June 24, 2018

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Fear rises up from the depths of our lives, sometimes when we least expect it, like a storm we didn’t see coming, like a whirlwind that catches us by surprise. And while many of our fears are well-founded, like the storm the disciples encountered on the lake with Jesus, many have little basis in reality, they are simply stories we have decided to tell ourselves to explain what is going on in our lives, when actually we don’t really know.

But ours is a species that is uncomfortable with mystery and craves explanation, even when the explanation may not actually be true. The fact that we have an explanation gives us some level of comfort that mystery does not.

Such is the case of Job from our first reading today. Job’s friends have concocted a story about why all these bad things have happened to Job. In short, it must be Job’s fault, because surely it can’t be God’s. Something must be wrong with Job, something Job must have hidden from them, maybe even from himself, but he can’t hide from God.

We hear God’s response as God questions Job in a beautiful cross-examination as if Job were in the witness box:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” Let me pause for a moment and let that sink in.

Job has defended himself against the accusations of his friends: namely, that he has brought judgment upon himself because of some hidden sin; and he has ended his defense with these words:

O that I had one to hear me! … Let the Almighty* answer me!

And sure enough God shows up - and answers Job, “who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?”

The Lord launches into a series of rhetorical questions that beg the question, “who in the universe do you think you are?” All of the horrible, no good, very bad things that had happened to Job had only reinforced Job’s ego-centric perspective until God challenged him to consider the enormity and complexity and mystery of the universe.

In showing Job that he wasn’t the central motivating factor of God’s design, God freed Job from the self-preoccupation of Job’s sufferings and thereby enabled Job to see that there was still much to be thankful for in the midst of his struggles. Job could even pray for his friends who had been more like enemies and God would hear Job’s prayer on their behalf. Suffering really could lead to redemption.

Jesus and his disciples encounter a tempest as they attempt to cross the Sea of Galilee from the Jewish side to the Gentile side. They are headed away from God’s chosen people to those outside the acceptable parameters of the Jewish faith, where Jesus will continue his ministry of healing and teaching with the Garasene demoniac. By making this trip across what Mark describes as the sea, Jesus is making a statement about this new kingdom he has come to proclaim: that it is for everyone, not just a select few.

The storm that the disciples encounter in their crossing frightens them to the point that they feel they might lose their lives and in their distress they wake Jesus, who seems to be sleeping like a baby, in total trust that God will take care of them.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

I used to read this passage already knowing what Jesus did – he calmed the storm. But I don’t think the disciples were expecting this. That’s why they were filled with great awe, which is another kind of fear, and then asked themselves, who the heck is this guy that can even control the weather?! Whoa! What have we gotten ourselves into?

And I think the initial question they ask Jesus was more about commiseration than about salvation! Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing? Hey, wake up and worry with us! Misery loves company, right? There’s no reason he should be peacefully asleep while we are scared for our lives!

Two other obvious things are happening here. One, for Mark and the early Christian community he is writing for, this incident demonstrates that Jesus is the Messiah and not some simple rabbi. Who controls the weather? God and now apparently, God’s right hand man. And secondly, water, or as it was sometimes referred to, the deep, was the abode of the unknown, of evil even. And if Jesus could control the dynamic forces of the sea, then Jesus really was someone very special. After all, this is a foreshadowing of Jesus delivering that crazy young man from all those demons in the next passage.

If Jesus can do all that then surely he can take care of whatever problems I have. But I think that is exactly why the lectionary has grouped this story with the story of Job. Life and God don’t always work that way. Sometimes our best friend or our spouse or child is not healed from their disease. Sometimes tragedy strikes the best of us for no apparent reason and we’re left with the nagging question Job was left with - why?

The answer is not that you’ve done something wrong or that God doesn’t love you or that God is absent, but simply because bad stuff happens and it happens to all of us. No matter what story we make up to explain it, we cannot, it is a mystery and we do not like mystery in the midst of suffering, just like Job and his friends.  But when the tempest comes and it will surely come, we can experience the redemptive presence of God in the midst of our pain and hear God say -

“Peace! Be still!”