don’t open ourselves to what he would have provoked his listeners to remember. We don’t necessarily make these connections but people steeped in Judaism would. That connection, this morning, is to the story of Jonah (and I do mean, “story”—Jonah is a fictional account that tells a great truth.) Jonah is called by God to go to the one group of people that everyone hated and tell them that they need to change. Again, there is that totally human cringe moment—the thought that God loves and cares about the people whom I can’t stand. Jonah hears this calling and runs the opposite direction (which is exactly what we do when we know what we are supposed to do and we don’t want to do it!) Jonah ends of on a ship sailing to the end of the world—as far away from Nineveh as possible. Once he is on that ship, running like heck from God’s calling, a terrible storm comes up and…(wait for it!) Jonah is asleep. (Hmmm, Jesus asleep in a storm and Jonah asleep in a storm…)
Now, in the Jonah story, the sailors wake Jonah up and tell him how horrible the storm is. He tells them that the storm is his fault. This is God coming after him for running from his calling. Jonah tells the sailors that they need to throw him overboard. After a respectful moment of appearing horrified by this suggestion…they throw Jonah overboard. This is where he gets swallowed by the “fish” (never called a whale) and half the people hearing the story get stuck on, “That could never happen.” Yet, what does happen—and we all know it—is that we can run from our calling and from God but sooner or later we are going to have to face such things. After three days of soul searching, (again, who doesn’t know the darkness and the stink that surround us when we have to face what we have run from?) the fish wretches Jonah up onto the beach…in Nineveh—exactly where he was supposed to go all along!
Jonah says, “Fine…I’m here now. I might as well deliver the goods. Maybe after I’ve done this then God will leave me alone.” He tells the people of Nineveh—the most hated people around—that they need to change, that they are living the wrong way, that they need to get right with God. This is exactly the same message that prophets have been speaking to God’s people in Ancient Israel for centuries—at which point the people would attack the prophets. So, in your mind’s eye, you should imagine Jonah bracing himself for the very worst. And yet…this is the comic ending of the tale—the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s message and they…repent! Nobody repents! Nobody listens to a prophet! I think this would have been a beloved story—one that made people laugh and then left them thinking about the truths that the story told.
So, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat looking a lot like Jonah at first glance…but he’s not Jonah. Jonah ran from God’s calling. Jesus is following that calling. The people surrounding Jonah on that boat were mercenary sailors with whom he had purchased a ticket. The people with Jesus were his disciples who, themselves, were following God’s calling. It is possible that Jesus and the disciples were going where they didn’t want to go—across the lake, away from their homes, making their way toward Jerusalem and all the unknowns. Yet, we should hear the bite of what that implies, too. If Nineveh was what everyone considered a truly godforsaken place and people, is Mark suggesting that Jerusalem, the holy city, has also become a godforsaken place?
Let’s focus though on the heart of the story. Jonah gets caught in a storm because God has found him and is “working him over” for having run away. In the ancient world, people figured that storms, like every other bad thing that could happen in life, were God’s way of saying, “I’m going to punish you!” (Again, I think we are kidding ourselves if we think this doesn’t resonate in our world, too. We remain quick to at least joke if not claim that when something bad happens to someone we don’t like then God gave them what they deserved. When bad things come our way, we file our cosmic complaint that, “I don’t deserve this!” Of course, this implies that we assume that this is how the “blessings and curses” of this life are doled out—based on what we deserve.) The sailors throw Jonah over the side and the storm immediately stops.
The disciples—many of whom were seasoned sailors—wake Jesus up from a sound sleep to deliver the news that, “We are all going to die here! Do you even care?” “Jesus,” the disciples say, “We are doing exactly what you called us to do. We are moving in the direction you told us to move. Now, this boat is going down.” If you stop and think about this, you see how coherent this story is with almost every other action Jesus takes. This is the story of the difficulties and the terrors that can beset someone precisely when they do the right and faithful thing. People have to endure all sorts of challenges and things that seem horribly unfair. The task isn’t to judge those people so that we can blame them. The task is to connect to them and care for them. The task, if we are caught in those difficulties and terrors is to realize that God is present with us and God cares for us. That’s the only way we have a shot at not giving into the panic. That’s the only way we regain a sense of perspective.
Unlike Jonah, Jesus doesn’t rise out of his sleep and tell the disciples to throw him overboard. Instead, he does three things. First, he is a non-anxious presence. Those are my words, not the Gospel’s but I think they are such important words. The more we can stay grounded and present, the more we can not give into the panic, the more chance we are going to have to be a faithful person. The thing is that we don’t suddenly learn to do this when the worst storm we have ever seen arrives. Rather, we have to practice this grounded, non-anxious presence every day, through the relatively small peaks and valleys of our lives. This is why we practice prayer and read sacred texts and stay connected to a faith community because that’s how we build the spiritual strength to stay grounded in God when it feels like the floor is falling out beneath us.
Second, Jesus addresses what’s going on but on his own terms. He’s not going to scream at a volume that matches the storms fury (just like screaming back at the person who is pushing our buttons doesn’t do any good.) Instead, he says the word that Jesus says throughout the Gospel: “Peace!” Jesus doesn’t strike back. Jesus reframes the moment, just like he would on Easter morning to the women at the tomb: “Peace!” How could we make our primary way of facing the storms of our lives to lead with peace and calm?
Finally, Jesus says these words: “Be still…” Then, in a wonderful translation that I was reading, the text says that “The storm ran out of breath.” The wind ceases. The water becomes dead calm. In perhaps an even more miraculous turn, the sailors who were sinking fast into the waters and into a panic become calm, too. What those sailors and Mark’s audience and maybe even the wind and the waves would have known is the rest of that verse that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 46 reads like this: “Be still…and know that I am God.”
God is present in the storms of this life, not punishing those we think are bad and rewarding those we think are good but working for peace and for calm and for perspective. God endures with us. God loves us through the waves.