Sermon on Jesus calming the storm, for the fourth Sunday of Pentecost, June 21, 2015. This is the final sermon of my Lutheran internship year at St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Dubuque, Iowa.
This week’s lectionary texts are Mark 4:35-41, Job 38:1-11, and 2 Corinthians 6:1-13.
Well, this is it. This is my final sermon as an intern here at St. Peter. For quite a while, ever since we scheduled preaching dates a few months ago, Pastor DeWayne has been referring to this as my “swan song.” That might be a little extreme – I’m going back to seminary, not dying!
I’ve had a great experience here among you as an intern. At the very least, my experience has been better than the “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, riots, and imprisonments” Paul talked about in today’s reading! I’m not sure I’d be here today if that had been my internship experience!
In the last few months, though, I’ve started a few times to feel like all my sermons say the same things. Jesus loves you, you’re forgiven, God is with you.
And if I’m going to repeat something, those are good things to repeat. We’ve been reminded again this week how desperately we and our world need to keep hearing it. We need to keep hearing about God’s faithfulness, because we forget.
But we’re in good company when we forget. Were you listening to this story about the disciples? The first verse of the Gospel reading began, “On that day, when evening had come.”
On what day? Well, if you look back in Mark, Jesus has spent all day by the sea teaching about the kingdom of God. It’s been an inspiring day, and if anyone should have confident, strong faith, it’s the disciples.
As evening falls, Jesus suggests going across to the other side of the lake. That’s an unexpected idea for a couple of reasons. First, why would they want to go over to the other side? This is the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a freshwater lake, not a sea, and on the other side of it is the country of the Gerasenes. It’s on the outskirts of Israel, and there are Gentiles over there. Why go there?
Also, it’s about 3 miles across, and storms aren’t unusual. Why go now, at night? Why not wait until morning?
So I wonder how the disciples felt about this. Maybe they didn’t want to go to the other side. If they’d thought to ask Jesus, “What if there’s a storm?” would they have gotten in the boat?
Or what if they’d have asked Jesus why are we going, what are we going to do on the other side? I bet they wouldn’t have gotten in the boat, because the answer would have been we’re going to meet a demon-possessed guy living in a cemetery and send his demons into a herd of two thousand pigs who will run off a cliff into the sea and drown. Look it up in Mark 5. I think it gets an award for Jesus’ strangest miracle.
But the disciples do get in. They trust Jesus and they get onto the boat. For Mark, that’s faith, right there. Jesus tells them to do something and they do it. They trust him, and they follow. And lots of the time, I can do that too, and so can you. Jesus calls us to do something, and we do it. We come to worship, most of the time we live the way we believe Jesus wants us to.
So the disciples get in the boat and Jesus promptly falls asleep. He’s had a long day.
There’s a traditional metaphor of describing the church as a boat taking people safely through the storms of life. It even shows up in church architecture. The central space of a church is called a nave, from the Latin word for boat. If you picture the sanctuary we’re in right now flipped over, it even looks a little like a boat. But in this story, the boat is the dangerous place to be. If the disciples had stayed on shore, they’d have been safe, but the boat is being swamped. Going to the other side with Jesus turns out to be dangerous.
And as they’re in this terrible storm, struggling to bail water and keep the boat upright, they go to Jesus, who’s asleep in the stern. They wake him up, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And I don’t picture them saying it in a calm voice. “TEACHER! DON’T YOU CARE WE’RE DROWNING?” Maybe even with some more fisherman type language.
The disciples, who’d literally just spent the day listening to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God, need to ask if he even cares that they’re about to drown.
I think that’s true for us too. We hear about the kingdom of God, we hear about forgiveness, and then we focus on our own lives, on our own struggles, and we forget what God’s done for us. We hear about tragedy and we wonder if God is to blame. We need to keep hearing these stories about God’s love for us, for the world, over and over, and each time, maybe it sinks in a little more.
So in their panic, the disciples wake up Jesus and ask him if he cares. I wonder what they’re thinking as they ask him. Are they aware he actually has the power to calm the storm? I’m not sure they quite believe that. Maybe they want to blame him for this terrible idea of leading them into dangerous waters at night? Or maybe they just want him to help bail out the boat?
