February 28, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
JESUS 101: WHO IS THIS?
The second in a series of seven.
Mark is in a hurry as he tells the story of Jesus. Or maybe Jesus is the one who is in a hurry, and Mark just faithfully records that for us. Either way, there is a lot that happens and happens quickly in the opening chapters of Mark’s gospel. Jesus recruits a team, he heals the sick, he preaches, he teaches, he tells parables, he locks horns with the Pharisees.
It’s a whirlwind of activity, leading right up to the whirlwind we read about this morning. It is evening and Jesus suggests a boat ride to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. About eight miles. We are told other boats are in the water at the same time. Which suggests the weather is favorable. “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight.” Maybe the sky is red. It seems a perfect evening to be out on a boat.
But things can change quickly. We know that in our lives, don’t we? Everything is going great one moment and then everything is a disaster. No warning. It just hits us.
It must have been like that out on the Sea of Galilee. “A very strong wind blew up and the waves began to spill over into the boat so that it was about to fill with water” (4:37). They never, ever would have left the shore had they known this was going to happen. It was a complete surprise. Suddenly they were facing the very real possibility that they would drown at sea.
This would be the end of them. And this would be the end of Jesus. He’d barely started, and now it would all be over. So you can picture Jesus bailing water out of that boat as fast as he could, frantically fighting for his life. Or maybe just panicking, as everyone else on that boat was panicking. But no. “Jesus was in the back of the boat, sleeping with his head on a pillow” (4:38).
It reminds me of a Carolyn Curtis story. It was midnight. Carolyn and Jay were in their living room. Suddenly there was a deafening sound accompanied by a violent shaking of their house. Someone had crashed their SUV into the Curtis house. Instantly they realized that the impact zone was the bedroom of their son, Tyler. He was seven years old. They were freaking out. Jay crawled through a window. Tyler’s bed was in pieces. The mattress had been pushed against a wall. Tyler was still wrapped in his blanket – not injured at all, and still sound asleep. Carolyn says Tyler has always been a deep sleeper.
Maybe Jesus was a deep sleeper, too. More likely, Jesus had a deep faith. He was not afraid. He was probably tired. As you read the action-packed chapters leading up to this, it’s not surprising he was ready for a nap. And so he slept and slept soundly, even while the storm raged all around him.
The disciples of course woke him up. They were not happy with him. They said, “Do you not care that we are about to die?” As they saw him sleeping, they thought what they saw was indifference. They didn’t realize that what they were really looking at was faith. Faith far greater than their own. That’s why Jesus was the only one on that boat who didn’t panic. It reminds me of that line from Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .” Jesus kept his head. Jesus trusted God.
What happens next suggests that he had an inside track with God that you and I probably don’t have.
Jesus got up and commanded the wind: “Be quiet!” and said to the waves, “Be still!” The wind died down, and there was a great calm (4:39).
Wouldn’t it be nice to have that power! I know we have all had the experience of feeling powerless. There isn’t a thing we can do, except pray. And that seems so small compared to the miracles we read about in the Bible. Jesus is a man of action, especially in Mark. And we want to be men and women of action. We want to make things happen.
On Palm Sunday 1994, a tornado destroyed Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama. Twenty died, including the four-year-old daughter of the pastor. No one was able to command that wind to, “Be still!” Not even a church full of Palm Sunday worshipers.
Our scripture ends with this great calm. The storm that was so huge and so terrifying is now gone. It’s hard to imagine it was ever even there. All the boats that were in such danger, theirs included, are now floating peacefully, gently bobbing up and down in the water. The stars are out again, maybe even a full moon.
Then Jesus said to them, “Why are you so frightened? Why is it that you don’t have faith?” But they were terribly afraid and began to say to each other, “Who is this man? Even the wind and the waves obey him.” (4:40-41)
Who is this man? He is a man, every bit as human as you and me. But there is more to it than that. I’m calling this series Jesus 101. That means it’s a basic introduction to Jesus. The most basic thing to say about Jesus is the hardest for us to understand. He was fully human and he was also fully divine. He was God and he was also a man.
You don’t have to be Jesus to command a storm to be still. Any of us could do that. Any of us could say what Jesus said: “Be still!” But of course if you and I spoke those words to a storm it wouldn’t change a thing. The storm would rage on. But when Jesus commanded the storm to be still, “the wind died down and suddenly there was a great calm.” As we said last week, Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge. “Even the wind and the sea obey him.”
John Wesley was frightened by a storm at sea. It was January of 1736. He was on his way across the Atlantic Ocean to Georgia. I can imagine that January is not the best time to be sailing in the northern hemisphere. In his journal, Wesley describes one storm after another, each one worse than the one before.
He was 32 years old. He had not yet shown signs of his future greatness. He was about to suffer a humiliating failure in Georgia. There is a lengthy section in his journal about these storms. He was scared to death. To say it more precisely, he was scared of death. He was afraid of dying. And it bothered him that he was so afraid.
What bothered him most was when he compared himself with the German Moravians who were traveling on the same ship. They welcomed these storms. They saw them as opportunities to grow in their faith. This was a gift from God. God was delivering them from their “spirit of fear.” Here is what Wesley wrote:
The sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The [Moravians] calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No. Our women and children are not afraid to die” (The Heart of John Wesley’s Journal, page 7).
Two years later, a discouraged and defeated John Wesley wandered into a Moravian prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. That was the night he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” The fearless faith he so envied in the Moravians had now become his faith.
