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.