“Why Are You So Afraid?” – Mark 4:35-41
1. The storms of life
Last month, when I spoke about God talking to Old Testament Job out of a windstorm, the Gospel Reading from Mark 6 featured a real windstorm. It was another windy night on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had just fed the crowd of 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. He sent the disciples out on a boat to the other side of the Sea while He stayed behind to pray. Then, in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus walked on water to the disciples’ boat where they were straining against the wind and the waves. When He got into the boat, the wind died down, and the disciples were utterly astounded.
Today’s Gospel reading is similar, and yet different. Both stories include a storm on the Sea of Galilee, but in Mark 6 Jesus walks on the water before calming the storm. In Mark 4, Jesus was sleeping through the storm in the stern of the boat. In Mark 4, there are four instructive questions in the seven verses of the story. Here they are:
“Don’t you care if we drown?”
“Why are you so afraid?”
“Do you still have no faith?”
“Who is this?”
Now, in Mark 4, we heard about a literal storm, a weather storm, with waves on the lake whipped up by howling winds, and the fact that it was evening with the darkness deepening made the experience all the more frightening. We all go through figurative storms in life, don’t we. If I was here in person, I could ask for a volunteer to describe a current or recent storm that he or she was going through. That person would relate the experience with specific details about why it was considered a storm. Since we all experience fears, that person could document the fears they experienced during those stormy days or weeks. And I could ask that person how he or she sensed Jesus to be in the boat of life with them during the storm, what difference that made.
Yes, we all experience storms, and sometimes those storms just seem to come out of nowhere – an unexpected and unwelcome medical diagnosis, an old hurt that resurfaces to stain a relationship, an economic hardship that puts a strain either on daily living or on plans for the future.
Sometimes, like in Mark 4, those storms come after a sense of God’s leading out to the deep waters, or to the other side. It had been a long day of Kingdom work. Jesus had been teaching the people in parables, and so many people had gathered by the seaside that He even got into a boat to teach, so that people could see and hear Him. As evening approached, He was looking for a break, so He said to the disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side.” It was Jesus’ own prompting or leading that took them out onto the depths of the Sea of Galilee that evening.
2. The other side and fear
“Let’s go over to the other side.” What does “other side” mean? “Other side” has both a literal meaning and a figurative meaning. The literal meaning indicates simply the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They were in Capernaum on the north side of the sea – Matthew’s account of this story gives us that detail. The other side would normally be the east side, and we know that because, in Mark 5, when they landed there they arrived in the Gerasenes, on the east side of the sea, in what was really Gentile territory. That detail leads us to consider the figurative meaning of “the other side.”
In order to fully understand “the other side” we need to first understand a bit about the sea itself. In first century Jewish understanding, the sea was something unknown, and scary, and unpredictable. The moist air mass from the sea itself, combined with the prevailing winds coming from the nearby Mediterranean could quickly whip up a dangerous storm. The water was called the deep or the abyss, and it had negative connotations, for it signified chaos and danger and even evil, especially when combined with darkness. Darkness, the other side… those of you who are fans of Star Wars have heard those terms connected to indicate evil – the dark side!
Now besides those superstitious beliefs about the sea, the other side referred to the Gentile territory where foreigners lived. The disciples didn’t make a habit of going there, and if they did it was probably a quick “passing through” journey on their way to Jerusalem. It was an unfamiliar area, with people and customs that they didn’t know about. Because Gentiles lived there, it was considered ungodly, and evil. In fact, the first thing they encountered when they landed was a wild man, naked, possessed by an evil spirit, one who lived in the tombs, who cut himself with stones, who couldn’t be bound even with shackles and chains. You can imagine the disciples’ discomfort, panic, and fear. They had never been there before, they had never experienced anything like that before. It was definitely on the other side, the far side of life’s familiarity. They were over their heads, they had no control. Even before they landed, they had no control, for the winds had been whipped up into a sudden storm in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the night.
Maybe several of you could tell stories of being to the other side, the uncomfortable side of the sea of life. For me, each time we have moved from one city to another, from one church to another, we were never sure what to expect! When we moved with our children, it certainly disrupted family life. I remember being at a Church Convention and ministering to the homeless in downtown Winnipeg – that was the other side for me. But even more was my 2010 mission trip to Cambodia. Here was an unknown land, with a different culture, and a somewhat uncomfortable assignment that was out of my control, and that created a sense of anxiety. It was definitely the other side. And that is where fear pops up – like those moles at an arcade that you have to hit with a mallet.
So, on that Cambodia trip, here’s what popped up in my mind:
What happens if we get lost or don’t make a connection at an airport where English is not spoken or written? Fear pops up. Maybe we shouldn’t go.
What happens if we get sick from some disgusting, unmentionable food source? Fear pops up. Maybe we shouldn’t go.
