Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Here’s my question: What would have happened if they had not awakened him?
Jesus has had a busy day teaching the crowds that came to hear him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As evening falls, needing to get away from the crowds, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And they take him “just as he was”.
The Sea of Galilee is no sea at all, but a lake and not a very big one at that -- about 13 miles long by 9 miles wide at its widest point. It is 700 feet below sea level but is surrounded by hills as high as 2000 feet. When winds of cool dry air descend from the hills and meet the warm humid air rising from the lake, storms of unusual ferocity can arise suddenly, sometimes producing waves as high as thirty feet. Something like that is what happens during this crossing. Waves were beating the boat and the boat was being swamped. Jesus, though, was asleep through all of this on a cushion in the stern. The disciples wake him up, saying “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, tells the wind to stop and the sea to be calm. And there is dead calm.
So back to my question: What would have happened if they had not awakened him? Would the boat have capsized and sank, and they all would have drowned? Is the only reason they survived that they woke him up? There’s no way for us to know for sure, so maybe that is so. But I cannot reconcile that with Jesus’s reaction. He does not say “Boy, that was a close call! Good thing you woke me up!” No, he deals with the storm as if it were a petty annoyance, and then scolds them for having worried about it. For him to chide them for worrying about it must mean that he knew that it wasn’t going to sink them. I cannot otherwise explain his response. Maybe the storm would have subsided of its own accord just as suddenly as it started. Maybe it would have persisted but still not sunken them. Or maybe Jesus would have woken in time on his own. I do not know. But the only sense I can make of Jesus’s reaction is that waking him up did not change the outcome. They were going to get to the other side, regardless, and Jesus knew it. He was with them, and together they were going to get to the other side. Jesus was not worried about that and didn’t think the disciples should have been either.
Although waking him did not change the outcome, it did allow them to witness his power. It gave them the chance to hear him say “Peace. Be Still”, and to see what happened when he did, leaving them wondering “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”
If, as was the case in this reading, calling upon Jesus does not necessarily change outcomes, then that cuts both ways. To the question “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”, a reasonable follow-up question might very well be “And where was he for Sandy and Katrina and Harvey and Maria? If he can at will make the sea and wind obey him, then why doesn’t he do it the other times when we need it?”
Storms of all kinds suddenly arise in our lives and the lives of those we love, and when they do, we, like the disciples in today’s reading, want to go to Jesus and shake him, saying “Do you not care that we are perishing?” We pray for different outcomes – the remission of a disease, a solution to financial woes, the restoration of a damaged relationship. Sometimes the outcomes we pray for happen. Sometimes not. And we ask why, because we cannot make sense of it. We want answers.
We probably won’t get them, at least not in the time frame we want or with the clarity we seek.
And, on that point, today’s Old Testament reading from Job makes a good companion piece to today’s Gospel.
The reading can only be understood in context. Job was a wealthy, successful man, but also a good and pious one. God was pleased with him. God says to Satan “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on Earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Satan replies that the only reason he is good is that he has been blessed with good fortune, and that if that were taken away, Job would curse God. God in response gives Satan permission to test him, and Satan does it with gusto. Satan causes all Job’s wealth to be taken away and all his children to be killed. Job still praises God. Then God allows Satan to cover Job’s skin with painful boils. Still, Job does not curse God.
But he is miserable. A group of friends come to be with him in his pain. That’s great, but they quickly spoil it by offering answers and explanations for what is happening to him, and advice about what to do. Their explanations, boiled down (no pun intended), are that God is always just, and that, therefore, the misfortune that has befallen Job must be because of bad things he has done. But Job knows these explanations are not right, and that the advice they are giving therefore is of no use. He takes no comfort from what they say. But he still wants answers. Why is this happening to me? I have been a good person, Job says, so how is it just that I should be suffering this way?
And ultimately God responds, beginning in the reading we heard today. But, as we heard, God does not offer answers. No answers at all. He does not explain to Job why what is happening to him is happening. He does not accept or refute Job’s claim that he is innocent and does not deserve this. God does not try to justify Job’s suffering in any way, or even admit or deny to him whether God has any part of it. Instead of answers, God responds with more questions. Where you there when I made the Earth? Do you know how its dimensions were decided? Or how the lines were drawn between the land and the seas?” Today’s reading is just a small excerpt. In the book, God goes on for pages with these sorts of questions that Job cannot answer. When God is finished, Job admits that he “uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” And he repents of the presumptuousness of him having asked for an explanation.
God then scolds Job’s friends, saying that “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. That’s pretty incredible, you know? What the friends had been saying was that God is always just, and that everything that happens, happens for a reason. God is always just, they said. Job, on the other hand, says “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.” And God says the friends – the friends who were saying God is always just -- were wrong and that Job had it right. We don’t get it, because as humans we can’t. It is not that God is an unjust God. It is that God does not conform to human conceptions of justice. The reasons for God intervening or not intervening to produce particular outcomes in situations that are important to us are beyond our knowing. Maybe the outcomes that are so important to us aren’t so important in the ultimate scheme of things. But who knows. God owes us no answers or explanations for what happens or doesn’t.
All of that said, what Job did have is relationship with God. God spoke to him. God cared enough to respond, even though the response was not what job asked for. And ultimately, Job was restored to his health and wealth and family. But that restoration is not so much the point as that God never stopped being in relationship with Job.
When we are going to the other side with Jesus –whatever that other side may be -- we have no guarantees of smooth sailing. There may be sudden storms and we may fear that we are perishing. But we also should take comfort knowing that Jesus is in the boat with us, even though he may appear to be sleeping. And we will get to the other side. For all that we don’t know, we can have the same confidence that Jesus had, that we will get to the other side. And he will be with us the whole way.
By other side, I do not mean the afterlife, although perhaps in some cases it might mean that. I just mean the other side of whatever storm we find ourselves caught in. Whatever the storm, God is present with us, and we will get to the other side, together.
And we can also be that same kind of presence when the people we care about find themselves battered by storms. We should, of course, lift those going through difficult situations in prayer. And some problems have real solutions, and when we can provide material assistance that will actually help make a difference, we should. But where no real solutions avail, we, as members of Christ’s body on Earth, can offer our presence. Not attempted explanations for what cannot be explained, at least not by us. And definitely not platitudes like “Everything happens for a reason” that often do more harm than good. “You mean this is happening to me on purpose?” No, not explanations or advice or platitudes, just our loving, calming, presence. In his blog The Adversity Within, writer Tim Lawrence, speaking of those who have helped him through difficult times writes: “The ones who helped – the only ones who helped – were those who were there. And said nothing.” Those who by their actions said “I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.” Our presence may help remind those we care about that God, too, is present with them in the midst of their storms. And, with God’s grace, it may help them hear it when Jesus says “Peace. Be still.”