Scripture: Psalm 107:1-3,23-32; Mark 4:35-41
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Aug 27, 2017
As you can read in your bulletins, we have news! But the PNC will tell you all about it in "Life Together." So no those of you who have not looked at page 4 will try to discretely take a peek during this sermon. Or some will just blatantly peruse the notice. It's like the morning I began my sermon at Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church by saying that if you rearrange the letters in Britney Spears you can spell "Presbyterians." That's when I lost half the congregation for ten minutes while they worked on that one.
Today, we are just touching on Psalm 107 for our Summer Psalms. I really wish to spend more time on our Mark 4:35-41 text: "Stilling Storms." Psalm 107 is a "Song of Thanksgiving" amid a time and situation of great difficulty." It's clear that this is a psalm of thanksgiving: "O give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good, for the Lord's steadfast love endures forever." There's that Hebrew word "Hesed," "steadfast love" used five times in this 107th psalm. And what is the context for God's steadfast love here? It's the song of "the redeemed of the Lord," those whom the Lord has redeemed from trouble. Scholars place this psalm 107 in Israel's post-exilic period. It's 520 B.C or later. The Jews had been in exile in Babylon, 546 miles from their home in Jerusalem. Under Cyrus the Mede, after 70 years of captivity, they were allowed to return, and what did they find? Their beloved city of Jerusalem, David's city of peace, in ruin and rubble, and God's "Hesed," God's steadfast love: divine compassion, forgiveness, restoration, wholeness, Shalom came to them in the midst of trouble.
They wandered in desert places and God's steadfast love, Hesed, surrounded and embraced them. Or they were hungry and thirsty and their souls fainted within them and the steadfast love of Lord found them, satisfying the thirsty, filling the hungry with good things. Could it be that we never really experience the steadfast love of the Lord without being in some sort of hardship, difficulty or trouble? We'll touch on that in the Gospel story of "storm stilling."
Here's the Gloucester, MA, fisherman "They that go down to the sea in ships" reads the inscription below : 1623-1923 : 300 years. It's a moving tribute to those who have lost their lives in this oldest of America's seaports. There is a plaque with a list of all of those lost at sea.
The film, "The Perfect Storm" told one of these stories of lives lost at sea. Here's a stormy sea "For the Lord commanded and raised the stormy wind which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to the heavens. They went down to the depths." Then a peaceful sea, "The Lord made the storm still and the waves of the sea were hushed and the sailors were glad because they had quiet. The Lord brought them to a save haven.
But between storm and calm, the sailors' courage melted, they reeled and staggered like drunkards and at their wits' end; they cried to the Lord in their trouble. The psalm concludes, "Let those who are wise give heed to these things and consider the steadfast love of the Lord. So, again, the question I have pondered this week is "Do we experience and can we ever know the steadfast love of the Lord without difficulty, need, trouble? The steadfast love of the Lord is always there for us. After all, it's the steadfast love, but do we know it, experience it, understand it's emotional reality without a sense of danger, need, trouble? Maybe Jesus and the disciples can help answer that one for us.
Evening came at last. All day long Jesus had taught the large crowds. Parables of "sowers and seeds," illustrations of "lamps and bushel baskets," still another parable of a mustard seed, stories became bridges to minds and hearts. Jesus' pulpit was a boat, a pulpit on water providing a way to connect with the vast numbers of eager listeners.
Evening had come. And as the darkness was about to overtake the light, Jesus told his disciples that he wanted to go to the other side of the lake. Mark so writes: "And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was." I was speaking with another pastor who was also preaching on this text and we noted the very next sentence. Mark tells us, "Other boats were with him." Matthew and Luke who tell us this same "stilling storm" story leave that detail out. We wondered why.
But into the boat went Jesus, "just as he was." Is there anything more draining than giving oneself intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually to a demanding person, let alone a demanding public? And that day in and day out? Jesus was exhausted. Into the stern he went. Just as he was. And he fell into a deep sleep.
It must have been the mother of all squalls! The disciples were seasoned fishermen, they were skilled in the art of dangerous waters. But this was a "red alert." They were going to die. And the one person who might turn the situation was sleeping peacefully in the place of honor in the boat, in the stern. They woke Jesus with strident voices, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" And Jesus turned from the frightened faces of his disciples, set his face into the wind and rebuked the wind. That's word that Mark uses for Jesus rebuking demons in possessed people. Jesus "exorcised" the wind! Stern talk! (Pardon the pun.) And then to the sea after the wind is without its demons, Jesus' calming voice said to the wind: "peace! peace, be still!"
Then came calm, a "dead calm." I wonder how long it was before Jesus spoke again! I'm sure in the dark quiet night in the boat Jesus was the next one doing the talking. Maybe the other boats listened in as he turned away from the wind and the sea, looked at his followers and gently, and I believe, compassionately said, "So, why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And if they had been able to answer those two questions; to the first: "Why are you afraid? Well, that was a frightening storm, but I don't know why I was scared, not with you Jesus in the boat." And to the second question, "Have you still no faith?" "Well, I thought I did. Maybe you are talking about a different kind of faith, Jesus."
But those disciples could not talk to Jesus that night. They were dumbfounded, filled with awe, and instead they whispered to each other, "Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him?"
So this opening volley in Mark's gospel in dramatic form speaks of the breaking in of God's reign in the life and actions of Jesus. "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, believe the good news," proclaimed Jesus at the outside of his three-year earthly ministry. Then the following extraordinary miracles occurred: the calming of the storm, the healing of Gerasene demon and the woman with the flow of blood and the raising of Jairus' daughter. So the reader, Mark's audience, and 21 centuries of listeners you and I, get a sense of our Lord's gospel: "the reign and realm of God has come near."
