Emanuel: God with us

Mark 4:35-41

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Several days each week I have our children all day long. This means that if I need to run errands, the children come with me. No big deal, it’s all a part of parenting. They are currently at the age where when they see things they ask for them. No amount of reason seems to help. “Dad, I want a gumball.” “But you just got a gumball at the last stop.” It doesn’t matter, they still want a gumball.

Wednesday we made a trip to Lowes for some hardware, and they did a wonderful job and were very patient as we walked up and down those long aisles, looking for just the right lag bolt. So I told them that they could get a candy bar and share it on the way home if they could agree on one. And they were wise beyond their years, selecting a KitKat, which could be broken into four equal pieces, two for each child.

You may recall that it was a very hot week, with temperatures often in the 90’s. So after carrying the KitKat for about 10 minutes and placing it in the mobile greenhouse that we call the Subaru, the chocolate was less than solid. But they tore into the KitKat, broke it into pieces, and shared it very willingly, while spreading molten chocolate on their clothes, faces, and the inside of my car.

As I said, my children are now at the age where they ask for things any time they see them, even if they have just received a treat. And if you know the geographical location of Lowes, you probably also know that the driveway meets Richmond Road right beside Dunkin Donuts. From the back seat I hear a chocolate-covered three-year-old call out, “I want Dunkin Donuts. Last time I was there I got little donuts in a bag because they were out of boxes.”

I have never taken my children to Dunkin Donuts, and I assume that my wife has not, either. But this story was too full of details to be made up. It sounded like she was talking about the little donut holes. And rather than put them in a little box, like they must ordinarily do, they put them in a bag.

So I said to Hadley, “Who takes you to Dunkin Donuts? Who said that it was okay for you to get donuts?”

She said, “I went with Jesus.”

If your Lord and Savior says that it is okay to get donuts, who am I to argue? Jesus has that kind of authority.

Apparently, Jesus has authority over not only whether we eat donuts or not, but Jesus also has authority over whether the weather cooperates or not. Today we are going to look deeply at this well-known story to see if there is anything that we might often miss because of the familiarity of the passage.

One of the consistent themes that we find throughout the scriptures is that God brings order to the chaos. There is so much chaos in the Bible, and we can easily miss how significant today’s story is if we don’t take the time to consider how the original hearers would have received it. So imagine yourself to be a Jewish convert to Christianity living at the end of the 1st century.

In the Bible and in other faith traditions water had a bipolar reputation. There was good water and there was bad water. Water holds the potential to be quite chaotic.

In the creation story of Genesis 1 we read, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The earth was tohu vabohu, formless and empty. It was chaotic, and there was water. A part of the beauty of the creation narrative is that God takes chaos and brings order to this world. And remember that the creation narrative in Genesis stands as a corrective against the Babylonian creation narrative where Marduke tears Tiamot in two and makes the waters above and the waters below out of her body. The unformed, early earth was chaotic, and the water was especially dangerous.

Six times in the Old Testament a sea creature named Leviathan is mentioned. All 34 verses of Job chapter 41 are dedicated to describing the power of this beast, who has kind of a satanic vibe going on. And in Revelation 13 the great beast comes out of the sea.

The sea had great potential for giving life. The 23rd Psalm talks about God “leading me beside still waters.” The Hebrew Scriptures talk about the symbolic washing that represented the forgiveness of sins and the holy nature of God’s people. Jesus offers “living water” to the woman at the well. Baptismal water is a symbol of rebirth. One of the major staples of the Hebrew diet, fish, came out of the sea. Some bodies of water, like the Dead Sea, had high salt levels and the water could be collected and dried down, leaving salt for preserving meat. Water was life, but it also had this potential for chaos and even death.

The disciples would have known this bipolar nature of the sea. A few of them made their living on the sea as fishermen, and they all grew up and lived near the sea. Yet they made the decision to get into the boat to sail across the sea with Jesus. Let’s look at the passage.

The fourth chapter of Mark is filled with stories of Jesus teaching beside the Sea of Galilee. He tells one parable after the next, and goes on and on for who knows how long. So the first verse of our text for today is important where it says, “On that same day.” Jesus is worn out from teaching. Mark says that Jesus wants to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, so they hop on a boat and set sail, leaving crowds of people behind.

It is no surprise then that Jesus decides to catch a quick nap as they cross over to the other side. But a storm pops up and things get chaotic. The waves are splashing and crashing over the side of the boat. They probably have to drop their sail because the wind is too great, so they have no chance of sailing out of the storm. They are going to have to ride it out or go down trying. And where is Jesus? He is sleeping. And Mark specifies that he is sleeping on a cushion. Obviously, it is a very comfortable cushion.

The disciples are getting worried, so they wake up Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Jesus actually seems a little bit reluctant to help, like he is slightly cranky because he was just woken from a really good nap. He says nothing but, “Peace! Be still!” As he does, the wind and the waves die down, and the disciples are in awe.

Do you think that Jesus was speaking to the storm or to the disciples?

