Scripture: Mark 4:35-41; Water Theme: Soak
If you’re relatively new to Christian faith, this story of Jesus stilling the storm may be new to you, as well. For those of us who have had a longer time in the church, though, most of us have at least a nodding acquaintance with this vivid tale. The winds come up, waters nearly swamp the boat, and yet Jesus makes the sea safe for his friends, the disciples.
What I had never noticed until this week, though, was an odd phrase in the story. After Jesus invited the disciples to go with him to the other side of the sea, the story says the disciples took Jesus with them—slightly unexpected, since Jesus was the one who had invited the disciples—and that he went with them, as the story says, “just as he was” (Mark 4:36). And I found myself wondering what in the world it might mean that Jesus went with them “just as he was.” Was something not quite right about him? Did his sandals and belt not match? Was his hair unkempt? Was he wearing t-shirt and shorts rather than the business casual they had thought proper? Why did Mark add that peculiar phrase: “just as he was”?
When someone goes somewhere just as they are, there’s usually a sense that something is off or that convention is being flouted, isn’t there. What’s often being conveyed is that the person does things in their own way, that they’re not going to conform to anyone’s expectations, that you and I are to take the person on their own terms, just as they are.
Mark is evidently asking us to accept Jesus “just as he was.” Not as we’d like him to be, not as he would be if we were to build him from scratch. As he was. And in a sense, this is the challenge of being Christian: accepting and following Jesus “just as he was” and is. Most of us would much rather construct Jesus in our image than have Jesus construct us in his image. What Mark tells us, though, is that we’re to take him “just as he [is].”
Think of the ways we decline to take Jesus just as he is. One of the things people of faith often struggle with, for example, is that they expect God to grant their every wish. If, as a child, I pray for a red bicycle and I don’t get it, does that mean God failed? If, as an adult, I pray for relief from pain or an end to my cancer and that doesn’t come about, does that mean faith is useless? To be honest, it’s actually stories like the one we heard today that contribute to this misunderstanding. If Jesus stilled that long-ago storm, then why does he let the storms of my life continue to rage? Shouldn’t he do something? Shouldn’t he wake from his slumbers in the back of the boat and bring me peace? Some Messiah!
We tend to like magicians, don’t we. And we like problem-solvers. We like plumbers who fix leaky pipes and financial advisors who profitably invest our money and restaurant servers who bring us mouth-watering dishes. Good people get things, don’t they? So why not have a Messiah who solves world hunger and heals broken body parts and stills raging storms? Isn’t that what any true Messiah would do? A can-do Messiah—that’s what we want!
And then our grief persists or our cancer spreads or our house floods and we wonder where God is in it all. A go-getting God would have found a way to solve the problem, right?
We’re to take Jesus just as he is, though. And the key to grasping who Jesus was and continues to be is to see that what’s central, what’s at the heart of the story of Jesus in the boat with the disciples, isn’t so much that he stopped the storm. It’s that he never left them. Jesus’ power and love are demonstrated not so much in performing this miracle, which he never, ever does again, by the way—if it’s that great, shouldn’t he keep repeating it with Dorian and Imelda? No, the key to Jesus’ love is that he stays with them in that storm-tossed boat. He doesn’t desert them when the storms of life rage. At the heart of Jesus’ power is that simple, and wildly transformative, gift of presence. So what we get is a Messiah who is indeed peerlessly powerful, but maybe not in the way we imagine or think we desire.
Our theme word for today is “Soak.” When we are soaked with the storms of life, which sooner or later happens to all of us, the good news is that that’s not the end. We are not going to drown, because there is One in the boat with us who will not let us sink. We will undoubtedly get sick; we will suffer abysmal failures; we will move inevitably toward our death. And while the Holy One may not turn any of those situations around on a physical plain—won’t still the outer storm, in other words—that same God above all gods will nevertheless walk with us through the storms and give us a peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
There’s an image that’s helpful here, one that Judith Bryan and Mary Senechal use in their Spirituality 101 sessions. They quote Margaret Silf as reminding us that, “during a storm at sea, the water [just] ten feet below the trough of the highest wave is perfectly calm.” It just may be that the heart of life is to seek to live, not on the surface where the waves swell and break, but somewhere deeper down, where the most all-encompassing sort of peace prevails. Then the soaking isn’t destructive. It’s restorative. The Jesus we want may be a Jesus who calms the surface waves. The Jesus we get, though, is the One who is the perfectly calm depth beneath the surface. We are held and sustained by the One whose very identity and purpose is to give life and peace to everyone and everything: “light and life to all he brings” (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” v. 3)—light and life even when the surface waters all-but-overwhelm.
