Mark 4:35-41(also Matt 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25)
This passage comes just after a section of parables of the kingdom (the sower, the lamp on the stand, the growing seed and the mustard seed) and leads us into a section of spiritual power and miracles (the Gadarene swine, the haemorrhaging woman and Jairus' daughter). It's therefore tempting to interpret this passage as one or the other: parabolic or supernatural. I'm going to try and do both.
Looking on the Internet, this story turns up often in teaching resources, usually, it must be said, in children's teaching resources. This may explain why the material generally takes a parabolic view, along the lines of "Jesus calms the storms in our lives".
There is a view [referred to in Guthrie et al, p.862 but not referenced] that Mark included this story in his gospel to bring peace to a storm-tossed church in a time of persecution. "The disciples were in a path of obedience, but even obedience brings no immunity from trouble". [Guthrie et al, p.862]
Whilst this parabolic view leads us to an important truth (that Jesus calms the storms in our lives), I think that there's more to be gleaned from this passage than that point alone, which is why I'm looking at the double interpretation.
Before I do, though, I'd like to clear up one possible misinterpretation. Just because the story is referred to as being a parable, doesn't mean that it didn't happen: there are other events in Jesus' life (most notably the lesson of the fig tree in Mark 13 [Mk 13:28, the Greek word is parabole ()]) that are referred to as parables. Clearly some parables didn't happen (such as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus [Lk 16:19-31]). This one did.
But before we get carried away, let's summarise the story:
Jesus had spent the day preaching to a large crowd (you may recall from Mark 4:1 that He got into a boat and went onto the lake so that He could address the crowd, so was actually in the boat already at the start of the story) and He was exhausted. This shows us the full humanity of Christ. It's also interesting that, although Jesus did sleep (being fully human) this is the only time He's mentioned as doing so - possibly to show that, especially in the context of the storm which He slept through, He had toiled up to the edge of His human strength.
The disciples set out for the opposite shore, in full obedience to Christ's request. As they were already in the boat, this would have probably been the easiest way of departing anyway.
It's worth noting that they were going somewhere new within Jesus' ministry: the region of the Gerasenes. Somewhere they'd only visit the once. It's a bit suspicious, then, when...
Despite being obedient to Jesus (or maybe, as some commentators suggest, because they are being obedient) a storm comes out of nowhere. Geographers tell us that this is not unusual in the Sea of Galilee: "the movement of the air currents causes the wind to sweep with tremendous violence down the narrow gorges that descend to the shore from the surrounding hills". [Guthrie et al, p.862] It's possibly such a storm as this that Jesus is referring to in the parable of the house built on sand when "The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash" [Matt 7:27, NIV]
These are big, tough, experienced fishermen (well, some of them are) but they're petrified. Possibly because they're experienced fishermen and they know a bad storm when they see one. And this is closer than they ever wanted to be to one this bad. Especially in a little boat out on the water, that was rapidly filling up.
Jesus is still asleep - still exhausted from His day's endeavours.
As I've already mentioned, this is the only time that Jesus is recorded as sleeping. In which case, if we take a parabolic view of this story, this has to be significant: there is a purpose to the recording of this fact from which we are to learn. Is it that Jesus can sleep, trusting fully to God? Is it that Jesus is fully human, so, when exhausted, can sleep through anything? Opinion is divided, and I'm not sure, so let's move on.
Note Jesus' response: not "let's huddle down in the bottom of the boat, say encouraging things to each other (maybe even sing some songs) and we'll get through this together" but rather, He tackles the storm head on. This suggests Christ's divinity: the natural world and natural phenomena are always seen in scripture as being subject to God [Cole p.95] (a classic example being the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14), so only God could command it this way. Only the creator of the wind and rain would dare address them like this: their instant response shows that they know it, too. So, in one short passage, Jesus is shown to be fully human and fully divine.
The word "rebuked" is the Greek epitimaõ () and is also translated in the NIV as rebuke, warned, gave orders, said sternly, sternly, strictly warned and warning: it's the word used when Jesus rebukes (or sternly commands) demons and drives them out [Matt 17:18; Mk 1:25; Mk 9:25; Lk 4:35; Lk 4:41; Lk 9:42], the disciples rebuke people for bringing children to Jesus [Matt 19:13; Mk 10:13; Lk 18:15], the crowd rebukes blind men who want Jesus to heal them [Matt 20:31; Mk 10:48; Lk 18:39], Jesus rebukes Peter saying "Get behind me, Satan!" [Mk 8:33], Jesus rebukes a fever [Lk 4:39], and a criminal on the cross rebukes another one [Lk 23:40] (plus some other occurrences). I think we can safely assume then that this wasn't a gentle "please stop it..." but a full-force command. The fact that this word usually occurs when Jesus faces spiritual warfare may suggest that the storm has a satanic origin, but equally, it may not.
