Our readings for this morning are full of storms and calamity and terror. I got to talk about these texts with a bunch of other clergy folks at our text study this last Tuesday. We were trying to imagine what it would have been like for the disicples or for Job facing these dangerous situations. None of us had ever been on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee during a storm – and we’ve definitely never been scolded by God out of a whirlwind! But we’d all had experiences of being completely overwhelmed or outright terrified.
One of my colleagues talked about his first time being in a boat that was far enough out from the shore that he couldn’t see land anymore. It was just this little boat floating on all this vast expanse of water. It kind of reminded me of the story I’ve told before about the first time I swam in the ocean!
Another colleague told us about taking his first steps on the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a pilgrimmage walk – about 500 miles on foot over mountains and rough terrain – and he was awed and overwhelmed by the intense journey before him.
I shared about the first (and currently only!) earthquake I ever experienced. It was back in 2010, when that massive earthquake hit Haiti. I was on the other side of the island, but it was still strong enough where I was to put a crack in one of the walls of my little house. I remember the sound of the bars shaking in my windows and seeing the power lines outside swinging wildly back and forth along the streets. And I remember feeling this sense of almost betrayal and just utter helplessness. To me, having grown up in Nebraska, the earth was always steady and trustworthy, yet here it was literally shaking beneath my feet. I felt like a flea hanging onto a dog’s back for dear life – just tiny and insignificant and powerless.
I’m sure you can think of times in your own lives when you’ve felt like this: overwhelmed or helpless or terrified. Even having just lived through a global pandemic – this has often been a pretty overwhelming experience!
This is how I imagine the disciples are feeling in our gospel reading for this morning. It was already evening by the time they set out in the boat, so now here they are in total darkness, out in the middle of the sea, when this massive storm hits so hard it threatens to sink their boat – and all of them with it! Like I felt in the earthquake, I imagine them feeling terrified and suddenly keenly aware of how tiny and helpless they are in the vast sweep of creation.
In terror, they go to Jesus and shake him awake, and say to him: “We are dying out here! Do you not care??” And in response, Jesus wakes up and says just three words: “Peace. Be still.” And the howling winds and the furious waves stop dead in their tracks. Now, our translation says here that the disciples were “filled with great awe.” But one of my colleagues at text study pointed out that the Greek is actually a lot stronger: it uses three different words to emphasize that the disciples are terrified – like very terrified – like super very terrified. It’s one thing to deal with natural phenomena like storms and the sea – but to meet someone who can calm a raging sea with just a few words? That is way scarier.
It’s kind of the same tone that God strikes in our first reading, from the book of Job. Job has been enduring great suffering and he has – understandably – been angry with God, asking why he has been allowed to suffer so much. In response, God says to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, or when I set the boundaries of the sea?” God goes on like this for most of four chapters, ranting about the vastness of all that God has created, and how small Job is in comparison.
It’s readings like these that remind us that even though our God is the God of little lambs and sunsets and beautiful flowers, our God is also the God of hurricanes and volcanoes and terrifying deep sea creatures with weird fangs. God is God of the things that we find safe and familiar, the things that we understand – yet God is also God of the things that are deep and mysterious and frightening and beyond our understanding. God is truly Lord of all.
These stories can be kind of challenging to read – especially this passage from Job. God sounds downright dismissive of Job’s complaints, after all that Job has been through. That’s not great. But what is striking is that God takes notice of Job and takes the time to actually respond to his prayers. It’s pretty impressive when you stop to think about the vast creation that God has made – not to mention the sheer volume of angry prayers that God must receive on a daily basis. God takes the time to respond to this one man’s prayers. And in the end of Job’s story, God restores to him everything he lost, and then some.
And we can see even more clearly in our gospel reading how much God truly does care about humanity. When the disciples wake him up, Jesus initially calls them out for their lack of faith – much like God with Job. But he has mercy on them in their fearful state. He stops the storm, because he hears their cries of terror and has compassion for them.
And if you read a little further, there’s a passage that the lectionary skips, but it seems to be the whole reason for Jesus to make this trip across the sea in the first place. When they reach land, they arrive in the country of the Gerasenes. They come upon a man who is tormented by demons, living by himself in a cemetery. When he sees Jesus, he cries out and falls down at Jesus’ feet. Jesus has compassion for the man and heals him and restores him to his community. And then he turns right around and gets back in the boat and heads back to Galilee! It seems like the whole reason for the trip was just to heal this one man!
Just like in the story of Jesus calming the sea, when Jesus demonstrates his power over the demons, people are afraid. They are terrified of one who has power over the things that terrify them. But what we can see in these stories is that, even though God is almighty and all powerful and Lord over all creation, there is one thing even greater than God’s amazing power: and that is the amazing power of God’s love.
Even with all of God’s divine cosmic power, God truly loves humanity. God truly cares about each one of us, and God is mindful of our lives as humans, as small as we are against the vast sweep of creation. We don’t always understand the ways that God is at work in the world and in our lives – and, frankly, sometimes that is the good news. As humans, we can hardly imagine that someone could stop a storm, or save us from an earthquake, or strengthen our feet to walk 500 miles. We can’t always imagine how the stories of fear or suffering that we live can change.
But God can. God has the power and the love to change the stories we think can’t be changed. God has the power to transform our lives in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. And God cares enough to do so. God is with us in the earthquake and on the mountain and in the whirlwind and in the deep water, when we have lost sight of the shoreline. God is with us in the midst of fear and terror, when we feel as though we are perishing. And in those moments, God speaks to us the same words that once calmed the raging sea: Peace. Be still.