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Into the Storm

Mark 4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 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?’ 39 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. 40 He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41 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?’

Jesus has taken us right to the edge of the waters. He’s been teaching in parables, talking of kingdoms and mustard seeds and hope for the world, hope of a different world, and this whole time, he’s been facing us and right behind him, framing him, glistening over his shoulder, the waters are heaving, waiting. His words are hovering over the face of that deep, that immense murky expanse stretching out toward a barely visible scratch of land across the way.

This is how Jesus introduces himself to the crowds. He heals people and casts out demons and teaches from the scriptures, all at the edge of the waters, but now that the people know who he is, now that the rumors of God’s kingdom are spreading, he decides that they’ve gathered along the edges of the waters for long enough. It’s time to enter them, to pass through them, to make our way to the other side.

I hope it’s clear then that when this story describes Jesus taking the disciples by boat across the waters, this isn’t just giving us logistical details about their travel plans. This is an image of where the story is going, of what Jesus has really come to do. Because water in Scripture is never just water. The Spirit hovers over the waters at the creation of the world and the waters of chaos flood that world a few chapters later and then Moses guides the people of Israel through the waters on the way to the promised land. Jesus is immersing himself and the disciples in the waters, which is to say he comes into the depths of this world and all the chaos that we find here in order to make a way where there is no way into new possibilities, new creation.

And the disciples and Jesus certainly do find chaos on the waters. As they travel along the lake, a storm arises, and the waves pummel the sides of the boat and the boat starts taking on water. And the disciples are terrified. They obviously think they’re about to drown, and it’s hard to blame them. Jesus takes the disciples out into the waters and the waters seem like they’re about to take the disciples down into their depths.

In this moment, the disciples find themselves in the midst of forces that are so much bigger than them, the very forces of nature. They left behind solid ground, their homes and their routines and everything they know, including the literal land, and are now floating over the face of the deep. And then they find that the deep is just as chaotic as they feared, the very substance that’s bearing them up is now threatening to pull them under.

Do you know what that feels like? Maybe it’s your job, where you need your paycheck and benefits to live, but your bosses demands are swamping your days. Maybe it’s your family or closest relationships, where these are the connections that help you understand yourself or that provide you material support, but then you feel like you’re losing yourself to their constant needs. Maybe it’s your own psyche, where your ability to plan and anticipate what’s going to happen next have really served you but then sometimes you find your thoughts swirling and churning and pulling you down into panic.

There are these powers that shape our world and our lives. What can a person do in the face of a storm, an earthquake, a heatwave, a pandemic, a famine? We depend on these patterns of nature that are so much bigger than us and there’s not much we can do about them. Which is how most ancient peoples’ came to understand these forces as gods, or really, the gods were these forces. And often the most powerful among them were the storm gods, whether that was Zeus among the Greeks or Baal among the Canaanites.

The Roman Empire was actually pretty tolerant of their various colonies’ religious practices because the Romans thought that if they met a god who was as powerful as theirs, well that’s a good ally to have in your arsenal. It’s good to be in with the forces that shape our lives as you’re trying to become a force that’s shaping peoples’ lives, and our Scriptures see this alliance between those forces and the forces of Empire. The Book of Isaiah says, “Ah, the thunder of many peoples, they thunder like the thundering of the sea! Ah, the roar of nations, they roar like the roaring of mighty waters!”

So just like the waters are not just H20 molecules bumping against each other, this storm is not just a random weather event. It’s an image of where Jesus is taking the disciples, into conflict with the forces that shape our lives, into direct conflict with the religious authorities in the capital and the violence of the Roman Empire, until eventually those powers put Jesus up on a cross, which will be marked by another weather event.

So I can’t blame the disciples for being nervous here. This is scary. They’re not wrong. Their lives are at risk. By following Jesus they’ve picked a fight with the gods of their age and the political powers who do those gods’ bidding.

And through all that, Jesus is sleeping. He’s taking a nap! Incredible! He’s so unbothered by the powers of this world that it can’t even keep him out of REM sleep. He’s all good! This reminds me of another story in the Bible, one of my favorites, about the Prophet Elisha. Elisha’s helping the people in this war against a much more powerful nation—he’s using his prophetic vision to guide the guerrilla army on his side and they’re doing surprisingly well punching up. But the king of this other army finds out that Elisha’s why he’s been losing, so he sends his whole force to lay siege around the town where Elisha’s staying. So Elisha’s servant wakes up one morning and goes outside to find the enemy powers surrounding them on all sides, and he kind of panics. He runs inside to Elisha, who’s been sleeping, and his servant’s like “Get up! We’re in trouble!” And Elisha’s just totally unbothered. They go outside and Elisha says, “Oh yeah, don’t worry, those who are with us are greater than those who are with them.” The boy is like, “What are you talking about, we’re so dead!” And Elisha prays, “Lord, open his eyes that he may see.” And the boy receives a vision of the heavenly host, countless angels, surrounding the army that’s surrounding them. And the angels strike the whole army blind, and Elisha leads them to his king, and the army repents and they get their sight back, so the Lord wins the battle without actually killing anyone.

Lord open his eyes that he may say. Those who are with us are greater than those who are with them. The disciples are on this boat in the middle of the waters with Jesus and all they see are the waters, all they see is the storm around them. And it’s not that those things aren’t real. It’s not that those things aren’t effecting their lives. But what is also real, what is also effecting their lives, is the presence of Jesus in their midst. And Jesus says to the wind and the storm, “Hey, pipe down” and immediately the winds go quiet and the waters go still. He who is with us is greater than those who are with them, and the disciples will find that to be true again and again as they go with Jesus to the other side of the lake, as they come into direct conflict with the spiritual forces and the political forces that run this world and Jesus shows another way this place could be, as those forces put Jesus up on a cross, and Jesus rises again as the first fruits of new creation.

And Jesus promises the disciples that we too will do greater miracles than his if we put have the faith of a mustard seed. Sometimes you’ll hear people say that our role as Christians is to bear witness. We weather the storms that rip against our communities until God does something on our behalf. And God’s Spirit is here in the world stirring up possibilities that we couldn’t have imagined for ourselves. But God is also empowering us to make storms go quiet and waters go still. We may not be able to bring about the Kingdom of God by our own power or skill or ingenuity, but that’s no excuse not to keep working for it from the midst of the storm. Jesus empowers us to speak back to the storms around us because he is greater than whatever storm we face. We might not be, but Jesus’s Spirit is in us and we are in him and he is in the Lord of everything and so we don’t have to cower before the powers of this world.

Jesus is greater than your boss, Jesus is greater than any politician, Jesus is greater than whatever union busting law firm you’re up against, Jesus is greater than the profit motive, Jesus is greater than that person who keeps misgendering you, Jesus is greater than the racist nationalists who say they’re acting in his name, and Jesus’ Spirit is still hovering over those powers saying, “Hey, pipe down.” And when we pray together and sing together and tell these stories together we do so to join as a chorus with the Spirit. In the words of Psalm 107:

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,    and he brought them out from their distress; 

he made the storm be still,    and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Then they were glad because they had quiet,    and he brought them to their desired haven.

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,    for his wonderful works to humankind. 

Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,    and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

So friends, don’t be afraid to gather at the edge of the waters. Don’t be afraid to enter into the sea. The chaos is there and it will meet you. For many of us, it’s already all around. But we gather here to say that Jesus is with us too, and so the one who is with us is greater than all the powers of this world put together. He tells the storms to be quiet, and we can do so too, until they are. Amen.

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