Sermons That Work

Life Is Unpredictable, Proper 12 (B) – 2000

July 30, 2000


Life is unpredictable. There are probably few people who need to be reminded of that. There are probably few people who have not felt the effects of an unpredictability that sometimes brings tragic consequences. No matter how well people try to plan their lives, there remains the possibility that at any moment something could happen that, at best, will mean taking a detour along a road on which they had not expected to travel.

At one level, this is all very frightening. People rely on a certain amount of predictability and the assumption that things will be pretty much the same tomorrow as they are today.

But at another level — one that is spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus — those who have arrived at a certain maturity in their faith recognize that no matter what happens, it is all part of the journey of faith. It is not as though some particular tragedy, reversal, or unexpected event were a deliberate interruption in the journey. Rather, that event or even series of events is exactly something to be encountered and lived through in the course of the journey – instead of lamented, bemoaned, or regretted.

This is not to say that such unpleasantness is not difficult to bear. This is not to say that it does not cause pain, nor even that it may not occasion the most grievous of suffering or even death. But there is a place of maturity in faith that understands that these unlooked-for and unwanted events are where the road of faith has taken the traveler. And despite even the worst of circumstances, there is something that actually does not change, something that is not affected, something that remains – no matter what else has been lost, discarded, or destroyed.

That “something,” of course, is God. And Christians express their understanding of the Living God through their relationship with, and in the service of, Jesus Christ.

Now, it is easy for people to let claims of faith tumble over their lips and out of their mouths, until that faith encounters some kind of test. But perhaps the most challenging experience any Christian has is not so much the unexpected or the tragic, but the actual encounter with God in Christ. This encounter is exactly what happens in today’s Gospel.

There is some disagreement about the exact nature of this episode. For instance, is it a “rescue” story, in which Jesus comes to the aid of his disciples as they struggle against the wind? Or is it an epiphany story – a description of Jesus revealed as the Son of God (which is what Mark has set out to do from the very beginning)?

The arguments for seeing this story as a revelation of Jesus’ divinity are quite compelling. If Jesus were intent on rescuing the people in the boat then he could not have “intended to pass them by.” However, this detail is not quite what it seems at surface level (as it were!). It is actually an allusion to stories in the Old Testament (notably that involving Moses) in which God “passes by” in revelatory fashion.

The story of the passing away of Elijah (2 Kings) is another example. The chariot of fire passes by between Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”

These allusions – references or hints – to stories in the Old Testament would not have been lost to the people who first heard Mark’s Gospel. Mark has already established something of a comparison between Jesus and Moses by telling his audience about the miraculous feeding (Moses feeds the people in the wilderness through the manna; Jesus feeds the people in the wilderness). Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray, just as Moses had done on Mount Sinai. Moses – and Elijah – enact miracles involving the parting of water. Jesus also enacts a water miracle – but he needs no implement (neither staff nor mantle) to part the water. In fact, Jesus does not even need to make the water move. Jesus’ ascendancy over both Moses and Elijah is demonstrated by his ability to walk on the surface of the lake!

Mark is telling those who hear and read his words that Jesus is not only greater than Moses and Elijah, but that Jesus is the Son of God. When Jesus walks on the water he reveals his command over the elements. When the wind that has harried and prevented the disciples from making headway ceases, Mark cements the epiphany: Jesus, the Son of God, has complete authority over the world around him.

This is ultimately a message of great hope for the disciples and for the church. It is little wonder that the early Church Fathers read stories like this one allegorically. For them, the boat and the terrified disciples represented the church adrift on the wide, wild sea of the world, threatened with calamity. Given that the early years of the church were indeed fraught with turmoil and the ever-present threat of persecution and destruction, it is a powerful image, readily understood by people living constantly with the stresses of the times.

But the Fathers saw a church that survived the worst of persecutions. Somehow – perhaps miraculously – the little boat, the church, was not swamped. Somehow – perhaps miraculously – the wild winds that held up the boat’s progress, despite the very best efforts of the disciples, did not prevail. The church not only survived the storm, it continued to grow and flourish!

Ultimately faith won the day. In spite of the difficulties, the Fathers held that faith in the Son of God was the source of their safety and salvation. Because of this faith, Jesus enters their boat and the wind disappears.

The source of all Christian safety, security, and salvation remains with this same Jesus Christ, Son of God. The message is the same today as it was for the disciples then. Those people whose faith reveals Jesus as the Son of the Living God have the hope and the assurance that Jesus will enter their places of insecurity and danger, and bring a peace that is real – despite the unpredictable nature of life, despite the raging of storms, despite the wildness of the wind.

Notice, however, that the disciples remain ignorant of the fullness of the revelation they have been offered. Because they find themselves suddenly living in God’s presence, they are terrified when the reality of that presence is revealed. Their fear is indicative less of a shallow faith than of this sudden realization that God is present among them. It is both a classic literary device and an authentic indication: no healthy person can encounter the Living God without fear and trembling.

These disciples are so human! Before anyone judges them harshly, let them remember how precarious every aspect of human life can be – and that includes reactions to God. Mark remarks that the disciples’ hearts were hardened, a sign that even Jesus’ own trusted followers, people who had witnessed many miracles and experienced many wonders, could feel the same way as the Pharisees. It is an instructive remark that speaks of the Christian’s need to remain attentive to humility, not to assume any kind of superiority over others, especially those who have not come to know Jesus Christ. It is a reminder of one of the paradoxes of the faith: that Christians may not be of the world, but nevertheless they live in the world.

It is also a reminder that it is by the effort of God – by grace, by love – that salvation is brought and offered. It is not a matter of taking this “on board” by intellect or senses or emotions. What is brought and offered and given comes only and always from God, through Christ.

And the reminder from Paul is that these gifts are again not for personal gratification, satisfaction, or aggrandizement, but for the building up of the body – for making the body of Christ both stronger and larger.

Part of that strength is needed in times of turmoil and distress. Those people whose faith is mature are offered an unparalleled ministry to heal and strengthen those in need. The mature in faith have the means to understand the nature of the journey of faith.

In our Christian journeys, there will be times of frustration, anger, terror, pain, and suffering. Remember that Jesus never promised smooth sailing. What Jesus says to these first disciples he says also to the church today – as he has said in every age: GO ON AHEAD TO THE OTHER SIDE. Not just “go on ahead” but actually TO THE OTHER SIDE. No one knows what wind or tempest they will encounter during the journey, but the church has the promise of the presence of the Son of God, and, while it remains faithful, it will indeed get “to the other side.” It is not the undisturbed and undisturbing pleasantness of the journey that makes it worthwhile and, yes, even joyful and exciting, but the presence of Jesus, the One who will never abandon his people, the One who is always ready and willing to clamber into the boat beside us!

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Christopher Sikkema

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