Note: In my letters of the last couple months, I’ve quoted this text before, but this letter looks at the text in a slightly different way.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Through the chapters of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is revealed to be someone quite different than he seems at the beginning. Though the reader gets evidence of the divinity of Christ from the start, the disciples seem to slowly grow in their understanding of who Jesus is. From all that we can derive from Mark and the other Gospels, Jesus seemed like a perfectly normal man from Nazareth. He would have spoken with an accent that was familiar to the Galileans (and a little rustic to the people of Jerusalem). It is clear that there is nothing about Jesus’ appearance that is used as a way to identify him: There is no mention of him being particularly handsome or ugly. [One prophesy from Isaiah suggested that the messiah would be ugly.] To our eyes, he would be a short and lean man of dark skin with dark brown eyes and hair that was almost black, dressed in sandals and the light brown clothing of the time. He would have looked a bit more like younger photos of Gandhi than paintings of King Arthur.
Part of the success of the Gospels to reach people around the world, is that there is so little physical description of any of the people mentioned. We are certainly not told of the whiteness of Romans or the blackness of Ethiopians. We are not told of the color of hair or the length of beards. For most of the New Testament, there is nothing that we would call racism. As far as a Jewish writer was concerned, Europeans, Africans, and Asians were just thought of as Gentiles (non-Jews).
So, to the disciples, as in today’s story, they were confused when Jesus showed that he was something more than an ordinary Jewish 30-year old from Nazareth. Nazareth, by the way, was known for being particularly poor and downtrodden.
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
When I was in my twenties, a couple years before I met Meg, I went with some church friends to go water-skiing on a lake. We went out on a sunny Summer afternoon. It was typically hot and very humid. Things went well (more or less) for a couple of hours, but then everything changed. Out of nowhere a storm came up and a flash of lightning came down a short distance, beyond our dock. So we rushed back into shore as a sudden wind made the water much rougher. There were more lightning flashes in other directions (with thunder arriving less than a second later), and I realized that I had no clue about how susceptible boats are to lightning. Of course, we survived, docked the boat and got to shelter, but I am always reminded of that incident when I re-encounter today’s reading. For a few minutes there, I was scared.
Today’s passage starts with words that might have terrified the disciples: Jesus says, “Let’s go over to the other side.” This means cutting across the middle of the lake that we usually call “the sea of Galilee.” As near as we can tell, the fishermen among the group avoided going far away from shore, because they couldn’t swim. They generally hugged the shoreline as they sailed along and avoided crossing deep water. Also, the fishing boats were not very maneuverable or fast. They were equipped with a few oars and a simple sail. Picture something like a twenty-five foot wooden lifeboat and you’d have a pretty good idea. Since boats were hard to come by, most of them were old and patched together with different kinds of wood. The last difficulty was that they had no life preservers, life vests, or flotation devices and no bailing pumps. The disciples were in a boat that could actually break apart and sink.
Here are the disciples in a furious squall, being tossed about and bailing out a boat. Eight men who had little experience with boats and four fishermen who knew they were in deep trouble.
Today’s passage suggests that Jesus was a sound sleeper. Even as this frightening and wet situation was going on Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. The disciples are so upset that they wake him up with a comment that seems very sarcastic, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
Jesus wakes up, but he doesn’t answer the disciples’ question. He got up and “rebuked the wind.” The definition of the word “rebuke” is “to express sharp disapproval or criticism.” So, in a similar tone, the disciples took with him, Jesus gives the wind a stern talking to. And then he scolds the waves, saying , “Quiet! Be still.” In any other human being, this would be thought insane behavior, but when Jesus says these things, the wind immediately dies away and the waves collapse into calm water.
The whole scene is almost comical. All of these upset men are standing drenched in the sudden quiet peacefulness.
Then in the sudden quiet, Jesus says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
We are told that the disciples are terrified, but in a completely new way. A few moments ago they were thinking that they were about to drown. Suddenly they are terrified by what Jesus is able to do.
They do not answer Jesus, but speak to each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
The truth is that the disciples were always slow to understand Jesus. As they moved from thinking that he was a remarkable rabbi to thinking that he might be a messiah like King David, they went through many stages of confusion. As time would move on, they would be confused as they understood him more and more. They would eventually realize that he was a whole new kind of messiah or king. Eventually they would have to wrestle with the idea that this man was something much more than a holy man.
For us, too, Jesus doesn’t change, but our experience of him changes as we slowly come to realize who he is.
Questions to ponder: How would this story have gone if the disciples had more faith? Since Jesus was with them should they have trusted him more and let him sleep?