On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And … they took him with them in the boat. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ from Mark 4.35-41
In the early days of the pandemic, the story of Jesus stilling the storm was being shared, blogged or preached on more than most. It was read as a call to journey with Jesus from fear to faith.
Important as this is, I still question the use of that story in that context. What we were facing was profound trauma, stress and huge, global, long-term upheaval (1).
By contrast this Is a single-incident miracle story of instantaneous chaos to calm. So I still think that the biblical stories from the exile period may yet prove to be a source of wisdom and faith-building in deeply uncertain and anxious times.
But let’s stay with the story a bit longer. What, precisely, is it about? Have we understood it? Our Bible versions variously call it: ‘Jesus stills the storm’ or ‘The stilling of the storm’. The focus is thus on Jesus’s authority and control over the powers – and therefore on his identity. Commentaries and preachers tend to prioritise this connection and indeed this is where the story ends – with the disciples in wonder at who Jesus is and in awe that even the wind and waves obey him.
But is that actually the point of the story? I suspect it is working at different levels of meaning.
A few chapters later Jesus is refusing to perform validating ‘signs’ (before, once again, getting into a boat. Mark 8.11-12). Interestingly, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus allows just one sign – the sign of Jonah (12.38-42). Jesus particularly identified with the man who spent three days in the belly of the whale. Though Mark does not make that link explicit his readers surely hear echoes of Jonah in this story – the boat, a life-threatening storm, the key character asleep, the crew all terrified, capsizing imminent? Jonah and Jesus were both woken up and a response or answer is expected of them. In both stories the storm is calmed through their initiative and actions. Both stories close with fear and awe. But relatively few bible commentators give this much attention.
Only someone seriously exhausted, or deeply trusting, would be sleeping through a storm like that. Around him professional sailors fear drowning. Quite what would have happened if they hadn’t woken him, we do not know. Are we even supposed to ask? Is it really possible the whole gospel would have ground to a halt in Mark chapter 4 because Jesus and his disciples had drowned? Do we imagine drastically shortened Holy Land Pilgrimages gathering around a bench, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with a memorial plate on it.
‘In memory of Jesus.
He loved to walk on this water.’
Well they wake him up and have a go at him. Mark’s account is raw and unpolished as usual. Jesus wakes up. There is a double telling here that the gospels often use for emphasis. They woke him – but Jesus wakes. The response that matters is his alone to make.
Jesus stills the storm. Now when the emphasis is on his exercise of divine power and authority the language is heard as formal rebuking, ordering, commanding. And it is true that wind and waves obey him. He is Lord over it all.
I think it’s the tone we miss. It is more informal and personal. The Message captures it well – ‘He told the wind to pipe down and said to the sea, “Quiet! Settle down!”. There is no dramatic exercise of divine power. None is needed. Indeed, Jesus seems quite untroubled by the chaos around him. Would he even have bothered if the disciple were not in such a state? He speaks to wind and waves like someone managing an over-excited puppy. ‘Shush’. ‘Enough!’, Tom Wright has it, and, ‘He scolded the wind’. The sea is told ‘be muzzled’ (literal trans). Jesus ‘muzzles’ demons elsewhere (Mk 1.25). But it is also the word used when his arguments leave the Sadducees ‘muzzled’ (Matt 22.34 – ‘reduced to silence’). There is a possibly playful tone here that reminds me of the creation poem at the end of Job where God exults in the wild, chaotic elements he has made, as they play in the water. Rather than render them safe and tame he teases Job – ‘aren’t they wonderful? I made them. Don’t try fishing for them – you haven’t got a hope!’ (Job 41).
Jesus now turns to the disciples. How do we imagine this? He has woken out of deep sleep to find them shouting in terror at him. The storm is deafening so he turns first to the wind and the waves – ‘that’s enough. Calm down’.
Once all is quiet he speaks to them. ‘Right. Now we can hear ourselves speak – what is the matter! Why are you afraid? Still no faith?’
‘Fear not/do not be afraid’ is a refrain throughout the gospels. The usual Greek word is phobos, from which we get phobic. It is used at the end of this story to tell of the disciple’s ‘awe’ at who Jesus is (4.41). But when Jesus speaks to them the word used is deilos (4.40). It appears again in 2 Tim 1.7 – ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear (deilia)’. Translations of the word there are more varied and reveal more of its meaning. NRSV has ‘the spirit of cowardice.’ The NIV reads, ‘the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid’. The Message: ‘God doesn’t want us to be shy with his gifts’. Cowardice, timidity, shyness … These are contrasted with what the Spirit gives us – power, love and (variously translated) sound mind/discernment/self-discipline/self-control. These last options belong together of course. The self-discipline a situation needs is only clear when the context in which it is needed has been properly discerned. Do you recall how the advice on life-style responses to the virus changed as knowledge of its actual threat and character became more understood? Self-control and discernment go together.