I’m not sure what the disciples were expecting of Jesus when they woke him up in the middle of the storm. Maybe they were hoping that he would offer a prayer or maybe just a hand. Maybe he could start bucketing the water out of the boat, we can’t say for sure. But the response of the disciples indicates that they weren’t expecting him to stop the storm.

What they didn’t realize was that Jesus was more than a great leader, a great teacher, or even a great miracle worker. They didn’t realize that he could do more than just help bucket the water out of the boat. They didn’t realize that in him the fullness of God did dwell, that he was God in human flesh. The disciples did not realize that God was there with them on that boat.

One of the temptations that we need to avoid in the teaching of this story is to say that the disciples should have simply had faith in God and done nothing. When the rain and waves are crashing down, it is a good idea to pray, but pray while you grab the buckets and batten down the hatches. Faith is important, but so is action.

So when Jesus says in verse 40, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” I don’t hear this as Jesus criticizing them for taking action in the midst of the storm. I think that they are being criticized for not yet knowing who he is, for not realizing that God was there with them in the boat the entire time, that they were in the same boat as God.

On Wednesday evenings churches around the world open their doors for mid-week activities. Church council, prayer meetings, and Bible studies. It is a place where people come and expect to feel safe, a place that people come to grow closer to God. But as you have surely heard by now, this past Wednesday a church in South Carolina went from being a house of refuge and prayer to the site of multiple homicides; a hate crime. Some are even calling it an act of terrorism. On Wednesday nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, including the pastor, were shot to death by a visitor who joined them in their Bible study. Early reports told us that the murders were committed against African American men and woman by a White man as an act of white supremacy.

I don’t know about you, but I am really getting tired of hearing stories of mass shootings. I remember clearly the day I heard the news about the shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, the Aurora, CO movie theater, and Newtown, CT. This killing seems to have an additional level to it since it was likely race related, especially in the midst of the heightened racial awareness that has accompanied the stories of excessive police violence against African American men. If we aren’t hearing stories about innocent people being shot down we are hearing stories about the backlash from the communities involved. It is sad, it is scary, and it is chaotic.

And I’ll just be honest, I know that these kinds of stories provide opportunities for discussion, but I despise, I HATE, when in the middle of the drama and pain people decide to push their political agendas. Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to talk about gun control, concealed carry laws, race relations, and so on. But when our emotions are high and our sense of safety seems to be threatened, we say things that we should not say in ways that we should not say them. I want to have these conversations, but let’s take a few days to mourn the loss of nine brothers and sisters in Christ first.

I asked you to consider today’s passage of scripture as if you were a Christian living at the end of the 1st century when the book of Mark was written. It is very possible that when the first Christians would have received this book as a letter that was sent to the churches that they simply heard this as a story of a miracle, of Jesus controlling the rain and the waves. As far as miracles go, this one is right up there! But whether you grew up as a Jew or a pagan, you grew up knowing the chaos associated with water. And as Jesus calls out, “Peace! Be still!” you would hear the connection between the calming of the storm and the ordering of creation. Yes, this is a story about a miracle. But even more so, it is a story of the divinity of Christ. It is a story of the one who brings peace and order to chaos.

As a Christian in the 1st century you would know a few things about chaos as well. The book of Mark was written around the time when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and when Nero began persecuting Christians, feeding them to the lions and burning them to light up his gardens. I would have to assume that when these 1st century Christians heard about Jesus calming the storms and calming the chaos that they thought of the chaos in their own lives.

Moving back into our own time and place, I do not think that we would be out of place to pray for God to silence the storms once again. We are in the middle of a storm of hatred, a storm of injustice, a storm of racial tension, and a storm chaos. And though we cannot always feel him or sense him, we know that Jesus is right here with us. We are all in the same boat. The very God who promised to never leave us nor forsake us is right here and he isn’t going anywhere.

Like the disciples on the boat, we are called to do two things: we must remember that God is with us and we must keep working. Jesus’ criticism of the lack of faith on the part of the disciples wasn’t a call to do nothing, but an invitation to remember who he is.

Blogger David Henson wrote on today’s passage about the God who is in the boat with us through thick and through thin. He concludes his article by asking, “Imagine if the disciples had been awestruck not that the winds and seas had obeyed Jesus, but that Jesus had stayed in the boat while the seas raged around them.”

I come back to that church in Charleston, SC where nine members were killed in a racially-driven hate crime. The name of that church is Emanuel AME Church. Emanuel, we are told in the book of Matthew, means “God with us.”

In the midst of the chaos that covered the face of the earth on that first day of creation, God was there, bringing order to chaos, saying, “Peace! Be still!” On the boat that stormy day when the chaos of the storm swept over the sides of the ship, God was there, bringing order to chaos, saying, “Peace! Be still!” And in the 1st century when Christians were on the run because they were being fed to the lions as a part of a spectator sport, God was there, bringing order to chaos, saying “Peace! Be still!”

Where is God today as the people of the Emanuel AME church, the African American community, and all people around the world fight to find some sort of meaning in this chaos? Emanuel, God with us. God is with us, bringing order to chaos, saying, “Peace! Be still.”

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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