Of course it turns out that Jesus does indeed care, and he wakes up and calms the storm. And then the disciples move from frantic fear of drowning to, as our translation nicely puts it, being “filled with great awe.” Filled with great awe is a nice, sort of tame way of describing what I think they’re feeling. Literally, the text says they feared a great fear.
I think to understand the significance of why they’re still fearing a great fear even after the waters and winds are quieted, we need to take a slight detour and consider the symbolism of what Jesus is doing.
In Hebrew thought, the sea is a symbol of chaos. The sea is what opposes God. Way back in the creation story in Genesis one, we hear about the earth being a formless void and darkness covering the face of the deep while a wind from God seeps over the face of the waters. At creation, what God’s doing is bringing order to chaos, forming land out of the sea.
The sea is a scary, untamable place of chaos. But God has tamed the sea. There’s a great verse from Psalm 77 “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.”
It’s in the reading from Job we just heard too. In the brief section we read, the Lord is listing credentials to point out how minuscule Job is in comparison to God. One of those is verse 8 where God rhetorically asks, “Who shut in the sea with doors with it burst out from the womb…and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped?’”
Thinking about God’s power over water makes the symbolism in our baptism today interesting too, doesn’t it? In some ways, that becomes yet another demonstration of God’s power.
So when the disciples see Jesus demonstrating power over the sea, they recognize that he has the power of God. And they fear a great fear. They say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Like the previous question they asked, I wonder what they’re thinking as they ask. Who then is this? Is it a rhetorical question? They think of Jesus as a teacher, since that’s what they’ve seen him do, but they’ve also seen him do miracles. Do they still not recognize who Jesus really is?
Or, I wonder if they’re beginning to understand who Jesus is, but they’re afraid to admit it.
If Jesus is God…then…what? What does that make them?
If they admit the reality that Jesus is God, then they need to change. They need to go from being fishermen and tax collectors following a rabbi to disciples following the living God. Their call expands, because knowing what they do, they’ll no longer be able to keep silent. The responsibility of being a disciple is scary.
Who then is this?
I think that’s the ultimate question we all have to wrestle with. Who is this Jesus, and what does he have to do with us?
If Jesus is the same God who answered Job, who laid the foundation of the earth, who set bounds for the chaos of the sea, then of course Jesus has the power to calm the storm.
And that is what we claim as Christians. We claim Jesus is God incarnate, God in the flesh, completely human yet also the divine creator. We claim God loves the world enough to come and die for it, no matter how messed up it is.
But admitting that, recognizing who Jesus is, demands something of us. Knowing Jesus means we have to do something with that knowledge. We can’t just ignore the problems in the world; we have to engage. The God who has come to be with us calls us to lives of service, to helping others even when it means sacrificing our own desires.
It means not just shaking our heads this week at the news of yet another tragedy, another attack, but looking for what we can do about it.
It means engaging with a broken world from a place of grace, even when anger and revenge feels better.
It means looking at all people, even those different than us, even our enemies, as people whom God loves, people for whom Jesus died.
It means listening to people’s experiences, and then acting, speaking against injustice, even when it makes us uncomfortable, when we’d rather turn away.
No wonder the disciples hesitate. Following Jesus is dangerous!
Of course, the disciples eventually get it, and knowing Jesus is with them, they go out and form the church, changing the world.
As I wrap up my internship here, I do feel in some ways like all I’ve said while I’m here is some variation of God is with you, Jesus loves you, you are forgiven. But I believe that’s what all of us are called as followers of Jesus to say to each other, and to say to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
We’re called to remind each other of the love God has for us and to encourage each other to serve our neighbors, to make other people’s lives better in Jesus’ name.
So before leaving, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the encouragement you’ve given to me, and for the lessons I’ve learned here. But more than that, thank you for the work you’re doing following Jesus. I’ve seen God at work here, and I’m abundantly confident that God will continue to be at work in, with, and through you.
And may the one who says to each of you, “Peace, be still,” keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus now and forever.