Reading a Bible story dense with meaning.
Once when I was young, I was strolling through a store that was selling an Easter basket filled with smooth and colorful eggs. They looked enticing. But when I tried to lift the basket, I found it very heavy. The eggs were made out of Italian alabaster.
That is my analogy to the experience of reading Mark 4:35-41. This is a very short gospel story—only six verses long. On the surface it seems to be just a naïve miracle story. Jesus calms a ferocious storm on the Sea of Galilee with three words spoken into the wind, “Peace! Be still!” Wow, isn’t that cool!
Mark, however, is never a naïve storyteller. He can be laconic. He does not pad his stories with lots of verbiage. He tends to tell a story straight and direct. Nonetheless he builds a wealth of association into the few details he chooses to use. In that respect, details are heavy with meaning. A short story like this can resemble that basket filled with alabaster eggs.
Many of his associations have links back to the Old Testament. If you are going to plumb the depths of Mark’s writing, you will need to steep yourself in the Hebrew Bible. That is true, however, of the whole New Testament. When you read most New Testament passages, you can gain some meaning from a surface reading. That meaning may be spiritually helpful. But if you draw upon the passage’s links to the Old Testament, the New Testament passage comes even more richly alive.
Sea storms as ferocious monsters
Take, for example, the detail in this story of a ferocious storm at sea. The ancient Israelites were landlubbers, not sailors. They did not venture confidently out upon the sea.
Sea storms were especially terrifying to them as they were to most residents of the Middle Eastern deserts. In fact, in the Old Testament sea storms are often envisioned as sea monsters, those fearful creatures of the depths who could capsize a boat and swallow all its inhabitants alive.
The ancient Hebrews sometimes called one particular sea monster Rahab or Leviathan. The psalms and the prophets have scattered references to how God conquered this monster and cut up its body as food for the fishes. This monster seems to be a relic of some old mythological story that has not been preserved in the Bible.
It’s not accidental that the creation story in Genesis 1 begins with the earth as a formless, watery chaos over which God speaks his authoritative word, “Let there be light!” And there was light.
The raging seas were symbols of all the chaos that can overwhelm their lives, whether foreign invasion, social disorder, financial failure, and loss of health. All these forces of chaos are opposed to God and to the wellbeing of God’s people.
Mark, I believe, has that symbolism in mind when he tells us this story of a storm that rages on the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus commands the storm, he says, “Peace. Be still!” The Greek word that we translate as “be still” literally means “be muzzled.” Jesus is commanding the storm to put the muzzle back on its mouth as if it were a ferocious beast that has broken out of its cage.
If, as some scholars argue, Mark wrote his gospel to a infant church experiencing persecution, then the symbolism of Jesus calming the raging storm would have spoken powerfully to that audience.
Sailing with a community
Let’s take another of Mark’s details, the boat. A boat was an ancient symbol of the community of faith, the church. So when the small band of teacher and disciples moves out onto the sea, they do so in a boat.
That is the way, I believe, Mark is suggesting to his audience how they are all called upon to move out into the storms of our own lives. They need to do so in the company of their fellow believers.
The Lord knows that churches can be imperfect communities. They can be exceedingly fragile. Yet each of us can draw from our church communities a sustaining power when we are going through rough times. We are not called to swim out into the storm all by ourselves. If we do, we’ll likely drown. But we are called to row out into the storms of life within the shelter of the boat and our fellow rowers.
There’s a third significant detail in the story. Mark tells us that when the storm arises, Jesus is asleep on a pillow in the stern of the boat. The stern would be the place where the helmsman would sit to control the tiller that steered the boat. In a Galilean boat he would sit upon the pillow.
But in this story, Jesus occupies the pillow. He occupies the position of the helmsman, who’s steering the boat. But there is one glaring detail out of place. He is asleep.
So often when we are going through tough times we can feel as if Jesus is fast asleep, totally unaware or unmoved by the distress we are in. But in Mark’s telling of the storm, that is an illusion. Though seemingly asleep, Jesus remains at the control point of the whole voyage.
Asking a weighty question
Finally, notice the question the disciples ask at the end of the story. “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”
Again if you link this question to prior Old Testament references, like Psalm 107:23-32, the question suggests an unsettling answer. There the psalmist celebrates sailors who set out upon the sea in business ventures. When they run into raging storms that threaten to undo them, they cry out to the Lord. The Lord responds by making “the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”
Calming sea storms is divine action. So who indeed is this one who is telling the storm to be still, and the storm obeys him?
Maybe you can begin to see how rich this story is in its symbolism. And that makes it a very rich text for sermons.
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, for some of my understanding of this text. He gave a presentation on this text at the recent conference of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators in early February. I found it unusually insightful.