TITLE: Go Out Into the Darkness
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: Christ does not promise that we will not experience difficult times, but does promise that, if we walk in faith, he will redeem the difficult times.
SCRIPTURE: Mark 4:35-41
It was evening on the Sea of Galilee. This little sea sits in a basin 700 feet below sea level, and is surrounded on three sides by steep hills and cliffs. I can imagine standing by the Sea of Galilee watching the sun moving overhead until it gets to the tops of the hills in the west – and then it would quickly duck behind the western hills and it would be night. Jesus and the disciples were on the western side of the lake, which must have meant that the sun set all the more quickly.
The western side of the lake was the Jewish side. The eastern side was the Gentile side -- home of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities with a large Greek population. Jesus was going there to minister to these Greeks -- something that not many rabbis would stoop to do. In these Greek cities, Jesus had a truly amazing ministry -- lots of miracles -- lots of teaching -- very little opposition. These Greek cities were a good place for him.
But I am getting ahead of my story. At Jesus' command, the disciples got into a boat and started their journey across the little sea. I say "little," because the Sea of Galilee is small for a sea -- more like a large lake -- eight miles wide and thirteen miles long -- not much of a
sea, really. Jesus and the disciples probably weren't crossing the lake at its widest point -- were probably going only five miles or so – not much of a journey, depending on your boat.
A few years ago, archeologists unearthed a boat from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and carbon dating places it around the time of Jesus' life. It was 26 feet long and 7 or 8 feet wide. There is a very good chance that it was a boat very much like this in which Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee -- I should say rowed across the sea, because that was how the unearthed boat was propelled -- by four people rowing -- two on each side. Five miles looks a little further when you are holding an oar in your hand, getting ready to row.
But the disciples were used to rowing. At least four of them were professional fishermen before they met Jesus. Any man growing up in that region would have spent some time in boats. Boats were very much part of their lives.
And so they started their journey. The farther they went, the darker it got. The hills rising up around the sea would block even the light of the stars -- except for the stars immediately overhead. If there were clouds in the sky, being in a small boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee must have been a little like swimming in an ink-bottle -- no light anywhere.
And then the storm struck. At the Sea of Galilee, the cool air falling from the hills to meet the warm air rising from the sea often causes quick and violent storms. Just as these disciples got past the point of no return, the storm struck -- high winds -- waves as high as the boat was
long -- a fisherman's nightmare.
The disciples panicked! I can't really blame them! Being in that small boat in a small storm was very scary thing. If I were in a small boat in a storm, I would want to get it to shore as fast as possible. And I would want someone who knew what they were doing to be in charge.
The disciples wanted to turn the task over to their leader. The storm was beyond their abilities -- the waves were so high that their little boat threatened to pitch pole end-over-end to the bottom -- certain death for all aboard. Maybe Jesus could help! They had seen him do some pretty wonderful things! But where was Jesus, anyway? They looked around and finally found him asleep in the little cubby underneath the stern deck. Asleep! They were astounded! How could anyone sleep through such a storm!
And then they were angry! Jesus was their leader-- the one in charge. Jesus was the miracle worker -- the one with the answers -- the one who gave the orders. Now, when they needed him worse than they had ever needed him, he was asleep in his own little private space in the stern of the boat! What was wrong with him! Didn't he have any sense of the crisis! Didn't he care! Would they all die because of his dereliction!
And so they woke him! And he looked out into the storm with a steady gaze and said simply, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind stopped! And a great calm settled on the waters! And the disciples were sore afraid! They were stunned by Jesus' power -- not sure what to make of it. They were as afraid of this sudden turn of circumstance as they had been afraid of the storm. Only God has this kind of power, and they were frightened to be in God's holy presence! These were men who, out of reverence for God, would not even call God's name. These were men who knew that to look on God's face was to die. And now they were looking at Jesus and wondering if they had been saved from the waves only to be consumed by God's fire. "Who then is this," they cried, "that even the wind and the sea obey him?" But they already knew the answer -- and the answer scared them.
Whenever I read this story, my first inclination is to be critical of the disciples. They had heard Jesus teach. They had seen him heal. They should have known who Jesus was. They should have known what to expect.
But then I must admit that I have access the "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey would put it. I know where Jesus will take them from here. I know about the cross, but I also know about the open tomb. I have quite an advantage over the disciples -- but I am often sore afraid myself.
