Storm and Tombs: A Sermon

Like many sermon drafts on this site, this text is the formal outline of the Sunday sermon. On the day it is scribbled upon, has paragraphs crossed out, and hopefully, sounds a lot better!

Jonah 1:4-10
This story comes from a time in Israel's history when a lesson needed learning about who it is that God loves. God sends a prophet to a hated enemy people and calls them to repent. And then the prophet, Jonah, gets really cross when the do repent and God does not destroy them. So God teaches him a lesson or two.  But before then, Jonah himself has to be persuaded to do what God asks him to do.

The story is very interesting today because it is referred to by the Gospel reading.  Mark wrote his story knowing that people would remember the story of Jonah.

4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’

7 The sailors said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8Then they said to him, ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ 9‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ 10Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so. 11 Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quieten down for us?’ For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights…

2:10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

Mark 4:35-41, 5:1-20
The lectionary only gives us half the story of Jesus crossing the lake. We are going to listen to the whole story, in which you will hear about Jesus crossing a lake to the other side, and then, about Jesus crossing the lake and coming back home. Everything in between is part of one big story. I am going to ask you at the end of the reading, what the difference is between the two lake crossings.

As we listen, remember that lakes and the sea were places of deep water where Jesus people were pretty sure evil lurked. If you want a story about where things are evil and dangerous, you set it in a cemetery, right? Well, we have that in this reading, and we also have the other cemetery, the other place where they knew there were bodies and evil: the sea.  (He is right next to the place of evil, the lake, untroubled, and doing his loving and healing right there.)

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

5:1They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus* asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. 18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. 21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake.

SERMON

There are two ways to look at this story of Jesus calming the storm on the lake. Since the story was first told, there have been people who believe it is literally true: He commanded an actual physical gale to stop and it did.  And since the story was first told, there have been people who understand the story to be about a deeper truth than the mere calming of a physical storm; true in another, perhaps even deeper, way. They see that Jesus will take us safely through all the storms of life when we are about to be drowned. He will empower us to live in the eye of the storm, to live well, despite evil, destruction, and death, raging around us. We will be able to live in a way which is good for us and in a way which God desires— which is the same thing, even though it seems impossible and too hard.

I really, really hope that the story is true in this second way. That's because Jesus calls me to follow him, and to do what he did. And I can't command storms any more than I can command the piano stool to fly around the church. The universe is not made like that, and it does not work like that. If Jesus is a magician, I'll never be good enough.

The stories of the storm and the man in the tombs are leading up to the cross, where Jesus dies; where Jesus, an innocent man, is murdered by the powers that be. Where even in all his faith he cries out, "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?" This is not a magician who knows the magic words and causes some act of power that brings him down unscathed. This is a man who really dies, who trusts through the agony and pain that God loves him, and who is brought through death to resurrection and is rescued just like the writer of Psalm 22 whom he quotes.

The story of the lake is followed by the story of a man who lives among the tombs; that is, who is one of the living dead. He is so violently ill, so overpowered by evil and oppression that he is like a person in the Closed Ward in the Mental Health Unit where Wendy works; the one who "breaks out" even despite all the Specials and Security Guards. We could even say he is a man who is in a worse place than being dead.

And yet the story finds him "sitting there, clothed and in his right mind." We're meant to think he is sitting at Jesus' feet, which is a Jewish way of saying he listens to Jesus and follows Jesus as his Rabbi. And we're meant to see that now he can sit in peace instead of roaming howling among the tombs and upon the mountains. (Mountains are a reference to false Gods: on every high hill, and under every green tree.)

You will notice that the two stories are connected. Jesus is attacked by evil from the lake; the deep water of the lake symbolises the place of evil, and then, when the evil spirits are vanquished, the lake is silent as Jesus goes back home. He then sits by the lake and heals and teaches; the story tells us that we can sit next to evil and yet not be overcome; we can be faithful despite what lurks nearby under the surface of society.

So some folk see a literal truth in the story which demonstrates that Jesus possesses enormous power which comes from God. But I see it being about something at once much more ordinary, and much, much more powerful. It's about Jesus rescuing us from the storms which are worse even than dying— from the horrors of life which are unbearable, which drive us mad, and which terrorise us from the inside out. It is about Jesus leading us to live with him in the eye of the storm.The story, which is designed to make us think of the story of Jonah, says that even when life throws you overboard, even when you are swallowed by the big fish which symbolises death—  after three days death will spew us out on dry land because it cannot contain us.

Can you imagine the captain going down to Jonah in the hold? He cries out

‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’

Can you hear him cry, "You might as well not be here, for all the help you're giving us!" That's really what's going on for the little church in the boat in the storm on the lake, isn't it? They are sinking, and Jesus is so sound asleep on the back seat that they are wondering if he is even there.

That's life. Where is Jesus when you want him?

There are some verses in Isaiah 43.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you. 

When you pass through the waters
When you pass through the rivers
When you walk through the fire…

Isaiah goes on to say:

Do not fear, for I am with you;
   I will bring your offspring from the east,
   and from the west I will gather you; 
6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
   and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
   and my daughters from the end of the earth— 
7 everyone who is called by my name,
   whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.’ 

In the story, two things happen. When the storm stops, Jesus asks the disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" He is saying, "Will you not trust me that the way to life is to navigate through evil, even though it drowns you and kills you? I will be with you… even when you pass through the waters… even when it seems like I'm asleep."

Then there are the people on the other side of the lake. Jesus gives a man his life back. He calls "a son from far away." The man is a symbol of resurrection. And the people are terrified. It says "they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood."

Where was this neighbourhood?  It was among the ten Roman cities called the Decapolis. It was a rich region; two thousand pigs is a lot of pigs. This was the place to be, the place of Empire. The name of the evil in the man was Legion, which refers to the Roman Army. And the symbol on the banner of the Legion stationed in the Decapolis was a Boar.

To be in your right mind, to be healed, is to step out of the Empire, to step out of the American Dream of being rich and comfortable and untroubled by death— or in our case, to step out of the Australian imitation of that rich, yet poor, life. Do you notice they have begun to copy us and place children in camps, in tents… it's all to keep America safe and comfortable. They are asking Jesus to go away, just as we do.

The Dreamers, who don't know they are actually just as sick as the man in the tombs, beg Jesus to leave them alone. They would rather have the safety of the tombs; the pretence that everything is all right. But the disciples go with him; they trust him enough to go back on the lake, and there is no storm.

But do you know what going back on the lake really means?

 ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

Being in the boat with Jesus is to live here, in this place where it seems like the country is losing its soul and falling apart, even though it seems Jesus is not in the boat or, at best, is asleep up the back somewhere. This… amazes people. I went to visit M. last week. He amazes me. How does he do that? How does he live with such grace while he waits for his body to stop? I look at others of us. Amazing! How do we do this?

People… sisters and brothers… we are passing through the waters. If Jesus appears to be snoozing in the back of the boat, it's because he has been here before, fully human, and he knows we will make it through.  God will not leave us alone. Amen.

Andrew Prior 2018


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