In Mark’s gospel, a lot of things happen on a boat. Jesus seeks refuge from the huge crowds that press upon him in a boat; Jesus takes at least three trips across the Sea of Galilee on a boat; Jesus preaches to people gathered along the shoreline from a boat. And in today’s reading, a boat is not just a place of refuge, a means of transportation, or a pulpit, but it is the site of a genuine miracle.
All these things happen on a boat even though Jesus is not a sailor. He made his living on land, building houses most probably. His friends and disciples are sailors though. And they would have been familiar with the nautical and meteorological conditions that prevail on the Sea of Galilee. So if they are worried about the storm that blows up on them in chapter 4, then that storm must have been a big one. Experienced sailors like the disciples don’t panic over nothing. They are in real trouble.
But Jesus is the opposite of panicked. In fact he is so calm as to be asleep. And amazingly, this verse in Mark 4 is the only time in the entire New Testament we are told that Jesus is sleeping.
Our Lord’s tranquility in the face of the storm seems downright offensive to his disciples, who wake him up with a reproach: “Don’t you care that we are about to die? Why don’t you get up and do something?”
But Jesus does care. And he does do something. In fact he does a miracle.
He summons himself to his full height and rebukes the elements themselves, in effect telling the wind and the waves to “shut up” and be still. And still they are. What began in Mark’s words as a “great storm of wind” abruptly ends as what he calls a “great calm.”
And in that dead calm Jesus chides his disciples for their unbelief: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
In Mark’s gospel, fear is the opposite of faith. To have faith is to be like Jesus, calm in the face of the storm, and to lack faith is to be driven to distraction by fear.
When Jesus performs this miracle, the disciples we are told are no longer afraid but instead are “filled with great awe,” and they ask themselves “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The reason they are overawed by Jesus’s act is that they recognize it as a deed of divine power, of miraculous might. The reason that it can only be a miracle is clear from Hebrew Scriptures. According to the Bible, only God has this kind of power, the ability to command nature itself, because nature is God’s creation.
You have to remember that for the ancient mind, the natural elements—the sun, the moon, the heavens, the sea—to the pagan way of thinking are gods. The Greeks and Romans among other ancient Near Eastern cultures thought there was a god of the sea, an often angry and demanding god in fact, who ruled over the deep. For ancient peoples the sea is a threatening, tempestuous, dangerous place. The sea was associated with primal chaos, an unfathomable depth of darkness and death that threatened to swallow up the unwary.
Even in the Hebrew Scriptures we see this from the beginning, that at creation itself the spirit of God hovered over what? Over the dark and deep waters, which symbolize the chaos of disorder, awaiting the imposition of order via God’s creative word. It is God and God alone who speaks into existence an orderly and moral creation that stands separate from the void of the oceanic depths.
We see the same idea in today’s psalm, psalm 107, which speaks of God as the one who “stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.” This is a prerogative and power that belongs to God alone, and this is why the disciples are stunned at who Jesus is when he commands the sea and the storm, again using only the power of his speech, his divine and creative word, to restore order to a scene of chaos.
This brings me to an important point about miracles in general as Jesus performs them, and this point I think is true of this miracle as well. I would bet that if someone asked you to define a miracle, you would likely say something like that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. This is a pretty commonplace textbook answer. It’s the first thing that comes to my mind too. I actually think it’s wrong though.
A miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature. A miracle is not an exception to how the world is. A miracle is a revelation of how the world should be. Let me say that again. A miracle is not a violation of the natural order. A miracle is a revelation of what God intends the world to be.
The world as it should be is one in which God is in perfect control of nature. A miracle discloses what God intends for the world, that it should be all order and harmony and peace with no chaos no disorder no violence no disease. No death. This, perhaps, is why the book of Revelation tells us that in the new heavens and the new earth, when God’s rule over a restored creation is absolute, then there will be no sea. Such a strange thing to say about the new heavens and new earth, but it makes sense if the sea is the site of chaos and violent disorder and danger.
And that brings me to the second thing I will say about miracles today, and that is that the point of a miracle as Jesus performs it is always the same: It is to inspire and increase our faith. Jesus does not perform miracles to show off but to encourage our faith in him. In Mark’s gospel, every time Jesus and his disciples are in a boat the gospel links this experience to the disciples’ lack of faith. I said at the outset that in Mark Jesus spends a lot of time on a boat and that means he also spends a lot of time confronting his disciples’ lack of faith.
But that too makes sense if the sea is a place of menace and terror. Because fear is the opposite of faith, and fearful circumstances overwhelm our confidence and threaten our security. Fear causes us to lose heart and lose our grip on the conviction that Jesus cares about what is happening to us.
Now Mark I don’t think intended this exactly, but very early on in church history, with great and thoughtful theologians like Tertullian and Origen, very early on wise minds discerned in the experience of being on a boat an excellent analogy for the life of the church.
Have you ever thought about the name for the inside of the church? What is this part we are all standing in right now? There is a fancy Latin name for it, because here there is a fancy Latin name for everything, but what’s the fancy Latin name for the place in the church where we all gather to worship? It’s called a nave. As in, navy. And it’s called a nave because you and I and everyone in church this morning, we are all in a boat.
Just like in Mark’s gospel, the boat that is the church is a place of refuge from the pressures of the world. The boat that is the church is also a means of transportation; it’s via the church that we are carried from our birth and baptism to our eventual passing and eternal fellowship with the saints who have gone before. The boat that is the church is also a pulpit, a place where we hear the word of God proclaimed and preached. And sometimes it’s the place where miracles happen.
But sometimes not. We have to be honest here. A miracle is a glimpse into the way things should be. It is not a disclosure of how things are. Until the heavens and earth are restored, until the dominion of God over all things is absolute, we live in a world of storms. As any child can tell you it is fun and exciting to be in a boat, but it’s also dangerous. Our voyage through this world is not a safe one.
And when we are beset on all sides, when the waves are spilling over the prow and the winds are howling then our fear gets the best of us and we call out to Jesus to do something about it. We cannot forget though that a miracle is not done at our beck and call because Jesus is not at our beck and call. He is the master of creation itself, the lord of the world that was made through him, and what he does he does not to impress us or even to console us but to increase our faith.
We lost our friend and longtime parishioner this past week, Russell Mead. Russell spoke to me many months ago about his awareness of his own mortality. He knew he was nearing the end. But when we talked about it he said with conviction in his voice “But I’m not afraid.” That is the courage that comes from faith in the power and peace of Christ Jesus.
Our Savior has not left us alone on the high seas of life. Even if sometimes it seems like he is sleeping, he is here, in the boat with us. And his plan and purpose is to perfect our faith, the faith that Russell had. For when our faith is as complete as his, then regardless of how mightily the storms around us rage, we will be as calm and secure and unafraid as our Savior himself. Amen.