Jesus now uses the episode to teach: if the disciples had had enough faith, maybe they could have done this. If they'd had faith that Jesus wouldn't let them perish, then maybe they wouldn't have disturbed His sleep.
Note that Jesus rebukes the storm yet says to His disciples - another indication of the way in which Jesus views the storm.
Faith and fear are mutual exclusives in scripture ("the fear of the Lord" is a different use of the word fear - the two most common Greek words translated as "fear" by the NIV are phobeomai () andphobos (): one is also rendered afraid or terrified, the other reverence and awe. I think you can probably guess which one is used in the phrase "fear of the Lord"). So faith and fear are mutual exclusives. According to Cole's commentary on Mark's Gospel, "Fear not" is the most reiterated command in the Bible [Cole p.96]. He then goes on to suggest that the disciples continued to fear because "a friendly, human Jesus they would have, but a supernatural Son of God? No!" The challenge to us is, do we prefer the humanistic Christ to the divine: the suffering servant to the risen Christ? In truth, we don't have a choice, for Jesus is who He is: fully human and fully God (but that's a sermon for Ascension Day or Transfiguration Sunday, really) but the question still remains of how do we view Him and, therefore, relate to Him? Are we missing out by seeing only part of who He is?
The storm in this story comes from nowhere. Jesus recognises the source of it and deals with it. I think that the storms in our lives come from one of four sources:
I believe that whatever the source, Jesus will stand with us in the storms in our lives. If the source of our problems is ourselves we may well think that we don't deserve Jesus' help. And we'd be right. But that's the beauty and mystery of Grace: we don't deserve His help, but we get it anyway.
However, I also believe that, if we are to learn from our experiences, then we should also seek to identify the source of the storms. This is the "application" part of my sermon.
If the source of our storms is Satanic, then we must engage in spiritual warfare (which is a sermon in itself, really). Scripture tells us that if we resist the devil, then he will flee from us [James 4:7]: in prayer, tell him where to go, in whatever turn of phrase seems most appropriate at the time: I've told him where to go in ways I'd never care to repeat, and in ways that I would - sometimes both in the same prayer.
If the source is other people then, as people called to live in relationship with others, we have to deal with the problem: with love, with tact, with prayer and with all the Grace of God at our disposal.
If the problem's source is ourselves then we must not forget that we are not alone: Jesus stands with us (whether we feel we deserve it or not) and our brothers and sisters in Christ stand with us (for they are called to live in relationship with us as much as we are called to live in relationship with them).
If the problem's source is "it's just one of those things", then we need to tackle it by accepting and not go around blaming ourselves, others, or even Satan (although he inevitably deserves it for all the things he does to us and doesn't get blamed for). The key point is to identify the problem's source: then we can tackle it.
I was once in a prayer meeting at university (so it shows you how long ago it was) when someone in the group said that she was very hungry. The reason was that she hadn't gone down for the evening meal. The reason for that was that she was sitting in her room, and God didn't tell her to go. The point was, He didn't tell her not to, either. So the source of her problem (hunger) was very much herself, no matter how much she wanted to tell God off for it.
But what if the storms don't subside? What if calm doesn't appear? Has Jesus deserted us? By no means! (As St Paul might say). Jesus promises to be with us [Matt 28:20] and He will keep that promise, no matter how long the storms may last. But again, that's a different sermon for a different reading - in this one, the storms cease. I just wanted to acknowledge that they don't always do so.
One final thing before I conclude: Mark is the only gospel to mention the "other little ships" (v.36). Cole suggests that this demonstrates the infinite mercy of God in that it wasn't just Jesus and his boatload that was rescued, but everyone else on the lake that night. [p.96] He compares it to the final verse in Jonah where God is concerned over all the cattle in Nineveh, as well as the people - whatever, it shows that God sees all and cares for all, whether they're at the centre of the story or at the edges.
In conclusion, one question and three points:
Question: Do we find Jesus easier to relate to as human? (Do we forget His divinity - is it too hard to relate to) and are we "missing out" by doing so?
Mark, Alan Cole, IVP 1961
New Bible Commentary Revised, ed. D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, A.M. Stubbs & D.J. Wiseman, IVP 1970
The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, E.W. Goodrick & J.R. Kohlenberger III, Hodder & Stoughton, 1990
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