35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But 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?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Our story begins with the words “On that day as evening came.” It marks the end of a long day of preaching for Jesus. He had spent the entire day teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God is like the seed the sower spreads” he told them. “He sows, and then as the days pass the seed sprouts and grows, and the farmer has no idea how. But the harvest will come.” Or he tells them, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds, but planted in the ground it grows to be the largest of shrubs.” Jesus’ stories about the kingdom of God are mysterious—obtuse even. But one gets a sense that whatever the kingdom of God is—even if one cannot see it now—it is going to come and nothing can stop it.
So, this long day of teaching about the kingdom comes to an end, and Jesus, in a boat with his disciples, tells them to take off for the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, presumably exhausted from a long day of teaching, falls asleep in the stern of the ship. We can imagine that while Jesus sleeps perhaps the disciples stay up talking about this strange and mysterious kingdom their rabbi had spoken of—what exactly did all this talk about plants and seeds really mean, anyway?
As the depths of night come—suddenly an enormous storm approaches. The wind begins to howl like mad, and the waves beat against the boat, so large that they are filling it with water. Now, the Sea of Galilee was known for its storms, which could become so dangerous that even seasoned fisherman and sailors would fear for their lives. So, the disciples hurry to Jesus. In a panic they wake him up and rebuke him. “Do you even care that we are going to die!” they exclaim. We can even read Mark’s Greek as a yet even harsher statement: “You don’t even care that we are going to die, Jesus!”
It is hard to imagine that the disciples didn’t have in mind another story this night: another story of a ship in a storm, another story of a prophet lying asleep in a boat while the waves threaten to pull it down to the depths. This story was the story of Jonah, the prophet of disobedience.
Jonah was on a ship to Tarshish, running away from God. He had fallen asleep in the hold, and while he was asleep a huge storm threatened to sink the ship. The sailors—none of them were followers of the God of Israel—went down to wake Jonah up: “What are you doing sleeping! Are you not a prophet? Call on your god and maybe he will spare us!” Of course, Jonah didn’t call on God; he was running away from him, after all. And the storm only calmed when Jonah went overboard.
I imagine that in our story with Jesus, the disciples had a similar idea as those sailors did with Jonah. They thought, “Hey, we have a prophet on board!” They thought they would awaken Jesus, that he would pray to God, and that the storm would settle. So, they wake him up, “What are you doing sleeping, Jesus!” We’re about to drown!” So, Jesus wakes up, walks on deck, and just as the disciples expect him to start praying, he speaks: “Be silent, wind! Sea, be still!”And immediately the howling wind becomes a gently blowing breeze and the waves calmly laps against the side of the boat. Just a moment ago there had been a great fury—now there is a great calm.
The disciples got more than they were bargaining for. They were expecting a prophet who would ask God to calm the storm. Instead they got a prophet who could control the wind and the sea with his own words. This was certainly no ordinary prophet.
Only God, as the creator of all things, had the power to command nature in this way. A prophet like Jonah could have asked God to quiet the storm. This man Jesus did something completely unprecedented and calmed the storm by his own words; he didn’t even ask God! When the disciples saw this I imagine a flood of Scripture came running to their minds. Psalm 106, in recounting the story of the Exodus, tells of how the God of Israel rebukes the Red Sea, causing the water to flee and leaving dry ground where before there was none. Psalm 89 is a song of praise that sings to the incomparability of Israel’s God. “Who is like you?” the Psalmist inquires. “You rule the raging of the sea; When its waves rise you still them.”
To the disciples in the boat such miraculous events were not impossible. Surely God has this power! However, what struck fear and awe into their hearts this night was not that these things happened, but that this man their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, had done what only their God could do. Surely, this was something the world had never seen before.
The disciples, in their awe and fear, could only muster one frail question, “Who then is this?” Who is this man who does what only God can do? Who is this man who by his own word has stilled the raging of the sea? Who is this man who, in the next part of Mark’s story, will go on to make a crazy man sane and heal a sick, outcast woman? Who is this man who by his word—“Talitha cum,” “Little girl, get up”—will even make the dead to walk again?
I think that when the disciples asked their question—Who then is this?—they were not utterly stumped. It’s not that they weren’t able to connect the dots. Rather, they understood all too well what it all meant, and they were neither ready nor willing to accept the answer.
“Who then is this?” is the question at the center of our Christian faith. Who then is this Jesus of Nazareth!? This was the question that the disciples were impelled to ask as they lived and walked with Jesus, as they saw his powerful deeds, as they saw him do things that God himself had promised to do, that only God himself could do. “Who then is this?” is the question that Mark recorded the disciples asking this night on the boat, and it is the question that he also has posed to his readers for nearly two thousand years since. “Who then is this Jesus of Nazareth?” is the question that millions of Christians, after reading Mark’s story, have gone on to pose to their friends and strangers. “Who then is this Jesus of Nazareth?” is the question of witness. What have we witnessed, and what conclusions does this witness impel us toward? It is a question that demands to be answered, and it is also the question we are posed with today.
