I have the privilege of lecturing in New Testament and the first assignment I tend to give to my introductory Gospels and Acts class is an essay on Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4:35–41. I do this for a number of reasons, but primary among them is to have the students think about how difficult such miracle stories can be to preach. For instance, one thing you can’t do (at least, I don’t recommend you do it), is to tell your congregation to “go and do likewise”. In other words, the application for the passage can’t be to go down to you your local lake or beach and command a storm to stop in its tracks.
The inevitable phrase goes something like, ‘If we trust Jesus, he is faithful to calm the storms in our lives.’ But, while this may be true sometimes, it is certainly not true all of the time.
The temptation, then, is to allegorise the text. It’s a common occurrence among the students who write their papers for me and it crops up in sermons too. The inevitable phrase goes something like, “If we trust Jesus, he is faithful to calm the storms in our lives”. But, while this may be true sometimes, it is certainly not true all of the time. And it is certainly not the main point of the text. So where do we go instead?
Firstly, the passage identifies Jesus simultaneously in terms of his humanity and divinity. His humanity is displayed by virtue of his sleeping in the storm after a long day of ministry.
More importantly, his divinity is displayed by the manner in which he commands nature to do his bidding: at his word, the storm is stilled. This is extraordinary. I live on the west coast of Australia, and when a winter cold front blows through, it takes a few days for the swell to decrease and calm to be restored. Yet Jesus speaks and the Sea of Galilee is restored instantly. He speaks order out of chaos in the same way that God speaks order out of chaos in Genesis 1. It is no wonder the disciples are afraid, and in many respects, I can’t help but think it is the most appropriate response. Jesus, the Word made flesh, proves himself sufficient to save.
Jesus speaks order out of chaos in the same way that God speaks order out of chaos in Genesis 1
The disciples on the other hand, prove insufficient to save themselves. If I were a film producer, the scene might go something like this …
As the storm imperils the lives of the disciples, Peter rouses Jesus—maybe throws a bucket at him. He shouts, “Wake up Jesus, help us save ourselves, we’re dying here!”
Jesus responds by throwing the bucket back at Peter (with interest!). He looks Peter in the eye with fierce and uncompromising love and says: “I haven’t come to assist you in your self-salvation project. I’ve come to save you,” And with that, Jesus turns to the storm and says, “Peace. Be Still!”
In the blink of an eye, the disciples are moved from faithlessness to fear, and are now inexorably on the journey towards the faith to which Jesus continually calls them. The most remarkable thing in this passage may be that Jesus saves the disciples in spite of their faithlessness, not because of their faith.
So, what are we to make of a passage such as this? If we can’t say to our students or congregations, “Go and do likewise”, or “Jesus calms the storms in your life”, where does that leave us?
The message of this story is that God, in Christ, enters into the storms with us to save us. Jesus isn’t interested in helping us get ourselves out of trouble (as though we had something to offer). He has come to save us in the most comprehensive way imaginable from evil, sin, and death. Our only contribution to the whole project is our neediness to be saved.
Finally, Jesus beckons us to lay aside the faithlessness and fear that characterises our self-salvation projects to follow him in faith with the knowledge that he is sufficient to save. Jesus alone has faced the fiercest storm of God’s wrath on the cross on our behalf, and was vindicated in his resurrection and ascension. And those who die to their self-salvation projects need not fear any storm, because their lives are hid with Christ. And if we die in him, we will surely be raised with him in glory. That is the Good News behind Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4:35-41.
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