Facing the Fear
Bible: Mark 4:35-41
35On 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?'
Who else is asleep in the boat during a storm?
Jesus is another Jonah asleep amid a threatening storm. Except, called to "cross over to the other side", to non Jewish people, Jonah fled. And the storm overcame him; he was thrown into the sea. Jesus answers the the call of God, and has power over the sea. (You might reflect, that the three days Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, match the three days Jesus was in the Tomb!)
The Hebrew Scriptures reading today, is the story of David and Goliath. This story reflects on the Gospel reading, because it is a story of fear. The various traditions of Scripture, Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus suggest Goliath was 61/2 feet tall, or maybe, 9 feet tall.
King Saul, was in the region of seven feet tall, himself! He, too, was a giant! The challenge of Goliath to single combat is actually a challenge to the largest of all Israelites, who was King Saul.
And Saul failed the challenge. He was afraid.
This story allows David to come on the scene. And it is here that his rise begins, and Saul's star fails.
One implication of this saga is that fear begins to conquer and diminish our lives, if we do not face it. [For details on the heights see the commentary at PIUT, which gave me this insight about the Saul-David saga.]
Now let's look at Mark. The image of Jesus commanding the storm is not really about controlling nature. I think it is much more about "portraying the gospel as struggle against demonic and destructive powers."
Let me quote Dr Bill Loader.
The gospel, according to Mark, is about Jesus coming to liberate people from such forces. [The gospel sees] Jesus as the embodiment of God's power, the bearer of God's Spirit, [which will] challenge and overcome the deep and destructive powers which the furies of nature symbolised.
Reflecting other ancient stories, Bill says the calming of the storm is like the slaying of a dragon.
When we pause to think about it, Mark's world of demons and legions of pigs and storms being calmed is not all that strange, if we think about the stories as symbols. It's actually not so different from our own.
What the stories do is show how there are forces in the world which push us around. These can range from the things that go wrong in our brain that make us mentally ill, to the social issues of discrimination and poverty that seem to try and fence our lives in. The gospel of Mark identifies some of these powers, or forces, and says to us that Jesus helps us overcome them.
Bill has some very wise words. He says
Symbols should not be ironed out into flat statements of belief.
If we get into arguments about whether the story of the storm really literally historically happened, we have missed the point.
[Instead, symbols] invite playfulness and reflection. They inhabit dreams and visions. They spring in where words and definitions fail. So the story is rich in suggestion for worship, for meditation, for preaching.
I'm going to tell you some symbolic stories
The Blow Hole is a wild little beach down on the south coast. I road my trail bike in one day, and then hiked the rest of the way down the steep hills to the beach. I was hot and sweaty and decided to take a quick wash-up at the water's edge... you'd never consider actually swimming. The beach is steep. As I looked up I realised that the wave that was coming in was way higher than me, and felt a moment of horrible fear. I realised I could be dragged out to sea! But when the wave crashed around me, it was all froth and bubble. It had no substance, after all. It was like a pretend Goliath, that didn't even need a stone from my slingshot.
Sometimes if we will face our fears, we find there is little or no substance to them.
Then there was another beach, where I used to swim each day. I've actually got a phobia about the beach because of a childhood incident, where I nearly stood on a stingray. So I used to go to the beach and swim as a kind of spiritual discipline; as a kind of "in-your-face" to the fear. I was slowly overcoming my fear. But I arrived one day, and things were different. This is what I wrote about it:
I arrived one day, thirsting for the embrace of water, to find the unnoticed breeze of my suburban street was a great windstorm at the beach. The waves were high - two and three metres. I stood regretful, watching a few crazy, immortal school kids being tossed around on body boards. In answer to shame, or some deep, half-heard call to cross to the other side, I struggled in through the first few yards of crashing mud. And was dragged and tossed in a completely present world of exhilaration- of Glory, Excitement, and of all things, Safety!