What happens if there is political unrest while we are in Cambodia, and we can’t get out of the country? Fear pops up. Maybe we shouldn’t go. The other side leads quite naturally to fear.
3. The sweet spot and resistance
Have you ever been playing softball or golf or tennis and you really connect with the ball… they call it hitting the sweet spot.
Author John Busacker talks about being in the sweet spot of God’s will, and then encountering resistance. He writes: “Taking action for God is often met by an opposite, and even greater, reaction from Satan. When the disciples pushed out into the deep waters, a ‘furious squall came up.’ It was not the weather that was furious, but rather the forces of evil. While Jesus slept, evil was aroused. Benign Sunday-going-to-church faith meets with little opposition, spiritually or physically. Satan pays little attention to the compliant attendees of holy huddles. They represent a minor risk to him. But to step out into the deep water of courageous faith is to stir up active resistance, often in areas or relationships that are closest to us.”
Busacker tells the story of a few men that wanted to start a new Bible Study group. They wanted to do more than just meet, discuss a book and pray. They discussed possibilities for deeper, faithful acts of service. Before they even started, one of the members was fired from his job. The resistance from Satan had begun.
Busacker concluded: “Resistance is often the confirmation that we are in the sweet spot of God’s will. Our greatest fear should not be that we encounter resistance. Our greatest fear is that we succeed at something that does not matter to God.”
Read between lines of what he is suggesting: if you, or if we as congregation, are in the sweet spot of God’s will, if we are doing something that really matters to God, if we are on our way to bring the Kingdom to the other side, we are going to encounter resistance. Be ready for it, but also know we are not alone.
4. God cares, loves, is with us
Let’s get back to the four questions in that Mark 4 story to follow this thought:
Now remember that Jesus had been asleep while the storm was blowing, and the disciples had to wake Him up. The first question was from the disciples: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” I mean, here they were, facing resistance – resistance from the wind, resistance from the waves, resistance from the dark, resistance from the forces of evil as they engaged in the Kingdom of God work Jesus had called them to do. They were facing one’s greatest earthly enemy – death – and yes, they were afraid. But more than that… they had already spent quite some time listening to Jesus teach, watching Him heal all kinds of people, watching Him cast demons out of people, and they had seen a miracle or two along the way. Now, there they were – his closest companions, the ones He had appointed for that Kingdom work – and it seemed that Jesus cared less for them in their predicament than for the various strangers that He healed along the way.
Before answering their question, Jesus spoke to and calmed the wind and the waves. Then He answered their question with two of His own. “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” Jesus’ questions were really more statements than they were questions. He was saying: “You don’t have to be afraid… [and] trust me.”
Maybe you have heard the children’s song: “With Jesus in my boat…” The words and meaning are simple: “With Jesus in my boat I can smile at the storm.” When the figurative storms blow up quickly in life – the unwelcome medical diagnosis, the old hurt that stains a relationship, the economic hardship that puts a strain on daily living – we can still smile on the inside, because Jesus is in control. Although the song doesn’t say this, the implication is there – with Jesus NOT in your boat, life may bring frowns and fears.
With His questions, Jesus was saying “I do care! I am with you!” Before expressing His care verbally, He expressed it experientially, calming the wind and the waves.
The Bible readings today remind us of God’s care and of God’s being with us:
In Genesis 9, God made a covenant promise of love and care for us. He said He would not send any world-wide, catastrophic floods.
In Ephesians 3, Paul marvels at the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ that is wide, long, high and deep. In math problems or in physics we learn that there are 3 dimensions. But you could argue that in that boat on the Sea of Galilee there were four dimensions – side to side, front to back, up to the sky… and then the fourth dimension would be down to the bottom of the sea. Even if the boat filled up with those waves whipped up by the wind, even if the boat tipped over, and the disciples were sinking down, sinking down, still the love of God would be there. Ask Jonah!
We could add in the powerful words of Romans 8:37-39. There Paul wrote that he was convinced, absolutely certain that nothing – nothing in this whole world – can separate us, YOU, from the love of God in Christ!! Earlier verses in that chapter affirm that God’s love was shown chiefly by the fact that God did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us – on the cross! For our forgiveness! For our salvation! That is true and amazing LOVE.
The last question in Mark 4 was the disciples’ question of astonishment after they had seen the wind and the waves obey Jesus: “Who is this?” They didn’t fully understand the profound nature of that man in the boat with them. It would be a few months later and a few chapters later in the Gospel of Mark that we see Peter finally realize who this is, and proclaim, “You are the Christ!” Yes, this is God, Himself – in human form. He created the world, and when the storms of life come – literal or figurative – HE can fix them. When you realize this Jesus is God, that He is in the boat of life with you, you need not fear, no matter what storms come. Amen.