Questions From Jesus: "Why Are You Terrified?"
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Questions from Jesus: Why Are You Terrified?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 25, 2019
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements-- surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
8 "Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?--
9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
11 and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped'?
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side."
36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.
37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.
38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
41 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?"
She couldn’t tell them that everything was going to be okay. She couldn’t even tell them what was going on. But they had to trust her. They had to do what she said.
My friend, Abby, was teaching at a preschool near the U.N. headquarters in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. The teachers were told there was a fire or something at the World Trade Center, and they had to get all the students into the basement. Abby could sense there was more to it than what they were being told. She was afraid. For herself and for her students. Something bad was happening. Very bad.
The students began to sense her fear. They started asking questions. They started to get caught up in her fear storm.
Fear rules our lives from beginning to end. From the terrifying experience of being pushed or pulled from the womb to the dread of death’s inevitability, fear has the capacity to dominate our entire existence. And more often than not, we allow fear to have that power over us. We submit to fears of meaninglessness, insecurity, rejection. We bow to fears of pain, powerlessness, and poverty. Our fear of the power of God is overridden by our fear of the gods of power.
This thread of fear runs through the gospel as well. At the announcement of Jesus’ birth and the announcement of his resurrection, angels must compel their listeners, “Do not fear.” And in our text today, a quarter of the way through Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus’ disciples apoplectic with fear as a storm overwhelms their vulnerable vessel.
Jesus had just finished telling parable after parable describing the kingdom of heaven. It’s a kingdom where God’s grace is given to everyone, but not everyone responds in the same way. It’s a kingdom where we reap the benefits of God’s grace, where growth and life occur outside our control and understanding. It’s a kingdom where the smallest seed of faith can grow into a place of comfort and peace for everyone.
What these parables all boil down to is that the kingdom of God is a place where God is powerful and trustworthy, and where God’s goodness is for everyone. This kingdom is not some far-off fantasy but something that is happening here and now, all around us. Jesus has come to initiate this kingdom, to demonstrate it, and to help us live into it.
Up to this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ ministry has primarily been about teaching. He’s used parables to try to illustrate what God’s reign looks like. But now he’s ready to start the show part of his show and tell.
Jesus suggests to the disciples that they should hop into a small, rickety boat and head across the Sea of Galilee. Now, this body of water was known to be volatile and unpredictable. And, like many of us know from hiking in the mountains, storms are most likely to blow in swiftly in the late afternoon and early evening. So the disciples were likely already anxious before they ever pushed the boat off the shore.
Not only did they have stormy waters to fear, but their destination on the other side of the sea was not one where they expected to find a welcome. This was the first foray into gentile territory for the ministry of Jesus and his followers. They had no idea what they would encounter when they reached the other shore. They could have been met by an angry mob and turned away. What they did end up finding there was something rather terrifying: a man possessed by a legion of demons.
This is all to say, the fears of the disciples were real, and well-founded. This is not a story teaching us to not be afraid of the unknown or to not worry about frivolous things. This is not a story for those times in our lives when we’re fretting about which outfit to wear to a party or angsting about our kid’s grades in school or agonizing over whether or not our neighbor is mad at us. This is not a story about pointless worry. It is a story about fear. Real, rational, debilitating fear.
We’ve all felt it at some point or another. Life-threatening danger. Life-altering turmoil. Those dramatic episodes when the outcome is entirely uncertain and potentially tragic.
As I walked nearly three miles across the city, from the place I worked to my friend, Abby’s, school, I felt that fear. Down the streets of Manhattan, eerily empty of cars, only emergency vehicles screaming by. No cell phones were working. No taxis were running. The subway had shut down.
After an hour or so, I found Abby, releasing the last of her students into their parents’ relieved embrace. She asked me what happened. She still didn’t know. And I had to tell her that the sea was churning, the waves were overtaking us, and God seemed to be asleep at the wheel.
Abby listened and took in the news. We watched the fire trucks and police cars and ambulances continue to fly down the street as they arrived from the boroughs and upstate and even out of state, racing toward the danger, driving directly into what we feared. And then Abby said, “Let’s go see if we can give blood.”
The storm calmed. The waves quieted down. We awoke to the realization that goodness was still somewhere. And we hoped, maybe even came close to trusting, that goodness could somehow overpower this evil we had been swept up in.
Jesus wasn’t sleeping peacefully because he knew everything would work out, that they’d make it across the sea through the storm just fine. He was sleeping peacefully because he knew everything would not work out fine. He was born to die. And not in a peaceful, pleasant way. Many of his disciples would share in his suffering. Everyone in that boat would face storms more terrible than these winds and waves. Jesus never tells the disciples there is nothing to fear.
