March 8, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
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 were in the water at the same time. Which suggests the weather was favorable. “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight.” Maybe the sky was red. It seemed 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 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 managed to crash their SUV into the Curtis house. Instantly they realized that the impact zone was the bedroom of their 7-year-old son, Tyler. 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 he is also God. God’s messenger of Good News to a world where the news is often so bad. And for the first time in Mark’s telling of this Good News, the disciples are beginning to figure this out for themselves.
John Wesley was frightened as these disciples were frightened by a terrible storm at sea. It was January of 1736. He was on his way across the Atlantic to Georgia. I can imagine that January is not the ideal 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 faith. They were gifts 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.” 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, and soon it’s huge. We have been living this these last few weeks with the coronavirus. It’s mainly fear of the unknown. We use our imagination. We create in our minds worst case scenarios. And the stock market falls 12%.
The stock market had fallen 85% when Franklin Roosevelt gave his inaugural address in 1933. That’s when he spoke those famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Those were hard times. Some of you lived through them. My parents did. I’ve heard stories. No wonder people were afraid then. Any of us would have been afraid. But we have it so much easier today, fear is becoming a relic of the past. We study it in history books, but it is rarely something anybody feels any more.
And of course we all know how false that is. Every study shows that fear, worry, and anxiety are at all-time record highs. And that’s before the coronavirus. Fear for many people is their constant companion. Which is really strange, because most of us have never had it better.
Economically, most of us doing fairly well. Unemployment is way down. Violent crime is way down. Fewer Americans have died in war in the last forty years than any other forty-year stretch of our history. Worldwide, hunger is not nearly the problem it has been in the past. Life expectancy is up. Poverty is down. Reading levels are up.
Daniel Gardner has written a book called The Science of Fear. Here is what he says:
We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest living people in history. And we are also increasingly afraid. This is one of the greatest paradoxes of our time. We say we are afraid because we have reason to be afraid. Sometimes that’s true. More often, we are afraid because we have a “spirit of fear.” If they had a blood test for that, we would test positive. 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. 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 water to get to them.
There is a detail here that would be 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.
There is nothing here about Peter walking on water. That’s in Matthew, not in Mark. Mark is recording the recollections of Peter and Peter apparently chose to leave that story out, for whatever reason.
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’m not even sure 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. 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.
Would you like to have that power? We had a discussion about this in my Pastor’s Class. Yes, it would be wonderful to be able save lives. But we decided the few times we would use that power for good would probably be way outnumbered by the many times we would misuse that power. Because we aren’t God. Power can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. So we will let God do the miracles and we will do what we can do.
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 giving way. 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.
The mom who took the video was offered $50,000 for the exclusive rights to use it on television. But she wouldn’t take the money. She has shown it only to survivors who have asked to see it. It has helped in their healing. It helped them to see what love can do.
The news of that day was all bad, except for this one bit of good news. 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 the good news of Jesus. We are so used to bad news. Usually we just tune it out. It doesn’t even bother us. Occasionally something comes along big enough we can’t ignore it. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is bigger – our faith or our fear. And sometimes it is no contest. We are cowards. So we thank you God that you have sent into our world of bad news the living embodiment of good news. He was one with us. He felt fear. But he never let fear get in the way of love. May Jesus calm our fears. May his love be seen in us. In his name, Amen.