Sun, Jun 24, 2018

Stilling what storm?


All day I hovered near the phone, waiting.

It never rang.

For weeks, my best friend, Daniel, had been telling me:

that his grandfather was a keen pilot, who owned a Tiger Moth;

that he would take Daniel flying with him, every Saturday;

and that he would even let Daniel take the controls.

And Daniel had promised that I could go too;

that he would ring, the following Saturday, when they were coming to pick me up.

As a ten year old who was utterly obsessed with flying...

it was a dream come true.

I had awoken early...

and sat attentively in my room, waiting for the call.

At about three o'clock, I disconsolately sulked into the lounge room...

and I explained my disappointment.

My mother rang Daniel's mother.

It turned out that his grandfather did not own a Tiger Moth--

nor any other plane, for that matter.

In fact, he wasn't even a pilot.

Daniel's mother apologised profusely.

I was devastated.

Looking back, of course, I should have realised that Daniel had made up his story.

If I had been thinking at all logically or rationally, I should have known--

it was, clearly, far-fetched.

But I wanted to believe that it was true...

I needed to believe that it was true...

and so I did.


The Bible, of course, is full of stories...

many of which are, quite simply, unbelievable.

Unlike my childhood friend's story, however, they're not intended to hurt or to humiliate.

They may simply reflect the knowledge of the time;

or they may have always been intended to be heard or read in a symbolic way.

And that's certainly the case with this morning's story from Mark's Gospel--

the story of Jesus stilling the storm.

Of course, there are some people who assume that this actually happened...

because they want to or they need to.

But if we put aside such pre-critical naiveté--

if we put aside the assumption that this story was recording an actual, historical event--

it's quite clear that it was always intended to be a symbolic narrative.

For a start, it represents a particular style of ancient Hebrew story telling--

known as Midrash--

where the author takes a Biblical text and expands and crafts it into a story...

in order to make it relevant to his contemporary community.

Here, the author of Mark's Gospel has taken a scriptural text--

most likely that section of Psalm one hundred and seven that we heard read--

and he fashioned a story based upon it.

The Psalm speaks of people caught in a storm at sea crying out to God...

and God rescuing them from their distress...

by stilling the storm.

The Psalm affirms God as one who rescues those in trouble...

because God is sovereign...

because God is, ultimately, in control.

Mark's story takes the Psalmist's affirmation about God...

and imputes it to Jesus.

As many commentators point out... 

this story is affirming that, in Jesus, we experience the fullness of God.


Now, such a theology ought to be more than a little uncomfortable for us, today.

Arising from a worldview that lacked a sense of impersonal causality...

it affirms God as the one who both causes and calms storms.

That leads, inexorably, to a God who is in control of all things--

a God who is a cosmic puppeteer;

a God who wields power in a seemingly fickle, arbitrary, and callous way.

But is that what Mark's story is really about?


I don't believe so.

Indeed, some of the details of the story suggest otherwise.

First of all, Jesus tells his disciples, "Let us go across to the other side".

That expression, "the other side", is actually a double entendre.

The author is using that expression to construct 'symbolic space'.

In crossing to the other side of the lake...

they were also crossing over to the 'other side'--

that is...

they were leaving behind Israel and going to foreign territory;

they were going to Gentile territory;

they were venturing among "the other"--

with all of the connotations that that connotes.

For first century Hebrews, the Gentiles--


were unclean and perverse...

deviants who were capable of anything...

people whom they were brought up to despise and avoid at all cost.

But here, symbolically, Jesus asks his disciples--

and the Gospel's readers--

to accompany him in going to "the other side".

It's not stated why.

But, in the very next story in Mark's Gospel... 

Jesus' first act upon disembarking involves an exorcism--

an act of healing...

an act of inclusion.

As one commentator puts it, this story is a symbolic journey;

one that represents a call to engage in ministry...

"to overcome the institutionalized social divisions".

This story is a symbolic journey...

that represents a call to participate in Jesus' ministry of reconciliation and inclusion...

of breaking down the barriers that exist between those who are "in"--

or who believe themselves to be "in"--

and those who are not.


And yet...

both here, and in chapter six--

when, again, the disciples are crossing to "the other side"--

a fierce storm arises.

Now, for the ancient Hebrews, the sea, itself, was a symbol of chaos, threat, and danger.

But there's more to it than that.

Here, Jesus "rebuked the wind and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!'"

But that doesn't really capture the sense of what's going on.

In the original Greek, Jesus actually says, "Be silent! Be muzzled!"

Jesus rebukes the wind...

and he commands the sea to be silent and muzzled.

This is, unmistakably, the language of exorcism.

The author portrays this storm as resulting from... 

indeed, representing...

demonic powers.

The storm represents those forces that seek to thwart the mission of Jesus and his disciples.

It represents those forces that are trying to prevent reconciliation, inclusion, and life.

Clearly, opposition to the breaking down of barriers--

to the inclusion of the excluded...

and the embrace of the "other"--

could only come from within;

this is, from others within the wider religious community...

those who had theological or ideological objections...

or who felt threatened.

Rather than present that as a different but legitimate voice...

the author describes such opposition as destructive and chaotic...

and in demonic terms.

He proclaims that those forces that oppose inclusion and life are not of God...

that they are contrary to the purpose and intent of Jesus.

And yet, rather than use that simply to label them as wrong--

as evil... 

and, ironically perhaps, as "other"--

the point of the story is what's actually being affirmed.


In seeking to reach out--

in seeking to include those who are excluded...

and to embrace those who are treated as "other"--

we are, truly, doing the work of Jesus.

But, in doing so, we will meet opposition from within.

We will face the storms and barrages of negativity.

So, take courage!

Do not be afraid!

Keep crossing over to the other side!

Because that is what God, in Jesus, wants.

In so doing, however, the promise is that we are not alone;

that the voices of fear, threat, exclusion, division, and hatred will, eventually, be stilled...

and the love and peace of Christ will reign.

Of this, we are assured.


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