The story of the "stilling of the storm" is such an astounding event that it is interesting, but not very fruitful to get caught up in the question of how Jesus did this. Historical probes are important but the preacher's task is to lift up and lift out the meaning of what Jesus, through Mark, is really saying to us in this "stilling storm" story. And, of course, the story brings on added understanding and depth when we recognize that the sea throughout the Old Testament symbolized "chaos and confusion and destruction and ruin." Repeatedly, God is praised in the psalms as the one who "divided the sea by your might," Psalm 74. Or in Job 38 the Lord "broke the heads of the dragons in the waters." God's power at the time of the Exodus is described as a rebuke of the sea and a control of the waters. So when Jesus calms this storm on Galilee, it is not just a brute demonstration of power over nature. It is a redemptive act! The purpose is to so rebuke both the chaotic forces of the sea and the seas that these 12 faith seeking disciples may know in their souls Jesus is the Lord of all: winds, waves, of lands, of cultures, peoples, of hearts. Lord and stiller of you and certainly me.
So what may we say of "stilling storms" here at Westminster? Any storms in your life? Any storms lately in this congregation, In our presbytery, denominational storms, storms in our great city, Los Angeles, or Corpus Christi, or Charlottesville? The preacher preaches to himself today (you know I do that a lot). I am weathering storms of everyday life as are you.
So what can we say of stilling storms: First of all, did you notice that the trip across the sea that night was Jesus' plan on that day? When evening had come Jesus said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." This was not a diversion hatched up by the disciples to enjoy a time of leisure away from the crowds. Jesus took the initiative, and the disciples went along at this direction. The disciples had every reason to blame him if the weather changed. After all, the journey was his idea. believe that the Scriptures, not only here but time after time, affirm that the affairs of this world of the church, good and bad, effective or lousy, and that the events of our lives, joyous or disastrous, are all in God's providence. God's journey, in God's hands. God initiates and God permeates and God orchestrates it all. That theology of God is sovereignty in the world, the church and our lives in all things is a cherished truth of our reformed faith, and Scripture teaches that truth. "He's got the whole world and the little tiny baby in his hands." The calm and the squalls of your life and mine are lovingly held in the arms of a sovereign God -- that is good news, comforting news!
Secondly, note that Mark wants us to know that the storm is painful. The boat is in distress. "A great windstorm arose." "Waves beat against the boat." "The boat was already being swamped." The anguish of the disciples was real. They were not over-reacting when they woke Jesus with the frantic cry: "Don't you care that we are perishing?" Our faith takes fear seriously, and desperation and despair are real. We don't minimize panic and trouble because the consequences are vast. Practically, that means that when we listen to our sister or brother's personal squalls we take it seriously. We don't say unhelpful and hurtful stuff like: "It will get better." or "This too will pass." Or even a line heard over and over: "This is God's will for your family." Storms are real and require real care, real compassion.
Thirdly, notice that Jesus is sleeping in the boat. That's revealing: Disciples in chaos. Jesus is at peace. Is that the peace of God that we may have even amid a storm? How do we find that peace in squalls? Well, if we don't practice a life of prayer and nurture in the Scriptures and in the church in calm times, we will never find inner peace in stormy times. In panic, you go to what you have practiced all along. Practice prepares; ask athletes, ask pilots.
Finally, the disciples point to the truth about Jesus, when they ask the question: "Who then is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?" That question will not be asked again in Mark's gospel until four chapters later when the question is posed by Jesus himself. Jesus said to Peter: "Who do you say that I am?" And boldly Peter confessed: "You are the Messiah! God's anointed one. The Son of the Living God!"
In the second century, generations after the death of Jesus and the disciples, artwork began appearing in the church altars and frescoes. The ancient church was depicted as a boat, sometimes as a boat on a stormy sea. And as that art developed, a figure often appeared in the boat, a picture of Christ in the boat, not on the land in safety, but in the boat in trouble.
In the squalls of our lives, our church, our world, aren't you delighted and honored and awe struck that Jesus is "in the boat." Aren't you and I blessed that he is beside us in the storms of life? I take comfort in that. But not just any Jesus. The name Jesus was a rather common name in the first century, but Mark tells us that Jesus was "the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God." Do we really believe God would swamp the boat with the "Anointed on board?" After all this is the One who said once and says day by day to us: "Peace! Be still!" So said the Apostle Paul to young pastor Timothy: "Now may the Lord of peace give you peace at all times and in all places, calms and squalls."
So the wisdom writer of Proverbs reminds us in 3:5 (we read this before Session lately.) to "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all ways, acknowledge him and God will direct your paths."
I remember memorizing Proverbs 3:5,6 at church camp, but I was too young to apply it to my life because I had no real storms that needed stilling in my life. But after disappointments and the loss of family members and some friends, and after back surgery ten years ago, I know what it is to trust in the Lord with all my heart.
Westminster has gone through some storms lately, but the Lord has this good church in his hands. Our nation is moving through storms of wind and rain and storms of race and justice. Our world is being tossed by storms of war: Afghanistan, ISIS, threat: North Korea. I have a Korean American pastor friend in our Presbytery whose father and mother serve a church in Seoul South Korea. They, and we, pray, seek, and work for peace.
The disciples one night asked Jesus, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" And they looked to him as he said to the storm, "Peace, be still." So we look to Christ amid calm and storm. My dad used to say, "Look to people and you'll be disappointed. Look to yourself and you'll be discouraged. Look to Jesus and you'll be delighted." Proverbs 2:18 says, "Where there is no vision the people perish."
Our Mission Statement on our screen each week is our vision at Westminster. Let's read it together: We are a gathering place filled with God's grace, helping us become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ."
May it be so. For the grass withers and the flower fades but the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church