I read about people who are members of the Three O'clock Club. I wonder if anyone here is a member of the Three O'clock Club. Members of the Three O'clock Club wake up at three o'clock in the morning -- suddenly panicked over some problem that was of only mild interest the day before -- certain that the sky will crash in around them unless they can resolve the problem. When that happens, they wake Jesus up and ask, "Don't you care that I am perishing!" Sometimes I have read stories from various magazines about Jesus redeeming people from bad situations. When I have a bad situation, I pray. I try to turn the problem over to Jesus. So how can I criticize the disciples? I am no better than they!
Whether you are a member of the Three O'clock Club or not, you probably have moments when you wonder if God has abandoned you -- when it feels like the sky is falling -- when it seems that everything precious is in jeopardy -- when you feel like crying out, "God, don't you care that I am perishing?" It is in those moments that we especially need faith -- and
it is in those moments that our faith is severely tested. In those moments, a great deal depends on whether we have nurtured our faith in good times so that we can draw on it in bad times. Even more depends on whether, once the crisis is upon us, we choose to honor our faith or our fears. We have a choice, you know. When the tough times come, we can
choose to be fearful -- full of fear -- or faithful -- full of faith. A great deal hangs on our decision.
On Christmas Day, 1939, King George VI of England gave a Christmas Day radio address that had a tremendous effect on that struggling nation. England had been moving toward war with Germany for over a year, and had finally declared war when German invaded Poland on September 1. The nation had instituted a military draft, and was in the process of doubling the size of its armed forces. They had evacuated one and one-half million children from London and other industrial centers to protect them from enemy bombs. They were in the process of building over one million bomb shelters. Among other things, they had ordered more than a million gas helmets for babies. Many people found themselves suddenly unemployed as retail sales slumped and businesses closed.
If you were the king of England, faced with giving a Christmas Day radio address to a nation in those circumstances, what would you say? What the king chose to say on that Christmas Day brought great hope and strength to his people. He acknowledged the great crisis that was upon them, and then he said:
"I said to a man who stood at the gate of the year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand
of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.'
"So I went forth, and finding the hand of God trod gladly into the night. And He led me toward the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East. So heart, be still, God knows His will is best. The stretch of years which winds ahead, so dim to our imperfect vision, is
clear to God. Our fears are premature; in Him all time hath full provision."
Those were good words for the darkness of that day, and they are good words for our darknesses today.
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way."
We would like to imagine that we have more to fear today than ever before -- terrorists -- nuclear proliferation -- SARS -- war -- global warming. The fact is that people have always had plenty to fear -- and we live longer and more securely today than ever before.
But it is also true that the dangers that we face threaten to swamp our little boats, and we cry out, "Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?" We cry, "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown." And then the voice says:
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way."
William Barclay was another man from England -- a biblical scholar who wrote a series of commentaries on the New Testament that many, many people found very helpful. Very possibly, some of you may have read his commentaries, and can appreciate his contribution to the cause of Christ.
What is less well known is that Barclay's twenty-one year old daughter and her fiancé were drowned in a boating accident. Of the various things that we might fear, the death of a child is probably the worst. Later, Barclay wrote a book that he entitled, Spiritual Autobiography, in which he talked about that terrible experience. He said:
"God did not stop that accident at sea, but he did still the storm in my own heart, so that somehow my wife and I came through that terrible time still on our own two feet."
As Christians, we are not exempt from the storms of life. Sometimes the waves threaten to swamp us, and sometimes they do swamp us. The promise is that, if we walk in faith, God will bring us through the terrible times still on our own two feet.
God hath not promised
Skies always blue,
All our lives through;
God hath not promised
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
But God hath promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the labor,
Light for the way,
Grace for the trials,
Help from above,
CHAPTERS 4-8: THE CONTEXT
Jesus' role as teacher is important in this Gospel. Chapter 4 opens with
a series of parables (the sower, the lamp and the bushel basket, the
growing seed, and the mustard seed). Speaking to the disciples, Jesus
explains the purpose of the parables, saying, "To you has been given the
secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in
parables; in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may
indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be
forgiven.' " (4:11-12).
This will seem ironic when we look at the story of the storm at sea. The
disciples are insiders, but they still don't "get it" -- not even close.
In Matthew and Luke, the disciples won't "get it" until after the
resurrection. In this Gospel, the original ending (16:8) closes with the
women at the tomb being seized with terror and amazement -- end of story
-- the disciples never do "get it." Even the longer ending (16:20)
presents the disciples as unbelieving until the very last verse.
