A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, June 20th 2021
‘Leaving the crowd behind, they took him [Jesus] with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.’ (4:36)
Other boats. That’s the only mention that they get. I wonder what it was like to be in one of the other boats. Presumably, they were as storm-tossed as the boat with the disciples in it. Was it like in Psalm 107? The ‘waves mounted up to heaven … [and then] went down to the depths’, then too ‘their courage melted away in their calamity … then they [too] cried to the LORD [God] in their distress.’ (107:26, 28) And, of course, if you were in one of the ‘other boats’ you did not have Jesus directly available to you, ‘in the stern, asleep on the cushion.’ (4:38) (I just love the mention of the cushion.)
I must say, sometimes it feels to me that our situation is in some ways closer to that of the people in the other boats; not so much like that of the disciples in the boat with Jesus. First, we are some distance away from the events in the disciples’ boat. Those in other boats were many yards or miles away, while we are a couple of thousand years away. Second, the storms we face are different to those on the first century Sea of Galilee. We have to navigate our own storms: worldwide pandemic; international politics; the national economy; the future of the church (in this nation as a whole and for this congregation in particular); family crises and tensions; or personal challenges, such as money problems, health issues or isolation.
Thank God, then, for Mark’s Gospel – for the Bible – which allows us to join Jesus and the disciples in that storm-tossed boat; that tells us so much of what went on; tells us about things that can be useful for the challenges we face today. For out of Mark’s sharing of the details of that event comes guidance for facing our own storms; guidance in terms of faith and fear and trust.
In a crisis, faith, it turns out, is not just about belief or understanding. Faith is about trust. The disciples have not yet grasped that. When the going gets rough they appeal to Jesus as their teacher: ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (4:38) They appeal to the one who understands the situation; the one who will know what to do; the one who will provide a solution. They say that when someone is facing a difficult situation, supportive male friends tend to offer solutions, supportive female friends tend to offer solidarity. There may well be some truth in that some of the time. Whatever the case, these (male) disciples are looking for the expert who knows what is going on and will provide the solution to their problems.
Now Jesus, in response to their panicked requests, does still the storm, but he is not very happy about it: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (4:40) Fear, it seems, is destructive of faith. The disciples’ fear damages their faith that God, that Jesus, will keep them safe when a storm comes along. Used to defining faith in terms of what we believe – what we can understand in our heads – we are not well equipped to maintain faith when we are fearful. Yet, like Job, we cannot hope to understand all the whys and wherefores of the situations that face us today, and so always find solutions.
We don’t know everything about where Covid 19 came from or how it will develop, and it’s only one of many, many viruses – the clue should be in the ‘19’ part of the title, never mind the alpha, beta, gamma and delta and potential whole Greek alphabet of variations of this one virus. Yes, the vaccines are wonderful, but other challenges will face us. And even if we sorted out all our health problems, we all have to face the reality of death. And I’ve not even got on to the political, ecclesiastical, social, and personal challenges that face each and every one of us. Like Job, we will never understand it all, or know all of the reasons for why things happen. And when we find these challenges fearful, a faith which is based on understanding alone, is insufficient.
Instead, like those first disciples. we need a faith which is not so obsessed with understanding, but is more rooted in trust. Consider Jesus as an example of trusting faith. Like Jonah once was, he is asleep in a boat in the middle of a storm. Presumably, he was awake when the disciples set sail with him for the Eastern shore of Lake Galilee. Jesus, however, trusted the disciples, and God, enough to leave things up to them in the sailing safety department. Psalm 4:8 – ‘I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O God, make me lie down in safety.’
What we are invited to do is to have faith in God. I don’t mean by that we should believe in God’s existence, though I’m in favour of it. What I mean is that we should trust in God. In difficult times that’s what faith is about. And Jesus personifies for us what trusting faith looks like. As the hymn writer, Thomas Ken put it, in a hymn we would be more likely to sing at an evening service than a morning one, Teach me to live that I may dread / the grave as little as my bed / teach me to die, that so I may / rise glorious at the judgement day. (Glory to thee, my God this night R&S 416)
At this point in Mark’s Gospel the disciples are still more concerned with understanding: ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?’ (4:41) There’s no comment that they know they can depend upon Jesus. They are obsessed with understanding Jesus when they would be better off just trusting him. Now that’s a bit unfair to the disciples. We readers of the Gospel already know who Jesus is because Mark told us right at the start: ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1) It’s only natural to want to know who Jesus is; to know whether there is a God; to understand why things happen the way they do in the world.
Faith, though, first and foremost is about trust, including during, perhaps especially during, hard, frightening times and situations. Such faith, focused on Jesus, though, reminds us that God is with us in the midst of such uncertainties. God is supporting and guiding us; God is keeping us safe in the end, whatever that end might be. So, yes, have faith – trust in God.