1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41
Don’t get the gospel story wrong. The disciples woke up Jesus not with a request but with a reprimand. What they expected was not a miracle but that he show some interest. “Start bailing, you lubber!” And after his miracle they were even more afraid! They went from the ordinary fear of the dangerous chaos of nature to their terror at the power of Jesus’ command. In contrast is the calm—the sudden calming of the sea, and the calm of Jesus all throughout.
Jesus has done what only God can do. In Psalm 107 and Psalm 148, God commands the wind and waves. The gods of the pagans also did such things, and took on human form, so if the disciples had been pagans they would have been glad and grateful and offered sacrifices to this deity among them. But they don’t. They are Jews, for whom there is one God, and this One God never takes on human form, so nothing here computes. They can’t make sense of it. The sudden and vast disparity between all they’d ever known and what’s now before them is the deep cause of their terror. Jesus is calm, but he stands in their boat like a black hole in their universe.
Yet he is a human being. For all his impossible extra identity, he is a man who is living by his faith. So Jesus trusts that the God who got Noah through the flood, and Moses through the Red Sea, will protect him enough for him to see the mission through that God had given him.
Does that mean that you are supposed to be fearless if you follow Jesus? Fearless like David against Goliath? Was St. Paul fearless in his endurance of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger? If you fear such things, does that mean your faith is weak? I don’t believe so, but you might think that from what Jesus says, according to our translation: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
We hear that as a reprimand. And maybe it is, but it’s also not a good translation. He actually says this: “Why are you timid, do you not yet have faith?” You can make the Greek words even stronger: “Why are you cowarding, why are you craven, not yet have you faith?” It’s not about fear but the effect of fear.
It’s more of a challenge than a reprimand, because of the “not yet have you faith?” This “not yet” will carry through Mark’s Gospel: when the disciples will see him walk on water they will be terrified, when all three times that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection they will be afraid of it, when he gets transfigured on the mountain they will be terrified, and finally on Easter morning, when the women see the empty tomb and get the message from the angel they depart in fear. Still not yet?
We live at this boundary between the present and the promise. What’s to come and what is now. The promise is the not-yet that we hope for and keep trying to believe in.
Now, it’s natural for us to try to extrapolate the promise from the present, to assume that we can calculate the promise from what we know of the present. This of course is what human beings do all the time. We Homo sapiens are the animals who are not contented with the present. We set goals, we calculate risk. We want to manage what we’re reasonably afraid of.
But the promises of God so often contradict our calculations from the present that we are expert in. And to believe those promises requires us to surrender our calculations and reverse and re-imagine the present in terms of the promises of God. Which makes the present unstable, and loose, and the disjunction of the promises may well make us cower.
Of course the armies of the Israelites were terrified of Goliath. Standing there he represented the military doctrines of Overwhelming Force and Shock and Awe. The Israelite soldiers had experience in war. The method of war between them and the Philistines was single combats, successive single combats side by side. They had the experience to calculate their individual chances against a giant ten feet tall hefting a spearhead 150 pounds. It’s not just his size but the reach of his thrust. But the expert extrapolations of both sides did not reckon on those five smooth stones in the wadi—how big do you think? Is this one maybe too big? Smaller! Such a contradiction in how you view the world. So David could say to the Israelite soldiers, "Why are you cowering, do you not yet have faith?"
Jesus never says there’s nothing to be afraid of. To fear things is inevitable to biological life. As all species do, we rank what we’re afraid of in order to make our choices. Because of our special capacity for reason and imagination, and because we are fallen, our fears are easily manipulated. We have been seeing this from the White House. Big men do it, Trump and Putin and Kim Jong Un and Orban and Erdogan and Chávez and Maduro, and the examples of Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela show how quickly how much national damage the manipulation of fear can cause.
These big men are the Goliaths that make God’s people cower. Even with the reversal of the child separation policy, we’ve still got a zero tolerance policy on our borders, and that’s supported in the main by Christians. And St. Paul says, “Open wide your hearts!” The opposite of fear. To open wide your hearts to little children taken from their parents is merely animal. To open wide your hearts to refugees from violence is only decent. What’s Christian is to open wide your hearts as a categorical imperative without regard for protecting our economy.
For Christians to open our hearts is not a function of sharing our prosperity and blessing. For St. Paul it comes precisely from living at the fearful boundary, when dying and yet alive, when punished but not yet killed, when sorrowful and rejoicing, when poor and making others rich, when having nothing and possessing everything, just living at this disjunction between the present and promise is how we open up our hearts.
Because the power of God on our behalf is not to protect our prosperity, or even to give us a leg up on safety, but to protect our mission, to protect us living towards God’s promises, because to live in God’s promises will get you in trouble with the world, whether from the gales or the goliaths, whether from just the chaos of nature or the malice of the human powers of the world.
To believe God’s promises is a hard obedience. Faith feels fear, and follows anyway, because of whose word is calling us. What we count on is not our experience, but the God who calls us through it. Not on our accumulated expertise, but on the teaching of this Teacher who before his incarnation was the Word of God who in the beginning commanded the winds to blow and for eons told the waters to flow through that wadi and polish those five stones.
I invite you to believe that what Jesus teaches, though it may be disputed by big men, is in tune with the deepest structures of the universe. Whatever Jesus calls you to today makes the best sense of the world the way it really is, even if counters the current public certainties. I invite you to believe that this voice of this teacher is the voice of the creator, and therefore I invite you to cultivate calmness. This story is both a comfort and a challenge to the church. It’s not a proof, but it is an invitation.
You accept the invitation when you are here today, you are here because you want to live your life with ideals, you don’t want to succumb to opposition and resistance, whether evil or natural. You want your allegiance to challenge you, you want to do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing, you understand the right of sacrifice, and you want some help and guidance to live this way.
So here’s my take-home for today: The most important obedience for Christians is not in what you do but in what you trust God for. Your most important obedience is not in what you do but in what you trust God for. Behind the promises is God’s faithfulness, and the energy of God’s faithfulness is God’s love. What drove St. Paul to go through hell and high water was his passion to share this truth of such a loving and gracious God. And this same truth is what allowed the Lord Jesus to sleep in the boat. The opposite of fear isn’t courage, it’s love.
Here’s where the Gospel contradicts the glories of human literature and manly expertise: the opposite of fear is not courage, but love! Perfect love casts out fear. So you know that deep fear in your life? You know what it’s for? Your fear is your slingshot, for the small stone of your faith, that you aim at the heart of God. This God has no armor, your stone breaks God’s heart, and what pours out is God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.