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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2024

Mark 4:35-41

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The disciples had seen lots of bad weather on the Sea of Galilee before. Four of them were fisherman, and so Peter and Andrew, James and John especially would have seen plenty of wind and waves on this body of water. The Sea of Galilee was known for its sudden changes in weather. It could turn threatening at a moment’s notice. They were no strangers to storms.

But this one was different. This one hit them like a bomb cyclone. It hit them suddenly and with great fury. “A great windstorm arose,” St. Mark tells us, “and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” This wasn’t something they could navigate around. This wasn’t a situation where they could drop anchor and wait it out. They were sinking! They were going down!

You can imagine the terror in the eyes of even the seasoned fisherman as they furiously tried to bail out the water they were taking on, perhaps with buckets, perhaps just with cupped hands. You can imagine the wind screaming in their ears, making it hard to hear each other. You can imagine the chaos, the white-knuckle grip as they heaved up and down with the waves. You can imagine the nausea, the gasping to catch their breath, the existential panic coursing through their veins as they truly believed they were all about to die.

And throughout all of this, Jesus was in the stern, asleep. I think it is funny that St. Mark tells us that he was asleep on a cushion. That little detail provides a sharp contrast between what Jesus is experiencing and what the disciples are going through. The disciples are soaked and terrified and probably puking over the side of the boat, while Jesus is asleep – on a cushion.

The disciples, however, did not think this was funny at all. They finally shook Jesus awake, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And Jesus, who had managed to sleep through the howling of the wind and the pounding of the rain against the wood of the boat, now woke up. One Bible commentary I read beautifully described this moment by saying: “Jesus is like the mother who sleeps through all kinds of racket, but at the slightest noise from her little baby, she instantly awakes.”

Upon awaking, Jesus’ first words are not to the disciples, but to the sea: “Peace, be still!” Jesus said. Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Now Jesus could speak to them. Now his word could be heard. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

These were cutting questions. They pointed to the disciples’ lack of faith in him. You can almost make out a tone of mild disappointment in Jesus’ voice. “Did you really think I don’t care about you? Have you learned nothing about me yet? Do you still not trust me?”

But behind these cutting rhetorical questions was a promise: The disciples didn’t need to be afraid. They simply needed to have faith in him. They simply needed to trust him. They simply needed to trust that Jesus was more powerful than any storm.

And now they were starting to get it. Filled with great awe, they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Our lives are filled with storms like the one the disciples faced. Sometimes these storms are quite literal. This spring has been a bad season for tornadoes in places like Oklahoma and Nebraska and Iowa, where extremely powerful twisters have burst through cities and towns and homes, carving a path of chaos and destruction, leveling barns and buildings, tossing debris in every direction, sending people into shelters in fear for their lives.

Other times these storms are more figurative. They are relational, or medical, or spiritual. These storms might not feature literal wind and waves, but they bring howling noise to our ears, making it hard to hear God’s voice. They bring a nauseating topsy-turvy upending of everything we once thought to be stable. They make us feel like we are sinking. They fill us with terror, with an existential panic.

Recently I had one of my dearest friends share with me that his wife of more than thirty years came to him out of the blue and said, “I’ve accepted a job in another city and am leaving you.” Talk about a bomb cyclone! You can say that these things never happen suddenly, and you’d be right, but it can feel that way in the moment, and that’s how it felt to him. In talking to him over Zoom you could almost see him sinking into his chair. You could sense him trying to keep his head above water, holding on for dear life.

In the past few weeks I’ve had two different mothers sobbing into my chest at the loss of their respective sons. While the underlying causes had been brewing on the horizon for some time in both situations, the loss hit them like a sudden, violent storm, with tears falling like a pounding rain.

Recently I’ve sat with people going through brutal treatments for cancer. I’ve had conversations with spouses who have watched their beloved suffer through these treatments. Sometimes there is a barely restrained frustration that Jesus would let their beloved suffer so much. Sometimes there is a sense that he must be sleeping.

But in each of these spiritual storms I’ve observed in the past several weeks, there has been a moment of calm. In each situation I’ve cited, there has been a moment when the howling wind has ceased and the noise of the storm has stopped screaming in people’s ears long enough to hear Jesus’ voice saying, “Peace.”

I’m not saying that these storms were instantaneously and permanently ended. I’m not naively saying that these people no longer had any lingering storm damage in their lives. But in each case, a moment of calm opened up such that Christ’s peace could be heard and experienced.

When I checked in on my friend a few days later, he had worked at least some things out with his wife, but even more, he had a renewed sense that Christ had a hold of him. Those grieving mothers were able to take a deep breath as they entrusted their sons to Christ’s promise. That frustrated spouse came to see in the faith of his beloved that Jesus was not sleeping after all.

Since going through my own storm of grief a couple years ago now I have been telling people how much the experience felt to me like waves crashing over me. There is the initial crash that leaves you gasping for air, then the water goes out, giving you time to catch your breath before another wave comes in and hits you. While everyone’s experience of grief is different, I’ve had so many people say, “Yes! That’s what it is like!”

Eventually those waves start to lessen. Eventually they mostly subside – although sneaker waves can still pound you from time to time. But even in the worst of the storm there are moments when the waves go out. There are moments when the winds are no longer screaming in your ears and you can hear Jesus speaking into the storm, saying, “Peace, be still.” There are moments when you realize that Jesus is not sleeping, that he has heard your cry, and that he is more powerful than the storm trying to drag you down. Even the wind and sea obey him!

Since the days of the apostles, a ship, or boat, has been a symbol for the church. We even call the place where worshippers gather the “nave,” which comes from the Latin word navis, meaning “ship,” (which is also the root for the word “Navy”).

As Christians we are not promised fair winds and following seas, but Jesus is not asleep in this boat. He hears your cries. He knows your needs. He cares about you.  Here in this boat today he silences the wind screaming in our ears so that we might hear his voice, so that we might hear him speak into the storm, saying, “Peace, be still!” Here in this boat today he assures us that we do not need to be afraid, no matter what kind of storms we face in life. Here in this boat he strengthens and renews us in faith by the speaking of his powerful Word.

The Lord Jesus on board. He is with us, and he will get us through every storm.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church