That day, when it was evening, Jesus said to them, ‘Let’s go over to the other side.’ They left the crowd, and took him with them in the boat he’d been in. There were other boats with him too. A big windstorm blew up. The waves beat on the boat, and it quickly began to fill. Jesus, however, was asleep on a cushion in the stern. They woke him up. ‘Teacher!’ they said to him, ‘We’re going down! Don’t you care?’ He got up, scolded the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Silence! Shut up!’ The wind died, and there was a flat calm. Then he said to them, ‘Why are you scared? Don’t you believe yet?’ Great fear stole over them. ‘Who is this?’ they said to each other. ‘Even the wind and the sea do what he says!’
One of the things I love about the Psalms is the direct, in-your-face way the poet speaks to God. ‘Wake up, God!’ says the Psalmist; it’s time to call the wicked to account (7.6). ‘Wake up! I need someone to help me!’ (35.23); ‘Rouse yourself ! Why are you asleep? Wake up, don’t cast us away!’ (44.23). ‘Wake up and show the pagans who’s boss!’ (59.5). The prophet Isaiah says much the same (51.9): ‘Wake up, wake up, Arm of the Lord – show us how strong you are!’
I suspect, of course, that if we’d sat these poets down in a cool, easy moment and asked them, ‘Did you really think God was asleep?’, they might have said, ‘Well, no; he is God, after all; but it certainly seemed as though he’d gone to sleep at the time!’ That, it seems, is a fairly typical expression of what we might call biblical faith: faith in a God whom we believe at one level to be all-seeing, never-sleeping, omnipresent and omnicompetent – but who, at another level, seems, from the perspective of our muddled and messy lives, to have gone to sleep on the job.
That’s why I find this passage in Mark so wonderfully encouraging. Right from the start the early Christians, reading this short but remarkable account, found it to be a great source of strength and comfort. The little ship of the church is tossed to and fro by the wind and on the waves. There are many, many times when both church leaders and rank-and-file Christians really do feel as though all is lost. All they can do at such times is to pray in the way the first disciples did on the boat.
Whether or not they realized, at the time, how exactly they were echoing the Psalms, Mark certainly did. He realized, too, the way in which the whole story carried all sorts of other echoes as well. Again, the Psalms: when people cry to yhwh, Israel’s God, from the midst of the storm, he will make it to be still and quieten the waves (65.7; 89.9; 107.29). In particular, God made the Red Sea to part for his people to walk through; that is central, of course, to the great story of the Exodus. Now here is Jesus, doing much the same thing only close up and personal.
The disciples ask the natural question: ‘Who is this?’ Mark wants his readers to supply the answer, not in a glib or easy way, but with the same awe and breathless wonder of the frightened little group on the boat. ‘Great fear stole over them,’ he says. You bet it did. And unless it steals over us, too, as we roll around in our minds the possibility that when we’re looking at Jesus we’re looking at Israel’s God in person, we are using the truth of the Incarnation as an intellectual screen behind which to hide for safety, rather than as the lens through which the light and warmth of God can flood and transform our hearts and lives.
Mark places this story at the end of his long chapter on parables. And, though he clearly wants us to see this as something which actually, and dramatically, happened, it too is a sort of parable. The parables left people with questions that they had to answer for themselves. This story left the disciples with questions that would take them a while to figure out properly. Mark, arranging his gospel like this, is saying to us (among other things) that part of the way the kingdom of God works is precisely by people having sudden and alarming questions raised in their minds which they will have to ponder and puzzle over.
Sometimes these questions are forced on us by events that are frightening and worrying at the time. Sometimes they grow slowly out of things we have read in the Bible or heard in church. This is normal and natural, however unsettling it may seem at the time. ‘Don’t you believe yet?’ asks Jesus, almost teasing his frightened followers. This theme continues: ‘Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand? You still don’t get it?’ (8.17, 21). Part of the point of Christian discipleship is to have our minds and imaginations challenged, opened, stretched, reshaped. The world – God’s world! – is quite different, and a lot more un-predictable and interesting, than we often suppose. And at the heart of it is Jesus himself, sometimes apparently asleep but ready to wake up, transform our scary situations, and bounce the question back to us. When we pray ‘Wake up, Lord!’ we need to be prepared for him to reply that it is we who have been asleep. Our wake-up call to God is often the moment when God’s wake-up call to us is finally getting through.
Wake us up, O Lord, from our easy-going sleep. Help us always to remember that you are in control, no matter how frightening or alarming things may be.