4:35 - 8:26 recounts a series of miracles: Jesus stills the storm; heals
the Gerasene demoniac; restores a girl to life and heals a woman with a
hemorrhage (after which his hometown people reject him -- unbelievable
unbelief!); feeds the five thousand; walks on water; heals the sick in
Gennesaret; exorcises a demon from the Syrophoenician woman's daughter;
cures a deaf man; feeds the four thousand (after which the Pharisees ask
for a sign from heaven -- and the disciples worry about their inadequate
supply of bread -- unbelievable unbelief!); and cures a blind man at
Bethsaida. "These mighty works in Gentile territory correspond to those
performed in Jewish territory.. This section is also virtually free of
the opposition to Jesus that characterized the first section of the
gospel" (Donahue & Harrington, 160).
4:35 - 8:13 includes four crossings of the Sea of Galilee (4:35; 5:21;
6:45; 8:13) -- back and forth between the western Jewish side and the
eastern Gentile side. "By means of the sea crossings, Mark is able to
present the ministry of Jesus as extending to both Jews and Gentiles, with
equal power to heal and to exorcise demons among both groups" (Craddock,
4:35 - 8:21 includes three boat stories, all of which present the
disciples in an unfavorable light. The other two stories are:
-- Jesus walking on water to the disciples' boat in a windstorm -- and
their fear and hardness of heart (6:45-52).
-- The disciples worrying about having only one loaf of bread, in spite of
having recently witnessed the feedings of the five thousand and the four
thousand (unbelievable unbelief!) (8:14-21).
VERSES 35-36: LET US GO TO THE OTHER SIDE
35On 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.
"Let us go across to the other side" (v. 35). The other side is the
"And leaving the crowd behind" (v. 36). It is easy to be seduced by
popularity and difficult to walk away from a favorable crowd. Jesus,
however, could walk away from the crowd to pray or to carry on his work
elsewhere. Luccock asks, "Can we, as a church, leave a crowd? Has that
outward sign of success -- a packed house -- become the bread of life to
us? There are times when a church must get away from that if it is to
follow its Master" (Luccock, 709).
"They took him with them in the boat" (v. 36). In 1986, the hull of a
fishing boat was excavated from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Carbon
dating shows that it was from Jesus' time. The boat was 26.5 feet long,
7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high -- was decked fore and aft -- and would
have held approximately 15 persons -- four of them rowing. Presumably, it
is in a boat very much like this that Jesus and the disciples cross the
Sea of Galilee -- Jesus taking shelter under the stern deck (v. 38).
"Other boats" (v. 36). There has been much speculation regarding the
meaning of these other boats, none of it convincing.
VERSES 37-39: TEACHER, DO YOU NOT CARE THAT WE ARE PERISHING?
37A great windstorm (Greek: lailaps megale) arose, and the waves beat into
the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the
stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him,
"Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" 39He woke up and rebuked
the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased,
and there was a dead calm (Greek: galena megale -- great calm).
"A great (Greek: megale -- we will see this word again in vv. 37 and 41)
windstorm arose" (v. 37). The Sea of Galilee is in the deepest part of
the Northern Jordan rift -- 700 feet below sea level -- surrounded by
steep cliffs and mountains except in its southern extremities. "As a
result of this formation, cool winds frequently rush down these slopes and
unexpectedly stir up violent storms on the warm surface of the lake"
(Lockyer, 402). Waves can top thirty feet.
On a map of Israel the sea looks like a large lake, but from a small
fishing boat it would look enormous, especially in a storm. At least four
of Jesus' disciples are fishermen, have surely survived storms on this
sea, and have also surely known fishermen who were lost at sea. They are
strong, self-reliant men who would handle moderate danger as a matter of
course. The danger on this evening is not moderate, but deadly.
Sebastian Junger's book, The Perfect Storm (also made into a movie),
helped us to appreciate the danger of a small boat during a storm. "There
comes a point when physics takes over. If a boat heads into a wave that
is higher than the boat is long, it will get pitchpoled end to end to its
doom. Or if a wave that is higher than the boat is wide hits from the
side, it will capsize.. Jesus' disciples.knew enough to sense
these.dynamics" (Hoezee, 206).
"asleep" (v. 38). Sleeping through danger can be a sign of great faith.
The Psalmist says, "I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you
alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety" (Psalm 4:8). However, sleep
can also represent passivity in a moment that cries out for an active
response. The disciples interpret Jesus' sleep as evidence that he does
not care enough to save them (and, presumably, himself) from impending
"Teacher" (Greek: didaskale -- related to our word "didactic"). We would
expect that the disciples, in crisis, would address Jesus as Lord instead
of Teacher. It is his power rather than his teaching that they need in
this particular moment. In this Gospel, however, teaching and authority
are closely related. Jesus teaches "as one having authority" (1:22), and
amazes the people of Capernaum, who say, "What is this? A new
teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they
obey him" (1:27).
