We are in Mark's gospel, at the end of Mark 4, and let me remind us all of the context. Mark is writing to a group of believers who are in a really difficult, threatening time; the church in Rome was pressured day in and day out for their faith.
What Mark reveals up to this point is that Jesus has stepped onto the stage of human history, proclaiming a message of good news: the message of the kingdom of God. He is speaking to an oppressed people for whom God has become a distant thing, a distant religion, rather than a close relational reality. As Jesus steps into human history, he keeps showing them through his words, his works, and his ways that this is what happens when the kingdom of God is on the move—when God rules in people's lives, when God rules in communities.
At this point, Jesus is spreading the message even further. He is about to go into new territory. He is about to enter a new frontier. He is taking his disciples across a lake to a region that is both unfamiliar and quite uncomfortable for the disciples. It's not Jewish land, and there are not Jewish people there. But alongside that, we are going to see that he is going into new territory spiritually. As Jesus leads his disciples and his followers into new territory, they go on a journey, which they discover is quite challenging: spiritually, emotionally, and physically challenging, even demanding. We will see that as Jesus extends the kingdom—when the rule of God is extended and expands in the human heart, in a family, in a community—often there is a frontier that sometimes involves a bit of a struggle. Through Scripture, we see that these frontiers seem to be guarded by difficulty, sometimes by confusion, sometimes even enemy resistance. We will see it illustrated today in what happens on the lake.
Throughout Scripture, you see this: where God speaks a promise over an individual or over a community, and then for the next however many years, they get the opposite of what was promised. Joseph gets told he is going to do great things, and then he ends up a slave. David is promised that he will be king, but first he is a fugitive. The people of God are promised the land that takes years and years and years to reach.
In the same way, you and I are on a journey with Jesus. He leads us to new places, maybe new frontiers. It may be something personal: an area of growth in our hearts and our life with him. It may be an area of transformation; it may be concerning our jobs and our responsibilities, our family. It may be our presence in our community, our lives on mission. Maybe it's us as a church. He leads us into new territory, and the kingdom of God is within reach. But sometimes, as you go there, the journey first takes you through a powerful storm.
The calm word before the storm
Lake Galilee was known for its storms. They were often sudden, fierce, and incredibly chaotic. The theologian N. T. Wright notes that except for the fishermen, the Jewish people weren't known to be a seafaring people. They were people of the land. Their cultural and spiritual heritage understood the waters to symbolize the dark powers of evil, threatening God's creation, his people, his plans, and his purposes. In books like Daniel, the sea is meant to have monsters in it. So as they go across this lake, it's already a little challenging, but they have no idea what is to come.
(Read Mark 4:35-41)
First, the calm word before the storm. Jesus has spoken a word: "Let's go over to the other side; we're going to the other side of the lake. I'm taking you to new territory, new places." Then the storm is unleashed, and it's rough. The language here is similar to the Book of Jonah and the storm that takes place there, where the storm begins to thrash against the boat. It's dark; it's confusing; it's out of control and chaotic.
We know that some of the disciples are fishermen, and they are seasoned with these waters, but it is too much for them, as well. They know they are at the end of themselves: past their resources, past their strength, past their abilities. This is no ordinary storm. Remember, for the Jewish understanding, the storms and the waters were a symbol of something deeper happening. There was a lot at stake here. The mission Jesus is on is at stake. The people who will share his Good News after he has ascended—that is at stake. The lives that are being transformed—that is at stake. This territory is guarded, and guarded fiercely.
I wonder what God has called you to. I wonder what the word—the calm word before the storm—was for you. How has Jesus led you in recent weeks, in recent months, in recent years? Maybe there were frontiers in your heart; maybe he is doing a deep work in your character, transforming you, bringing you greater freedom. Maybe there is something in the context of your family that he is doing. Maybe it's at work. Maybe it's opportunities to witness, maybe it's provision, relationships, maybe it's the church. It could be any number of things.
You knew that God moving in your life was going to stretch you, but you were up for it, and then the storm hit. It was the opposite of what you hoped it would be, the opposite of what you thought it would be, and you had no idea of how tough it could get on all your skills and all your energy. You're at the end of yourself: beyond the end of yourself, if you're honest.
