Have you ever noticed how very odd the Gospel story of Jesus Stilling the Storm, which we heard a moment ago, actually is? In saying this, I am not making the glaringly obvious point that for any individual to stand up and rebuke a storm, and for the storm to obey and subside, is pretty weird. No, I am talking about something else altogether.
And this is significant because if ever the details of a particular Gospel narrative seem a bit strange, that is usually a sign that there is rather more going on in the story than first meets the eye. So we need to look at the text a bit more closely.
Jesus has asked the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee with him by boat. And after they have set off, a tremendous storm suddenly arises. Now, until I actually went to Galilee myself and made that same crossing by boat, I didn’t appreciate quite how true-to-life that part of the story is. As those of you who have been there will know, the Sea of Galilee is a massive inland sea measuring 21 km from north to south and 12 km across. And because it is situated at the top of a geographical wind-tunnel, it is notorious for its sudden storms that can be whipped up in seconds: the waves driven against one shore bounce back to collide with those coming in, and the results can be absolutely terrifying if you are caught out in open water, miles from dry land.
So, picture the scene in our gospel story: the disciples are out at sea, there is a terrible storm, and the waves beat into the boat so violently that it is being swamped and in danger of sinking. And what is Jesus doing while all this is going on? – the noise and terror and turmoil and the water hurling the boat around and engulfing it with water? What is Jesus doing? He is lying on a cushion, in the stern of the boat, asleep. Asleep? How could anybody possibly sleep through an experience like that? Very peculiar. And notice what happens next: the disciples wake Jesus up and say to him (and this, too, is rather odd): ‘Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ ‘Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ And, in response, Jesus wakes up, rebukes the wind and the sea, and then says to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
OK – let’s see how good your knowledge of the Old Testament is. Where in the Old Testament do we find a story about a boat journey, in which there is a terrible storm – so dreadful that the boat is about to sink – but the main character in the story is fast asleep below decks. And the captain of the boat comes and wakes him up, saying, ‘What are you doing, sound asleep?’ Get up, call upon your God! Perhaps he will spare us a thought so we do not perish.’ Answer? The Book of Jonah. In other words, when Mark tells us this miracle story, he is doing so in a way that deliberately echoes the story of Jonah. Because he wants us to make a connection between them.
And in doing so, he is in the process inviting us to confront a truth that is so startling, and so profound, that it is positively terrifying. Because in the Jonah story it is Almighty God who calms the storm, and saves the sailors from perishing. In our gospel story it is Jesus. In telling the story as he does, Mark communicates that astonishing truth to us in the most powerful and disarming of ways. No wonder that the disciples are so utterly awestruck that all they can say is, ‘Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
You see, the interesting thing is that although Mark certainly wants us to make a connection between the stories of Jesus and Jonah, both fast asleep in boats that are about to sink in terrible storms, in fact it would seem that it is the contrasts, rather than the similarities in their two stories that he really wants us to notice. We have already seen one of them. Here is another:
If you think back to the story of Jonah, you may remember that the reason why Jonah was on board ship in the first place was because he was trying to escape. God had ordered him to go to Nineveh, to call the people of that city to repentance – but Jonah had responded by fleeing as fast as possible in the opposite direction, which is why God intervenes by sending the storm. In other words, the storm that was overwhelming Jonah’s boat was a direct consequence of his trying to escape his destiny. We are seeing what happens to a man who is desperately trying to flee from his vocation, because the challenge was just too difficult and he couldn’t face it – but as a result he runs into an even worse kind of turbulence instead.
And therein lies a truth that affects all of us. Because God has specific tasks that he is entrusting to each one of us, some of which are not necessarily of our choosing; some of which may hold great fears for us. And although he may call us way out of our comfort zones to do his work, the consequences of ignoring that call also have a hefty price tag attached. Above all, it really can cost us our inner peace. I once had a parishioner who had a very lucrative job at the top of a major corporation, but who never seemed very happy or at ease with himself. One day he let slip to me that actually the one thing that he had always wanted to do with is life was to work with his hands, building cellos. But his career and his mortgage and his comfortable lifestyle and the expectations of his family made it too hard for him to face giving up his lucrative career to follow what he believed was his true vocation. As a result his life was both miserable and turbulent – because although in one sense had everything he could possibly wish for – the one thing that he lacked was inner peace. And sadly, that was eventually to cost him his marriage.
In Jonah we see a man trying to escape his calling; by contrast, in Jesus we see a man who embraces his vocation and his destiny wholeheartedly, to the point where it ultimately costs him his life. There are, of course, times when we see Jesus struggling with that destiny – most obviously in the Garden of Gethsemane. But at no point do we ever see in him any of that profound dis-ease, and lack of inner peace, that is the hallmark of a life lived at odds with God’s will, rather than in accordance with it.
Responding to God’s call is not always easy. It will sometimes require hard things of us; it may sometimes leave us struggling with apparently thankless tasks; it may require profound sacrifices of us. But although the acceptance of our true calling may bring challenges, it is ultimately the one thing that will bring us peace.
Jesus says to his terrified disciples in the boat on the sea, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ There are times when we really do have to learn to stop being fearful; to surrender our lives to God in faithfulness and integrity of heart; because if we do, in his mysterious and unfathomable way, he will heal our wounds, and make our lives complete in ways that we cannot begin to imagine. As St Augustine famously prayed to God: ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’
‘Who, then, is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’