SCRIPTURE – Mark 4:35-41 – 35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Promises, Promises Sermon Series
#4 – The Promise of Authority
October 30, 2016
We finish up our “Promises, Promises” sermon series today. We’ve been looking at the kinds of promises our political candidates make to us, and how the unreliability of those promises is no comparison to the dependability of the promises God makes to us. So far, we’ve look at the promise of security, the promise of clarity, and the promise of respect. Today, we deal with the promise of authority.
What is authority? Here’s how I would define it. I remember when I was a kid, my family and I were eating dinner at a restaurant in Louisville. While we were in there, a giant ripsnorter of a storm ambushed us. The thunder was shaking the lights, the rain was deafening, I thought I saw the Wicked Witched of the West go by on a bicycle. I was scared to death, and said so more than once. Finally, my stepfather looked at me and said in a calm voice that exuded strength, “I’ll make you a deal. When I get scared, you can get scared. I’m not scared yet, so don’t be afraid.” My fear subsided, and so did the storm.
According to Dictionary.com, authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” So when we talk about authority, we usually mean some’s power or influence over something or someone else. For example, parents have authority over their children to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Ha! I almost made it through the whole sentence with a straight face. But on the surface, it’s true. Those in power have authority, and our candidates work hard to convey an air of authority and to promise us how they will exercise that authority in leading our country, even in a democratic government which severely limits the president’s authority.
But that doesn’t stop our candidates from making authority-based promises, does it? They lead us to believe they will give orders about who gets admitted in the country; they will make decisions about who pays for college tuition; they will enforce obedience to gun laws or tax regulations. But we all know that none of that may actually happen. And yet, the promises of authority have a powerful influence over our vote. Who looks more presidential? Who acts more presidential? Whose promises carry the most weight? When our world seems out of control, when we are anxious or fearful, we’ll put our support behind anyone who promises to make things better, who stands up at the front of the boat and says, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid.” Now, where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, in the Bible, about a zillion times. In our story today, Jesus addresses the disciples’ fear with a different kind of authority, one that is exponentially more powerful than anything an earthly leader has to offer. Clinton and Trump have promised to use their authority to solve our problems for us; Jesus promises to use his authority to show us the power we have over our problems.
Jesus and his disciples were crossing over the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was worn out from doing ministry all day, so he fell asleep. I get that. In the meantime, a nasty storm rolls in, threatening to capsize the boat. The disciples, who were experienced fishermen, start rowing and bailing, and then call out to Jesus for some help.
I’m curious to know what the disciples expected Jesus to actually do when he woke up. Maybe they hoped he would pray for them, because they knew he had some sort of hotline to God. Maybe they thought he would grab a bucket and help them bail. Or maybe they just wanted to know they weren’t alone in the midst of their storm. I’m pretty certain they didn’t expect him to do what he did, or else they wouldn’t have responded with such astonishment.
So Jesus woke up, assessed the situation, and said three words: “Peace! Be Still!” We’re told that immediately the wind ceased and there was a dead calm. I like how the biblical translation The Message says it: “Then the wind ran out of breath.” There are a lot of people in this campaign that I wish would run out of breath. Jesus, where are you when we really need you? With three words, Jesus calms the storm that threatens the disciples’ lives.
How do you hear Jesus when he says these words? I don’t know about you, but so often when I picture Jesus I see the soft, gentle, flowing-haired hippie, holding a little lamb or bouncing a child on his knee. I see him gently touching a leper or speaking softly to a beggar. It’s like he’s a walking lava lamp. “Hey, I’m Jesus. Peace be with you.” I like this Jesus, I can relate to this Jesus, but, honestly, this Jesus doesn’t carry much authority in my book.
But in this story, I don’t think Jesus was whispering sweet nothings. When my daughter Molly was little, my family and I were out to dinner and she was playing in the children’s area with some other kids. At one point she came running over to us crying. We tried to find out what was going on and she told us in between the sobs that a little boy wasn’t playing very nicely with her. “What happened?” we asked. “Well, I had this ball, and he came over and he said he wanted it, and then he…STOLE…MY…BALL!” The way she said those words made all of us lean back in our chairs. It’s as if she were suddenly possessed by the Demon of Wronged Toddlers. Her nostrils flared, her eyes got fiery red, her head spin completely around. I started throwing holy water on her to cool her off. The voice with which she spoke was not her own.
