Sermon notes 06-20-21          Tranquility in the Tempest

Mark 4:35-41  On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (ESV)

 It has been said that Christian maturity can be measured by the degree to which we are able to be tranquil in the midst of tumultuous circumstances, or peaceful during the storms of life.  There are many things we might consider to be storms in our lives, some big and some not so big.   I would not consider getting ready for church on Sunday morning one of life’s greater storms, but I am sure that “tranquil” is not one of the words Kim would use to describe me when I am scrambling on Sunday morning to make it to church.  So I evidently still have a long way to go on the scale of Christian maturity.

We have all heard the phrase, “the calm before the storm,” but this morning I want us to reflect together on what it means to have calm within the storm, or as I have entitled my message, to have tranquility in the tempest.  I think probably all of us would like to be able to be tranquil, inwardly and outwardly, not only before troubling times, but duringtimes of trouble, while we are in the midst of the unavoidable storms of life.  The question is, how do we do it?  To remain calm and tranquil during troubling times is often easier said than done.

Our Scripture passage this morning is a demonstration of what it looks like to be calm and tranquil, not only before, but during a storm; and Jesus is of course the model.  I love this passage of Scripture, for several reasons.  It is the story of a very real-life situation that happens to the disciples, and their very human response to it.  I also love this passage because it illustrates the kind of God we have, and what we can expect of God when—not if, but when—we experience the storms of life.

The passage Alex read for us begins with the words, “On that day when evening had come….”   To determine what day Mark is talking about, we need to look back earlier in chapter 4 when we find Jesus telling a series of parables to a crowd of people so large that Jesus has to sit in a boat to teach while the people sit listening on the shore.  Mark tells us that Jesus taught the crowds with parables, but he explained the parables privately to his disciples.

Yet, even with a private explanation from Jesus, the disciples apparently still do not understand.  The evidence that they do not understand is contained in our passage today.  Jesus and the disciples are in the very same boat in which Jesus had been sitting and teaching the crowds, but when a storm blows up and the boat begins taking on water, the disciples panic and accuse Jesus of not caring about their welfare because he has been sleeping while they are facing this danger.  If the disciples had truly understood Jesus and realized who he was, we can reasonably expect that they would have reacted differently to this situation.

In thinking about this it occurs to me there are two types of reactions we might have when someone is sleeping during a potentially dangerous situation.  One is, to be alarmed by it.  For example, it would be natural to respond with alarm in finding someone sleeping while driving, or perhaps sleeping while supposedly guarding a facility that is subject to attack.

The other response to someone being asleep during a seemingly dangerous situation is to be comforted by it.  When someone has the confidence and the serenity of being able to sleep during a situation that is seemingly dangerous, we might be comforted and even persuaded that perhaps the danger is not as great as we thought.  As a young boy, I learned from my dad not to be afraid of thunderstorms because my dad told me and showed me that he loves to sleep during thunderstorms.  As I observed my dad sleeping peacefully while thunderstorms were raging, I learned not to be afraid of them, and I grew to love sleeping during thunderstorms myself.

We have all surely noticed how comforting it is to see someone sleeping serenely.  There is something about sleeping, or the ability to sleep, that suggests an inner tranquility, an inner serenity or calm.  There is something about being tranquil and serene in the midst of storms that suggests a sense of trust in God that negates anxiety and fear.

Getting back to our passage, the disciples clearly do not find comfort in the fact that Jesus is sleeping on a cushion in the stern while their boat is taking on water.  In fact, they are distressed by it and they wake Jesus up to accuse him of not caring about what they see as their impending doom.

And then we get a vivid demonstration of the kind of God we have.  Before Jesus even responds to the accusation of the disciples, he rebukes the wind and speaks to the sea those three simple words.  “Peace.  Be still.” And the Scripture tells us, the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  Only then does Jesus respond to the disciples, saying to them in effect, ‘why, after all I have taught you, are you still afraid?  Don’t you have any faith that I will take care of you?’  Jesus is disappointed in the disciples for their lack of faith, and I think it even seems that his feelings are hurt that they do not trust him any more than they do.

And then Mark adds what I find to be a very interesting sentence.  Verse 41, the last verse of the passage says, “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”  The interesting thing about this is the timing of when Mark tells us that the disciples are filled with fear.  Notice it is after Jesus calms the storm that the disciples are described as being fearful.  Why would that be?