Our present global and national context continues to be very anxiety-inducing and quickly overwhelming. So too is the life of the church as it approaches a highly significant and conflicted decision about same-sex relationships. In all this I find this story ministering in particular ways.
‘Don’t you care we are perishing?’
In our fears and overwhelmings Jesus does not require our praying to be polite. It is not always clear where Jesus is or what he is up to – asleep, or absent at the very moment we need him most, even as we face the uncertainty of how are to survive at all.
So, we can, and must, bring all our fears and anxieties to Jesus with raw, unvarnished honesty. This is the language of lament that the Bible knows well. Two thirds of the psalms start from places of bold protest, questioning or even accusations to God. So can we.
‘Why so timid (lacking courage)?’
Now, as then, Jesus challenges our ‘deilos’. Timidity, like shyness, are essentially forms of withdrawal or hiding. They disable our initiatives and responses to the challenges before us. The reasons will be varied. So his question ‘why’ is not for ignoring. It is no use telling people not to be afraid as if there is an off switch somewhere. Our fear responses include some of our earliest emotional and social reflexes. They are learned responses. They have deep roots. There may be very good reasons why we learned them so well. But there are also fears that are wise. They warn, energise and awaken us to the threats before us. That kind of fear enables us to respond to what is happening. So, our fears need discerning and listening to, not repressing. Whilst it is true that Jesus challenged his disciples over their fears and slow understanding, he never stopped loving, teaching and journeying with them. He led them from their fears to deepening faith and trust. It is the same challenge, promise and invitation we face today.
What is not clear is quite what kind of response of faith Jesus expected the disciples to make in the storm? What did they get wrong?
We can only follow where the story leads.
‘Still no faith ….?’ Jesus asks you and me. Well my sympathy is with the disciples. Is that allowed? ‘I believe, Jesus – but help me where my faith is still falling short’. Church and world are hugely challenging places right now. My faith and my praying are still catching up. We are learning to exercise trusting faith contexts that are radically changing and becoming more hazardous and uncertain, by the day.
But we do need to hear that Jesus knows another response is possible and he calls us to it. He believes it is ours to make and we can do it. It is a response of power, love and self-understanding/control. This is all enabled by the gift of his Spirit. So let our prayer be for boldness, confidence, for faithful imagination and a creative initiative to meet the present storms.
I owe much to a wise mentor who, I now realise, had real experience of journeying through darkness and overwhelmings. She would speak of seeking the eye of the storm at such times. This is a well-known meteorological phenomena – a place of unexpected stillness at the heart of cyclones. She used it as a metaphor for praying in wild and turbulent times. This is where Christ is found, at the heart of it all – a place of power, love and discerning. It is a place of poise while all around is off balance. This is the place I seek in the present storms. And as I do so, however falteringly, I am already beginning to respond from trusting faith not ‘deilos’.
So, what is the good news in this story?
Is it really that Jesus is hugely powerful and can even still storms?
Well he did – and yes, his Lordship is very good news!
But I wonder if the greater good news is that he can sleep through the storms in the first place. The things that threaten and disable us are no bother to him at all.
I notice two particular outcomes to this story.
The first is that the disciples come to deeper awe and wonder at who Jesus is in their midst. That is always our calling too – and may it be our experience through these times.
But notice the second outcome.
‘There was a dead calm’ (4.39). Well that is infinitely preferable to drowning. But when did their new situation begin to dawn on the disciples? What use is dead calm in the middle of the sea when you are in a sailing boat? How did they get to shore? Is dead calm what we really need today? Rather than wanting everything stilled, tamed and safe , what if, with Jesus, we are called to be bold in it all?
I have a copy of a prayer by Bill Burnett, who was Archbishop of South Africa at the height of the apartheid era. It begins, ‘Lord I’m praying for a storm tonight – your very wildest kind’ and continues, ‘I will raise my hands to the great banked clouds and bare my breast in wildest gales, as leaves in the wind are swept ….’. No one would accuse him of ‘deilos’! He knew that what he most needed was not taming and calming down – but a boldness, a fearlessness, an invigorated faith lived on the fresh, wild wind of the Spirit. He hears God reply, ‘uncover thy breast, and that is enough … for in me are the songs of winds and the valour of the stormy seas. Unclasp they breast and thou shalt live with unknown joys and shouting laughter – and thou shalt be my love’.
Like the disciples we find ourselves caught in storms. They are real and life threatening. We are easily traumatised and afraid.
Like the disciples Jesus challenges us to turn from fearful timidity to bold, trusting, enabling faith in the eye of the storm.
Like the disciples, this is a context in which we may grow into the wonder and glory of who Jesus is. What else do we seek?
Oh – and by the way – even the wind and the waves obey him.
1. for some very practical wisdom on understanding trauma see https://tragedyandcongregations.org.uk/2020/03/24/guidance-for-ministers-as-the-coronavirus-crisis-deepens