THE TAMING OF LAKE GALILEE
In handling some of life’s crises, the words we are looking for from God aren’t shouted through a megaphone above the noise of the crashing waves but whispered before the storm erupts, almost as an aside.
One of the rituals of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land involves a boat trip on Lake Galilee where the tour operators cut the engines and let the boat drift silently, giving passengers space to meditate on the faith whose origins momentarily surround them. Most find it profoundly moving. It is, after all, the most authentic of sites. I’d love to see a tour operator take a small boat of pilgrims out in the middle of a storm, cut the engines and ask them to meditate on the faith. Not that I’m volunteering, I have to add.
The story of Jesus calming the waves (Mark 4:35-41) is full of meaning for faith exercised in the middle of a crisis. In Hebrew thinking the sea was untamed, dangerous and unknown. I am sure we have all leaned over the side of a ship in the middle of the sea and felt a shudder at how vast and deep the earth’s waters are, how insignificant we are by comparison of size and how easily we would be swallowed up if we fell in.
Many of us will have been in a storm at some point which made our palms sweat over as we tried to give the appearance of ‘been there before’ calmness to fellow sea-farers. Yet even experienced sailors are afraid of the sea, for they know how dangerous it can be. This story of the calming of the storm plays to our deepest fears about being overwhelmed.
The decision to cross the lake was taken by Jesus. It does not take long to cross Galilee, so the signs of an impending storm must have surfaced already. We like to recite Psalm 23 which speaks of God leading us beside still waters, but this story suggests he sometimes leads us directly into a raging storm. There was no direction from Jesus other than his wish to get to the other side. Sometimes God leads us down paths with only terse instructions and without regard for danger.
Lake Galilee was a familiar place to the passengers on the boat and there were some experienced fishermen among them. But even daily routines can hold danger and the familiar breed panic when you least expect it. Some time ago I read a novel called ‘Flying’. I really didn’t enjoy it but the novel recounts the strange phenomenon of how experienced air crew, with thousands of air miles under their belt, can suddenly develop a fear of flying which proves crippling for their jobs. There is no rationale for this – it just happens. Life for some people is a tightrope. As long as they are looking ahead at the horizon they are fine. The moment they look down they wonder how on earth they can keep their momentum going in life and become paralysed with fear. The storm on Galilee turned a friendly and familiar place into a fight for survival. A sample of the people you know will be feeling this way about their lives today. You may even be one of them.
The boat became swamped with water and the likelihood of sinking was real. Experienced fishermen sensed they were minutes from drowning – and where was Jesus? In the stern. Sound asleep and oblivious to the panic. When his friends shook him awake they accused him of indifference before pleading with him to help. Many people believe in God’s presence but not really in his protection. The crisis looms larger than God in their imagination, like he is some devious insurance company whose small print enables them to escape from liability when things go wrong, rather than a God whose promises are sure and certain.
The quelling of the storm in three words demonstrates the power of Jesus over the forces of nature, but the story has an edgy rather than a reassuring ending. It asks of the disciples – and by extension of us - some probing questions because Jesus ends it with an accusation. Where was their faith? Did they really think they were going down with all hands when these included the yet to be pierced hands of Jesus? You may think it a bit harsh of Jesus to find them wanting in a major crisis, but the implication is that faith should hold firm in a crisis. This is a high standard to be set because that boat was shipping a serious amount of water. Could we be sure we would have reacted differently? Perhaps not.
The key that could have unlocked their faith can be found in those first words of Jesus. He had told them they were going to the other side. When the Son of God says that it means you will reach the other side. In handling some of life’s crises, the words we are looking for from God aren’t shouted through a megaphone above the noise of the crashing waves but whispered before the storm erupts, almost as an aside. Faith can be detective work as much as simple trust.
And then there was the aftermath. When the wind ceased there was ‘a dead calm’. I find this choice of words quite eerie. Not the gentle lapping of waves but the absolute flattening of them. If Ground Zero is the epicentre of destruction, this miracle created a kind of Sea Zero, where there was no evidence of what existed before. If we are helpless before the elements, how much more helpless are we before the power of God, whom we often pay no more than lip service to day by day. If the sea can command such respect from those who sail on it, how much more should our reverence be for God the Holy Spirit whose wind blows through the people God has redeemed.
I would still rather get in a boat and drift calmly over the Sea of Galilee, thinking peaceful thoughts about Jesus and his ministry. I don’t like being caught in a storm at sea and am not sure either how my faith would hold up in a major panic-filled crisis. But we have been given this story for a reason. Jesus is with us. He delivers us, even when we think he is sleeping on our watch. But we should not be surprised if his final word is not an answer to our problem, but a challenge to our faith.
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