Fr Bob Eccles considers what the story of Jesus calming the storm on the lake has to teach us about reasons for believing. Image: Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Lake.
Job 38. 1, 8-11 Psalm 106 2 Cor 5.14 Mark 4.35-41
“From the heart of the tempest the Lord gave Job his answer. He said:
Who pent up the seas behind closed doors, when it leapt tumultuous out of the womb, when I wrapped it in a robe of mist, and made black clouds its swaddling bands;
When I marked out the bounds it was not to cross, and made it fast with a bolted gate?
Come this far, I said, and no farther: here your proud waves shall break.”
I wonder if like me when you are far from the sea, you can’t hear a seagull’s call without your heart missing a beat – and if your fondest memories are often of the sea? Who has lain awake seeing the beam of the lighthouse move across the ceiling, hearing the foghorn voices of the seals at the mouth of the harbour. Or the oyster-catcher’s shrill pipe. And the infectious excitement of the children at holiday-time at the longed-for sight of the sea. “Some sailed to the sea in ships to trade on the mighty waters¸ these men have seen the Lord’s deeds, the wonders he does in the deep” sings the psalmist. Or as Ratty puts it in Wind in the Willows, nothing is half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. We are still in awe of the sea just as much as the psalmist was, in its power, in its serenity.
We began our reading tonight with the book of Job. The great poet who wrote this book asks himself the question: how shall we speak of God to a tragic world where people suffer so much? And he puts his poetry into the mouth of the suffering Job, who can’t accept that he’s suffering on account of his sins, as his friends want him to. The have patiently explained to him that it must be all his fault, they justify the ways of God to him, but he is not satisfied. Still Job does not raise his voice against God for any injustice, he only searches his soul to know where he has been found wanting, and finds only innocence, it’s a conundrum.
Here God answers Job out of the storm, God is willing to reveal his intention. But first God rebukes him, he speaks to him ironically. Job and his friends have an idea of God that is too small. His friends and Job himself think that the world has been made to give instruction to human beings and to lay down punishments and rewards, this they regard as the reason for God’s work. They put themselves and humanity at the centre of things and see God only in relation to themselves, as you do: what have I done to deserve this illness? Why has God taken my wife first, does he love her best? God must justify himself to us, seemingly. He had better explain himself.
Is this what you want, says God ironically to Job? You think you can fathom my mind. So where were you when I set up the pillars of creation? If you’re so well informed, tell me what I was at. But of course, Job came later on the scene, after God had brought forth his creature the sea as a mother gives birth to her baby, wraps it up warm, places it in the creation, set bounds to it like the mother who tells her child not to stray beyond the garden gate.
Though we have our technology now, our science to study the oceans and the weather, we are still in awe of the sea, we decided just now. Yet for the Creator the vast ocean is only a child, a babe in arms, a tiny little creature in the design of almighty God. Of course, Job is disqualified from saying anything sensible about the divine purpose. And God who is able to restrain the pride of the sea now does the same for the pretensions of Job and his friends, who try to set down limits and protocols for God’s actions, his interventions, in what they take is their story.
I hope you see where we are going here! a religion that is no more than a textbook set of expectations about rewards and punishments is not the key to understanding the universe and our place in it. To gain heaven and avoid hell: what small ambitions for you and me, the gifts of a petty god! Our consumerist mindset reduces the aim of religion to a goody that we might expect to share, if we do well. We end up in a commonplace relation of self-interest with God and with others. The things we do with our faith! We celebrate the awesome wonder of the tremendous and fascinating mystery of the Mass and hear ourselves telling Father on the way out, thank you for a lovely service. Like the chief in Asterix the Gaul who worries that the sky is about to fall on his head, we envision God only in relation to ourselves. When a retired Catholic wrote his autobiography he called it ‘Little Wilson and Big God.’ Well he would, wouldn’t he?
So why do we believe, if we believe “for nothing” – did you know that at the beginning of the book of Job, the contest between God and the Tempter, the Satan, is over whether Job can be got to believe “for nothing”, to no personal advantage. If this life is no longer the theatre of our striving for rewards and pats on the back, is not a fairground where everyone can expect to win a prize, what then?
This also is the problem for the disciples in the boat. This boat is already an interesting feature in the gospel of St Mark, it is where the disciples are most at risk and conscious of human frailty – such a fragile and precarious thing, a small boat bobbing up and down on the waves. But it also where they are able to ask their questions, having their Teacher to themselves. Only in the boat do they see him take his ease and rest, going to sleep at once like a child who feels safe. Sleep is sweetest in a boat rocked by the waves. And who are the disciples to trust when they know there’s nothing between them and perdition, nothing but the frail planks of the boat in the storm?
God must teach suffering Job a reason for believing. And the disciples need to learn a reason from the face of the sleeping Christ. A great artist carved a stone sculpture of Jesus asleep in the boat, his face the picture of content and peace, the viewer stops to contemplate it, drawn into its calm and repose. There is no hint of the storm, no trace of stress or danger, in that serene face with the hint of a smile on the lips. Christ sleeps on, though the disciples panic, though the ark is tempest-tossed. Why should they have believed? Because of the Christ at rest among them, whose repose is that of the Creator taking his rest after the work is done, when he had brought forth the sea as his child.
Why believe? Because of Christ present in mystery, in this mystery of Word and Sacrament, who is at the heart of our companionship, who is always close to his people and who cannot abandon his church. We contemplate him, just as in the famous story of the Russian staretz the weary pilgrim looked at the saint sleeping on the floor of the forest and went away with a satisfied heart.
How fearful we are sometimes, because of our dreary loneliness, because of the inner storms that churn within in us, and our too great responsibilities, the concerns we have for others. Why has it been so hard to hand on our faith to others, maybe even to our children? Can it be that they smelt fear, the fear of life: anxiety for which we couldn’t find a remedy? But fear is a subtle form of unbelief: timorousness in the face of life translates as unbelief. Which of us hasn’t been shy even to say what we believe, as though Christ was our well-kept secret? Perhaps we are secretly only half believers, it makes us tongue-tide. Come on, what kind of an excuse is that? What was it Paul said to the Corinthians, no doubt with every reason to be scared: the love of Christ controls us? Or as a bolder translation has it, the love of Christ overwhelms us? Has he a word for me to take home, maybe pin it up inside my skull to read when I next get into a pickle? “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?” It is Christ who is our teacher, we have no other teacher but him.