So Jesus thwarts what may be our inclination to imagine the great problem-solver in the sky and gives us instead the deeply present and peaceful Jesus. Not the Jesus we may think we want, but one, just as he is, who’s even better. Another way we may miss Jesus “just as he [is]” is by assuming Jesus’ primary role is as judge. Or worse: judge, jury and executioner. Not a few of us are possessed of a ferocious internal critic who may relentlessly focus on our faults and failings. Maybe a parent or spouse or sibling has been a carping critic, and we have come to judge ourselves harshly for our shortcomings. And the spiritual problem is that we may assume God does, too. Maybe we hear the Bible as an extended warning that we’d better live up to God’s harsh and demanding standards or else.
A couple of weeks ago, for example, I totally forgot about an appointment I had made and I missed it completely. When I discovered my mistake, I felt awful. You would have thought I was going to be slain for my oversight. I apologized profusely by email to the man whom I had snubbed. And very soon he got back to me, and told me I deserved a mulligan and not to think another thing about it. The Jesus floating around in my head was castigating me for my mistake. The Jesus I would have been better to receive “just as he was” simply reminded me, through this man, that mulligans and grace are the very ways of God: “Peace! Be still!” (4:39).
So Jesus just as he is is the One who walks with us through the storms of our lives. Jesus just as he is is the One who is always giving us mulligans and offering us the deepest forgiveness. That same Jesus, the Jesus of presence and forgiveness, is also, as it turns out, one who calls us to a high moral and ethical standard. This may seem like something of a contradiction. ‘You just said that Jesus is full of forgiveness and forbearance. How can he also keep holding us to the highest standards?’ We may forget that the same holiness that gives extravagantly also asks extravagant generosity in return. Jesus just as he is offers abundant forgiveness and grace. And at the same time, Jesus just as he is says, ‘Come with me. Walk in my ways. Together, you and I have a world to save.’
In the hall on the church stairs, there are a number of prayers written on paper plates this fall by children in our Sunday School. If you want to see some beautiful and heartfelt prayers, take a look. One says “God, Hi.” Another says “Help me listen.” “I love my mom and dad,” says another. “Keep me and my family safe.” “Please help anyone who got hurt by Hurricane Dorian.” And “Please help convince my parents to get a guinea pig.”
And then there’s this one: in quotation marks, it says, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” It’s a line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it’s said about a determined and strong woman named Hermia. The ten-year-old Federated prayer writer clearly sees something of God in that evocative line: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”
I can’t help thinking, in this regard, of a contemporary teenager who is both little and fierce, and who has lived with a remarkable passion for saving the earth, and who is a sign of the presence of Jesus just as she is. Greta Thunberg, is a sixteen-year-old Swedish girl who has been at the forefront of a youth-led movement urging world leaders to curtail climate change. She’s in New York City now, having led Friday’s international climate strike and preparing for tomorrow’s Climate Action Summit at the United Nations. Greta is possessed of a preternatural poise and passion. Coming from Sweden for that conference, she didn’t want to fly here because of the high environmental costs of flying. So she traveled here on a zero-emissions solar-powered sailboat.
She has become a celebrity, but she never lets it go to her head. In fact, she told members of Congress last week, “I don’t want you to listen to me. . .. I want you to listen to the scientists” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/climate/greta-thunberg.html).
In a recent interview, Greta said something striking. On The Daily Show, she was asked if she noticed any differences in attitude between those in her native Sweden and the perceptions of people in this country. She said, “climate [in the U.S.] is being discussed as something you believe in or [don’t] believe in, while where I come from [we accept it as] fact.” We may not want there to be a climate crisis, and we might like to wish it away. But the fact is that the climate is suffering immensely because of our habits. And Greta Thunberg is insisting on our paying attention. She points to the melting of the polar ice caps—remember our worship theme today of “Soak” and the ways the water can overwhelm us—and she reminds us that if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we will be looking at a dire future (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhQVustYV24). And she is fearless in pushing us to action. “On Tuesday, speaking to members of a Senate task force, she spoke directly to earnest lawmakers who had commended youth climate activists like her for their courage. ‘Please save us your praise. We don’t want it,’ she said. ‘Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/climate/greta-thunberg.html). “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”
When we live with and follow Jesus “just as he [is],” we discover a Jesus who doesn’t so much solve our every problem as accompany us on our long and winding and sometimes perilous journeys. Jesus just as he is is there to hold our hands and bring us to the place ten feet under the soaking water where the peace is all-encompassing.
When we live with and follow Jesus just as he is, we meet a Jesus who hasn’t the slightest interest in punishing us for our sins and wagging a reprimanding finger at our failings. Jesus just as he is smiles at us and plays with us and embraces us in tender arms of mercy.
And at the same time, when we live with and follow Jesus just as he is, the Jesus we find may not look like me and believe everything I believe and confirm all my biases. That Jesus, instead, invites us on a walk to save the planet. That Jesus says, ‘Follow me. Exercise no privilege. Make peace. Forgive. Because this is how I, just as I am, treat you.’ May we go forth and do likewise.