Where has God been speaking to you recently, and as you've journeyed with him, suddenly and without preparation, you found yourself in a storm? What's God been doing, and you didn't know a storm was on its way? Could it be that you, too, are on the lines of the frontier of God doing new things in your life and through your life?
Fear in the Storm
But what we see next is fear in the storm, because Jesus is sleeping. People are throwing up over the side, people are fighting, crying, screaming, and trying to find a way through, and Jesus is sleeping.
Jesus may be so confident—and is so confident—in God's power and his presence that he can rest on a pillow because they're going to the other side of the lake. But the disciples are feeling they're on the edge of their lives here, and they feel that Jesus is being worse and distant, and he is being passive in the midst of all they are going through.
I don't know about you, but I find those are the most vulnerable times in my walk with God: not necessarily when God feels far away, but when I know he's there and he just doesn't seem to be doing anything. There's nothing like feeling helpless; there's nothing like feeling powerless, vulnerable, and exposed. It's so countercultural to how we like to live our lives.
It exposes something in the disciples. "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" These are the words of the desperate and the angry. "Do something! Is this how it all ends, Jesus? Is this where it was all going to? All the miracles, all the sermons, all the parables? Here, to the bottom of a lake? Is that it? We risked everything for you. We've been criticized for you. Is this where it ends—at the lake, in the storm?" They've lost confidence in him, and they are wondering if he is willing or if he is able to do anything in this moment, and why he doesn't seem to be moving.
There's an important question for your moments of challenge, when you may find yourself losing your confidence in Jesus. It was an important question for the disciples who were going across the lake that day. It was an important question for the first listeners to Mark: the ones he wrote to, the ones in Rome undergoing incredible persecution. It's an important question for you and me now, as we watch others go through the storms of life, as we encounter our own personal storms: where have we lost confidence in Jesus? It was already a challenge, and now it's beyond the end.
Jesus in the storm
But there's one other piece: there's Jesus in the storm. It's important for us to note that. How does Jesus respond in this moment so that it leads to these incredible breakthroughs, these mind-blowing miracles? How does Jesus respond?
There are two things we see. First of all, he speaks to the storm. It says here, "He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! Be still!' Then the wind died down and it was completely calm" (Mark 4:39). Jesus deals with the real battle here. The language used here in the Greek is quite deliberate. It's the same language we see in Mark 1:25, when Jesus is dealing with a demon—when he is dealing with the Enemy. He knows he's dealing with more than weather here. There is a spiritual battle at play, and the disciples weren't fully aware of the power that Jesus had to deal with: their greatest fear, their biggest storm, all that their cultural heritage said the lake and the river and the waters could mean. Jesus knows it's guarded territory, but his power is greater.
When fear began to devour the disciples, when they were drowned by their worries and their anxieties, Jesus spoke a word that was stronger, and he responds with faith and power. The first thing he does is rebuke the storm.
The second thing he does is respond to the disciples. Sometimes, we get it the other way around. We feel like we are in the middle of a storm, and it's a terrible time, and God is going, "Oh, you terrible, unbelieving Christian. Why don't you believe in me?" But what we see here is that he deals with the Enemy and then responds to his followers. He says, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" (Mark 4:40)
On one level, it's a real clear thing why they were afraid. They were drowning—they were about to drown. They were being devoured by a storm. But Jesus asks questions, and we see this throughout Scripture. When Jesus is asking questions, it's not because he doesn't know the answer; he is asking a question because in that rabbinic tradition, it would bring the deeper questions to the surface. It would bring the underlying concerns right to the surface, because that's what needed dealing with. He asked because he was more powerful than the elements. He is God and was sent from God. He is the Messiah, and he needed them to recognize that they didn't quite see that yet.
Also, he asked them because he said the word at the very beginning: "Let us go over to the other side" (Mark 4:35). He didn't say, "Let's go around the middle." He said, "We're going to the other side of the lake. Do you believe me yet? Can you trust in the word I give you yet? Can you believe that if I'm calm in your storm it's because I've got this, and I've got you?"
