Have you ever noticed that the good nights on TV are always the nights when you've got something else on? – just when your favourite soapie has got to some nail-biting climax is inevitably when you've got friends over – when you have got the chance to flop down in front of TV for the evening it's re-runs of the Inventors or bright-eyed eccentrics talking enthusiastically about Grecian urns or something. For a while back there it seemed like whatever channel you switched on, whatever day of the week it was, it'd be one of the endless variety of Law and Orders – have you ever wondered what TV would be like if there was no crime and no medical emergencies? Leaving aside the stuff that's just too awful to think about – Big Brother or Australian Idol for example – what is it about ordinary people that makes us want to watch shows about life-threatening illnesses or psychotic killers - for relaxation?
When I was a teenager there seemed to be a spate of box-office thrillers about random nastiness – movies like Jaws, or The Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno. Psychologists tell us we humans have a fascination with what makes us feel unsafe – with the idea that evil or chaos is lurking just beneath the surface – and maybe we watch movies that play with the idea of random violence because it strikes a chord for us with the fear we all have that basically the world isn't safe, that tragedy does strike by sheer chance, that terrorists really could be plotting an attack in our neighbourhood, or that even our own bodies might just be waiting to come down with some obscure illness – and I guess part of the attraction of movies that plug into the anxiety that's part and parcel of modern life is that at the end, when the credits roll, we can remind ourselves that all that ugliness was just let's-pretend – the world we live in isn't as gritty and fearful as that, after all, at least our world is safer than that.
In the ancient world, one of the most powerful symbols of anxiety and disorder was the chaos of a storm at sea. At sea, you were in the power of forces almost too big to imagine, the violence of wind and waves was so feared that creation itself was thought to be the result of divine forces holding back the unimaginable fury of watery chaos – as Yahweh reminds Job in our first reading, 'who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?' - the fury of a storm was a battering at the doors of creation itself, the forces of chaos trying to reclaim the earth. In the centre of the storm you were as good as lost – at the same time, as we read in Job, the ancients knew that the whirlwind was where you came face to face with the power of God who mysteriously was in control of the uncontrollable.
It's a sense of awe that we lose, a bit, in these days of weather charts with isobars and cute little sunny faces and rainclouds that tell you what tomorrow's going to be like.
It's a point, also, that seems to be lost on Jesus' disciples, in spite of all the hints of the past few weeks, the miraculous healing power that they have witnessed, the parables that, as Mark tells us, went over the heads of everybody else but Jesus privately explained to the disciples. They should be getting the point by now! And then they head out into the middle of the Sea of Galilee on an overnight trip, heading for the non-Jewish region on the far side of the Jordan.
Mark seems to have a bit of fun with this story – according to my commentary there's an echo here of a similar trip involving another prophet called Jonah who went to sleep in the middle of a storm. On that trip, too, the captain wakes up the passenger and accuses him of being too blasé – 'don't you even care?' – though in the Book of Jonah the captain at least knows the right procedure for dealing with storms at sea – pray as hard as you can, to as many gods as possible, and hope that one of your prayers gets through. But the disciples don't ask Jesus for anything: 'Don't you care that we're getting swamped?' 'Have you even noticed?'
These guys are professional fishermen, they've been to-ing and fro-ing on the Sea of Galilee all their lives. The Sea of Galilee apparently just does that – from zero to a raging fury in half a minute – so they should have known what could happen on a night trip from one side of the Sea to the other. Maybe this one was worse than usual.
'Don't you even care, God?' We know what they're talking about, don't we? When you think about it, we've all been in that situation, when all of a sudden the storm that's always just in the back of our awareness blows up, the medical diagnosis or the financial disaster, the telephone rings with bad news and we look around to see Jesus right where he always is, serenely unconcerned. 'Don't you even care, God? Why am I suffering like this? Aren't you in control?'
The disciples don't ask Jesus to help – the implication is that they don't believe he really can, they just want to make sure he's panicking as hard as they are – notice how, despite all they've seen and heard, the remarkable events they've been part of, the disciples immediately revert to unbelief when they're overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control. It happens, doesn't it? Trusting God is OK while the boat is more or less upright, but when the situation gets out of hand we want something a bit more tangible? Anxiety can make us think we're on our own.
Jesus doesn't talk to them. Neither does he do the traditional thing, which is to pray for deliverance – instead he talks to the storm as though it was a demon. A storm, after all, is just a storm, and in the worldview of the ancients that should be exactly where the power of the divine is most on display. It becomes demonic when we give it the power to diminish who we are, when we allow it to cut us off from our awareness of what really gives us life. Jesus shows that he has the power to cut through all that, to set us free from whatever has taken on the power of the demonic in our lives. Mark, who typically shows the disciples as not getting the point – 'what sort of man is this?' - is more or less inviting us to fill in the blanks. Of course, we're listening to the story from the other side of Easter, so we know what sort of man Jesus is – we know Jesus is the bearer of God's Spirit who challenges and transforms our deepest and most destructive demons, all that distorts our relationships with each other and with God. All that prevents us from trusting in the future that God intends for us. – what is it in your life – what is it in our life as a church – that so overwhelms us that we give it the power of the demonic? What is it that keeps us from trusting one another, and from trusting God?
And yet we too miss the point, if we just hear this story as an impressive way of Jesus revealing his secret identity – the disciples haven't worked it out yet, but like TV viewers who see Clark Kent pulling off his glasses in the telephone booth, we've got the privileged information. But we also know what it's like to be in situations where we haven't got any control, we know what it's like to be swamped and afraid. We know what it's like to be in a place where only God can be any help. This isn't just an all-too familiar story for us, it's the story of our own lives. We know what it's like to say, 'Don't you even care that we're being swamped?' – and to hear God's silence in return. How easy do we find it to trust that God is in control of the storms that rage in our lives? It's not as easy as just switching off the television set after another black episode of Law and Order. What haunts our dreams doesn't fall silent so easily.
The Gospel writer knows this. Mark is writing to a Christian community living through war and fear and persecution, a community in the last quarter of the first century that doesn't actually know whether it has a future. He's a realist, but he also knows that we've read through to the end of the story. When Jesus rebukes the chaos of wind and water, we hear a powerful message of hope from a man who, we know all too well, is going to cry out in despair on a Roman cross. A man who knows that the centre of the whirlwind is right where we are going to encounter the God of wind and storm. The God who comes to share our boat with us. This isn't a gospel of cheap tricks, it's a gospel of costly grace. 'Don't you even care?' – we ask God, for the umpteenth time.
And we hear in return, 'Be still. Be at peace'.