That’s how I hear Jesus in this story. When he spoke these words to the storm, he did so in a voice the disciples had never heard before. He literally commands the wind and the waves to be still, and they do. Up until this point in Mark’s gospel, the disciples have seen Jesus heal people, they’ve heard him teach on a variety of topics and tell his parables, but they haven’t seen anything like this. This is the first of Jesus’ nature-related miracles, and it is a game-changer. Other rabbis could preach great sermons or teach important lessons. There were even some folks who could do miraculous healings. But speaking with the authority of God? Remember, God spoke at creation and brought order to the chaos of the waters. And now Jesus speaks and brings order to the chaos of storm. This ain’t your ordinary kid-loving, flowing-haired rabbi. He speaks and storms stop. That’s a whole new game.
That’s an interesting contrast to the kind of speaking we’ve become accustomed to during this political season. Starting way back in the primaries, the candidates were jockeying for position and attention, and the only way to do that was to speak LOUDLY and over top of someone else who was speaking. Never mind if they actually had anything to say. “It is a tale of an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” said Shakespeare, presumably after watching one of the debates. Just because you raise your voice and talk over another person and speak with authority doesn’t give you authority. What gives you authority is the response to your words, the trust instilled in you by those who hear you.
When we put our trust in someone who is trustworthy, our storms lose their power over us. I remember when I was little sitting on my PawPaw’s lap as he attempted to extract a dangling loose tooth from my mouth. I was scared because I was sure it would hurt, so I refused to open my mouth. He moved his fingers close and said, “What are you afraid of?” and I said, “If you pull my tooth it will hurt!” He said, “I promise it won’t hurt.” I said, “You promise?” He said, “Yes, I promise.” I said, “All right, go ahead.” And he held up the tooth and said, “I already pulled it a few seconds ago when you opened your mouth the first time.” My fear of the pain was so much greater than the pain itself, because I was in good hands.
Jesus promises us that we are in his good, strong hands, and that he is worthy of our trust. This Jesus isn’t cute and cuddly. I don’t know that I could ever snuggle up to this Jesus. But I do know that when I am overcome by a storm that threatens to sink my ship, when it feels like God is asleep and I want to cry out, “Don’t you care that I’m perishing?” I can call on THIS Jesus, the One who speaks with the voice of God, who has the authority to calm the fear and panic inside me that my storms cause.
We have to be careful here for two reasons. First, it would be tempting to extrapolate this story to modern conditions. If Jesus stilled that storm, why doesn’t Jesus bring order to hurricanes and tornadoes and floods? That’s not Mark’s point here, as much as we might like it to be. Mark’s point is that Jesus is with us in the midst of our storms, the literal ones and the metaphorical ones, working to bring order out of the chaos of our crises, speaking to us words of comfort and calm when our boats are rocking. Jesus doesn’t promise to speak peace to all our storms, but Jesus promises to speak peace to us in the midst of our storms.
The second reason to be careful is that this story is like a stick of dynamite. With all our modern sensibilities and intelligence, we are often tempted to spiritualize Jesus’ power, to turn stories like this into metaphors. “He didn’t really still the storm, he just calmed the disciples.” “He didn’t really feed five thousand people.” “He didn’t realize rise from the dead.” Yes, yes he did, and if we forget that, then we lose the power of his authority in our own lives. Annie Dillard asks, “Do we have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we blithely invoke?” When we call on the name of Jesus, we are calling on God. This God can’t be manipulated or bought. This God doesn’t bow to special interest groups or lobbyists. If we truly believe God is the authority of our lives, then our decisions and actions should reflect that. Jesus says, “When I get scared, you can get scared.” But we still live like we’re scared: scared of the future, scared of those not like us, scared of the things that threaten our comfortable existence. Do we forget on whose name we call when we pray? Do we know whose power we’re invoking?
We’ve always had storms. We’ll always have storms. No matter who’s elected, there will be chaos in need of order. Neither candidate will be able to provide that, especially if they have a congress led by a different party. Their power will be constantly challenged, their authority constantly usurped. That’s the nature of a democracy. By design, there will be disagreement and lack of order, decisions to complain about, and disobedience.
So let’s promise to put our authority in the One who promises to be with us through our storms. Let’s steer our rudder toward our God, who is fierce and fiercely loving of us. Let us follow the one who says, “I’ll make you a deal. When I get scared, then you can get scared.” If we give God the authority in our lives, if we put our trust in Jesus, we may find our storms aren’t as big as we thought they were. Do not be afraid.