"do you not care that we are perishing?" (v. 38). The disciples panic and
want Jesus, their leader, to share their concern -- to show a sense of
urgency that might lead to a remedy. "Help us! Do something!" A great
leader can often help people to solve great problems, but Jesus' casual
attitude seems to insure that he will be no help in this urgent crisis.
How can he help if he will not even rouse from his slumber?
Matthew and Luke, both of whom use Mark as one of their primary sources,
change the disciples' rebuke to an appeal -- presumably because of their
discomfort at the disciples rebuking Jesus. In Matthew, they say, "Lord,
save us! We are perishing!" (Matt. 8:25). In Luke, they say, "Master,
Master, we are perishing!" (Luke 8:24).
Like those early disciples, we pray panicked prayers to a God who appears
to have abandoned us. "God, do you not care that we are perishing?" But
the Father knows our needs and loves us enough even to send his own son to
save us. "Instead of rushing to communicate our panic to him, we should
allow him to communicate his calm to us" (Luccock, 710).
"rebuked (Greek: epetimesen) the wind" (v. 39). Earlier, Jesus rebuked
(epetimesen) a demon, ordering it to be silent and to come out of the
afflicted man. This storm represents a demonic force. "Lailaps, the word
used for 'storm' (v. 37), is also the word for 'whirlwind' in Job 38:1..
It carries overtones of demonic power.. Just as God had authority over
the primeval chaos at the creation (Job 38:8-11; Ps. 74:13-14), so Jesus
has authority over the demonic forces of nature" (Williamson, 100-101).
"Peace! Be still" (v. 39). Jesus' calm voice and brief commands reflect
his authority over the elements, an authority that gets results. The wind
ceases and there is a dead (Greek: megale -- great) calm (v. 39). The
great storm of v. 37 is replaced by a great calm in v. 39. The calming of
the sea "takes on added meaning in the recognition that the sea symbolizes
throughout the Old Testament the abode of chaos.. Thus, when Jesus calms
the storm it is not merely a brute demonstration of power over nature, but
a redemptive act in which the chaotic forces of the sea, like the demons,
are 'rebuked' " (Brueggemann, 400).
There are a number of parallels between this story and that of Jonah
(Marcus, 337-340 and Edwards, 149-151). The first readers of this Gospel
-- at least the Jewish ones -- would be intimately familiar with the OT,
and would not fail to note the similarities, which include:
-- A journey by boat toward Gentile territory for the purpose of redeeming
-- A great storm at sea that threatens to sink the boat and drown the
-- Great fear
-- The principal characters (Jonah and Jesus) asleep during the storm
-- A rebuke of the principal characters
-- The principle characters take an action that results in the stilling of
-- Wonderment on the part of the sailors
-- Similar language between Mark's story and the Septuagint (Greek)
version of Jonah -- i.e, a variant of the Greek word, apollymi for
"perishing" and "drowning." "This verb occurs three times in an almost
identical form in the LXX of Jonah., where it expresses the leitmotiv of
the entire book, escape from destruction at the hand of God" (Marcus,
However, while Jesus is like Jonah, he is greater than Jonah. Note these
dissimilarities between these two stories:
-- Jonah sailed for Tarshish to avoid his God-given call to save the
Ninevite Gentiles. Jesus is being obedient to his call.
-- Jonah did not quiet the storm but only accepted responsibility for his
disobedience -- God quieted the storm. Jesus personally quiets the storm,
demonstrating that he is greater than Jonah and equal to God, who alone
has power over seas, storms, chaos, and evil.
VERSES 40-41: WHO THEN IS THIS?
40He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41And
they were filled with great awe (Greek: phoban megan -- great fear) and
said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea
The disciples fail the faith test. They were afraid of the storm, and now
they are afraid of Jesus. They should believe -- they have heard Jesus
teach and have seen him work miracles -- but fear wins out over faith.
"Yet they do ask the right question. Who is this? This story is not
about raw power. It is about the identity of Jesus. He is the Christ and
the Son of God" (Geddert, 114).
"and they were filled with great fear" (phoban megan) (v. 41). The NRSV's
"great awe" puts too positive a spin on it. We would expect the disciples
to rejoice at the calming of the sea, but instead they are still afraid --
greatly afraid -- as afraid of Jesus' Godly power as they were afraid of
"Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" (v. 41).