I think it must be because the disciples are finally realizing who this Jesus is.  They finally seem to understand that Jesus is not merely human; he must also be divine.  He is God.  And to be in the actual presence of God is a very fearsome thing.

The words that Jesus speaks, “Be still” are reminiscent of Psalm 46:10 where the Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  I think the disciples would have been so familiar with the words of Psalm 46 that they would have perceived the echo of Psalm 46:10 in the words of Jesus when he said to the wind and waves, “Be still.”

In light of what they had just seen him do, I wonder if the disciples fully expected for Jesus to add to his words “Be still,” the ending from Psalm 46:10, “and know that I am God.”

The calm is described as great and the stillness must have been awesome, which would have perhaps caused the disciples to recall another verse in the psalms with which they would have been familiar.  Ps. 65:7 says it is God who “stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves.”  So given what they have witnessed and what they know from the Scriptures about the characteristics and attributes of God, when the disciples ask the question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ it is a question for which they are already perceiving the answer.  What they are really saying is, ‘this Jesus cannot be other than God.’  And as I said, it is a very fearsome thing be in the presence of God.  That explains the disciples’ being fearful after Jesus calms the storm.

As we think about how this passage of Scripture applies to our lives, there is one more psalm that I want us to consider briefly, and that is Psalm 121 verse 1-4.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

From where does my help come?

2 My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

4 Behold, he who keeps Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

 What I want us to notice about this description of the Lord is that he neither slumbers nor sleeps.

When we consider this in light of our passage from Mark’s Gospel, it is important for us to realize a distinction between the divinity and the humanity of Jesus.  In the fullness of his humanity Jesus experienced everything we do, including the need for sleep.  But in the fullness of his divinity, our Lord never falls asleep at the wheel, never fails to keep watch over us.

Friends, there are times in all of our lives when we are in the midst of storms, trials and tribulations, and it feels to us like God must be asleep.  Like the disciples we want to accuse God of not caring about what happens to us.  But sometimes we are looking for God to calm the storm when what God wants is for us to trust him enough to be calm in the midst of the storm, or tranquil in the tempest.  It has been said that the Lord may calm the storms around you, but more often he’ll calm the storms within you.

Sisters and brothers, we have a Father in heaven who never sleeps or slumbers when it comes to watching over us, yet whose perfect serenity is not upset by the storms that we face in our lives.  Our God can give us great calm and a peace that passes understanding even in the midst of what appears to be great danger.  He is a God who is in control of all things, including the wind and the waves, even when it seems he is asleep or absent.  Our God is a God who wants us to have faith in him and to be at peace, even when he allows the storms of life to rage around us.   Our God can calm any storm, but he sometimes chooses to let the storms rage while instead calming us in the midst of them.  God-given tranquility isn’t freedom from storms; it is peace within storms.

Now, as we seek after tranquility in our lives, we need to be aware that there is such a thing as false tranquility.  We all know that there are pills you can take called, among other things, tranquilizers.  They provide an artificial tranquility.  That kind of tranquility is not real or lasting; in fact, it is dangerous.  It leaves us incapable of functioning with all the fullness of our God-given faculties and senses.

That kind of tranquility is only good until the effect of the pill wears off; then we need to take another pill, and another and another to regain the feeling of tranquility.  It should be obvious that is not the kind of tranquility we should pursue.

There is another kind of false tranquility, and that is the notion that as long as things are going well for us personally, we can blithely ignore the problems and needs of others in the world.  That is a false form of tranquility that is not true to our calling as Christians.  As baptized followers of Jesus Christ we are given power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  Those words are in our baptism vows.  Tranquility then for Christians is not to passively accept evil, injustice or oppression; we are empowered and called through our baptisms to resist those things in all their forms, whenever and wherever they exist.

But here is one word of caution about that.  Before we go charging off to battle evil, injustice and oppression in the world, we had better first do a soul-check, to be sure we have the inner peace and tranquility that comes only from being right with God.  We cannot presume to change the world for the better if our souls are not at peace with God.  On the other hand, when we have peace with God, that is, when it is well with our souls, we can face evil, injustice, oppression and all the storms that life can throw at us with Spirit-filled tranquility, gentleness, strength and peace.

With God’s help, may we all learn not to be afraid of life’s storms, but rather in the midst of them to be calm, and still, and know …  that God is God.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.