Power Over Sea and Spirits audio (5MB)
Di & I were watching a show the other day where they were previewing the latest movies and one came up that we decided was just too close to the truth to bear watching. It was based on the tsunami in 2004. Do you remember it? Those horrific scenes of the ocean rolling in and swallowing everything in its path. [video clip] 230,000 people died in 4 different countries. Do you remember watching the news reports and being reminded once again of the awesome power of God’s creation and humans’ inability, despite our great advances in science and technology, to fully control it?
Of course to the ancient peoples of the middle east, the sea, in particular, was seen as the image of unpredictability, of anarchy, of all the forces of evil that opposed God and his people. You can understand why, can’t you? The sea can be a fearsome thing even for those who know it well. [Video clip - the Perfect Storm] [Well the storm on Galilee wasn’t quite a Perfect Storm but] as we’ll see as we go through today’s passage Jesus’ disciples were among those who knew the sea and yet could be afraid of it.
In fact in today’s passage we find two types of forces that people fear. First there’s the power of the sea, which we all understand, but then there’s that other power that so many fear because they can’t understand it or comprehend it. That is the power of the spirit world. [Again there’s something very contemporary about this issue as well. TV shows and movies regularly portray all sorts of supernatural forces that our modern, scientifically trained, minds don’t want to admit. Yet these forces have been known and talked about since the scriptures were first written.]
I wonder how many of us have trouble believing that God still intervenes in the world in a miraculous way. When we pray do we really believe that God can and will answer our prayers? Or do we hedge our prayers to make them more ‘reasonable’, not asking for anything that’s outside the realms of the rational and explainable? Do we asking for patience rather than healing? Do we prefer to put up with the hardships of life rather than ask God to change them? Or are we so overcome by the troubles that we face that we simply forget to look to God for help?
Well, in today’s passage we find two situations where Jesus is confronted with uncontrollable forces: the forces of nature, the sea and the wind, and the forces of the spirit world, a legion of evil spirits. And what happens? As he confronts them he shows that the power he has is far greater than any power of the created world.
Let’s have a look at the passage. Mk 4:35: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.” Just as an aside by the way, notice this last bit of redundant information: “Other boats were with him.” These other boats aren’t mentioned again, they’re just one of those things that the person telling the story remembers. But this is the sort of thing that indicates that this is a true eye witness account. The person telling the story remembers the little details as well as the important parts.
Anyway, as they’re going across the lake a great windstorm blows up. Lake Galilee is the sort of place where a gale can spring up in a very short time, making sailing very dangerous, particularly if you’re a fair way from land. And that was the case here. This great storm had blown up and despite all the efforts of the disciples the boat was being swamped.
Now as I said before, these were Galilean fishermen. This was their profession. They’d spent all their life on the lake, probably since they were old enough to walk. So they knew what they were doing. If there was some way of saving the situation they would have found it. But they also knew the dangers of the sea. No doubt they’d known people who’d drowned because they’d been caught out in one of these storms. And now they’ve found themselves in a similar situation. They’d done all they could and it wasn’t enough. It looked like the ship was lost and them with it.
Meanwhile, what’s Jesus doing? Well, he’s asleep in the back of the boat. He’s so exhausted from teaching and healing that he’s fallen asleep on the helmsman’s pillow. He’s totally oblivious to the chaos that’s going on around him. That is, until they come and wake him up. They wake him to tell him that he’s about to die. There’s a real sense of fear here in the way they approach him. They’ve seen this sort of storm before and they know what happens to people who are caught in the midst of one. All their experience and knowledge says “You’re going to die!”
But what they fail to take into account is who it is they have with them; who it is who’s on their side at this moment. Jesus “woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” It’s almost too simple isn’t it. All their efforts to keep the ship on course were wasted; all their fear and worry was unnecessary. In a moment, Jesus has stilled the storm and there’s a dead calm. Then he turns to the disciples and says “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” He’s genuinely surprised at their fear and at their lack of faith. Why didn’t they trust God to keep them safe when Jesus is with them in the boat?
I remember when our children were little. We’d occasionally watch a show or a movie where the hero was in danger. And our kids would sometimes get scared and want to stop watching. But we’d remind them that this was only a movie and this person was the hero and the hero always survives till the end - in Walt Disney movies at least. [not The Perfect Storm!] And so they’d be reassured and keep watching. Well, there’s an element of that sort of thing here. Not that this is a Walt Disney script, or that Jesus is some sort of imaginary hero. But there is a sense in which if the disciples had recognised who he was, they wouldn’t have been so terrified. If they’d recognised before the event what they realise afterwards, they’d simply have woken him half an hour earlier and asked him quietly to calm the storm and the wind so they could go on their way in peace.
