Faith and Storms

Mark 4:35-41

Do the disciples ever annoy you? I mean, honestly – they’re always saying the exact wrong things at the wrong times. Like the time when Jesus calms a storm.

They’re out in the boat with Jesus at night, crossing over from one side of the sea of Galilee to the other. Worn out from a day of teaching, Jesus is catching some Zs. A storm comes up and the disciples start losing their cool; they wake up Jesus, who calms the weather right down. I myself respond unfavorably when woken up from a nap, so I have to imagine Jesus’ follow-up questions delivered with an edge of annoyance: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Yeah, disciples – where is your faith? Honestly. Pull it together.

After I visited the sea of Galilee last year, though, I became more sympathetic with the Twelve.

SeaofGalileeWe spent most of one day out on the water of this Sea, which felt to me like a very big lake (13 miles long and 8 miles wide, at its largest). It was a perfect day for a boat ride: a perfect 75 degrees and sunny, allowing us to stand out in short sleeves without catching a chill or breaking a sweat. The water was smooth; little waves gently lapped up against our boat, which cut through them without any disturbance. We took pictures and had devotions and hung our feet off the bow as we cruised along. It was pleasant and peaceful.

That night, back at our hotel in the coastal town of Tiberius, one of the youngest of our “young clergy” group got the idea to go swimming. How cool would it be to say she had actually taken a late-night dip in the Sea of Galilee? Several others thought that would indeed be very cool, and joined in; I was not very keen on swimming but do enjoy laughing at my colleagues, so decided to tag along and spectate.

The concierge at the hotel told us it was easy to get to the beach – just walk down the long driveway, dart across the two-lane highway, and there you go. Sure enough, we had no trouble getting there, but we found plenty of trouble as soon as we arrived.

The once-peaceful Sea of Galilee had turned into a torrent. Waves hit a nearby seawall and sprayed up fifteen feet in the air. Large ominous signs made us wonder if this was really a beach at all: SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK, DANGEROUS CURRENTS.

I quickly became afraid for my bathing-suit-clad pastor friends. Would they still try to swim? I brainstormed arguments to discourage them: “Think of your parents or spouses or kids!” When I turned to them to put this logic to use, though, I saw wide eyes, slack jaws, and shaking heads. No one had any intention of swimming in this.

The dramatic change we saw from day to night is apparently typical for the Sea of Galilee. It makes me think of the way weather can quickly change here in the Appalachian Mountains; similarly, the elevations around Galilee send winds and storms whipping through.

If this is anything like what the disciples experienced that night with Jesus, I get it. The rainstorm is a full-on squall. Waves are coming over the boat. And to add some extra insight, the Sea of Galilee can be as much as 140 feet deep. A big storm here would be big trouble.

So maybe the disciples are reacting in a totally normal way: this is a freak-out-worthy situation. Then our curiosity might fall on Jesus. Why is he so unconcerned that he’s taking a catnap? Who snoozes through a squall on a boat? And why does he put them in their place with questions about their faith? Shouldn’t they get a little parental sympathy instead? “I know, that was really scary – sorry you had to go through that!”

Here’s how the disciples verbalize this amazement at Jesus:

“Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The only time I was in a big storm on a boat was out in Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay is the body of water I grew up on. It’s much larger than the Sea of Galilee in terms of surface area – about 35 times larger, actually. But underneath, it’s much more shallow; the average depth of the Sea of Galilee is 84 feet, while the average depth of Tampa Bay is 12 feet.

For most of my childhood, my extended family shared a 22-foot boat with an outboard motor. Some of my best memories are sitting on the front of that boat with the wind in my face, on our way to some island or water-skiing spot. When I visit home I love for my family to take me for a ride. On one such ride my dad took my brother, his friend, and me out to cruise around the Bay for a couple hours.

While we were out an afternoon storm snuck up on us. I cannot remember if we knew this was a risk when we left the dock, or if we were out longer than we expected, but the end result is very memorable: we were caught in a pretty decent Florida rainstorm. Dad and I gathered under the meager awning over the captain’s chair, laughing as the wind sent the rain any-which-way and made our cover pointless. Our boat was tossed around like we were riding a bull. Man, what a fun adventure!

But our “adventure” was not so fun for my brother.

The boys were huddled together on the floor near the stern of the boat. My brother’s buddy was under a towel, not speaking. Perhaps he felt like my brother was saying enough for both of them, since he was screaming:

“WE’RE GOING TO DIE!”

Obviously this made the situation even more amusing to Dad and me.

