Texts: Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
To better understand this miracle, it helps for us to better understand the people to whom Mark’s gospel is written. The followers of Jesus who would have first shared this gospel account lived at a time when being a Christian was a tenuous existence. Christianity was still a small movement within Judaism; some Jews considered them heretics. The Church was not yet large enough to be noticed by the imperial government in Rome, but that didn’t mean that Rome was not a concern for our first century sisters and brothers. Christians feared and trembled alongside their Jewish communities when the Roman army sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE and destroyed the temple.
Like the Jews of the time, the probably felt lost, alone, and afraid. Why would God let something like this happen? Would the Church survive such a catastrophe? The temple was still at the center of their understanding of God; how could they worship God without it?
The storm these people faced was not individual, it was communal. They were, so to speak, all in the same boat, feeling tossed about on the waves of a dangerous and deadly sea of politics, and buffeted by the hostile forces of Rome. For them, the death of the young Church was a real, immanent threat. They might very well have been able to place themselves in the boat with Jesus crying out, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?”
In many ways, we, too, are in the same boat. Though the storm may feel less severe, there is no shortage of voices out there describing how our boat is sinking. It seems a favorite topic of the media in these recent years. Even before the Pew Forum released it’s survey a few years ago about the “rise of the nones,” people have been both celebrating and decrying the death of the Church and the secularization of our society. I can hardly go on Facebook without seeing some article that somebody has posted about how the Church isn’t really dying, or how it is but we can fix it if we only just do this one, simple thing that somehow, nobody has ever thought to do yet. In the midst of all these waves of opinion and gusts of rhetoric, we, too, might find ourselves asking from time to time, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” It’s enough to cause many a sincerely worried Christian to lose sleep thinking about it.
The miracle of these miracle stories is that they are not simply historical accounts. Whether things actually happened this way or not, the truth they convey to us is timeless, and it is that truth that makes Holy Scripture alive with the power of God. Pr. Stephanie explained last week how parables are not direct descriptions or moral stories with simple explanations. The same is true of these miracle stories. In fact, in Mark’s gospel, the two are connected. In order to help us understand that parables, Mark pairs them with miracles; likewise, the parables also help us understand the miracles.
Our reading today begins with the phrase, “On that (same) day...” This is the same day as Jesus told the parables of the mustard seed and the seed growing in secret that we read last week. The phrase at the beginning is a connector, pointing out to us that these stories happened together, that they are connected. Mark is using them to help explain one another.
Like the parable of the mustard seed, the story of Jesus calming the storm is a reversal: what is small becomes great, and what is doomed ultimately is shown to be perfectly safe. The parable of the seed growing secretly explains how nothing the sower does can help or hinder the growth of the seed: it grows according to the promise within it, and what the sower does is to get ready for the harvest.
Think about how this compares to our storm-tossed boat. Jesus makes the disciples a promise of sorts at the outset: “Let’s go to the other side.” He has a purpose on the other side of the sea, where the Gentiles dwell; they need to hear the gospel, as well. On the other side, there are more people to heal and more demons to cast out; more work to be done. Jesus intends to go there.
The disciples forget this promise in the middle of the storm. Unlike the sower who sleeps and rises and prepares for the harvest, trusting in the promise of the seed, the disciples fret and stew and lose sleep, worrying that they will never see the harvest. Jesus reproves them because they forgot that he has told them that they will get to the other side.
Jesus reminds them that the seed grows, though they do not know how. The tiny mustard seed (the boat) bears great fruit (on the other side of the sea). He does this by calming the wind and the waves, reminding them how powerful God is, and that it is the work of this powerful God that they are going to do. God’s work is not thwarted by God’s own creation—looking back a little further, we remember that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
The disciples are amazed at this. Here, they begin to see that their fretting and worrying had no effect; they will make it to the other side not because Jesus calmed the storm, but because not even the storm can stand in the way of God’s work that Jesus calls them to do on the other side. The sower sleeps and rises, carefree and confident that the seed will grow as it will. Perhaps the disciples could have slept soundly beside Jesus if they had trusted that God’s will is done, on heaven as on earth, regardless of their concern or fear.
This is only one way to interpret this parable, but I think it is a way that is helpful for us today. The disciples display their lack of faith precisely when they cry out to Jesus, “do you not care that we are perishing?” Likewise, it is when we believe that we are perishing and that God’s work may perish with us that we display our own lack of faith. Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “We believe that God’s will is done with or without our prayer; we ask in (the Lord’s Prayer) that God’s will might come about in and through us.”
Maybe the Church is dying, or maybe it isn’t. Either way, the question is moot: God’s will is being done; there is much to be done on the other side of the sea in God’s name, and God will see that work accomplished. Instead of being concerned over the fate of a congregation or an institution, we might instead be better served by preparing ourselves for the harvest—to be ready to do God’s work when the moment comes.
The people who exited the boat in the country of the Gerasenes were different than the people who got in on the Jewish side. They had seen God’s power and were changed by it. God’s power continues to work and to change those who witness it; this will always be the case. And yet, the people who made that journey with Jesus and witness the calming of the storm still didn’t understand what it meant, and never would until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s a reminder to us that though we, too, have witnessed the mighty acts of God and been changed, we will still miss the point sometimes; but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be used by God to heal and cast out demons.
Some people are worried about the future of the Church. I for one am not. A little water never hurt anybody, least of all those of us who have already been drowned in the waters of baptism. When we get to the other side, this boat full of disciples might look and act very different, bearing little resemblance to the Church we know now, or the Church in which we grew up, but one thing that remains the same is that we will still all be in the same boat, and Christ is still in it with us. That’s enough for me.