From that point on, John Wesley was like a new man. People who knew the old John Wesley might look at him and say, “Who is this?” But the reason for the change was that he had looked at Jesus and asked, “Who is this?” and had answered, “This is the Son of God. Even the wind and the sea obey him.” He put his faith in Jesus as he never had before. His journal entry that night:
I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (Ibid. page 43).
This battle against fear is no easy battle. We fight it all the time, on many fronts. Fear feeds on fear kind of like a snowball rolling down a hill. It starts small, it gets bigger and bigger. We have been living for a year now with the coronavirus. It’s been quite a year. Some aren’t a bit afraid. They probably should be. Some are terrified. They probably are more afraid than they need to be.
But here’s what interests me about fear. How afraid we are is not necessarily tied to the thing we fear. What I mean by that is that we are capable of facing truly scary stuff with great courage. And we are also capable of letting little things, ridiculous things, turn us into cowards. Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
We say we are afraid because we have reason to be afraid. Anyone would be afraid if they were facing what we are facing. That may be true. Or it may be that we are afraid because we have a “spirit of fear.” And the only known antidote to the “spirit of fear” is the “spirit of faith.”
Then Jesus said to them, “Why are you so frightened? Why is it that you don’t have faith?” But they were terribly afraid.
There is another story in Mark about a storm at sea, as we skip ahead to chapter 6. Jesus has just fed the 5,000. He and his disciples then go in two different directions. The disciples get in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, that same eight-mile journey. This time they are heading home, from the east shore to the west shore. Jesus says goodbye, then he climbs a hill so he can be alone with God in prayer.
As Jesus is praying, he becomes aware that his disciples are in trouble. Their boat is about to capsize. Another storm at sea. So he cuts his prayer short. They need him, so he goes to them. And since there weren’t any other boats available, he walks on the water to get to them.
I know. Hard as it is to believe that Jesus stilled the storm, it is several degrees of magnitude harder to believe that he walked on water. Modern people use circular logic on these miracle stories. Miracles do not happen. But how do you know miracles do not happen? Because miracles do not happen. We’re not getting anywhere. Peter who told this story (he was there) and Mark who wrote it down did not have a problem believing this. They are simply reporting what happened.
There is a detail here that is easy to miss. It says, “He was going to pass them by” (6:48). That’s a strange verse. Does it mean he’s changing his mind about rescuing them? Sometimes we are in too big a hurry to rescue people from their problems, when the most loving thing is to let them struggle awhile and develop their own spiritual muscles. Is that what’s going on here? Could be.
But the disciples see Jesus in the distance. They think they are seeing a ghost. They were afraid before, now they are really afraid. It even says they scream. Jesus must have heard the scream. He’s not going to pass them by now. He says,
“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid!” Then he got into the boat with them, and the wind died down” (Mark 6:50-51).
The point of the story is the same as the point of the earlier story. The disciples are afraid. They have reason to be afraid. But they don’t have to be afraid. They don’t have to live with a “spirit of fear.” The antidote to fear is faith.
I know that’s easy to say when everything is calm and peaceful. The test comes when we are tested. And I want to say this, too. The next time a storm comes your way and you are really tested, it is no disgrace to feel fear. It just means you are human.
I think Jesus understood that with his frightened disciples. I don’t think he was angry with them. I don’t even think he was disappointed in them. He was fully human as well as fully God, and his human side must have known what fear feels like and how easy it is to give in to it. But he also knew there is a better way. We don’t have to be slaves to fear. Fear does not have to be our master.
Jesus taught in another place that even a little faith works wonders. Faith the size of a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20). That’s real small. So if that’s all the bigger your faith is – if your fear is way bigger than that – that’s OK. Use your small faith, and it will get bigger. Use your weak faith, and it will get stronger.
I think of that Palm Sunday worship service at Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama. A violent storm outside. Jesus said, “Be still!” and all was peaceful and calm. But nobody in that church had that power. (See featured image 1)
So what can we do? We can pray. There is power in prayer. We can take our mustard seed size faith and put it to work. We can exercise our weak faith muscles and trust that God will make them stronger. We can invite Jesus to get into the boat with us. When he is there, things have a way of calming down.
We can even surprise ourselves and do things that are truly heroic. Things we aren’t brave enough to do, but we do them anyway because Jesus calms our fears and gives us courage. Like Diane Mollock.
The wind was howling outside. The storm was raging. People inside Goshen United Methodist Church were terrified. But the show must go on. The children of that church had been working hard to get ready for their Palm Sunday program. They were in front of the church. They were singing their little hearts out. One of the moms was video recording the whole thing. Then the roof started to tear away from the building. A wall supported by that roof was buckling. That’s when Diane Mollock did what she knew she had to do. There were two little boys in front of her. She covered them with her body. They lived, but she died. And the video recorder recorded it all. (See featured image 2)
The mom who took the video was offered $50,000 for the exclusive rights to show it on television. But she wouldn’t take the money. She has shown it only to survivors who have asked to see it. It helped in their healing. It helped them to see what love can do.
This one woman did what Jesus would have done. She gave her life to save lives.
Was Diane Mollock afraid? Probably. Maybe she didn’t have time to be afraid. She just acted on instinct. But I would say this. Her instinct would not have been what it was if her heart had not first been filled with the love of Jesus.
“Who is this man?” This is the man who is more than a man. This is the man who makes us more than the men and women we are. This is the man who channels fear into love. For “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear” (I John 4:18).
Thank you God for Jesus. Thank you that you came to this earth and you took charge as only you can take charge. Even the wind and the waves obey you. But thank you also that Jesus was human as we are human. He felt fear, as we feel fear. He proves to us that faith is stronger than fear. And that fear need never get in the way of love. May Jesus calm our fears. May his love be seen in us. In his name, Amen.