Here are some of the storms that currently rage about us: the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and racial injustice, an uncertain and shaky economy for many, climate change, the rapid pace of technological innovation, the ongoing threat of nuclear war, global unrest in an upended world order. And these are just the macro-scale storms.
Then there are the effects of all of this on life in the church, which itself is undergoing rapid change, if not to say decline in numbers and capacities.
Then there are the storms in our individual and particular lives. You no doubt can generate your own lists of such stormy personal seas.
The disciples were understandably terrified by the boat being swamped with the waters of the churning waves, and they feared for their very lives.
We, too, know fear… And yes, you can also generate your own listing of that which causes you anxiety in these stormy times, the things that tend to keep you up at night.
But here’s the remarkable thing in the story: Jesus was fast asleep amidst all the sturm und drang in the back of the boat.
Naturally, the disciples cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
So, too, there are times when we cry out to God, wondering where God is, whether or not God is even awake, amidst our storm-tossed lives.
How could Jesus possibly have been asleep during all of that noisy, bumpy chaos in the boat? I’ll get to a response to that question, but first some thoughts on sleep.
Sleep is a gift that seems to be in shorter supply during these days of crisis. People have coined the phrase “pandemic insomnia.” More and more persons are reporting difficulty falling asleep, and difficulty staying asleep.
I confess that I am one of those persons. Never in my life have I struggled with sleep until the last few years. Some of it may be stage of life issues. But there’s just so much on my mind, that I have a hard time shutting off all the mental activity and otherwise keeping it at bay when I awake in the middle of the night as my to do list dances in my head like the debris cloud of a tornado.
Maybe you share a bit of insomnia, too.
To fall asleep and to stay asleep requires letting go, a kind of consent – a yes to putting behind us all that troubles us, all that is on our minds. While there are strategies to aid this, it’s not something that’s easy to do. In fact, the harder you try to fall asleep, the more difficult it will be to actually do so.
But let’s jump now into the realm of our Christian faith. The letting go that makes for sleep, the consent, the yes, to a different state of presence in mind and body, involves trust, trust that it’s going to be ok to let go and relax so that sleep can come.
And such relaxed trust is, in essence, faith at its most basic, primordial level.
So, how could Jesus be asleep in the stern of the boat in stormy seas? Jesus trusted that all was well. Jesus had faith in the loving care of God, the one whom he calls Abba, daddy.
That is to say, Jesus was able to do what too often eludes us, and which we are often quite incapable of on our own as we attempt to trust in our own devices.
In our sinful, broken, mortal state, we need something, someone, outside of ourselves to make the difference.
When the storms of life get rough, trusting that all shall be well and in fact that everything is ok can be next to impossible.
So it is that the disciples cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
And we, too, cry out. Or at least I do in the middle of sleepless, or sleep scarce, nights.
This crying out is its own gesture of faith, of trusting that there is one whom we can call out to who can make a difference.
Jesus’ very presence and his track record of being helpful and healthful in some mighty ways in the disciples’ experience evoked the disciples’ calling out to him.
Likewise, for us as we have come to know the trustworthy presence of Christ in the word and sacraments and other means of grace in our churchly life together.
When sleepful-ness eludes me, I often turn to forms of the Jesus prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” – a simple prayer popular among Orthodox Christians. And I pray this prayer repeatedly as a kind of mantra. Eventually, invoking the name of Jesus again and again, my mind and body settle and the gift of sleep, the ability to let go, comes in faith.
It’s a great gift. But how does it work? Let’s take a look now in the narrative in Mark at how Jesus calms the storm. His words make the difference. “He woke up and rebuked the wind.” The biblical Greek seems to imply that Jesus with his verbal instruction corrected, or redirected the energies of the wind.
“Peace! Be still!” he said to the sea. Be silent. Be still.
“Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” Dead calm. That’s an interesting translation of the Greek which more basically means simply a great calm.
But a dead calm is intriguing theologically. Remember that the sea was a symbol of chaos and evil in the ancient biblical mindset.
A dead calm perhaps suggests that Jesus puts to death the raging of chaos and evil, all of this ultimately enacted through his own death and resurrection such that this story in Mark about calming the sea foreshadows the world changing nature of Jesus’ final earthly days.
So, how does Jesus calm the deadly storms of our lives? In short, Jesus speaks the word of command and it happens. Sacred word is, thus, a powerful reality indeed.
Words can come to do what they mean. Hearing the words, “peace, be silent, be still,” repeatedly can bring about the states of peace, silence and stillness in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We can hear Jesus’ command to the wind and sea as an exhortation to us as well. “Peace. [Be silent.] Be still.” In fact, we do hear that very word of command and encouragement when we share the Peace of Christ with each other in our worship.
“Peace! [Be silent.] Be still,” Jesus says, as we say such words also to each other.
This is an invitation to a deeper kind contemplative prayer life such that the gift of Jesus’ presence in word and sacrament might nurture in us the gift of peace and silence and stillness as a church in the mission of peace for the sake of chaotic world that is anything but peaceful.
Turning down the volume on the world’s noisy fearfulness in the stormy seas of life is a great and needed gift for our world.
In the end, the story recounted in Mark’s Gospel ends with great wonder and awe on the part of the disciples: “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?’”
Indeed, who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him? Jesus, the Christ, Savior, Lord, Friend, Sibling, in whom we put our trust and who also evokes our wonder and awe and gives us and the world the gift of his peace, of healing stillness.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- Recall occasions when a sense of Jesus’ presence – in worship, in prayer, in study, in conversation – has had the effect of calming the storms of your life.
- Recall occasions when perhaps you have been a calming presence to others during stormy seasons.