Readings: 1 Samuel 17 (1a,4-11,19-23,32-49)
Mark 4: 35-41
The three stories that the lectionary challenges us to consider today may all have the touch of the unbelievable, but all suggest genuine insight into the human condition. It is a very human failing to pretend to ourselves that there is no foe and no fear we will not face – yet in reality when the challenge is significant or when danger begins to threaten, our first instinct is to do anything to make the problem go away. The message from each of the situations we are looking at today seems to be that if instead we face the problems, they are sometimes answered in most unexpected and positive ways.
To the modern Western mind each of these three stories present a common problem. Since they all report events which are, at best extremely usual and at worst simply unbelievable, the temptation is to dismiss them as being of no value. Many modern scholars would for example argue that each of the three cases we will be looking at are unlikely to have occurred as reported, yet even if they are only treated as parable or myth there is much we can learn here from each.
The first story, that of Jonah, is not compulsory reading for today, but given Mark’s story of the disciples and Jesus caught in the storm on the lake at Galilee, thinking of Jonah and the sailors caught in the storm in the Mediterranean has such a close connection it would be hard to miss the parallel.
So Jonah is where we shall start.
The Jonah story is indeed fishy but the original task Jonah is set is not altogether too far-fetched. Jonah is asked to go to a far off place with a message likely to be unpalatable to those he believes to be enemies. Should we expect him to be brave? Would we go by ourselves into such a situation?
The story continues explaining Jonah was afraid of his call to mission. So what does he do? He catches the first boat he could find heading in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Then nature intervenes – or was that meant to be God? A storm arrives and the sailors on that same boat are terrified thinking their last days had come. They react by deciding their bad luck was caused by Jonah and throw him overboard. And you know the rest of the story. Before he is able to drown, the big fish swallows Jonah, swims back to the beach at Nineveh that Jonah was trying to avoid, and vomits him up on the beach. The reluctant Jonah is back on task. Undignified and totally unexpected in terms of how we expect reality to be – but also a way of reminding Jonah and more importantly us that cowardice isn’t a good way of dealing with the original challenge.
Now to our second story. On a calm day boating is a great experience. But anyone who knows large lakes or the sea also knows that if the barometer suddenly drops, or if the air is funnelled down through the ravines and valleys towards water, the wind can mount, sometimes literally within minutes, and the waves build. The so called Sea of Galilee is prone to such strong sudden winds and I would imagine, particularly in those days, the traditional style fishing boats would not be particularly seaworthy or safe in such conditions.
The Sea of Galilee, or more accurately the lake, has geological features that make it common for such winds to suddenly rise. I suspect this is why when we read of Jesus and the fishermen on the lake they are usually described as keeping close to the shore. This time Jesus has asked them to attempt something a little more risky – particularly at night – and that is to set out for the other side.
So now the wind rises and as the waves mount, these men – most of who appear to have been seasoned fishermen – panic. This is more than a passing danger. Too far out to turn back they awaken Jesus apparently angry that he is sleeping instead of sharing in their situation. Then as quickly as it came – apparently in response to Jesus’ words – the storm dies.
The disciples bewilderment – and we might guess perhaps even shame for their previous panic – leaves them with the question. Who is this man who commands wind and water to obey? Please note it is an unanswered question left hanging and we too are left with the same puzzle.
I know that when this story is debated, the question on the lips of the critics is often: could Jesus really control nature? For the record, at least as far as I am concerned, this is not the real point of the story. Since one of the standard weather observations is that a storm quick to rise is quick to pass, I can well believe that such a storm would die of its own accord, whether directed to do so or not. For me the real issue is that Jesus is recorded as showing calmness in the face of the storm to the point of sleeping while all about him was panic …..and ultimately his calmness wins through.
Some here today will have seen the essence of that same calming miracle when for example an experienced paramedic arrives at the scene of some terrible accident – and seemingly oblivious to the panic and confusion of the worried witnesses, quietly and firmly takes control of the accident scene and before your eyes you can see everyone begin to relax.
But there is a third story.