“We’re not going to die,” I said (although I admit, I had to yell over the storm, which somewhat undermined my point).

“WE *ARE* GOING TO DIE!”

Needless to say, we did not die. The storm ended, the waves calmed back down, and we cruised back to our dock.

What made the difference between my adventure and my brother’s crisis? Why did we view the storm so differently? Before you think my brother is some kind of scaredy-cat (which he’s not), I should provide you with this bit of insight: he’s eight years younger than I am. That day on the boat, I think I was about twenty and he was about twelve. Twenty was not an incredibly mature age for me, but I at least had enough life experience to know that afternoon storms have a way of passing quickly, and although our boat was getting rocked pretty hard, it was not at risk of sinking. On top of that, I had a lifetime of family boat trips under my belt with not-a-one ending in mortal peril. All of this gave some perspective on things: This is not that big of a deal. We are not going to die.

But if the waves that day had been the size I saw at the Sea of Galilee “beach” that night? Different story. Then, I’d be freaking out like a twelve-year-old brother or a full-grown disciple.

And in truth, I do freak out sometimes; not because of literal storms, but because sometimes life gets intense with grief or change or disappointment or all of the above. I handle things pretty well up until a certain point… but then I, like most people, have a breaking point at which life’s fun adventure becomes an insurmountable crisis. I go and hide in my bed, overwhelmed and unsure what to do. In the words of Warren, my emotional state is something like, “WE’RE GOING TO DIE!” Or, as the disciples put it, “Don’t you care that we’re about to drown?”

RembrantTheStormontheSeaofGalilee1632

Rembrant van Rijn, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” 1632.

That’s the first question that the disciples ask in this story of Jesus calming the storm. Let’s get back to their second, more important question:

“Who is this?”

Who is this man that speaks and the wind and waves listen? It’s Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, that’s who – and because Jesus is God, what’s a little storm to him?

What’s such a big deal to the disciples is no big deal to Jesus. And why would it be? He spoke the world into being, so how much easier to speak a storm into more sail-worthy weather? Jesus was napping through it because it was not a problem to him. He was not concerned that his boat might end up 140 feet deep. He knew that it wouldn’t.

Can we have the same confidence?

Apparently Jesus thinks so, judging by his questions. “Where is your faith?” he says, which implies, “It is possible to have enough faith to keep calm in a storm like this.”

Is that true? Is it possible?

If it is, then how do we boost our faith to that kind of level?

I think of myself that day on Tampa Bay. What kept me in adventure mode was, in part, my previous experience. I had been out on the boat many times, sometimes in (smaller) storms, always returning safely. I had also spent several summers backpacking by this point, out and exposed in storms even stronger than the one that rocked our boat that day. All that together told me: This is not that big of a deal. I am going to be okay.

What the disciples needed to do in their storm was to draw on some of their own experiences. And I don’t mean nautical experiences – if this storm was really that big, then their previous experience would tell them truthfully that they were about to go down with their ship. Instead, the experience they needed to draw on was their Jesus experience.

Mark tells us that before this, the disciples saw Jesus heal a man with an unclean spirit in Capernaum, and then heal many people at Simon’s house. They saw him cleanse a leper and then, back in Capernaum again, heal a paralytic who was dropped through the roof of his house. They saw him do all that and more. Did they remember those things in the boat?

Granted, when the waves are threatening to break your water-swapped ship, it’s hard to think of that stuff. I bet all they were thinking was:

“WE’RE GOING TO DIE!”

If we want to be disciples of much faith, it’s important to remember those miraculous kinds of things before the storm comes barreling in. To take time each day remembering what God has done for us. Then, when things are crazy, perhaps we will have no trouble bringing that previous experience to mind, and our reaction might be more like:

“God is God. God is in control. God has been with me all along; God is with me now.”

We can remember that even when it feels like we’re going to die, God is with us. And even if we die, God will be with us there, calming that greatest storm and ushering us into eternal life.

There is a storm coming. There always is, right? So let’s get ready for it now.

Take a few minutes – right now – and say a prayer of thanks…

For something simple that God has done for you.
For a way you’ve seen God through creation.
For someone you know that’s important to you.
For a time when you felt alone, but God was with you.
For a good meal you’ve had recently.
For a time when you didn’t have enough, but God saw you through.
For your favorite thing about yourself.
For your worst mistake – that God forgives you for.

For all this and more, give thanks to God.
The one who is with us in every storm.
And if God is with us… then why should we be afraid?

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