St Christopher’s, Rantoul—Mark 4:35-41
Everything was in chaos. The wind was blowing. Rain was falling. Waves were crashing. The small boat was in imminent danger of capsizing. And Jesus . . . Jesus was sleeping. “Master, wake up! We’re all about to die. Don’t you even care?”
As long as human beings have told stories, and searched the world of nature for appropriate metaphors and symbols for our fears and passions and anxieties, the sea—particularly a stormy sea—has represented to us the terror of Chaos—the great abyss that threatens to swallow us up and absorb us in a great ocean of nothingness, devoid of meaning, devoid of hope, devoid of life.
So, when we encounter stormy seas in our voyage through life, when we feel ourselves like those terrified disciples in a storm-tossed boat, it is sometimes difficult to sustain belief in God’s active and caring presence with us. When we read about wars and famines and earthquakes and hostage taking and tidal waves and droughts and layoffs and downsizing and unprovoked murders, we wonder whether God might be asleep. When we experience chronic illness and senseless accidents and adulterated marriages and family dysfunction and betrayal of trust, when constant prayer seems to go unanswered, we want to grab a sleeping Jesus by the scruff of the neck and shout at him, “Lord, can’t you see we’re dying over here? Don’t you care?” The abyss yawns before us, the monster of Chaos looms over us, and we are anxious about it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, waking and sleeping, aware and unaware.
When I was younger, one of the most compelling of my recurring dreams was that of a huge tidal wave, several hundred feet high, obscuring the sky as it crests and begins to break and crash to the earth in utter destruction. Dreams, they say, trade in the currency of symbols, and I suspect this robust oceanic symbol represents my own unconscious anxiety about the imminence of chaotic destruction—an anxiety, as I have said, that we all share. Like that cresting tidal wave in my dream, the sea of chaos threatens to overwhelm us—threatens to overwhelm our health, our relationships, our children, our finances, the society around us, politics—for certain, and even the church.
But the danger . . . the danger is not in these threats themselves. The danger to us lies in our fear of them. Fear and anxiety corrode our spirits into doubt, cynicism, and despair. Picture that long forgotten flashlight battery that you found on a shelf in your garage or your basement—the acid on the inside had eaten through and destroyed the shell itself. When we are spiritually corroded, we turn in on ourselves. We become smaller people, as we try to construct a world that we think we can predict and control, a world with no loose ends or untidy corners. We build fences around ourselves, both literally—notice the popularity of gated, and therefore supposedly secure, residential subdivisions—and figuratively. We look for chemicals and/or relationships to provide us with protection from an advancing chaos. Of course, they are not up to the task, but we can easily end up abusing both chemical substances and relationships in the process. Each of us has seen it happen. It has happened to us.
But there’s good news today, in the midst of all this anxiety. The good news can be summed up very simply: Jesus woke up! He did not remain obliviously asleep in the back of that boat. He responded to the efforts of his devoted, if not entirely faith-ful, followers to rouse him. The scriptural narrative doesn’t say whether he stood up, but I like to imagine that he did—Jesus stood up in the boat and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And they obeyed. The wind died down, and the waters of the Sea of Galilee settled down into a calm. The threat dissipated, security and hope were restored.
Security and hope were restored to the disciples, but they and we are, so to speak, in the same boat! Jesus’s mastery of that storm on the Sea of Galilee is a token of his mastery over the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us. Ultimately, it’s all a matter of the difference between what we see and what God sees. We see chaos—God sees the same chaos, but he also sees order—his order, order flowing from the essence of his own Divine Being, in the midst of that chaos. God’s order is like a guerilla army in the domain the Chaos, subverting it one soul at a time, calming the sea one wave at a time, slowing the wind one molecule at a time. Even when we can only see chaos, God sees order.
You know how, when you print out an email, there’s all the gibberish before and after the actual text of the message? Well, what looks like gibberish to you and me isn’t gibberish to everybody. There are actually people to whom that stuff means something. They see order where we see chaos. Or think of the way a non-musician experiences a page of printed music. It’s just ink on a page. But a trained musician can look at those ink patterns and hear a Beethoven symphony or a Bach chorale or a Taylor Swift song. It’s all in what you see. And God sees what we don’t. Jesus calming the storm is a reassuring reminder that he sees order in the chaos of our lives, and that he is ready to stand within our hearts and say, “Peace! Be still!”
From time to time, as we grow in faith, we actually get to experience increasingly larger fragments of this sort of “peace that passes understanding.” And in those moments, we are left in awe-filled wonder at the unspeakable privilege of being in a personal relationship with such a God. This realization, in turn, shifts the balance of our prayers away from petition, asking God to do this or that, and toward adoration, enjoying God simply for who God is, and desiring nothing more than to be in his presence. This is exactly what happened to the disciples in the boat with Jesus. While the storm raged, their prayer was one of petition, “Lord, save us!” When the wind and the sea were calmed, their “prayer” took on a tone of adoration: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” When we are less mature in our faith, all we see is chaos, all we are aware of is our own neediness, so our prayer tends to be heavily oriented toward petition. But as we grow in the life of grace, we begin to see as God sees, and patterns of order begin to emerge. The gibberish starts to tell a story. The ink blots begin to sing a song. Our prayer shifts to adoration. Who then is this, that even in the overwhelming chaos of the universe, can command my heart to be still, and to know the peace that passes understanding?