For fishermen ostensibly accustomed to being out on the water—presumably in all kinds of weather—the disciples sure panicked over the weather often enough in the gospels. The only calm one in all those storms-at-sea situations was the land-lubber carpenter from Nazareth. So also here in Mark 4: with just a word, Jesus, who had not been sufficiently bothered by the storm to be awakened by it in the first place, calmed that same storm with apparent ease.
But according to Mark, that was when the real terror of the night began. The only time in these brief verses when the disciples are described as “terrified” is not when the storm was swamping the boats but after Jesus rebukes both the winds and the disciples. The terror in their eyes and in their voices comes not when they are shaking Jesus awake to ask if he doesn’t care whether they live or die but only when they are asking each other, “Who is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
We are not told the disciples were filled with wonder. We are not told they asked this question trembling with joy or anticipation. We are not told that they asked one another this question with excitement rising in their voices. No, we’re told they were “terrified,” and the discerning reader has to wonder why.
After all, the disciples have been with Jesus long enough now to have seen a lot of spectacular healings, including the casting out of some demons. Mark’s Gospel is nothing if not uber-dramatic from start to finish. They have been around Jesus long enough to sense that he possesses phenomenal powers and is, by most any reckoning, no ordinary man or rabbi. True, they’ve not seen him command the very forces of nature in just this way but it wasn’t exactly the first time they’d seen power at work in and through the very words of their master.
Yet they were terrified at this particular display. “Who is this?” they asked.
It’s not a bad question.
It reminds me of a scene I saw in a movie years ago about a man who, to the best of his family’s knowledge, was just a typical insurance salesman from Indiana. In reality he was a highly trained government spy who spoke a half-dozen languages fluently, could wield weapons with the best of them, and knew all kinds of tricks of the spy trade. In the film the man’s wife disappears on a trip to Paris and so, with his son in tow, the man more and more utilizes his spy skills to find his wife back. Early on the man’s son overhears his father speaking fluent French into a pay phone even as he slickly tucked a pistol into his belt. As he emerged from the phone booth, his son—eyes as big as saucers—looked at his own father and asked, “Who are you?” Something was up with his father that he had heretofore never sensed or even suspected.
You can’t blame the disciples for having a similar reaction about Jesus but why had they not asked a similar question earlier when demons fled before Jesus, when paralyzed people stood up and walked, when lepers were made clean? And not only that but why in Mark 4, when they ask this question, do they do so with terror in their voices? For whatever the reason, it’s pretty clear that this incident with the waves and the wind tipped the disciples off that Jesus was not just a skilled healer but was in fact almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth and, just so, the one who could command those elements as well.
And that maybe was the part that terrified them. It’s one thing to think you’ve hitched your wagon to a highly charismatic teacher and healer. It’s one thing to think you’re in the inside circle of one gifted human being. If you’ve ever had the chance to shake the hand of a president or prime minister or royal figure, you know there is a certain electricity that courses through you at being in the presence of so extraordinary a person.
But things are different in case you realize you are in the presence of not just a gifted person but no less than God himself! Because if you have occasion to realize that you’ve been hanging around with God all along, suddenly you start to wonder about other things. Suddenly you wonder if all along he’s been able to read your mind, know your thoughts, see the envy and the anger and the things you didn’t say (but wanted to) and that were not all that kind. Suddenly you wonder if you’ve been sitting up straight enough and behaving well enough all along, if maybe the things you’ve done and said are going to have consequences well beyond the momentary (as in, maybe into eternity . . .).
As Fred Craddock once said in a sermon about John the Baptist, what made John the Baptist intriguing was that his preaching brought people right into the presence of God which, as Craddock put it, “Is what everybody wants, and what nobody wants.”
The presence of God. It’s what we want, and yet what terrifies us, too. We can only feel safe about it in case we are convinced that the God in whose presence we are is finally a good and gracious God, a God who loves us despite our foibles and sins, despite the things he can see going on in the more fetid parts of our hearts and minds at any given moment.
Thankfully, another part of the answer to the question “Who is this?” is also that he is, indeed, gracious and full of mercy.
Some versions—including the NRSV—try to soften Mark 4:41 by claiming that what the disciples felt after Jesus calmed the storm was “great awe.” But that may not be correct. The Greek says Καi eφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν, which really piles on the fear, claiming that they “feared a great fear.” It’s the kind of thing a frightened child might say, “Daddy, when that big bang of thunder happened, I was scared with a really big scare!” It’s not the kind of thing that sounds like awe. It sounds like “terror”!
There is a scene in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath that reminds me a bit of how the disciples react to Jesus once they start to get a true sense of all the power and strength that he possesses. The Joad family is traveling in their jalopy to what they think will be a new Promised Land in California. Along the way the grandmother of the family gets sick. During a long night Ma Joad lies down next to Granma in the back of the truck. In the morning and just after the family finally had crossed over into California, we read the following as it turns out Ma had laid next to a corpse most of the night:
“The fambly’s here” [Ma Joad said]. Her knees buckled and she sat down on the running board.
“You sick, Ma?”
“No, jus’ tar’d.”
“Didn’ you get no sleep?”
“Was Granma bad?”
Ma looked down at her hands, lying together like tired lovers in her lap. “I wish’t I could wait an’ not tell you. I wish’t it could be all—nice.”
Pa said, “Then Granma’s bad?”
Ma raised her eyes and looked over the valley. “Granma’s dead.”
They looked at her, all of them, and Pa said, “When?”
“Before they stopped us las’ night.”
“So that’s why you didn’ want ‘em to look.”
“I was afraid we wouldn’ get acrost,” she said. “I tol’ Granma we couldn’ he’p her. The family had ta get acrost. I tol’ her when she was a’dyin . . .” She put up her hands and covered her face for a moment. “She can get buried in a nice green place,” Ma said softly. “Trees aroun’ and a nice place. She got to lay her had down in California.”
The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength.
~~ (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath: Penguin Books 2002, p. 228.)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 20, 2021
Mark 4:35-41 Commentary