The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7)
21 June 2015
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
Job 38:1-11, 16-18
2 Corinthians 5:14-21
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When we read the New Testament carefully, with eyes and ears open, and when we read long enough stretches of text, so that the single story being woven by a writer such as Mark can be grasped, we can often detect alongside or within that single story that there are other conversations going on. Sometimes in Mark’s Gospel that conversation is with the those who inhabit the world and the ideology of the Roman Empire, and Mark’s message about Jesus, the Son of God, and the Gospel of the kingdom of God is designed to interrupt the Roman way of thinking, to challenge the claims of Caesar in the light of the appearance of the Messiah. And in other places, and this is frequently the case, Mark’s unfolding of the Jesus-story is done in conversation with the Hebrew Scriptures (which Mark knew best in their Greek translation). In one respect, this makes perfect sense, since that first generation of Christians believed that Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection were all “according to the Scriptures,” and in fulfillment of them. But the real thing that generated all of this inter-canonical conversation, was a question, a question of identity, the Christological question asked about Jesus: “Who is this?”
By the time we reach our Gospel text for this day—reading slowly, attentively, expecting to be surprised—we would have discovered that this question has already been asked explicitly two times (1:27; 2:7–12). The first time, Jesus had entered the synagogue in Capernaum and began to teach; the people were surprised that he did not quote the rabbis’ teaching, nor did he say, “thus says the Lord,” but rather taught on the strength of his own authority. They were even more surprised when he cast out a demon. “Who is this” who gives us a new teaching with authority and who casts out demons? The question is left to hang in the air. But again in Capernaum, scribes, who have just heard Jesus pronounce forgiveness of sins to a paralytic whom he is about to heal, ask the same question: “Who is this who would dare to forgive sins?” Again, there is no answer. And when demons cried out the answer, “You are the Son of God,” Jesus silenced them. Mark answers the question, and in fact has done so at the very outset in the scene of Jesus’ baptism. But it is thematic in Mark, where the unfolding story of Jesus is also an unfolding story of authentic discipleship, that the answer to this question is only slowly divulged, through miracles, parables, and finally by the disciples themselves who boldly declare him to be the Messiah, but who in the next breath reveal the shallowness of their understanding. And in the end it is left for a pagan, Roman centurion, who watched Jesus die, to give the answer.
It is this question — “Who is this? — that forms the conclusion to the story of Jesus’ decisive miracle on the lake. At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has just concluded an extended teaching session in which truths about the kingdom are cloaked in parable, which, like that repeated question “Who is this?” is a device designed as bait to draw the hearers into a learning maze, to capture their imagination and draw them along to that moment of discovery. The scene on the lake plays like a parable enacted by Jesus. We don’t know why, but Jesus wishes to go to the other side of the lake (perhaps for some solitude); the disciples who are front and center take him along in the boat; out of nowhere a dangerous wind blows up, so that waves are coming over the low-sided fishing boat, threatening to sink it. The disciples’ sense of danger, their fear and panic, are described in striking contrast to Jesus who sleeps peacefully on a cushion in the back of the boat. They wake him up with desperate words, anger driven by panic, “Don’t you care if we perish?” This response is all too human, and I think we can easily imagine ourselves doing just the same. But, careful readers that we are, we are meant to discern here an “aporia,” a “disconnect”: apparently, those to whom the secret of the kingdom has been given lack faith. Without a word in response to this shortsighted and rather impertinent question, Jesus takes action that not only answers the immediate impertinence but which also takes us back to that thematic question still hanging in the air, “Who is this?” But as it turns out, this question in Mark, implicit or explicit, has, in various forms, been hanging for some time in Israel’s history.
Mark might be in touch Job and that interrogation of Job by God in our Old Testament lesson. At the core of that scene is the question of the identity of the Creator is “Who is God?” or put in another way, “Do you, Job, really know the Creator to whom you speak?” But it is the poetry of the Psalmist that Mark converses with most closely (Ps 107):
23 Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
29 he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
31 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to the sons of men!
The story of the miracle on the lake is a parable enacted by Jesus in close conversation with such passages in the Hebrew Bible. It is a parable of rescue, but the rescue of the disciples is not foremost. More fundamentally it is a parable, like those of the soils and seeds, which contains a secret, here embedded in a question to be teased into clarity—who is this? Only now the secret is not about the kingdom but about the King. It is a parable of creation; a story that returns us to primordial chaos. Darkness was upon the face of the deep; real darkness as evening turned to night and storm clouds extinguished moon and stars; and the darkness of unbelief is there too. Into this catastrophic maelstrom, God spoke, God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Jesus spoke into the darkness and raging storm; he rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “’Hush, be still!’ And the wind ceased, and the sea became calm.”
The journey of faith is a long one, a life-long trek with highs and lows, successes and failures, and a good deal in between that doesn’t seem to move and is more about inertia. Yet it is striking that the question Jesus puts to the disciples sets the matter out in stark contrast: “Why are you cowardly; do you not yet have faith?” (And there is something of that unequivocal “either/or” in the questions God puts to Job.) But the truth is, when Jesus asks that question, at this point in their journey, the disciples are somewhere in-between; not quite ready to believe what they see; and not quite ready to lie down for a nap when the storm begins to rage. But they are ready to ask the question, “Who is this, then, that even the wind and sea obey him?” And the very asking of the question signals a desire to know more, a yearning, or the beginning of a yearning to crack the code of the kingdom, the willingness to trade in cowardice and unbelief for even the smallest amount of faith in the Son of God whose spoken word is the creative word.
We are not strangers to unwanted, unanticipated storms that blow up out of nowhere, for no good reason we can see. Perhaps even at this moment, what we thought was bedrock in our lives has begun to shift, and darkness is settling in. Such are the times for the impertinent question to God, “Where are you?; Don’t you care?” Don’t worry; God can handle our anger, our panic. But such are also the times when we need to recall a detail from Mark’s story of the storm on the lake: God was in the boat! We may need help to retrieve this memory. Here is where we all enter the story. As brothers and sisters, we come alongside, enter the storm, speaking the words of creative peace; renewing the memory of the calm that came upon the dark waters; asking, echoing, repeating the question about Jesus: “Who is this?” And answering it with our very presence, being for one another, the presence of Christ.
© 2015 Philip H. Towner