Their question provides the clue to the answer. Only God has power over
seas and storms (Psalm 107:29). Their question also provides the key to
this story, which does more than to reveal Jesus' power. This is an
epiphany story that reveals Jesus as either God's agent or God incarnate.
His identity will gradually become clearer until Peter's confession
(8:29). However, Peter's vision will dim, and the disciples will continue
to fear. At the cross, however, the Roman centurion who oversees the
crucifixion (a Gentile), provides a clear answer. Whether due to
apocalyptic signs (darkness and a torn temple veil) or something that he
sees in Jesus, the centurion says, "Truly this man was God's Son!"
See the story of King George VI's Christmas Day message -- and the William
Barclay story -- in the sermon above.
A BIT OF HUMOR:
Two caterpillars were crawling across the grass when a butterfly flew over
them. One of them looked up, nudged the other, pointed to the butterfly,
and said, "You could not get me up on one of those things for a million
We Christians are often like that. We can't imagine that God has destined
us for higher things, and don't especially welcome the possibility.
Faith is private capital stored in one's own house.
It is like a public savings-bank or loan office,
from which individuals receive assistance in their days of need;
but here the creditor quietly takes his interest for himself.
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounced Ger-te)
* * * * * * * * * *
Tomorrow has two handles: the handle of fear and the handle of faith.
You can take hold of it by either handle.
* * * * * * * * * *
Living the life of faith is not a life of mounting up with wings,
but a life of walking and not fainting..
Faith never knows where it is being led,
but it loves and knows the one who is leading.
-- Oswald Chambers
* * * * * * * * * *
When we are tempted to be discouraged,
we need to remember that it's not the size of our faith,
but the immensity of God's power that makes the difference.
Christ lifts our inverted attention off our own insufficient faith
to the immensity of God's resources for growth and change.
All we are to do is plant the seed and leave the results to God.
-- Lloyd John Ogilvie, Autobiography of God
* * * * * * * * * *
Born in Vienna, Austria, Viktor Frankl was educated at the University of
Vienna, where he earned a medical degree in 1930. In 1942 Frankl and his
family, who were Jewish, were arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in
concentration camps. Frankl's mother, father, brother, and pregnant wife
were all killed in the camps. Frankl spent the next three years at
Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps. During his imprisonment,
Frankl helped despairing prisoners maintain their psychological health. He
also recorded, on stolen bits of paper, his theories and experiences,
which he later made use of in his books. After his release, Frankl
returned to Vienna and became professor of neurology and psychiatry at the
University of Vienna Medical School, a position he retained for the rest
of his career (Encarta 2003, "Frankl, Viktor E."). Frank is quoted as
"A weak faith is weakened by predicaments and by catastrophes
whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them."
* * * * * * * * * *
HYMNS: Thanks to the Rev. Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia, pastor of Allendale
United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida for the hymns.
Be Still My Soul (CH #566; LW #510; TNCH #488; UMH #534; VU #652, 734,
Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies (CO #424; LBW #265; LW #480; PH #462,
463; TH #6, 7; UMH #173; VU #336)
Eternal Father, Strong to Save (BH #69; CH #85; CO #601; LBW #467; PH
#562, TFWS #2191; TH #608; VU #659)
Give to the Winds Thy Fears (PH #286; TNCH #404; UMH #129; VU #636)
Also known as "Give to the Winds Your Fears"
God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale (CH #70; PH #272; UMH #122)
It is Well with My Soul (BH #410; CH #561; TNCH #438; UMH #377)
Jesus Calls Us (BH #293; CH #337; LBW #494; TH #549, 550; TNCH #171, 172;
UMH #398; VU #562)
Jesus, Lover of My Soul (BH #180; CH #542; LW #508; PH #303; TH #699; TNCH
#546; UMH #479; VU #669)
Jesus, Priceless Treasure (LBW #457, 458; LW #270; PH #365; TNCH #480; UMH
#532; VU #667)
Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me (LBW #334; LW #513; UMH #509; VU #637)
Lonely the Boat (PH #373; UMH #476)
Moment by Moment (BH #415)
My Hope is Built (BH #406; CH #537; LBW #293, 294; LW #368; PH #349; TNCH
#403; UMH #368)
Stand By Me (CH #629; UMH #512)
The Storm Is Strong (CH #181)
When Christ Was Lifted from the Earth (BH #562; CO #622; TH #603, 604)