In his story Mark witnesses to us. Could it be true, he whispers, that this man Jesus is God in the flesh? The same God who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, who broke their bonds, and who fought for them to defeat their oppressive masters? The same God who promised to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners? Mark surely seems to think so. And convinced as he is, he stands as a witness for us. He tells us the stories, gives us the evidence, and turns to us and asks, “Who then is this? What will you decide?” Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?—this Jesus who by his word rebukes and stills the raging sea; who by his word heals and restores the weak, the sick, the brokenhearted, the outcast; who by his word even makes the dead to live again.
Who then do you say he is? Is this Jesus God in human flesh? Is this Jesus God, creator of the universe, who has come to bring good news once again, once and for all—to bind the brokenhearted, to liberate, to heal, to restore, to free, to give new life? What will you say? Are you lost, barely holding it together, burdened, an outcast? Are you brokenhearted? Are you cheeks stained with tears? Do you not feel whole in mind, body, in heart? Do you ever lie awake at night and wonder why things are the way they are? Do you ever think this life is unfair, oppressive, or cruel? Are you stuck in the storms of life, tossed to and fro—much like our disciples here?
What then will you say? Has God come in Jesus to still the storms. Has he come to bind our broken hearts, to comfort us in our mourning? Has he come to preach good news to us, to liberate us from every form of enslavement? Has he come to heal us, to restore us, and to give us new life? Will he eventually set everything right and then, one day, even raise us from the dead?
If you are unsure, I ask you to do as these disciples did. Get in the boat with Jesus. The disciples would never have seen Jesus still the storm if they weren’t in the boat with him. Follow him. Live with him. Put your trust in him. And when the storms come, which they will, call on his name. Just as these disciples did. And see what happens. Likely, it won’t be what you expected. Likely, it will be much more than you bargained for. Jesus isn’t much interested in operating according to our expectations. But when you see the storms of your life stilled and your broken heart healed by Jesus very own word, when by his word you find yourself whole again, in body, mind, and heart, when you find new life—then maybe you can stand in awe and say “This is Jesus Christ Son of the Living God.”
But that isn’t the end of it. Once you’ve become convinced that Mark’s witness is true—when you utter, “This is Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God;” when you know that God really did come to save us—then join in as a witness in a long chain of witnesses. Now it becomes your turn to tell the story—not only the story that Mark has told for us, but your own story. To tell the story of the storms Jesus has stilled in your own life. How he healed your heart and gave you new life. The moments of amazement and awe, even fear, where you could only muster the weakest of whispers, “Who then is this who has done this?” And then the answer comes “This is the work of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
Jesus does the heavy lifting. What he wants is your witness. We need your witness. Here, in this very church, in this very room. All of us, you, me, every single one of us—we need to know Jesus. In the midst of our failure, our heartaches, our tears—in the midst of our broken hearts, our broken families, broken marriages, broken childhoods, broken friendships—in the midst of the injustice and sin within us, and in the midst of the injustice and sin all around us: we need to be brought by each other’s witness back to that basic question, “Who then is this?” And we need to be brought by each other’s witness to know that the answer is “Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We need to know that by his word he will conquer every evil, quiet every fear, mend every broken heart, overcome every injustice, heal every broken relationship, wipe away every tear. Will you join with me today in becoming a witness in a long chain of witnesses?
And when by the grace of God we are confident of who Jesus is, will you go out with me into our community—as witnesses. We live in a town, in a community, in dire need of faithful witnesses. We are surrounded by failing marriages, parentless children, unloving parents, drug addicts, alcoholics, lonely elderly folks, lonely teens, homeless people—broken people. Your witness may just be the thing that introduces one of these people to the only one who loves them, who will free them, who will make them whole again, who will give them new life. To whom in your life is God calling you to witness? Maybe this person is a close friend or a family member. Maybe they are a next-door neighbor. Maybe they are an acquaintance, a stranger, or even an enemy. Let us live as perpetual witnesses and not be shy about posing that one basic question, “Who then is this?” And let our lives and our love be the evidence. Who knows, maybe they will join us too, saying “This surely is Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Benediction: The prophet Isaiah writes, “Blessed are the feet of those who bring the good news.” These are the feet of witnesses. Friends, let our feet be called blessed—as we bring the good news to every hurting person in our witness to Jesus Christ. Let our tongues be called blessed as we pose that question to others—Who then is this?—and point them towards the answer that we have come to know as true. Let our hands be called blessed as we witness to Jesus with every act of service to each other and to our community. Let the name of God be blessed. Amen.