Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 1 Samuel 17:32–49; 2 Corinthian 6:1–13 & Mark 4:35–41
Do you think people feel less secure about life, or less in control of their own lives, than they did before COVID-19? I imagine a lot of people in the world are living in a more heightened state of anxiety now than they were 18 months ago.
It’s interesting that as human beings we tend to be much more at ease and relaxed when everything in our life is going well; when we aren’t faced with any problems or uncertainties. Pre-COVID people were making plans for the future with great certainty, but now there seems to be a degree of doubt about whether the plans we make will actually come to fruition.
The disciples of Jesus are filled with this same doubt and uncertainty in today’s gospel passage. Having finished teaching a large crowd of people by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is actually not a sea but a freshwater lake, Jesus gets into a boat with his disciples to go across to the other side of the lake. However, before they reach the other side they get caught in a sudden and violent storm, which was not an uncommon occurrence on the Sea of Galilee.
When I visited the Holy Land in 2018 we actually went out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and crew members, who were all local people who had lived there their entire lives, were telling us that conditions can become very dangerous, very quickly, especially when a strong easterly wind blows in from over the mountains, which appears to be what happened in today’s gospel passage.
Now the disciples of Jesus had obviously already witnessed him perform a number of miracles, and as Mark tells us (Mark 1:28) Jesus had become famous throughout the region of Galilee for both his teaching and the miracles that he performed. So, knowing that Jesus was with them, why did the disciples panic when their boat was hit by a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee? Jesus asked them that very question when he said, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I suppose the simple answer is: human nature. It’s very easy to believe in something when our belief isn’t being challenged by fear or uncertainty, or when we aren’t facing personal tragedy or suffering.
The disciples however, confronted by the power of nature in the violent windstorm that has sprung up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee, are in fear of their lives. The primal instinct of survival, which is inherent in human nature, supplants their belief and confidence in Jesus. While they might indeed have had faith in Jesus, their faith is still a work in progress. They are still on a journey to understand their faith. Actually one of the major themes which is present in the Gospel of Mark is the failure of the disciples to truly understand who Jesus is, and exactly what his mission is.
We see that again in the last verse of today’s passage when, after Jesus has calmed the wind and the sea, the disciples say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They have been following Jesus, listening to his teaching and witnessing his miracles, but they fail to understand who he truly is. Contrast this with the reaction of the unclean spirits that Jesus casts out of those who are possessed who, whenever they saw him, fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” (Mark 3:11). Clearly they recognise Jesus for who he really is!
If you remember the gospel passage from last Sunday, you will remember that Jesus told the parable of the ‘Seed Secretly Growing’. The seed, sown by the farmer who then goes about his daily work and life leaving the seed to its natural growth process, is the word of Jesus given to people through his teaching. The growth of that seed, which we can say is the development of a person’s faith, or their belief in Jesus and the kingdom of God, takes its own natural course. It is not something that can be hurried or forced. It is also something that is not visible, and that goes by largely unnoticed. But that doesn’t mean there is no growth or development taking place.
It can be very easy for us to feel very comfortable and confident in our faith when all is going well in our lives, but when tragedy or disaster strike, or when we are faced with fear and uncertainty, we can find ourselves feeling somewhat like the disciples in today’s passage. That fear and uncertainty can supplant our faith. But that is not something that we should feel ashamed or embarrassed about – after all, that is human nature.
What we can do, is to remind ourselves of the experience of the disciples and their own journey of faith. We can remember all of the times when they fell short of expectations; the times when they failed to grasp and understand exactly who Jesus was, and what his mission was. And we can remember that it was ultimately their faith that enabled them to proclaim the good news of Jesus throughout the world, despite the great threat to their own personal safety, and that it was their faith that sustained them in their darkest hours.