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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

June 24, 2018

 Lord of the Storm

1 Samuel 17:32-49; Mark 4:35-41

            Of all the places to visit in the Holy Land, none is any more beautiful than the Sea of Galilee.  It is thirteen miles long and eight miles wide, with sloping hillsides and flower-covered hills surrounding it.  I have only crossed it, though, in seaworthy tour boats on clear, sunny days!

            Calm seas can turn into frightening cauldrons in the blink of an eye.  As a high school student, I was sailing a Sunfish on Saranac Lake with an older friend who was not a very good swimmer.  Everything started out just right, with the perfect combination of wind and sun.  We went out as far as the wind would take us, and seemingly out of nowhere, the weather changed, a squall hit us, and in minutes, we were caught in a summer lightning storm.  The sail became useless, and we found ourselves holding onto the hull of that little Sunfish for dear life.  I still remember the intense fear I felt as lightning flashed, and the winds howled, and we were all alone on a stormy sea.

            This story in Mark is told in a way that speaks of fear and faith, and like most Gospel texts, it is primarily told to teach us something about Jesus.  One thing is certain – storms come to us all in life.  No one has to struggle to get the metaphorical resonance of a small boat caught in a huge storm, or the palpable fear of Jesus’ disciples, who suddenly face their own mortality.

            Medical tests come back with those dreaded words, “You have cancer,” and you are holding on in the storm for dear life.  Or you fall and know you have broken something, and nothing will be the same.  Or you lose a job, or a friend, or a spouse.  All of us are only a short step away from a life-threatening, utterly terrifying storm, that puts us in the boat with Jesus’ disciples, so we will do well to lean in and listen today to Jesus.

            I love how the text begins.  “Evening had come,” and Jesus wanted to “go across to the other side.”  Jesus wants a break from the crowds.  Jesus got in the boat, “just as He was.”  It is a curious phrase.  I take it to mean that it was Jesus of Nazareth who got into the boat, the man they were still struggling to understand, and no one other than the man they had left everything to follow.

            The storm comes suddenly; the boat is being beaten by the waves, filling with water.  And Jesus is asleep in the stern!  In 1633, Rembrandt captured this moment in his only seascape, Storm on the Sea of Galilee.  On March 18, 1990, the painting was stolen by men posing as police officers from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  It still remains the largest unsolved art theft in history.

            Rembrandt paints the scene just as the disciples waken Jesus from His sleep.  Mark wants us to note the terror gripping the disciples, and the peace and poise of Jesus, sleeping in the stern.  Some of the disciples are holding onto the mast, a few are looking at Jesus with fear and anger.  One is retching over the side of the boat.  And if you count, you will find thirteen disciples in Rembrandt’s canvas.  Dressed in light blue, holding onto his hat with one hand and a rope with the other, Rembrandt paints himself, looking right into your eyes.  It is as if he is asking, “What will it be for you, faith or fear?”

            In truth it is usually both.  For Rembrandt, it surely was.  He was no stranger to life’s storms.  He lost three of his four children to death.  His wife died as well.  And he had to file once for bankruptcy.  Yet there he is, holding on, a mixture of fear and faith, and most importantly, in the boat with Jesus.

            Jesus speaks to the storm, after they ask a pointed question, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  I like to call this “a God question.”  They are healthy, honest questions to ask … especially to ask of God!  “Are you out there God?”  “And if you are, do you care about me?”  All of us ask these questions, especially when we are caught suddenly in the storms of life.

            The sea was often a metaphor for the Jews of the chaos of life, of evil and darkness and death itself that lurks beneath the surface.  The sea could give life, but it could also take life away.  It still can.  But in this moment, Jesus speaks to the storm: “Peace!  Be still!”  The wind ceased, “and there was a dead calm.”  I am reminded that God spoke at creation’s dawn, saying, “Let there be light.”  And there was light.  Jesus speaks, “Peace!” to the storm, and there is peace and calm.

            It is easy to forget that Jesus is in the boat with us, especially when we are rocked by some storm.  This world can be a very scary place.  But Jesus says, “Lo, I am with you, always.”  And Jesus still speaks His powerful, calming words of peace into the chaos and noise of our lives.  Here, Jesus has the last word, and by the word of Jesus, a great storm becomes a great calm.  It is a word we need to listen for every day of our lives!  Martin Luther knew this: “And tho’ this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us.  We will not fear, for God hath willed, His truth to triumph through us.  The Prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him.  His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him!”

            Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Lamar Williamson was a missionary to Brazil who then taught at Union Seminary in Richmond.  He says this text asks two important questions of the reader.  First, “Do you trust in Jesus?”  Do you really depend on Jesus, and not on yourself?  Because if you are counting on yourself, or someone or something other than Jesus, you are sure to be taken under by the storms.  Only Jesus’ word has the power to still the raging storms of this world.  Jesus said in John, “In this world you will have tribulation.  But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  Be of good cheer – Jesus is in your boat!  His is the peace that the world cannot give.  He also says in John, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give unto you.  Not as the world gives do I give unto you.”

            Then it asks a second, equally important question of you: “Who is Jesus?”  Mark says “they were filled with great awe.”  The King James Version says “they were filled with great fear.”  It is the same combination of Greek words used by Luke to describe the shepherds on the night Jesus was born and the angels appeared.  Remember how the King James Version puts it?  “And they were sore afraid.”

            The disciples are awed by what they have witnessed.  They look at each other and ask, “Who is this man, that even the winds and the waves obey him?”  Karl Barth said that Jesus is “the one sufficient word of God.”  Who would you say that He is?

            At the end of Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, Christian finds himself in deep waters, as he travels with Hopeful.  “I sink in deep waters: the billows go over my head, all his waves go over me.”  Hopeful replies with these lovely words to Christian’s fear: “Be of good cheer, my Brother.  I feel the bottom, and it is good….”

                                                                                  Amen.

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