In this scene we have the Israelites are drawn up in battle formation with their traditional enemies the Philistines facing them. Probably neither side was particularly looking forward to the near certainty that many would not survive to the end of the day. Then a possible way out….. As was sometimes the custom for survival an alternative was put to them. Send out a champion to do battle with our champion and decide the result by proxy. The only catch was that the Philistine champion was a fearsome prospect. In such circumstances would you have offered to be the challenger? I know I wouldn’t.
Goliath of Gath was indeed a giant. If the story is to be believed without exaggeration, then Goliath was a fearsome giant indeed. Nine foot tall if I have the arithmetic correct. But when he was strutting his stuff in front of Saul’s army and no-one was prepared to fight him, there is something you may have missed. King Saul himself was also something of a giant among his people according to the Bible measuring seven foot. The fact that Saul, possibly the only one who might have had a chance against the Philistine giant, was also chicken must have seemed on the one hand to be understandable, but on the other acutely embarrassing to the Israelites. That the shepherd boy David was prepared to step forward in his place, armed only with a sling, was not only unexpected and brave, it was also an event that was a turning point in the fortunes of the two men. From that point on, David, the giant slayer who had been armed with nothing but a sling saw his fortunes increase while Saul, for all his impressive appearance, saw his status begin to diminish in the eyes of his followers.
Each of these stories misses something if we insist on literal truth because then, as historical accounts, they would only instruct as one- time events. If on the other hand, we can also see their symbolic meaning, then we can notice a more contemporary connection.
It is not only disciples in a boat, sailors in a storm or soldiers on a battlefield who can know fear or panic. Each one of us sooner or later is bound to know great sorrow or moments of panic if we are to truly live. To love is, sooner or later, to risk the loss of at least one close to us. Accidents do happen. It is not just earthquakes and fires that can catch us unawares. The dangers we may unexpectedly face may vary greatly but moments of danger there most assuredly will be. To believe that facing these moments squarely, armed with nothing more than the assurance that we can find a way through and knowing that nothing can separate us from this mysterious relationship we call the love of God gives a meaning to life which points to hope.
So what have we noted? We read that Jonah worried unnecessarily and that ultimately he found the strength to attempt the task he had been avoiding. When we realise this can have symbolic meaning perhaps we too might reconsider those challenges to our personal mission that like Jonah we may have been trying to avoid.
We read that the disciples panicked when the waves rose, yet discovered there was something about the strange nature of Christ that could calm the worst of the storm. Perhaps the symbolism teaches us that when the panic inducing situation faces us that we too might find the storm abates when we turn to what in our journey we have found Christ to mean for us.
We read that when David encountered the horror of the Philistine giant Goliath he was able to prevail using only the skills he already possessed. Clearly the war between the Philistines and the men of Saul is long since over. Yet there are still bullying situations where we find people who matter to us being threatened by forces beyond their strength to overcome. Might it be that we too can find within our own feeble resources the skills to be champions on others’ behalf.
I am reasonably certain that none of us will be plucked from waters of a storm by a magic fish, still less can we command the weather like Jesusis said to have done, nor expect some David to appear to kill some giant on our behalf, yet I believe we can all contribute to peace in the midst of a storm.
Some storms have nothing to do with water. Rodney King died this week. The video of his beating by the police went viral and when the police officers were found innocent by an all white jury and acquitted in April 1992, this sparked riots of frightening dimensions – more than 150 people killed, 9500 arrested for rioting,arson and looting with an estimated 1 billion dollars property damage. King was no saint – certainly not Jesus Christ, but despite being the one with most cause for grievance, on the third day of the riots, King made a public TV appearance, and is credited with doing much to calm the storm with his now famous plea: “People, I just want to say, can’t we all get along? Can’t we all get along?”
The literalist quest to put all our effort into establishing historical certainty of the more extrodinary Bible stories may well be beyond the reach of the best of scholars. Nor is there a clear answer to the disciples’ question. “Who is this man?” And what is more, living a life based on facing challenge head-on and meeting those tempest problems of doubt and worry can ultimately carry no guarantee. What we do learn from Jesus however is that just as Jesus was able to instil eventual trust in his disciples, others too have found in Christ a peace that can speak to all manner of storms and challenge. The real test will be for each of us to discover our own personal encounter with the one whose boat we claim to share.