Have you been in a park in the centre of the city, and experienced one of those little oases of sound, where the traffic's roar fades into the background? For a few moments, or even longer you're a world away in a little place of peace, even though the cars are only yards distant.
It was like that! Eerily quiet, warm, rising gently with the swell, and then dropping quickly away behind each wave-wall, shielded from all the sound of the surf and the city.
My God, how I wish I could go back there!
Fear keeps us from the fullness of life. Fear, I am beginning to think, is not only fear of a danger... which may be very real, I think fear is often also a thing which keeps us from something else which is good for us. I am beginning to feel that where there is a fear in us, there is on the other side of that fear, something good. In fact, something of God. In avoiding the thing of fear, we are kept away from the thing of good. In that sense, fear is an evil.
I'm not saying it is wrong to be afraid; we usually get no choice about that. The question is, what will we do about our fear?
Of course there is a great contradiction to all this. Sometimes fear is a real thing; it reflects reality. One of my student friends was drowned off the beach. Another fell off a mountain cliff and was killed. Psalm 91 says
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked
But we know people are killed. Unjustly, or by plain accident, evil seems to triumph. Yet the scriptures seem to claim otherwise. In St Patrick's time, people would pray a circle of God's protection around them; a bit like the Hymn we sang. It was called a Caim prayer. Were all these people just wrong and deluded?
When evil comes and appears to win, we humans have a variety of responses.
1.Some people say it must have been our fault; we deserved it in some way.
2. Some people say it was fate. Our number was up. We were just the unlucky ones. Que sera... whatever will be.... A Pitjantjatjara speaker might say "Tjaka..." it's just how things are.
3. The Christian word in this situation is "anyway." I will face the fear and do what is right anyway. Even if evil seems to triumph and I do not survive, what I have been is not in vain, and is not wasted. What I am and have been is not destroyed by this. So when fear and storm rise up, I will cross over to the other side, anyway.
Even if it destroys me, God will protect me anyway. This is where faith may seem absurd to the outsider. In some way, it will be alright, even if life is lost.
So when Goliath comes and raves before us....
when the deeps reach out to drown us...
what will we do?
Will we be frozen in fear, as Saul was, and lose something of our life, and be diminished?
Or will we face the foe, and find it is froth and without substance?
Will we face the fear and perhaps something out of great good comes?
Will we trust God that the circle around us will protect us, despite all harm?
This last question is a hard question, and calls for a great faith. But my little experience is that the more I will trust, the more I will have the courage to say, "Anyway!" the freer I have become. Amen.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Bob Linthicum's material at PIUT seems now only available on the Wayback Machine.
Why would Philistia make such a proposition to Israel? Goliath was a giant. According to the measurements provided in this account (vss. 4-7), he was six cubits tall (or 9 feet, 9 inches), wore 150 pounds of armor and carried a 19-pound spear. The Dead Sea Scrolls account of this battle and Josephus in his Antiquities both state that Goliath was four cubits (or 6½ feet tall). Whether 9.9 or 6.6 feet tall, Goliath was a giant of a man to the Israelites of his day, whose men likely were no more than five feet in height.
But King Saul of Israel was also a giant of a man. He is described as being so tall that his shoulders were above the head of the next-tallest Israelite (I Sam. 9:2). That would make Saul about seven feet tall – only two feet smaller than Goliath if the biblical account of the giant’s height is correct, and equal in height if the Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus are right. The point is that when the Philistines had Goliath present his challenge for one-on-one combat to Israel, they knew that the king of Israel was also a giant of comparable size and could answer that challenge with at least some degree of equality. Thus, Goliath’s challenge is an attempt to draw Saul into single combat with the Philistine giant!
But the author of I Samuel tells us that Saul was as intimidated and frightened by the giant as was every other Israelite (17:11)! He had no more stomach to fight this menacing powerhouse than did any other Israelite. In fact, Saul was so frightened by the giant, that he offered an immense reward in money and status to any Israelite who would take Goliath on – as long as it needn’t be he.