Can you believe it?

If you ever go to the Sea of Galilee you can take a boat ride from the Golan heights back to Tiberias. On the day I went the weather was dead calm, and Galilee was as smooth as a mirror. Nonetheless, as is traditional on pilgrimages, the engines were switched off in the middle of the lake and someone read the gospel we have just heard.

And then the most extraordinary thing happened to me. The boat was drifting, almost imperceptibly turning in the current. The horizon was hard to see, indistinguishable in the haze which blended sky and sea. Lacking any visual reference or sense of position, and hearing the story of the storm, my mind began to play tricks on me. It was as if I was on a boat in a squall: disorientated, not knowing which way was up, queasy and a bit scared. It was a great relief when the story ended and the motor started up again.

Being close to nature is often wonderful. Part of the beauty is being reminded how tiny and vulnerable human beings are in comparison to the wild power of creation. Nature does what it will, and like Canute, humanity cannot command the tide.

Which also means that a lot of people have found it hard to believe the nature miracles in the Bible. How could Jesus control nature? Events like the feeding of the 5000 and walking on water are remarkable, one-off events, completely outside our experience.

Plenty of people are open to the idea of miracles. We may hear today of people getting better unexpectedly. Prayer for healing is commonly sought. The mysterious workings of the human body, the interaction of physical matter with mind and with the Holy Spirit – that’s one thing, but the nature miracles seem to suspend the laws of science dramatically. And so we may wonder: did that really happen? Is it a fable? Or is it a spiritual moral dressed up as an event in the life of Christ?

Indeed there was an American president, Thomas Jefferson, who in the early 19th century created his own version of the Bible, with all the hard to believe bits taken out. Jefferson took a razor to his King James Version and with the aid of some glue literally did a cut and paste job.

It was supposed to be easier to believe, as there were no miracles nor prophecy, no Resurrection and not a lot of doctrine. This meant the book was quite short, only 46 pages for the gospels. If it was necessary to exclude something miraculous, Jefferson would even cut the text mid verse.

If there was a healing with a saying in its midst, the healing would disappear but the saying would remain. Yes, we can poke fun. It is daft to create your own Bible, physically to remove the bits you feel are unacceptable. But if you think for moment: Jefferson’s work was only really the logical conclusion of an approach that’s often taken to the Bible – where we dismiss or just ignore the bits that we don’t like.

Most of us are guilty of that at some time. It needs some self-awareness to notice when it is happening. Because doing that can lead us into tricky territory. How would someone decide which passages are credible? What would be the criteria? Whose idea of ‘hard to believe’ would we follow? After all, views on what is believable and acceptable change with time. As an example: Jefferson included Jesus’ teaching on Hell and the Second Coming, but left out the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary. Popular culture nowadays would want it the other way round.

For doctrines like Judgement can make us feel uncomfortable. Yet if we didn’t include anything awkward like Jesus’ teaching on money, how would we end up being challenged by God’s Word? How would He say anything to us? If you take out the bits you don’t like, you end up, not with a Bible, but a mirror.

And it also misses the point. For the events in the Bible are meant to be miraculous. They were recorded precisely because they were extraordinary, astonishing events when God did what only God could do. When something unusual happened, that had a meaning.

People back then weren’t stupid. It wasn’t like in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, full of gullible peasants who’d believe anything. Where a blind man claims to be healed as he walks into trees and falls into holes. People back then may not have had modern science, but they did know what usually happened in the world and what didn’t. Even in the first century AD, the sea did not obey a man who told it to be calm.
No, the disciples were experienced fishermen who had been sailing the Sea of Galilee since they were boys. They knew what could happen. They wouldn’t have been greatly fazed by the ordinary storms than can quickly form. Apparently at certain times of the year cold air from the Galilean hills meets warm air from the lake and squalls quickly arise. For a group of small fishing boats, like those in the gospel reading, danger can come almost out of nowhere. They’d have been used to it.

But this storm was different. On a much larger scale, and the disciples see they are about to perish. Jesus seems oblivious to the situation, yet when they wake him he rebukes the wind and says to the sea ‘Peace, be still’. Then the wind ceased and there was a dead calm.

Nobody expected that to happen. The disciples didn’t: in 40 Jesus says to them ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ This astonishing event forced the disciples to think. In v. 41 ‘they were filled with great awe and said to one another ‘who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’’

So began a long process during which they had to change their beliefs. The things they had seen eventually forced them to the remarkable conclusion that Israel’s God had become a man in Jesus of Nazareth. This wasn’t a doctrine dreamt up in an ivory tower. It was a conclusion they’d been forced to by the evidence of their own eyes.

