Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
For our sermon series this winter, we’re trying to see Jesus again through the eyes of those who encountered him face to face.
We began last Sunday with his own family members: his cousin John the Baptist and his mother and brothers. Today we turn to the disciples who followed Jesus most closely, his inner circle. A number of them were fishermen by trade, which already made this morning’s sermon title hard to resist (a title borrowed from a best-selling book about Olympic rowers from the Seattle area). And in all three of this morning’s texts from the gospel of Mark, “in the boat” is precisely where we find the boys. So let’s take each story in turn and see what the disciples’ maritime perspective can teach us about Jesus.
First in chapter 1. This episode comes so early in Mark’s gospel that we haven’t learned much about Jesus yet. So far we only know he was baptized by John (that story is told in just 3 verses), that he was tempted in the wilderness (that story is told in just 2 verses), and then his whole preaching ministry in Galilee so far is summed up in a single verse just before the passage we read today: “The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Mark’s narration is so sparse on detail, we’re left wondering what – if anything – these four fishermen had heard about Jesus before he turned up and asked them to join him. And that’s not the only remarkable thing about their story here. You may remember we talked last week about the word “immediately” being quite common in Mark? It’s a word that appears twice here in just a few verses, as each pair of brothers is said to drop what they’re doing (nets, boats, all of it) and “immediately” follow Jesus.
So clearly Jesus, through their eyes, was a compelling figure. He must have connected with them on a significant level for them to do this seemingly impetuous thing, abandoning the life and the livelihood they’d known to join an itinerant preacher as he made his way from town to town. Certainly we see Jesus noticing and appreciating their skill as fishermen as he defines their new role in familiar terms: from now on, you’ll be fishing for people. And whatever it was about that encounter that convinced them, it was enough. Immediately they dropped their fishing nets to follow him.
I also find it interesting that for all we’ll read later on about crowds following Jesus, here in chapter 1 we find him to be the one who’s walking around doing the finding. Notice: he’s not waiting at home for a posse to appear. He goes to them. He calls and appoints them to be on his team.
Skipping ahead to chapter 4, it’s presumably these same disciples, along with several others Jesus had since called to follow him, who are out with him in a boat, making their way from one shoreline preaching location to another. While they’re out, “a great windstorm” comes up, and waves are suddenly crashing all around them. It doesn’t take much imagination for us to put ourselves in the disciples’ boat shoes here and picture even the most experienced among them fearful and struggling against the waves. And where is Jesus? Taking a nap on some cushions in the back. So I suppose one answer to the question “who is Jesus through the disciples’ eyes?” would be: he’s an extremely sound sleeper! (To each is given gifts, and the ability to sleep through anything has never been one of mine, so already I’m impressed.)
More importantly, though, once they wake Jesus up, the disciples find him to be unflappable in the face of this big storm. They’re all terrified, as water pours over the bow and the oars aren’t getting them anywhere against the force of the waves, but he’s not a bit worried. He exudes calm under pressure, I suppose you could say. Or does he perhaps know something they don’t know?
We soon find that he does, when he commands the wind and the waves to stop…and they do! And I love the way the story is told there. The text says he “rebukes” the wind and tells the sea: “Peace! Be still!” In other words: “Cut it out, guys! Settle down!” Amazingly enough (amazing, that is, from the disciples’ perspective), that does the trick. We who have the benefit of the whole story know this is because Jesus is one with the God of creation, who spoke the whole earth into being, creating light from darkness and with his words forming the sea and the dry land. Knowing just what to say to quiet a storm would be well within his skill set. And sure enough, like obedient children heeding a parent’s instructions, the wind and the waves return to a dead calm.
This particular miracle at sea will be just one of many times when Jesus shows himself able to control the natural world in unexpected ways. But here already, in Mark 4, we’re adding “superhero” to the list of ways the boys in the boat now see Jesus. Able to calm a storm simply by having a word with the wind and the waves? What fishermen wouldn’t want this guy on their team?
Jesus challenges the disciples here too, asking them why they were so afraid. “Have you still no faith?” But how should we hear his tone of voice when he makes comments like these? Given what’s just happened, I wonder if he asked the question in playful, teasing way to the poor, wind-battered bunch, perhaps trying to get them to crack a smile as they recovered from their terrifying ordeal. Perhaps gently inviting them to gain a bit more confidence in his power, a bit more trust in his ability to take care of them with each act of grace and protection they witnessed. As if to say: when I’m your travelling companion, don’t worry, a few waves aren’t going to get in our way. The story concludes with the disciples wondering, awe-struck: “who is this man?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there were lessons they needed to learn more than once, so when we flip ahead to chapter 6, we’ll find the same boys out in a boat once again. This time Jesus has gone off by himself to pray, so it’s just his posse making their way through the water, minus Jesus as their superhero travel insurance policy. (Even a superhero needs to recharge now and then.) Once he’s finished praying, Jesus notices they’re having a rough go of it - the text says he sees them “straining at the oars against an adverse wind” – but he doesn’t seem inclined to intervene at first. He’s just minding his own business walking by them on the sea while they struggle … you know, walking by… on the sea… as one does… It’s no wonder they thought he was a ghost. Your average rabbi doesn’t walk by you, as you’re rowing your boat across a lake. But here again, Jesus offers comforting words. It’s ok guys, don’t be scared, it’s just me. And notice his calming presence too. In this case he doesn’t even “rebuke” the elements. He just quietly gets in the boat with his friends, and the wind stops, and their jaws drop. Again, marveling at his power: how’d he do that?
Many of us have a special place in our hearts for the twelve disciples because it’s so easy to see ourselves in them. When they’re confused or astounded by Jesus, we often are too. When they have a bit of trouble with things like faith and trust, heaven knows we can too. But even when they were fearful, even when there were big gaps in their understanding of what Jesus was about, they clearly saw enough in him to realize what a gift it was that he had called them.
Thank God they did. Because from them we learn so much about Jesus. We also learn that following him doesn’t mean we’ll always understand everything he’s trying to teach us, nor does it mean we’ll always have smooth sailing. We’re likely, too, to find ourselves mystified at times by the way God works in the world. We’re likely, too, to find ourselves in tough situations now and then, rowing against the wind, maybe even fearful for our lives. We can relate!
But the best news of all is that this Jesus, God incarnate, whom those first disciples saw with their own eyes – he’s the very same One who reaches out to us today. He comes to us, finds us, inviting us to follow him. He knows us intimately, knows how to connect with us, calls forth our gifts and skills and invites us to put them to work for God’s kingdom. What’s more, the storms we will inevitably face in this life are no match for his power. While it may feel sometimes like he’s dozed off at a particularly scary moment (Lord, please wake up and give us some help down here!), the fact is he’s there with us, in our boat all along, or walking right alongside us through the waves. And with all that mind-blowing, jaw-dropping, storm-stopping, water-walking power at his disposal, get this: He’s eager for us to join him on his mission.
So I guess the only question that remains is: how do we respond when Jesus shows up?
Whether in any given moment he’s asking us to drop our nets and set off in a new direction, or encouraging us to have a bit more faith in his power, or sticking close by us as we row against the wind, we’d do well to look to the boys in the boat and recognize their captain, their Lord, as our own.