In the boat with Jesus on dark and stormy nights

This Sunday the lectionary invites us to ponder the gospel according to Mark 4:35-41. The English Standard Version supplies the passage with the heading “Jesus calms a storm.”

The gospels are stories chosen and assembled to show who Jesus is.

The gospels were designed to comfort and embolden Christians, church members, persecuted for their commitment to Jesus as the Messiah.

The gospels show that post-resurrection Christians can depend on the resurrected Jesus to continue acting on behalf of people just as he had during the time  before he was crucified.

Today’s passage is the first link in two chains of five miracles. Mark uses each chain to show Jesus’ power over nature, demons, human illness, death, and hunger.

The five links in the first chain are reports of Jesus (1) calming a storm[1]; (2) casting out demons from a grave-dweller[2]; (3) healing a woman with an issue of blood[3]; (4) restoring life to a Synagogue Ruler’s daughter[4]; and (5) feeding 5,000 men and more[5]. The beneficiaries in this first chain of miracles were principally Israelites, Jews.

The five links in the second chain are reports of Jesus (1) walking on water[6]; (2) healing the sick in Gennesaret[7]; (3) casting out a demon from the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman[8]; (4) healing a deaf man[9]; and (5) feeding 4,000 people[10]. The beneficiaries of this second chain of miracles were principally Gentiles, non-Jews.

We read them as purposely designed chains of miracles because each chain begins with a nature miracle and ends with a feeding miracle. And, the ends sandwich miracles of healing, exorcism and raising from the dead.

We can’t be sure it was Mark who chained the miracles together in that sequence. Because Mark’s sentences suggest he may simply have adopted stories and structures handed down by the first Christians.

I move now to the passage for this Sunday. It’s an account of Jesus exhaustion; departing; sailing; sleeping; commanding; and scolding.

The crux of the story is that Jesus asked the Twelve to take him on a boat, across the sea of Galilee. They had heard him say the kingdom of God had come. They believed he was the king of the kingdom. They had left everything to follow him. They saw the miracles he did. They believed he was the promised one, the Messiah. They stayed with him.

Jesus asked them to take him across after he finished an exhausting session of ministry, of preaching and healing. He was so tired, he fell asleep. A horrendous storm broke out. The boat began to take on water. The Twelve, many of whom were seasoned sailors who knew that sea very well, became terrified.

The conditions could get very bad. Scholars who’ve reviewed the history of storms on that lake say sleeping in such a storm is itself a miracle.

The Twelve woke Jesus. They cried to him, perhaps[11] rudely, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

The passage evokes some portions of the Old Testament. Particularly the books of Genesis and the Psalms and the prophet Jonah.

We recall Genesis because the first pages of that first book in the Bible make it plain: only God can speak words which will calm turbulent waters.

We recall the Psalms because in several of them, we read of terrified sailors on troubled seas. We read of them calling out to God to save them. And we read of God’s responses.[12]

We recall Jonah because there are many similarities with the call story in the book of Jonah. A ship. A storm. Terrified sailors. A sleeping prophet. A word spoken to the prophet. An act by the prophet. A calming of the sea. Salvation!

But there are also contrasts between Jonah and Jesus.

Jonah set himself against doing good for non-Israelites. Jesus set himself towards doing good for non-Israelites.

Jonah’s sailors asked him to pray. Jonah told them to throw him into the sea. They did. As a sacrifice. Something they were accustomed to doing, though previously only with animals.

Jesus’ sailors didn’t ask him to pray. They accused him of not caring. Jesus commanded the sea to be calm. Then Jesus scolded the sailors, the Twelve, for their cowardice and lack of faith.

What was Jesus’ “problem” with the sailors, the Twelve, his inner circle of hand-picked disciples? How did they fail Jesus? What had Jesus expected them to do?

I can think of only one answer: Jesus expected them to speak to the wind. To muzzle its mouth. To stop it from blowing!

If the Twelve knew who was in the boat with them, if they understood what Jesus meant when he said, “the kingdom of God has come,”[13] they would’ve commanded the wind. But they didn’t understand. They didn’t act like Jesus was Immanuel,[14] God with them.

But after Jesus calmed the sea, they asked the right question:

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (41b)

As I said at the beginning, Mark wrote his gospel in order to comfort and embolden Christians, church members. What comfort can we take from today’s passage? How might it embolden us?

I think early Christian artists got it right. They painted at a time when Christians were severely persecuted. They painted the church as a boat. A boat tossing on a rough sea.

But they didn’t paint those in the boat as fearful. Why? Because Jesus was with them. In the boat. Heading “across the sea;” with them, to eat with, and to serve, those “outsiders.”

If we’re in the boat with Jesus, the boat will often toss and turn. And the nights will often be dark and stormy. But we will experience shalom, the peace which comes from knowing we are doing God’s will, in his company.

Peace be with you.

Note: The photo shows a boat modelled on a sunken vessel dated during Jesus era, found in the Sea of Galilee. It was found in 1986. Here’s a brief account of it.

[1] Mark 4:35-41.

[2] Mark 5:1-20.

[3] Mark 5:25-34.

[4] Mark 5:35-42.

[5] Mark 6:30-44

[6] Mark 6:45-52.

[7] Mark 6:53-56.

[8] Mark 7:24-30.

[9] Mark 7:31-37.

[10] Mark 8:1-10.

[11] “Perhaps,” because as one commentator writes, “For the ancient Israelites … pouring out one’s extremely honest emotions [even] before God was a  manifestation of faith in God rather than the reverse.

[12] For example, Psalm 107:23-29.

[13] Mark 1:15.

[14] Matthew 1:23.

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