And that’s the whole point. That’s why the event was recorded, why the miraculous is in the New Testament. To show that the Creator God has power, and his power is now at work in Jesus. And it wasn’t just a curious historical story – we can experience his power in our lives today. Sometimes we feel as if we are surrounded by storms. As if the problems we face are like great crashing waves that threaten to overwhelm. The winds howl around and we feel out of control. If you feel like that, like the disciples ask Jesus to calm the storm. He can bring peace.

Sometimes this is mistaken for a symbolic meaning. As if the whole account is a kind of parable, a story which conveys an inner truth.

On that interpretation whether or not it actually happened doesn’t matter, the important thing is that it tells us God was in Jesus, and Jesus can help us face the storms in our own lives today.
I don’t quite get that. To my way of thinking, if you say it didn’t really happen than why do you say it tells us that God was in Jesus? How do I know he can calm the storms in my life? What’s happened to the evidence for that belief?

It’s certainly true that details have deeper significance. For example, in crossing the lake, Jesus is on his way to see the Gerasene demoniac, a man possessed by evil. In the Bible the sea often represents turbulent powers ranged against God. So there’s more than a hint here that the storm has a supernatural meaning too, it is part of the great conflict between good and evil. A battle that Jesus wins decisively.

But that is not to say that the story is just a myth. By analogy: History deals with events and their significance. One historian might investigate when and where a battle happened, and whether it was fought in the way the chronicler described. Her colleague might look at the social impacts of the battle: who became king afterwards, how the nations involved interpreted the result. The event and the significance can be held together, and it can be like that in the Bible.

Mark does not spell out the conclusion for us. He leaves us with the disciples question – who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?

To sum up, how might we interpret this story? Let’s appreciate what this gospel account is. It is an astonishing event, part of the evidence that compelled the disciples to an heretical belief. It was not part of their Jewish background to believe that God had become Man. It’s not a concept they’d have picked up in the little towns of Galilee. It was a belief they were forced to by what they saw. Only God could do this. I think Christians need to be less apologetic about the miracles – these stories are not fusty myths nor religious fantasies. They are meaningful accounts: ‘you’re not going to believe this but!’

Did anyone ever come to faith by reading an account of a miracle? Perhaps. But really the force of it is as we encounter Jesus today. We come to faith when we meet him and experience his power in our lives. In other words this miracle encourages us to trust in Christ’s transforming power, it asks that question of us: ‘who is this person Jesus?’ and in doing so it draws us closer to God.

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Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild?

Have you ever thought it odd that no-one today says a word against Jesus? I don’t think I’ve ever met a person or read a book that criticises Jesus himself – which is strange.  What I mean is: Christianity has many enemies. There are plenty of people who will take apart our beliefs, ridicule the church, oppose and even persecute Christians. But hardly anyone will ever attack Jesus himself.

Sure, a hardened atheist may say that the church has let Jesus down. An Islamic extremist might argue that the apostles and New Testament misrepresented Jesus. But even they don’t accuse Jesus himself of saying crazy outlandish things. Or of calling his followers to outrageous acts. Of living and speaking as if he were the most significant person on the planet. People rarely accuse Jesus himself of being mad or bad.

And I wonder why this is. Perhaps Jesus’ sound teaching, his goodness and integrity are so transparent that no-one can criticise him. Perhaps his willingness to carry through his mission even to death has meant that even if you disagree with what he said, you still have to respect him.

Maybe that is true. I wonder also though whether the popular image of Jesus is so meek and mild, such a stained glass figure, that there doesn’t seem to be anything in him to cause offence. Perhaps our representation of Jesus is so domesticated that people can’t imagine he ever did anything that might cause controversy. If so, our images have done Jesus a grave injustice. He was immensely controversial. People reacted to him strongly, one way or the other. For he is good – and passionate, powerful, provocative.

In the C S Lewis novel ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’, four children have entered a magical land Narnia. Some talking animals are telling them about the lion Aslan, who is a kind of Christ figure. ‘This Aslan, is he safe?’ asks one of the children. ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you.’

Jesus is good. But he’s a lot more challenging than we often admit. As we can see in today’s gospel reading, his contemporaries just didn’t know what to make of him. As he began his ministry the people around were genuinely puzzled. I can imagine them talking amongst themselves:

‘This Jesus, he hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He’s always feasting but never fasting. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath. And you want to go to him for ethical instruction?’

‘Sure, he’s a funny guy. Witty pointed teacher, a true one off. But don’t you also find him enigmatic, contradictory, extreme? Imagine what the world would be like if we put it into practice what he says! Is he brilliant? Or is he mad?’

