( 2 Cor 6,1-13. Mark 4 35 – 41 )
In the name of God, who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.
Sometimes the Church of England lectionary appears to play strange tricks with those who preach.
As some of you will know, I spend some of my holidays on cruise ships. We’re off on our first holiday aboard this year in a few week’s time, and here I am faced with preaching on the stilling of the storm. Is somebody trying to tell me something, I ask?
We’re sailing across the North Sea, which can be quite a rough crossing sometimes. I remember once when the ship was like the Marie Celeste in the morning as we went up for breakfast; almost everyone else was still in their cabins after a very choppy night. On the other hand, we’ve come back across the North Sea when it’s been so calm that we were sailing through thick fog, and a helicopter couldn’t get near enough to pick up a sick crew member to transport to the nearest mainland for treatment.
However, we’ve always been in a fairly modern cruise ship, with stabilisers, sea sick pills and medical attention to moderate the effects of the winds and waves. All of which made me appreciate just how brave were those explorers who set off in the tiny ships we’ve seen in the maritime museums in Scandinavia and Portugal, to discover new lands. We had comfortable cabins – they slept on the wooden deck. We had delicious food to eat – if we felt like it – and iced fresh water; their food and water gradually ran out or went bad on a long voyage. Our ship had engines, electronic direction finding equipment and stabilisers; they were entirely at the mercy of the winds and currents. Our ship had a steel hull – theirs was made of planks which gradually came apart during a long voyage, or were eaten from within by woodworm, so that if they did not reach land within a certain period, the ship simply disintegrated beneath them. We knew that we had 48 hours at the most to suffer the heaving seas; they often had no idea when they would reach land, nor what their reception would be when they arrived.
So no wonder that, in the world that our Bible was written in, the sea stood for danger, evil and chaos. Many of the peoples of antiquity, including at one time the Jews, shared a creation myth which said that the world was the result of God’s victory in a desperate contest with the forces of evil and chaos, which were identified with the waters of the sea. Just as demons who took up residence in the human body were believed to be responsible for physical or mental disease, so demons resident in the sea were believed to be responsible for the storms which destroyed life and property. The Jews were not a seafaring nation, and their literature, especially the Psalms, continued to use the image of unrestrained great waters, the sea or storms, as a metaphor for the evil forces active in the world.
The ability to control the waters, or to subdue storms, was believed to be a sign of divine power; and the ability to sleep peacefully in the face of such forces was a sign of complete trust in God. But when evil forces seem to triumph, the Psalms express this as ‘God being asleep’ and they urge God to wake up and rescue them.
It is against this background that we must read the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark chapter 4. Of course, this story may be based on a real incident in Jesus’ ministry. The Sea of Galilee, an inland lake, is situated in a deep rift valley, and sudden storms do blow up on the lake, and just as suddenly die down. But it is rather unlikely scenario that the disciples, whose number included at least four experienced fishermen, would have panicked, while the landlubber, Jesus, slept peacefully on. The story we have appears to have been shaped by constant retelling in the early church, and there are echoes in it of the Psalms, and particularly of the story of Jonah. Its present form clearly reflects its religious significance, as a story which showed who Jesus was, and the initial failure of his disciples to recognise him; and very probably indicates that it was retold to give encouragement to later Christians who were encountering opposition to their new-found faith.
At this distance in time, we do not know which of the details of the story are there for religious purposes, and which were details of the original story; for instance, the ‘other ships’ which set sail with Jesus’ boat, and then disappear from the story. Did they contain some members of the crowd who had listened to the parable of the sower immediately before setting sail? Or do they symbolise groups of converts whose faith founders when the storms arise, like the seeds in the parable that failed to bear fruit?
The storm is described in terms which echo Psalm 107 and the beginning of the story of Jonah. Like Jonah, Jesus is asleep while the storm rages: but whereas Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is asleep down in the hold of the ship, hiding from God, Jesus, God’s obedient servant, is asleep on the deck, with his head on the helmsman’s seat – even asleep, the story seems to say, he is in control. But the disciples (portrayed by Mark as men of little faith) mistake his calm for indifference, and arouse him with words that echo the complaints of the Psalmist to a seemingly uncaring God: “Lord, do you not care that we perish?”
Once awake, Jesus rebukes the demons of the sea in the same way that he has already rebuked unclean spirits several times, telling them to be silent. It is another exorcism. Then, he sadly reproves his disciples for their continuing lack of faith and trust in him. The disciples are then filled with a different kind of fear, and ask themselves again the question that is repeated throughout the first half of Mark’s Gospel; ”Who is this, that even the winds and waves obey him?”
The readers of the Gospel, in the post-resurrection Church, know the answer. He is the Christ, the Son of God, God’s agent in the salvation of the world. The story reassures Christians that, however much the Ark of the Church is buffeted by persecution and opposition, and however imperfect the faith of those who appeal to him, Christ will stand with them before the hostile forces arrayed against them, and bring them internal peace once more.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians provides us with details of the sort of troubles that the members of the early Church faced: beatings, imprisonment, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger, dishonour, poverty, death. In the face of all this, Paul quotes the promise of God: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you; on a day of salvation, I have helped you”. Christians were to expect a rough passage, say Paul and Mark; but Christians should always remain confident that God in Christ would preserve them from eternal harm.
This is a message that we also need to hear. In some parts of the world, especially the Middle and Far East and Sub Saharan Africa, Christians still face imprisonment, torture and death for their faith. We in the West are not persecuted in that way; but our religious life is not as straightforward as it once was.
Sometimes the Christian faith is presented as a passport to worldly comfort and prosperity. If only we are doing things right, if only we are obeying God’s commands, we will have a smooth passage, some Christian evangelists say. There is an implied promise that those who have faith will not suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Some of these evangelists also say that if we get it wrong, God is the sort of deity who will send natural disasters to punish us, and even innocent bystanders. Even today, that sort of explanation is seriously put forward to explain earthquakes, floods and tidal waves in various parts of the world.
That is far from being Mark’s message. He presents us with a Christ who is the Suffering Servant, the secret Messiah, who doesn’t apparently triumph over those who oppose him, but is destroyed. Mark challenges Christ’s disciples – and challenges us – to expect the storms, and expect to have to follow our Master into them; and to face what ever dangers that brings us with the same calm confidence he showed.
Mark gives us a picture of the church that is far from being a comfortable cruise ship with stabilisers and all mod cons; for Mark the church is a tiny boat, buffeted by storms, filling with water to the point of sinking, but a craft in which we can have confidence, so long as Jesus is at the helm.
I used to have a poster on my wall, designed by Argos communications, Christian publishers. The caption says: “a ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” That is a good message to take out with us, as we leave the harbour of this church and sail on this week, across the rough seas of the world, in the ship of faith.
Let us pray for Christ’s presence and protection as we sail (in a prayer by David Adam, that was sent to me by a friend when I was facing storms in my life) :
Circle me O God,
Keep peace within, keep turmoil out
Circle me O God,
Keep calm within keep storms without
Circle me O God,
Keep strength within, keep weakness out
Circle me O God