When I was 18, someone said to me, "God's hold on you is stronger than your hold on him, and he has no intention of letting you go." Can we believe him yet? Can we believe that he is bigger than our biggest storm? That he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world around us? Can we believe that he doesn't rebuke us—he rebukes the storm? That he's bigger than our deepest fear, stronger than our greatest enemy, because he is God? It's a challenge, isn't it? Because even in Jesus' questions, there is a challenge there: "How are you and I in this moment? How are we doing in this moment?"
I once heard a pastor say, "Don't doubt in the dark what you heard in the light." What did you hear before you got in the lake? What did you hear before the storms? Maybe it was to your family: that it was time for you as a family to have some more devotional time together, and then your schedules went insane, absolutely insane, and it seems impossible. Don't doubt in the dark what you heard in the light.
Maybe the Lord sent you to a particular workplace, and it's real rough, and you don't like the people. But you know that when he gave you that job, he sent you there as a witness. Don't doubt in the dark what you heard in the light.
Where did God call you? Maybe there was a particular family member you've been praying for, weeping over, and you think, This is going nowhere. Don't doubt in the dark what you heard in the light—before the clouds rolled over and the storm broke out. What were the promises he gave you? What was the calling that was always on your life? Don't doubt in the dark what you heard in the light, but know that he is with you in the storm. He is not asleep because he is passive; he is asleep because he has got you and he has got this.
You made those vows when you got married, and it's a struggle right now, and it's vulnerable and exposed. Yes, it may be quite a process and quite a journey to work through everything you've worked through and to get to where you are going. But he has got you and he has got this, and he is not giving up on you. Don't doubt in the dark what you heard in the light, because he cares about you, and he cares about your storms.
Now, we see that the disciples are terrified, and it's a different kind of fear. We see that this isn't the kind of despair and desperation we see earlier, but it's an awe. When we look in the Greek text, we see it's an awe there: "filled with reverent awe," other translations say. The disciples say, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" (Mark 4:41) They know, historically, only God dealt with storms. They knew throughout their spiritual history that only God could have controlled the waves and the wind. They've been given, in the midst of their storm, a fresh revelation of the goodness and the greatness of God: that he rescues lives, that he transforms lives, that he was with them in the storm, he can rebuke the storm, and he can meet them right where they are at without condemnation.
Who is this Jesus? Before, they said "teacher"; now they're not even sure what to say, because he is bigger than their minds could ever fathom. He is more than a friend, he is more than a wise guy, and he's more than a miracle worker. He is God.
They didn't ask for the storm, and they certainly didn't enjoy the storm. They didn't even feel close to Jesus in the storm. It challenged them to the very core. But after Jesus stilled it, they came out of that storm with a fresh understanding of God and a greater confidence. We will see where this leads, and we will see incredible things take place. We will see what happens when they reach this new territory, this frontier that was so fiercely guarded. We will see what happens when the kingdom of God is on the move. We will see how Jesus continues to push back evil, setting captives free. We will see how he heals people on the inside and out.
How do we respond to the storm on our lake: the storms of our battles, our frontiers guarded by the darkness of confusion, difficulty, maybe evil resistance? I don't think these words are an invitation to be passive in the storms of our life. Jesus wasn't passive; he was peaceful, but he did intervene.
It may be that we need to ask God for help to still our personal storms. It may be that we wrestle, and if we're honest, that we've lost confidence in Jesus. We've lost confidence that he's good and that he's great. We've lost confidence that he is willing and able. He knows that, and he gets it, and he still meets us. Maybe we're like that guy who said, "I do believe, but help my unbelief. I'm kind of wrestling with you." God is really secure about that as well. This is a relationship. He knows there are mountaintops and valleys.
There are storms that may be personal, but there are also storms in our culture. It's great that when the people of God get to pray, we pray into some of the things that are happening in the world around us. I'm going to encourage us to pray for the storms we see in our world, where we can say, "Lord Jesus, would you do something?" Maybe there are storms in our cities. Maybe there are particular crime rates we'd like the Lord to bring down. When we have an opportunity to pray, we want to lay it all at the feet of Jesus.
I'm going to encourage you to pick the thing you've seen in the news that stirred you and pray, because prayer changes things. Talking to Jesus: that's what we see happening here. It changes things, whether it's a cry of despair or a cry of joy. But know that he meets you in your storms here.
Jo Saxton is the co-founder and pastor of Mission Point Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She also chairs the board for 3DMovements.