‘I saw him heal a lame man. It was amazing. But the very next minute he was setting himself against the spiritual authorities – he pulled no punches, he insulted them. So is he religious or not? This power over devils, where does it come from? Is he the demons’ enemy or their king?’

Even Jesus own mother thought he was a nutter. In v.21, as Jesus’ ministry takes off, his family come to section him because they think he has gone out of his mind. Jesus knows what it is like to be seen as unbalanced, he knows what it is like to have those closest to you think you’ve got it all wrong, he has experienced the opposition of his family. If you have ever been misunderstood, or misrepresented, if your best efforts and intentions have been slandered, if you ever find yourself in that place, remember Jesus has been there too.

For in v22 the religious authorities that he has Beelzebul, or Satan, and that by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons. In other words he has this amazing power because he is in league with the forces of evil.

There’s a flaw in their argument. In v.23 to 26, why would Satan cast himself out? Evil would be fighting evil, so it would quickly collapse. A much better way to see it is that the devil has been defeated by one stronger than him. Satan is the strong man in v 27, and Jesus has tied him up. Now Jesus can plunder his property, set the captives free.

Jesus does so when he releases people from addiction, from the power of besetting sin, from the hold that the past has on their lives. Jesus sets people free from self-hatred, greed, fear and isolation. Jesus can liberate us to become the people God intended us to be, in relationship with him and with one another.

If anyone feels held captive, trapped by anything, bring it to Jesus and ask for his freedom. Working with you through his Holy Spirit, he can do amazing things.

For Jesus has a great power that he uses for good. The effects of his power, bringing healing, show us that the source is good. Jesus says that those who argue that the source of his power is evil are spiritually confused, and Jesus gives them a very severe warning. In v28-29 he says that any sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, except the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

In other words, any sin can be forgiven because there is always the possibility that the sinner might turn away from evil and ask God for forgiveness. But the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is what those Scribes did to Jesus – it is the persistent act of misrepresenting the Holy Spirit, of saying that pure goodness is in fact evil. Anyone who cannot recognise simple goodness is in a very dangerous place. How would they be able to accept God’s forgiveness if they could not accept that God was at work? Much has been said about this difficult verse. I think the most sensible and reassuring thing I’ve heard is that anyone who is worried about committing the sin against the Holy Spirit certainly isn’t doing it.

So Jesus refutes the charge of being bad. How will he respond to the accusation of madness? He says that he is committed to following God’s will – and anyone similarly committed is part of his family. When his mother and brothers arrive to take charge of him, in v. 33, he replies ‘Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister.

Jesus recognises that faith can divide families. I read recently of a woman who converted from Islam to Christianity and was thrown out of her home. She wandered round the streets until a Christian family took her in and helped her start afresh. Many Christians have had that tragic experience of losing their birth family due to their new found faith – and they’ve also found that what Jesus said is true – there is a new family in the church. Anyone who follows him is part of his family

It’s easy to miss how radical this is. We tend to fuse the ideas of Christianity and family values. But if you want Jesus’ teaching on family values, it’s here. Where he has created a totally new family. Not nuclear. Not based on marriage. Or blood relationships. But on a shared commitment to God. Of course the physical families that we have still matter, immensely, but Jesus tells us that ‘family’ is much bigger.

Holding those truths together can be challenging. A student returns home from his first term at Uni. He tells his parents that he has discovered a personal faith – he’s full of joy! What they think he’s saying is ‘You guys didn’t bring me up properly’, and Mum cries. Better perhaps for the student to live out the faith, and answer the questions when they come.

A wife has an unbelieving husband who doesn’t like her being involved in church. She may need to be firm about the level of commitment that allows her to continue in her faith. But she will also need to be generous in enabling her husband to feel loved and make sure they have time together.

Just as parents cannot pressure their children into a church wedding, or insist their grandchildren are baptised, so we have to respect the freedom of our family members. Exactly as Jesus does here. He does not reject his birth family, but invites them. They too can be part of the family of God. And of course they did. Mary, James and Jude did the will of God – later on in the New Testament we find them at the heart of the church, central to God’s new family gathered around Christ.

It is in Christ that this family is defined. Around Jesus, who was controversial, misunderstood, maligned. If we follow him, sometimes we too will be thought odd or our morals called into question. Perhaps some of us will have to persist in our commitment to Jesus even in the face of opposition from those closest to us. But let us be reassured. In Jesus we have the truth, in relationship with him we are part of a new family, and perhaps faithfulness will change the attitude of our loved ones.