Job 38:1-11 | Mark 4:35-41
It’s been a long day. Jesus has been teaching, sitting in the boat on the lake in order to be able to address the great crowds that had gathered to hear him speak. And as evening falls, he asks his friends to take him across the lake to the other side.
A storm blows up, the disciples panic, wake Jesus up, and he stills the storm with a word.
It’s a well known story, right? Partly because it comes up every year in the three year cycle of the lectionary, because it occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.
I’ve mentioned this before, so forgive me if it’s a bit dry, but I think it’s worth repeating. Those who study the way the gospels came to be written have shown pretty clearly that Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark’s gospel when they were writing, and, not unreasonably, copied sections, sometimes with a few edits, sometimes word for word.
(John’s gospel, generally reckoned to have been written later as more of a theological reflection, doesn’t seem to lean on material in the other three gospels, so it’s normally studied completely separately.)
And as it’s generally understood, Matthew and Luke were each part of a community of believers which had kept the stories alive in an oral tradition, for the thirty or fifty years between the events of Jesus’ life, and the committing of pen to paper, or quill to parchment, or whatever the technology of the day.
And the story of the stilling of the storm is one of those – and again, forgive me if this seems meaningless, but it’s one of those details which fascinates me – that is in all three of the synoptic gospels, but in different words, with different details.
Which is fascinating (to me, at least) because it says that Matthew and Luke each knew this story, independently of reading Mark’s account. Which is to say, each of these (quite different) communities of early Christians had remembered this story, told it, kept it alive, and given it sufficient prominence in their faith that the writers of the gospels chose to include it in their accounts.
And when that happens, we simply have to ask, why was this story so important to them?
And of course, we don’t know for sure, since we weren’t there – but there seem to be at least three possible reasons for the importance of this story – which makes sense, in a way – the story remained alive because it spoke to different people at different times in different ways…
The first, and perhaps the classic, understanding of this story is simply that it spoke to Jesus’ divinity. The Old Testament is full of descriptions like the one that we had from the book of Job today, in which God speaks of God’s power to control and set boundaries for the natural world – to tell the ocean where to stop, to call upon the winds and give them commands. And there is some reason to believe that storms at sea were understood by the Jews of Jesus’ day to be the work of evil spirits; in which case Jesus’ casual command of the elements speaks to both power over creation and power over the forces the evil.
A second common reading of this story is that of reassurance. The early Church often described itself as a boat afloat in the seas of the world; an oasis of Godly order floating amidst the choas of the world. And in this imagery it’s easy to read this story as an enacted parable: the boat, the people of God, beset by their troubles, battered by the storms of the world around them, in danger of being swept under, cry out to Jesus for help, and he saves them; he drives back the raging anger of the world outside and keeps his people, his Church, safe.
In time of persecution, in times when the Roman empire seemed set on destroying the Church, the story acts as a promise: the storm may rage, but Christ is in the boat with you! Don’t be afraid, he will save you.
Both of these readings have a lot going for them; speaking to those who wonder just who this Jesus is, or speaking to those who follow him but find themselves beset by the troubles of the world.
But perhaps for us in modern Australian a third reading might be most significant. In this reading the emphasis is placed on the words spoken, by the disciples, and by Jesus. And in particular, on Jesus’ rebuke, his challenge to the faith of the disciples.
The disciples woke Jesus up because they wanted him to fix the problem. And he does so; but then rebukes them, as if to say, “You should not have needed to wake me. You should have known that all would be well. Have you still no faith?”
Perhaps he meant that they should, by now, have had the faith to command the waves themselves. Or perhaps that they should have known that with him in the boat, God would not allow them to drown. Or perhaps he is rebuking them for their words to him “Teacher, don’t you care that we are going to drown?”
Or perhaps it’s something that combines all these and more; perhaps the rebuke is more along the lines of “don’t you understand yet – I am with you… but that doesn’t mean that you need to abdicate all responsibility to me. You wouldn’t have drowned, even if you had not woken me… half of you are fishermen! This is your area of expertise! Have faith in God, in me, and also in yourselves, and each other.”
Because the really strange thing about Jesus’ words is this: he rebukes them for lack of faith when they had turned to him, and asked him to save them. Surely this is the very definition of faith; to realise that you are in need, and to cry out to God in the trust that God can and will act?
Is it, ultimately, a lack of faith to turn helplessly to God, if in doing so we simply throw the problem to God and abdicate all responsibility to do something about it ourselves? Is there a side of faith which is actually trusting that God is with us, not to take over, but to empower us; not to take responsibility from us but to give us the courage and the resources and the community that we need to take responsibility for ourselves?
Is the problem that we don’t actually want “God with us” – we want “God taking charge”.
The setting of the parable against a backdrop of Jesus giving commands to the natural world reminded me, in this context, of a recent campaign by UnitingWorld, entitled “Can God fix climate change?” The question raised by the campaign is a very real one to the peopleof our region, including our new partners in Vanuatu. Rev Tafue Lasume, from the Christian Church of Tuvalu said recently: “Climate change represents a spiritual as well as a physical crisis for our people.” Because if you start with the assumption that God is in active control of the seas; that God says “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”, then the devastation of the islands of the pacific by climate change seems to say “God has abandoned us”.
But that is the theology of God taking charge. Rev. Lasume went on “Climate change is caused by humans and requires a human response.”. That is the theology of God with us, not taking over, but enabling us, challenging us, expecting us to take responsibility, in the confidence of God’s presence alongside us, within us, before us.
And that, indeed, is the spirit of Pope Francis’ Encyclical this week – the call to show our care for one another, and for our common home, by taking action which is within our power, taking responsibility for the impact that our decisions, and our lifestyle have upon the planet and, in particular, upon the poorest of the world, who are most effected by, and least able to escape, the impact of climate change.
In fact, if there was just one thing I would suggest you take away from today’s sermon it would be this: get hold of the encyclical, and read it. It’s really good – not political, at least not in the narrow, party political sense, but a call to recognise that “God with us” is not an invitation to call on God and hand over responsibility, but a challenge to the faith that says “God is in the boat with us – so we can take action, we can make a difference.