But Jesus trusted that in life and in death, he belonged to God. He had come from God, and he would return to God. Whatever happened, God was with him, so much a part of him that they were One.
And he trusted that God was mightier than wind and waves, mightier than angry mobs and political pawns, mightier than the pain of crucifixion, mightier than death itself. So in the midst of all those storms, he could trust God and be at peace.
Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid?” not because we have nothing to fear, but precisely because we have so much to fear. If we allow it, our whole lives could be enveloped in fear. And many lives are.
Millions of women live in fear of violence from an intimate partner. Thousands of immigrants live in fear of deportation. Nearly 1 in 5 kids in Colorado live in fear of hunger. Human beings on this planet face very real, present, rational fears that impact our quality of life or life itself.
Compound those real and present dangers with all the possible and potential threats we face – climate change, wars and rumors of wars, financial catastrophe, health crises – and our lives stand a good chance of being absolutely consumed by fear. Real, legitimate fear.
But this is not what we were created for. This is not the abundant life God desires for us. This is not the kingdom of heaven Jesus was sent to bring to earth.
Jesus came to free us from fear. Fear of scarcity. Fear of one another. Fear of violence. Even fear of death itself. God took on human flesh and encountered each and every one of these fears so that God could conquer them all.
The disciples were clearly missing this. As Jesus snoozes through a potentially fatal situation, the disciples are freaking out. I wonder what would have happened if they had instead followed Jesus. If they had curled up next to him and dozed off.
Maybe their boat would have capsized and they all would have drowned. Maybe those other boats would have been lost, too. That would have been terrible and tragic.
Those tragedies are not uncommon. So far this year, nearly 1,000 migrants have drowned in their attempt to reach shores that will probably not welcome them. Jesus and his followers could have been just another statistic. Just another group that should have stayed home. Just a bunch of idiots who should have known better than to get into a boat on a dangerous body of water at the wrong time of day.
But that isn’t what happened. Because there was one person in one boat with the power to command the wind and the waves. There was one person in one boat who trusted God so completely that their wills were one and the same. There was one person in one boat who refused to let fear win the day.
And the good news is, that person is always in our boat. Always. It doesn’t mean that we have nothing to fear. It doesn’t mean that everything is going to be okay. It’s not.
But it does mean that we don’t have to let fear win the day. It does mean that we can trust that no matter what happens, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. No tragedy. No trauma. No turmoil. The love and goodness of God are greater than anything on earth we might fear. Because Jesus is always in our boat.
An interesting detail that is included, seemingly randomly, in this story, is that there were other boats on the sea with the disciples. The camera lens focuses in on the drama occurring on Jesus’ boat, but when the storm is finally calmed, all of the people in all of the other boats are rescued as well. Even those who didn’t reach out to Jesus for help, even those who may have never known it was Jesus who miraculously calmed the storm, were saved. This is just one little hint that, while our faith might transform our lives, it is Jesus alone who saves us, not our faith.
But that doesn’t mean faith is unimportant. When Jesus asks “Why are you afraid?” he answers his own question. We are afraid because we still don’t have faith.
Jesus isn’t talking about blind adherence to church doctrines or an emotional acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. He’s talking about trust. He’s not asking the disciples if they believe in the inerrancy of scripture or in the doctrine of the Trinity. He’s asking, “why don’t you trust me?” “I’m right here. I’m in the boat. I’m not going anywhere. If this boat sinks, I’m going down with it. Trust me. I care if you’re perishing.”
Instead of freaking out with the disciples, Jesus had been trying to demonstrate what trust looked like. But they missed it. They saw the miracle. The power to quiet the wind and calm the waves. But they missed the point of Jesus sleeping through the storm.
And we miss it, too. We get caught up in faith as a decision or as a rational possibility. Faith as a leap or a journey.
At heart, faith is the ability to sleep peacefully through the storm. To know that Jesus is in the boat. That he cares what happens to us. That if we go down, he’s going down with us. And that he is more powerful than anything we could fear.
Fear is natural. Rational. Real. But so is trust. May God grant us the grace to look to Jesus in the storms of our lives. To see him resting peacefully. And instead of frantically shaking him awake, to at least try to lay down and sleep next to him. Whether the storm passes or we go down with the ship, may we trust that God’s goodness and power and love will be mightier than any terror or tragedy we might fear.
Thanks be to God. Amen.