We’ll think some more about that in a moment. But first let’s think about this second incident. Here they are. They’ve got to the other side of the lake, to the eastern shore, and as they step out of the boat this madman comes to meet them. Now if the forces of nature were untamable, this man was equally so. The local townspeople, possibly his own family, had even tried to restrain him with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart and broke the shackles in pieces and no one was able to subdue him. This wasn’t just due to his great strength. There was a superhuman aspect to it. As we go on we discover that he was possessed by evil spirits. So many in fact that they describe themselves as Legion. That is, thousands.
Well, one thing evil spirits can do is to recognise other spiritual forces around them. So as Jesus approaches, the man runs up to him and bows down and shouts at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me” because Jesus had said “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” These spirits recognise who Jesus is and the power that he wields.
But notice that there’s something of a by-play that goes on here. In the ancient world there was a belief that if you knew the true name of someone you had power over them. Well, these spirits may have been trying to use that power over Jesus by the use of his real name, “Jesus Son of the Most High God”. But it doesn’t work. Instead Jesus asks “what is your name?” And the spirit answers “Legion.” He’s not going to tell him his real name. He doesn’t want to give Jesus power over him. But it doesn’t matter. Jesus power doesn’t derive from knowing the spirit’s name. It comes from being the Son of God. And Legion soon realises this. He begs not to be sent out of the country, presumably meaning out of this world. Rather he asks to at least be allowed to enter the flock of pigs grazing over on the hill. So Jesus gives them permission. There’s perhaps an ironic twist to this story as the unclean spirits enter these unclean animals and both rush into the sea and are drowned.
By the way, notice that Jesus only tells the unclean spirit to leave the man once, right at the start. It seems that that initial command is the one the spirit is responding to when it asks for permission to go into the herd of pigs. All Jesus does at the end is to give permission for his original command to be redirected.
But what does all this say to us? In the absence of the need to deal with demon possessed people or great storms in small open boats, what do we take away from these two stories?
Well, first of all, we take away the knowledge that Jesus’ power is greater than both the natural forces and the spiritual forces of the world. The entire created order, both material and spiritual are under his control. You could say this is one of the great consequences of the incarnation, of Jesus becoming a human being like us. As Jesus enters the created world in human form, yet still truly God, we can expect miracles in the created order. The incarnation is the great miracle. All others are simply echoes of that greatest of all miracles.
Yet these incidents also speak to us about acknowledging our dependence on God and on Jesus in our daily life. For the true disciple of Jesus, being with Jesus should give us confidence. Whether we’re experiencing storms or calm, what matters is that Jesus is with us. Anyone who thinks that the Christian life will be a continual series of success, excitement and growth is only heading for disappointment. But the person who looks to Jesus’ presence with them for their satisfaction and reassurance will never be disappointed.
Jesus’ presence with us means we need no longer fear what might happen to us. That doesn’t mean that Jesus will take away all dangers and rescue us from every predicament into which we fall. Nor does it mean we won’t die an untimely death like the disciples feared they might. Rather it means that we can approach such possibilities with the peace of knowing that Jesus is watching over us. We can have confidence knowing that Jesus has promised us eternal life at his Father’s side and that whatever happens he won’t abandon us. Now if your hope rests entirely in this world, this existence, that may not be a great comfort, but we’re people whose hope lies in the future, in being in God’s presence for eternity. If that’s where our hope lies, then nothing that happens here on earth can threaten us because there’s nothing that can happen here that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord.
But the other side of this coin, the other thing we can learn from these two stories, is that when we face some great obstacle or some uncontrollable force in our lives, we have a Lord with us who is greater than all the forces in the created world. We can pray to God with confidence that he’s able to do anything we ask. Whether it’s keeping us safe on our holiday in our favourite ski resort, or seeing us through a ten year drought, or through some personal crisis, or keeping our children safe, we don’t have to flounder around on our own feeling desperate. We can pray to God asking him to help us. Being confident that he has all the power we need for our situation. But at the same time remembering that the power he has to give us may be the power to persevere even when things don’t go the way we want, and the knowledge that he has our eternal interests at heart not just our present interests.
Listen to what Paul says as he considers God’s great love for us:
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” And he finishes with these words: “37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:28-39 NRSV)