Job 38: 1-11
Mark 4: 35-41
Last Wednesday some of us gathered to watch the move, The Painted Veil. It is a story of love and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption. In one scene between the Mother Superior of an orphanage and the wife of a doctor, who is battling a cholera epidemic China, the nun says to the woman, “When I was 17 years old, I fell madly, passionately in love with God. But over the years, God has disappointed me, and now God and I are like an old married couple. We don’t talk much any more, but God knows I will never leave him.
Disappointed with God: It is not a subject usually brought up in church. After all, as Christians we are called to love God with the fullness of our hearts, minds and souls, and to admit disappointment appears to be a faithless act. And yet, over more than three decades of ministry, I have heard many, many people express keen disappointment with God. A baby is stillborn; a 12 year old loses her sight; children at the southern border are ripped from the arms of their parents and placed in detention centers. God, where are you? We are in a terrible storm. Don’t you care? Imagine those disciples, out in a boat in a storm, fearful that they might drown. Their fear is not unreasonable, and so they cried out to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Or to put the question in another way, “God, where are you in the midst of life’s storms?”
We all know life is full of storms, and there are storms severe enough to push some people to unbelief. But the disciples were not tempted by unbelief; they were tempted by fear to doubt the power of God, the power they had witnessed in Jesus. And so they were mightily disappointed, just as Job was also mightily disappointed. Poor Job, battered and bruised by a series of calamities, because he was made a pawn in a bet between the Adversary and God. God had permitted the Adversary to afflict Job to see what Job would do, if he would maintain his faithfulness. And so Job lost his wealth, his children and finally his health. And he wanted an answer to a very human question: WHY? Have I not been faithful? Have I not been just? Answer me, God. And finally God spoke out of the whirlwind, and what we heard today was the first part of God’s response. God basically told Job that he was so small and puny in understanding that he could not possibly comprehend the fullness of God’s power. Since God is beyond everything that he, a mere human, can know or understand, how dare he question God?
But Job always knew that his understanding was limited, just as we all know that. But can we be blamed for being mere human beings, for having limited understanding? We have no alternative but to see, speak and understand as humans, and so the questions we put forth must be human questions, spoken from our limited human perspective. That is the very best that we can do, and unless God wants to tell us that our humanity is completely trivial, we do have a right to question and to ponder from our limited human point of view. Job and the disciples were not asking to understand as God understands. They were asking for help as human beings.
And this is what the early church was asking for as well. It is not at all unlikely that the community out of which the Gospel of Mark emerged had its own beef with God, because the sovereign ruler of the universe was not taking corrective action against the church’s enemies. The Emperor Nero had been dipping Christians in oil and setting them on fire, so imagine the challenge of converting people to Christ with that threat hanging over their heads. Was not God supposed to care for and protect God’s people? If the church truly is Christ’s body in the world, why is it so hard to build up that body? Why all this persecution and failure? Those are some of the questions on the minds of the early Christians. They were having a very hard time, and they saw their church in the middle of a great storm, buffeted and bashed by strong winds and heavy rains. Why doesn’t God do something? Does God even care? These are the questions the writer of Mark’s gospel was dealing with, and so it was essential that the story he told be filled with hope for a people in a boat out in a storm.
Notice how skillfully Mark weaves his story. Right before this, Jesus had been teaching in parables, and exhausted, he said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” In other words, let’s get out of here; let’s leave the crowds behind. And so they did. They pushed off, and there they were on the Sea of Galilee. Now I have been to Israel and I have seen the Sea of Galilee, and let me tell you, it can get mighty rough. Storms blow in very rapidly. On the east shore the mountains rise up to about 2000 feet, and when the wind blows through the ravines the danger to boats out on the water is fierce. So we can imagine that the disciples had a very good reason to be afraid---just as the early Christians had good reason to be afraid. And where is Jesus in the story? Why, he is asleep in the boat; the text even gives us the extra detail that he is asleep in the stern, on a cushion. He is in the back of the boat, not the front. He is behind his disciples, not ahead of them.
And what do these disciples do? Terrified for their lives, they awaken him with this accusation, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Notice to whom or what Jesus first speaks. Mark tells us he first rebuked the wind, and this term rebuke, a term of great power, was the same verb Mark used to describe Jesus’ control over the demons. Earlier in the gospel Jesus had rebuked the demons, telling them to come out of the possessed man. Next he speaks to the sea, but in a gentler voice. “Peace! Be still.” Only then did Jesus address his disciples, asking them “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And the text tells us that the disciples were filled not yet with faith but with great awe, and they wondered who this man is that even the wind and the sea obey him.
Now up to this point Mark has been giving us a Jesus, who has been mainly a teacher, preaching and teaching in parables. But now through the end of chapter five, we are going to see a Jesus performing miracles, and this stilling of the storm is a reminder of what God did to the Israelites in Egypt, parting for them the Red Sea so they could escape. So the message to the early church was: just as God saved the Israelites then, so will God save the church now from the fearsome power of Rome.
But how will God accomplish that? Through the power miracles? No, that is not how it works in Mark’s gospel. People may be awed by miracles, but awe is not faith. In fact, miracles represent diminishing returns in Mark. In chapter 6, for example, 5000 people are fed, but in chapter 8 the number drops to 4000, and in that same chapter Jesus has to try twice to heal a blind man. When we arrive at chapter 11, Jesus does not seem to have much power left, and when the fig tree does not give him any fruit, he curses it. His power seems to be spent, and he cannot even prevent his own death. What kind of a Messiah is this, anyway? With what kind of God are we dealing? If the expectation is raw power, God’s complete restoration in this life of what has been so grievously lost, the gospel shows us that such expectations may be the wrong ones to have. God is not magic; God is love, and love works differently from magic. Love does not make all the pain go away; it cannot restore everything that has been lost. But love allows us to see life differently.
Some years ago, I met a 30 year old man in a nursing after a car accident left him severely brain damaged. His father visited him regularly, but after a while the father painfully admitted that he had stopped loving his son. The truth is, the father confessed, his son no longer seemed like his son. He could not talk or respond, and he did not realize anyone’s identity. Well, one day, when the father entered the room, another man from his Presbyterian church was there, visiting his son, talking to him, reading scripture and praying as if the young man could understand what was being said. What’s wrong with this guy, the father pondered? Doesn’t he know that my son can understand nothing that his brain is damaged and he will never be well? He was about to say something, but suddenly it dawned on him that this man was looking at this son through the eyes of faith. His words were not wasted, because even if the young man could not understand them, God heard them and accepted them as an act of faith and love. “That man’s faith,” the father said, “helped to rebirth my love for my son.”
There are many storms in life, and the waves bash against us, threatening to overwhelm our little boat. Sure, we are afraid, wondering what the outcome will be. There is no promise that there will be no more storms. The only promise given is that God is love, and love does work in mysterious ways as it helps us to see what we did not see or understand before.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!