In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this Sunday’s readings we hear two very familiar stories---the First Samuel story of David and Goliath and Mark’s story about Jesus calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Since we tend to look right past familiar things, expecting them to remain as they always were, we may be quick to dismiss these stories, saying yes, I’ve heard that one before. But these stories are really quite odd. In the first one, we hear that in the valley of Elah, a young boy slings a stone at a gigantic, heavily armed warrior and fells him. In the second, we learn that out on the Sea of Galilee one night in a small boat, Jesus is awakened from sleep by his frightened disciples and rebukes a raging storm into dead calm. These are strange stories, and like Jesus’ often puzzling parables, they invite further examination to see what they might reveal---about God, about us and about the relationship God seeks with us as part of God’s good creation.
In the story of David and Goliath, David, the young keeper of his father’s sheep, presents himself to King Saul and says that he will fight the mighty warrior Goliath, who has challenged and “defied the armies of the living God.” David claims that in the past he has killed lions and bears when they threatened his sheep. He declares to Saul, “’The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’” Saul goes along with this brash youth and fits him out with his own heavy armor and sword. But there is a problem---David can’t walk with all this stuff on. So he sheds the armor, takes up his staff and five smooth river stones and runs to meet Goliath.
Against all odds, David slings one of the stones at the Philistine champion, hitting him in the forehead, the only place he is not armored. At the impact, Goliath falls face down on the ground. David runs over to the fallen giant, kills Goliath with his own sword and cuts off his head. The Philistines flee, with the troops of Israel and Judah in hot pursuit.
This story has multiple layers of meaning, as a contemporary commentator (1) reminds us. Certainly one point of the story in ancient Israel was to glorify David and to legitimate his introduction to King Saul’s court. Also the story is not without its nationalistic pride, since the Israelites gain the upper hand over the Philistines. Another of the story’s central themes is the triumph of the weak over the strong, especially the righteous weak over the unrighteous powerful. Indeed, this theme persists throughout the Bible. Jesus himself describes the ordering of the kingdom of God with these words---the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Although it is tempting to read the story of David’s victory as an heroic saga, with its emphasis on weapons and David’s skill with the sling shot, it is not a lesson in the triumph of skill and bravery over brute strength. Rather, it presents David as a model of faith. Throughout the story, the issue is posed in terms of the challenge to the God of Israel, and its point lies more in David’s response to Goliath’s defiance of the God of the armies of Israel than in his sling of the stone: “The Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”
Fast forward now to a scene on the Sea of Galilee in the gospel of Mark----where, in the immortal words of Snoopy, it was a dark and stormy night. A truly stormy night: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 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?" 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. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" 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?"
Mark records that Jesus began his Galilean ministry with the words, “the kingdom of God has come near.” In this story, Jesus has just spent the day teaching about the kingdom of God, using the form of parables----they are familiar to us---the parable of the sower, the growing seed, and the mustard seed. The crowds had pressed in on Jesus so much that he got into a boat on the Sea of Galilee and continued to teach as the boat rocked gently with the lap of the waves. When evening came, Jesus invited his disciples to join him in the boat and to cross to the other side of the sea. In doing so, Jesus is moving from familiar Jewish territory to a Gentile region---and inviting his disciples to go with him (2). The kingdom of God couldn’t possibly be drawing near the Gentiles too, now could it?
Out of sight of shore and in the darkness, catastrophe struck---“a great windstorm arose and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” Some of the disciples were experienced fishermen, accustomed to wind and wave, but to nothing like this. They were deathly afraid. And then they remembered Jesus was with them. They ran to him and found him sleeping. No doubt they screamed him from sleep---“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Surely, as Joel Marcus (3) points out, the Markan community must have felt as overwhelmed by persecution as the disciples had felt by the towering waves and immediately read themselves into the story----as we can too.
Jesus woke up (how could he not?) and did something unique. Instead of praying for the storm to end, Jesus “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” Then the “wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” Just as God spoke the order of creation into being from a formless void, Jesus’ words bring order to the chaos of the storm. After the sea is calm, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Why are you afraid?” This seems a strange thing to ask. Of course the disciples were afraid----they thought they were about to die. But their instincts were good----they sought out Jesus even in the midst of their overwhelming fear. But Jesus probes deeper: “Have you still no faith?” Then Mark tells us that the disciples “were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
At the very beginning of his gospel, Mark tells his readers who Jesus is: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This key information seems to remain mostly hidden under a bushel basket or under the bed for the disciples, but it is available to readers in the Markan community and to us today. The story of Jesus stilling the storm reveals God in Jesus. Maybe the disciples don’t get it fully yet, but they are asking good questions--- "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Francis Wade, interim dean of the National Cathedral, argues “God is better able to work with and through people who are kept open by questions than with those who are closed off by answers” (3). In reality, life itself is lived under a question mark. Change and uncertainty mark our days. Storms arise in our lives. Giants confront us. We know God does not always still our storms or dispatch the giants---at least in the way we expect/want----but rather God leads us on into more questions so that our faith in God is what we come to rely on. Yes, the question mark is clearly emblematic of human life, but overarching human life is the transcendent/immanent God who is both as close as breath and ultimately unknowable----
Perhaps the awe with which the disciples are now filled is another kind of fear----the fear of just who this Jesus is---this one who can still the wind and sea. Do they really want to follow him? Where will he ask them to go next? Across the Sea of Galilee into Gentile regions? Into storms of persecution? Into uncharted and unknown regions of service---to the poor, the ritually unclean and the marginalized? If they are to go with him, they will need to have faith in who this Jesus is, as will we. A faith like the faith of Jesus himself. A faith that proclaims that the kingdom of God draws near, serving and thriving in the liminal space of that nearness.
So we see two kinds of fear in this story of the storm, and we have undoubtedly felt them both: fear of real and present danger and fear of who Jesus may really be and what he may ask of us. God leads us out of one kind of fear and beckons us to follow into the other. God is always with us, stilling our souls as we face illness, financial crisis, loss of loved ones, or any other adversity. But God also calls us to walk with God far beyond where we are comfortable, perhaps even into conflict and storms, challenging us to grow in faith, to be part of the inbreaking of the kingdom.