Sermon in the Community of the Resurrection Church, Mirfield on Sunday 21 June 2009: Mark 4: 35-41
The storm on the sea
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I think that is my favourite line in this story. It is a line that is full of paradox. The wind is howling down the Sea of Galilee; the boat is tossing around in the waves; water is splashing into the boat; the disciples no doubt are shouting instructions, pulling on ropes, waving the oars and Jesus is asleep! Perhaps he was very tired. Perhaps he was one of those people who could sleep through anything. Perhaps his confidence in his Father’s care for him was so great that even this storm did not make him fear for his life. After all, his hour had not yet come. Yet none of this impressed the disciples. Could he not see that if the boat sank he would drown along with them? If he wasn’t going to take care of himself he could at least take care of them.
Actually there is another confusion here. The disciples did not yet know that Jesus could still storms. When he did, they were stunned. So why should they appeal to him for help? They were the fishermen; they knew how to sail boats through storms. He was a carpenter. What use could he be except maybe lend an unskilled hand to pulling at oars? No - because they were frightened he had no right to be asleep.
Aren’t they just like us? How often do we find ourselves saying to God “Do you not care...?” In one way it is a very silly question. If we subscribe at all to the Christian faith we know that God does care. He cared for the Jewish people and 39 books of the Old Testament tell us how much time he spent trying to care for them and get them out of the messes they got themselves into. He cared for human kind enough to take on human flesh himself and submit himself to the hardship of life in Palestine. He cared enough to die on a Cross. Yet when things go wrong, if they don’t quickly go right, we find ourselves saying to God, “Do you not care....?”
In some ways that may not be a bad response to trouble. We ask it of God, in the hope of hearing him say, “Of course I care.” Underneath the question may be the request “Please, I don’t understand why you let this happen. Please help me to understand.” At another level it tells us a lot about the relationship we have with God. The disciples may have respected and feared Jesus but they were also confident enough about him to take risks, to question and criticise what he did, until finally they understood. In the same way the Jewish people were never afraid to criticise God. The Jews were great complainers. The psalms that we love so much are full of complaints. Why do the wicked prosper? Why does rain full on bad people as well as good. Why do you let our enemies triumph over us? The Jews trusted God to stay with them; they knew he loved them and so they were willing to shout at him when things went wrong. In the end they usually had to realise it was their own fault that things went wrong but they came to that understanding, by complaining to God.
So too with us. Things do wrong in our lives. Sometimes they are very small things that get out of proportion, like when the fridge breaks down on a Saturday and you can’t get anyone out to fix it until Monday. Sometimes it is really serious, like sickness or a family dispute. I have to admit that when I get sick, if I don’t get better quickly I start whingeing to God, “Don’t you care – can’t you make me better quickly?” Sometimes it is things we read about in the paper; the suffering of a whole people when a volcano erupts or when a brutal dictator unleashes yet another wave of suffering on his own people. We look at the suffering of the people of the Sudan, year after year and say to God “Don’t you care? Why don’t you stop it?”
I would like to be able to say now that if only we asked Jesus, straight, as the disciples did in that boat, then he would stop it but he doesn’t always. Bad things happen in this world, and they happen to good people despite any amounts of prayer. Young people get sick and die of cancer, or luekaemia; countries like Burma suffer for years through the brutality of a wicked government. Good people get killed in war, or in car crashes. The disciples in the boat learned that Jesus could stop storms at sea. Later on they learned he didn’t always do it. He didn’t stop the suffering, the sickness, the natural disasters or the human disasters that have afflicted men and women, Christian men and women, ever since. Time and again we find ourselves back with the disciples saying to Jesus – “Don’t you care?”
Well Jesus could have woken up and said, “Yes, I do care. I’m in this boat. I know the Father doesn’t plan for me to die yet. My hour is not yet come. So stop worrying.” That would be a pretty good answer for us to think of when we get anxious. Most of the time we get anxious about things that don’t happen. We suffer some sickness or pain but we are not dying; we see banks collapsing around us but we are not yet homeless; we see very odd things happening in our church but it probably won’t come to an end yet. Perhaps the first lesson we can learn from this story is that Jesus is with us, as he was with the disciples and that must mean we shall be OK.
Another response Jesus might have made to the disciples was “You are the fishermen. You know how to sail boats. I’m not worried because I am sure you know your job. Get on with it.” When we look in despair at the situation in Zimbabwe; or the seeming catastrophe of climate change; or the intractable problem of young people getting mixed up with drugs – we are tempted to turn on God and say “Do something.” when actually there are a whole lot of things we can do ourselves. God is not going to sort everything out for us. He does expect us to do things ourselves; or rather, we find that when we do try and tackle the problems ourselves, in some amazing way God seems to make it work. We would never have found that out if we hadn’t tried.
Those two answers are somewhat pragmatic but God is in the pragmatic. There are other responses too. We can reflect that if God can stop storms he can do a lot of other things as well. Perhaps we should pray with a bit more confidence for the things we really want and see what happens. There are all kinds of reasons why God doesn’t always answer prayer but one might be that we give up too soon, or pray with too little confidence. It reminds me of the remark that appeared on all my school reports “Must try harder!” We don’t really believe God can, or will, or want, to do some really big things and so we don’t really ask him. Perhaps we should.
Of course there are times when God doesn’t still the storm; when the storm goes on, when people we love die, when wicked governments remain in power. Then we are called upon to trust. Jesus trusted in his Father, that was why he could sleep. The disciples should have trusted him. Then they would not have panicked. Yet it is not quite as simple as that. There is something revolting about the person who says in some ghastly situation, “I’m sure God is in control; God knows what he’s doing” and blithely saunters through other people’s disasters. We need to panic, or argue with God, to complain, to ask him “Do you not care...?” if we are going to understand why sometimes he doesn’t do what we ask; why sometimes the things that look the worst turn out to be best. It won’t be easy for us and it may take time but God wants us to understand because he wants us to know that he loves us. He wants us to see that despite the things which happen, he really does care for us and he knows what he’s doing.
And that in the end is the point of Mark’s story: that Jesus is God. That means he does get things right; he does know what he is doing but it won’t always look like it to us as the boat is bouncing around and the water is slopping in. There are times we have to hold on very tight to the sides and trust that he is still there.
Nicolas Stebbing CR