Text: Mark 4:35-41
There are certain occasions when translating words a certain way from one language into another misses a critical point.
You may have heard this saying from Proverbs that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) –It’s where we get the phrase God-fearing to mean a good and faithful person.
Yet in today’s reading, Jesus virtually scolds his disciples who are terrified in a storm, and says to them “why are you afraid, have you still no faith?” after having rebuked the waves and stilled the storm.
It’s like the disciples can’t win. Is fear good or bad?
Well… translations don’t serve us well. Proverbs is Hebrew, Mark was in Greek. The words that they each draw from mean very different things, and yet they’re both essentially rendered into English as “fear.” But really, they are different. The sayings from proverbs is better translated as “awe” or “respect” while the New Testament is a type of fear that prevents one from taking action. Jesus essentially calls the disciples cowards!
But then again, Jesus had just done something that everyone understood that only God could do. They stammer out the question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and seas obey him?”
It’s less a question than a hint.
The real question then becomes.
What would you do if you realized God really was paying attention to you?
Mark sort of answers that for us, as Jesus turns to the disciples, scolding them.
“Why are you afraid, have you still no faith?”
Notice Jesus doesn’t say why were you afraid… he asks them why are you afraid. In much the same way as the disciples ask each other, the question Jesus asks is as much for us as it is for them. If we can only understand who Jesus truly is after the resurrection, then we have the benefit of knowing… we have the benefit of hindsight. We already know… and as such, this question punches through history… and lands in our lap. Why are you afraid?
Part of this is realization, briefly understanding exactly who their teacher is. It’s a brief glimpse, but a terrifying one. It is realizing that God actually sits up and notices… that God really cares about who we are, and whether we live or die. Remember that question that the disciples scream at Jesus in the midst of the storm? Do you not care if we drown? It was entirely rhetorical. Yet the storm stops. Jesus implicitly says, yes, I do care. Now what are you going to do about it?
When the disciples stammer out that question at the end of the story, it’s realizing that they are in the presence of the living God. They are so filled with awe that they might be tempted to leap out of the boat and swim away as fast as they can.
What happens when we discover that God actually does pay attention to us? When we realize that God actually does care who we are, and that we matter, that we might truly experience this fear the disciples had. There’s a reason why, as the gospels tell it, the prevailing emotion on the first Easter wasn’t joy. It was fear. Mark’s gospel ends, about a dozen chapters after this one, saying that the women come out to the cemetery, the angel announces, “He is risen from the dead! Go, tell!” and the women “don’t tell anyone because they were afraid.”
Afraid of what? Afraid that Easter might just be true? And we say, “Who is this? Even death is subject to him? It isn’t over until he says it’s over! He makes a way when there was no way!” Just at the point where we think the storm is going to overtake us, where we have resigned our fate, Jesus reaches out and calms the storm… and then calls us to stay in the boat with him.
And it scares the wits out of us.
We come to church every Sunday, listening for a comforting word. We hope that we get a little something that will carry us through the week. Yet, like the disciples in the boat, what happens to us when we realize we are truly in the presence of the living God? When we think about it, good news is downright scary… because it means that everything has changed. Everything is going to be different… death no longer has power over us. This is more revolutionary than we can possibly imagine. That’s why is scares us!
But communities of faith cannot be built on fear. Either a fear of death or a fear of the other.
I was once told of a story of a declining church. They were just about to call it quits. “Lost their neighbourhood,” the bishop told the young pastor as he appointed her there.
She soon found that, though almost none of their members still lived nearby, they did actually have a neighbourhood poor families, a few street people, people like that. So at the pastor’s urging, the church opened its doors to its neighbourhood. They deliberately began to re-engage with their community, much like we are working to now. Some of the members began a soup kitchen for the poor, serving nearly 50 meals every weekday at noon. A health care cooperative took up residence in some of the church’s unused Sunday school rooms, turning them into a health clinic for the poor.
Now, on Sundays, that once declining, mostly empty church is nearly half full of people. That congregation has been resurrected. People from six, seven blocks away are coming to the church that does so much for the neighbourhood.
As inspiring as this story is, the trouble was, many of their best, long-time members just couldn’t take it. They were all prepared for out last days as a church and then, wonder of wonders, their church was raised, God had given them a new mission, a reason for living. And it scared them to death…
When we answer the question, “who then is this?” in our own lives, will we have the courage to stay in the boat?