Series: The Questions Scripture Asks Us
Question 3: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” ~Mark 4:40
By Fr. Michael Cover
Welcome to the third installment of our series, “The Questions Scripture Asks Us.” For those of you who may be joining us for the first time today, each Sunday in June at St. Paul’s we are considering a question explicitly asked in the Scriptural readings, and wondering how it might serve as a mirror of our own lives, both as individuals and as a church. We began, two weeks ago, with God’s first question in the Bible: “Where are you?” Last week, we turned to Jesus’s question the Gospel of Mark, “To what can we compare the kingdom of God?” Today, we find ourselves confronted by an embarrassment of riches. By my count, between Job and Mark, there are no fewer than ten questions posed by Scripture, each of which deserves attention in its own right. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Don’t worry—I’m not going to work through all of them in detail. The lectionary, in its genius, has already woven all ten questions together, like the various themes of a symphony. And we can get to the heart of all of them, if we begin simply with the question that Jesus asks of his disciples: “Why are you afraid?”
“Why are you afraid?” Or, as one might better render the Greek word deiloi, “Why are you acting like cowards?” As we just heard, the immediate context of Jesus’ question is a sudden and gigantic windstorm on the water. Jesus has asked the disciples to put out upon the sea of Galilee. A mighty whirlwind arises, sending billows and waves into the boat. Perhaps this will not seem terrifying to you at first: but try and imagine the place for a moment. See the darkening of the sky on the horizon; feel the wetness of the cold water lapping over the boat’s edges, the drop in pressure, the cooling wind; imagine the energy it will take to swim through the sizeable waves; watch as your life’s work and business—your fishing boat—begins to sink before your eyes.
Boats are an interesting way to think about our lives. These last few weeks, the Cover family has spent a lot of time in boats—particularly, in canoes and kayaks. What strikes one is that even on a very small lake, a little amount of wind can make it very hard to move or steer. In addition, sometimes the smallest of waves from a passing speedboat can almost tip you out into the deep. And if people in the boat are panicking and hollering and pitching to and fro, chances of staying safe and dry are almost nil.
Naturally, then, you and I are most comfortable on land; but it hasn’t been lost on the poets since David and Homer that water is a place where we human beings meet our reckoning and realize our limitations. Jesus’ question, “why are you acting like cowards?” (Mark 4:40)—set as it is on the sea—holds up a mirror to our human condition and says: to be human is like shipping across Lake Michigan in a relatively small vessel. Sometimes the water is calm, glassy, and pleasant; other times it is not. Neither are we ever told why we have been put out on the water at such and such a time, with such and such people, in such and such a vessel. But herein lies the truth: we are such stuff as storms are made on, and our little lives are rounded with the waking fear of that inevitable tempest, which will at the last capsize our boats and send us on to farther shores; something of this lies behind Jesus’ seemingly simple imperative in Mark 4:35: “let us go across to the beyond” (to peran).
But, we may protest: What if we’re not finished yet? What about my life’s work? What about my unfinished business? What about the injustices that still rage and howl like a whirlwind, that swallow up hopes like Leviathan, that lay waste to the pines like dragon fire? What about the loved ones that we leave behind? “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
To such concerns, Scripture answers clearly: yes, He does; the Word of God comes to us in a small boat. Mark’s Gospel, like a good Jeopardy contestant, poses its answer in the form of another question: “who is this, that the wind and sea obey him?” Having been awakened by the disciples’ cries, Jesus speaks a word—the same word that he also spoke to the unclean spirit: “be silent!” or “put a muzzle on it!” (Mark 4:39; cf. 1:25). The “great storm” stops immediately and gives way to a “great calm.” With a newly born fear—and note, Mark does not say that the disciples were “filled with great awe,” as our official translation puts it, but that they feared a great fear (ephobethesan phobon megan)— the disciples ask one another: “Who is this, that the wind and sea obey him?”
Did they know the answer? Dark, stark laconic Mark, with his characteristic brevity, doesn’t let on whether the disciples got it. We may get the distinct impression that they did not. I have always thought that the answer to Jesus’ identity was rather obvious in his sleeping—who other than God could have slept with a divine calm through all the hubbub and commotion of that apostolic canoe- ride, as the disciples pitched about and complained that they were dying.
If that weren’t enough proof for all the parents in the room—and especially the fathers: happy Father’s Day!—Mark surely intended his readers to put two and two together by realizing that the answer to the riddle of Jesus’s identity, as so often, lies in the Old Testament. In solving Mark’s riddle, we can perhaps do no better than to quote Psalm 107(:23–29)—the beautiful Psalm selected by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, for his funeral earlier this year, recollecting his service in the royal navy, as well as his growing spiritual awareness of the mystery of life and death, as he approached his own “great reckoning” with the divine whirlwind:
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
“Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” The answer is of course: Yahweh, the LORD of the stormgods, the chariot-rider over the waters of creation, the orderer of tohu va-bohu, the great hunter who sports with the Leviathan and puts a ring in his nose. It is no Prospero or mere human magician who rouses this tempest and then calms it.
“Why then are we acting like cowards?” Because, it would seem, we have forgotten who is in the boat with us. Because it is hard amid the fear and trembling of our lives to recall that none other than the living God of Israel sleeps in the stern, ever-ready to be awakened. (Note, children, that God takes a pillow with him when he travels.) Jesus’ sleeping should not, in this case, be interpreted as a sign of his disinterest, as the disciples initially think. Rather, it is a reminder that what was true for the Psalmist is even more true for us: God has made his home with us. He has pitched his tent with us. He has literally climbed into our boats, taking on our mortal nature, experienced the need to sleep and eat and drink and occasionally seek out a quiet place to pray, away from the crowds. God is with us. He is “in it,” 100%.
This leads us to a further question raised by the Psalm above: if Jesus is Yahweh in Mark 4, does he only calm the storm, or does he also cause it? Tricky to answer, but in light of all the readings for today, there’s a case for saying: both. The Psalm at least says, “he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea” (Ps 107:25), implying that it is God who causes both wind and calm. Mark echoes that sentiment in his use of the adjective “great” in the story this morning: the “great windstorm” corresponds to the “great calm”—both produced, it would seem, by the same God-man sleeping in the boat.
Was this merely an incident of Messianic hazing? Rather, I prefer to see it as a symbol of a greater truth: that Jesus does not promise that following him will involve staying close to shore and avoiding all the storms. Indeed, in this instance, it would seem that Jesus called the disciples into the storm as into some great mission; only their cowardice causes him to call it off. To those who might protest that imagining Jesus as both cause and calmer of the storm ruins the simpler message of Jesus as bearer of peaceful inner waters, Psalm 107 says to the contrary: he made both storm and calm. Digging deeper, is it not also this same God who speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, troubled as Job was by the injustices and contingencies of life:
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you… .
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it… when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?–
when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
The whirlwind God who says this also sleeps in the stern. And yet, upon request, he finally stills the storm as with an exorcism, silences the Satan, and says: “no further.” This, friends, is the mystery of discipleship: that both are true. Jesus is both the cause and the calmer of the storm. To follow him will take at least two virtues: faith and courage. Faith, to remember who it is that is in the boat with us. And courage, to steer into whatever headwinds he sends us, trusting that he will lead our boats aright, beyond safe harbor or shipwreck, to his own eternal shores beyond. Amen.