A Mighty Fortress Is Our God we sang at Jack’s funeral on Wednesday, one of the great hymns of the church. With steady beat we sang of God, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills. I sing those lines and I see a stronghold built on a rock, surrounded by a raging sea, waves relentlessly battering the walls, but to no avail: this fortress is a mighty one.
And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear. The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them; their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure: One little word shall fell them.
One little word. But how much easier it is for us to sing fearlessly against the storm from the walls of a fortress on the shore than from a little boat tossed about by the waves.
Water is one of the most powerful symbols we know, life-giving water and life-threatening water. Our lives begin immersed in a little ocean in the womb, and we imagine it to be a world of perfect peace. Nothing can bother us – food comes to us, steady as our mother’s heartbeat; all other noises are muffled, the temperature is always right, we just curl up in the water and float in complete happiness – until the water breaks, that is. Then, suddenly, it’s gravity and bright lights, cold air, strange sounds and voices, and very soon – hunger. We must learn that being born also means being welcomed by parents who hold us, keep us safe and warm, feed us, whisper in our ears, and continue to surround us with love and care.
It may well be the fact that we spend the first months of our existence immersed in water like fish in the ocean, that we have this life-long attraction to water. There’s nothing like soaking in a hot tub when your muscles are sore – or your soul. You just float in memories of complete happiness, and the tensions melt, the muscles relax, and your soul sings a little song of peace. We love water; the pleasures of splashing and swimming and jumping in puddles; the satisfaction of a drink of cold water on a hot day; the sound of summer rain drumming on the leaves of the trees; the fun of water slides and surfing, kayaking and snorkeling; the beauty of rivers, lakes, and water falls; the rhythm of waves rolling up on the beach. We love water – it flows through our cells, it freshens our skin and it revives our spirit.
Jesus was baptized in a river, and he did much of his teaching by the lake, the Sea of Galilee. When the crowds who gathered to hear him got larger, he asked his disciples to have a boat ready for him, so he could pull away from the shore and teach from the boat. People heard his stories about the sower scattering seed on the ground with the sound of water in the background, little waves lapping up onto the pebbles and rocks. People listened to his kingdom parables while looking at the vast, open stretch of sea and sky; I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine anything more beautiful than sitting by the water’s edge, listening to Jesus’ stories about God’s reign.
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side,” and leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.
Most of the people on the beach had gone home, they had things to do, animals to look after, meals to prepare, kids to get ready for bed; but some stayed and watched the boat go east. “What business does he have going over there,” they wondered, “it’s only Gentiles on the other side, idolatrous people, it’s an unclean land, full of unholy spirits. It’s not our people over there, not his people, what business does he have going over there?” Dark clouds were moving in, casting shadows on what had been a sunny day on the beach.
Meanwhile, in the boat, the disciples were enjoying the evening breeze and quiet. It had been a long day, they were tired, and the gentle rocking of the boat almost put them to sleep. But then the wind picked up, and soon the storm broke lose. The waves beat into the boat, and it was being swamped. Some of the disciples were fishermen; they were accustomed to wind and waves, but nothing like this. Chaos had been unleashed, the raging wind whipping the water into a frenzy of waves and whirls – their little boat nothing but a nutshell.
The disciples got a very close look at water’s other face, the reality that makes us wear life jackets in our boats, and stay close when our little ones are in the tub, long after they have learned to sit up on their own. There’s danger in the water, and we better learn to respect it, because the moment we learn to breathe, we can drown.
The disciples knew the danger of capsizing and going down into the deep. But they didn’t know Jesus. They saw him, curled up on a cushion, sleeping like a baby, a picture of peace in the midst of the storm. They woke him, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Now why do you think they woke him? Did they want to hear one last story before the boat went down? That seems unlikely. Did they need him to help get the water out of the boat or hold the rudder? If so, why didn’t they say so or hand him a pail? To me it sounds like they were anxious and it bothered them that he didn’t seem to be the least bit troubled. “Do you not care that this little boat is going down and all of us with it?” They were frantic and the fact that he wasn’t made it worse.
Jesus woke up; Mark doesn’t even mention if he got up from the cushion. He woke up and rebuked the wind and the sea. “Peace! Be still!” And it was so. He spoke and it came to be. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. One little word, and there was great calm.
And the disciples? They were sitting down, wide-eyed, barely breathing, their hands clenching the wall of the boat with white knuckles. Before, they had been anxious, now they were afraid.
Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
There is a popular reading of this story where Jesus isn’t rebuking the wind and the waves, but the disciples for being afraid in the storm. According to that reading, we ought to always remember, no matter how high the waves or how violent the winds, that Jesus is in the boat with us – and that we shouldn’t be afraid, and if we had faith, we wouldn’t be afraid. According to that reading, we ought to tie ourselves to the mast of the cross with strong ropes of faith and laugh at the storm, “Bring it on! Is that all you got?”
I believe this is dangerous nonsense, because the next time your little boat gets hit by a storm, and you know it will, you’ll be afraid, and on top of everthing else, you’ll feel guilty for being afraid. As if fear wasn’t enough.
Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples, he commanded the wind and the waves to be still. Remember, the whole trip was his idea, “Let us go across to the other side,” he said. This was no evening cruise to a restaurant on the other side of the bay. He took them out to sea, away from the land and the life they knew, to the land of the Gentiles. Why? Because idols and demons ruled on the other side and Jesus invaded their territory to proclaim and bring the kingdom of God. Because sin and death ruled on the other side and Jesus crossed over to bring forgiveness, healing, and wholeness to life. This was no pleasure cruise, this was D-day. Little wonder the forces of chaos tried to stop their little boat with waves bucking like bulls and wind gusts strong enough to break everything in their path.
Jesus’ life and mission is one dangerous crossing after another. His presence, his teaching, his actions lead to confrontation between the way things are and the way they are to be – within us, between us, and beyond us. The truth is, when Jesus is near, the storms aren’t far.
But when Jesus speaks, we hear the word that spoke light and life into being. When Jesus speaks, we hear the One who prescribed bounds for [the sea], and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”
The disciples in the boat were not half as afraid of the storm as they were of Jesus’ sovereign power to tame it. They were afraid because it finally dawned on them that it wasn’t them who had taken Jesus into the boat with them; Jesus had taken them into the boat with him, and this ride to the other side was an invasion of enemy territory by the forces of grace and wholeness.
“Why are you afraid?” he asked, “Have you still no faith?”
Our Bible translation is very kind, suggesting that we read, “They were filled with great awe,” when the words can also be translated, “they feared with great fear.” They were afraid because they were beginning to understand that this little boat they were in was going to keep crossing to the other side, and that nothing, neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor anything else in all creation would be able to keep him from completing his journey.
They didn’t jump ship. They stayed in the boat with him, as they were, with their great fear and their little faith, and they sailed with him, all the way to the shore where life in fullness is at home.
 Mark 3:9; 4:1
 Genesis 1:7ff.; Psalm 33:9; Psalm 107:29
 See Job 38:8-11