Panic and fear are natural responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as our cellphones alert us to every advance of the viral storm on our borders, neighbourhoods and homes. Scientists estimate that between 40% and 80% of our population will be affected by the Coronavirus. But it is good to remind ourselves that we are not the pivot of history and our storm is not unique. Many plagues have stalked the planet before ours: In 260AD, Smallpox killed a third of the Roman Empire, and in 251AD a form of measles wreaked havoc on the world. In 1347 the Black Death wiped out 20 million people over five years. Then came the Plague of 1527, and a massive Cholera outbreak in London in 1854. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed over 50 million of those who managed to survive World War 1, and only five years ago, Ebola claimed 11 000 lives. Even now, billions of desert locusts are swarming in East Africa, posing a huge threat to the region’s food security.
Where is God in these great storms? Does He even care? To the naked eye, it may appear that God is powerless, asleep or indifferent to our world, if He exists at all.
These thoughts are implicit in the question that Jesus’s own disciples asked Him as they watched furious waves breaking over their fragile fishing boat: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
It was a personal and urgent question, since Jesus was fast asleep in the boat while they were baling water and fighting the storm. The miracle worker who’d just healed a paralytic, seemed detached and impassive to their plight. Or was He?
Today’s text is Mark 4:35-41.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Storms reveal faith and fear
“For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18).
The disciples already knew that Jesus was a powerful rabbi who taught with authority, healed the sick and cast out evil spirits with a word. They’d seen Jesus forgive the sins of a paralysed man and restore his atrophied muscles. Jesus had already shown them that he was powerful, good and wise. He was starting to reverse the chaotic effects of sin and sickness.
Yet, while the waves were breaking over their own boat, threatening to sink it, the disciples were confronted with an x-ray of their unbelief (Mark 4:40). At this stage, they did not fully grasp who Jesus was and what His Kingdom meant. Three questions in this brief story reveal their troubled hearts:
“Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” They accuse Jesus of indifference.
“Why are you so afraid?” Jesus gently questions their panicked response.
“Do you still have no faith?” Jesus probes deeper to the root of their fear.
We may know more than the disciples did on this terrifying day, but even as Christians, storms scan our hearts like giant x-ray machines and confront us with these same questions. Fear and faith are always vying for control. It’s easy to say that Jesus is the ruler of the universe generally, but it’s harder to trust him personally when the earth is moving under us. It’s easier to believe what we see with our eyes, than trust in the invisible Creator, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps 121:3-5). It takes faith to trust in things not seen when the winds and waves are in our face (Heb 11:1). Storms test and grow genuine faith in Jesus.
Storms blast away our illusions of security. They expose the truth of our weak bodies, our volatile stock markets and fragile mortality. That’s exactly what the Coronavirus is doing. Apart from the immediate threat of illness, COVID-19 will have dramatic economic effects on families and communities in the coming months, perhaps years. Like believers in every storm, we are challenged to exercise our faith by caring for our neighbours’ needs and demonstrating what we believe about God’s unseen Kingdom. God’s greatest treasures are often hidden in our most difficult storms.
As clergyman James A. Aughley wrote: “As a weak limb grows stronger by exercise, so will your faith be strengthened by the very efforts you make in stretching it out towards things unseen.”
Storms reveal Christ
There’s a fourth crucial question in our story. In the calm after the storm, the even more terrified disciples ask each other: “Who is this then, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The storm forces them to question who Jesus really is and whether they can surrender their lives to him. The answer holds the key to this story.
In fact, the answer comes a chapter later from the lips of a demon-possessed hermit living among the tombs, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7).
The story of Jesus calming the storm is a dramatic preview of who Christ is and why He came to earth: He talks to the ferocious, life-threatening storm as if it’s a yap-dog. He literally orders the furious storm to shut up and sit down, and it obeys! Even the wild waves are tamed. It’s no wonder the disciples were even more afraid in the calm than the storm! They glimpsed the invisible Kingdom of God and sensed the presence of the King in the boat with them.
The disciples may have joined the dots more quickly than us. They knew the Old Testament symbols of turbulent waters and surging seas were pictures of spiritual and political forces that are hostile to God. When Jesus said, “Be still”, He revealed himself as God of heaven and earth, and declared war on His enemies. By overturning the forces of evil and chaos on the lake, he showed Himself to be “God of our salvation and the hope of all the ends of the earth:”
“O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas…
7 who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples,
8 so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs (Ps 65:5-8).
O Lord God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
with your faithfulness all around you?
9 You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them…
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. The heavens and earth are mine” (Ps 89:8-11).
In stilling the storm, Jesus showcased his invisible kingdom and His identity as King.
Don’t you care that we are perishing?
But even if Jesus rules the winds and the waves, it is still legitimate to ask if He cares. A King can be powerful, but not care for his subjects at all. Jesus answered that question himself: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
The disciples’ question is full of dramatic irony. They believed that drowning that day was the worst fate they could face. Physical death was their idea of ‘perishing,’ as they watched their lives flash before them. Yet, this scene on Lake Galilee was just a drop in the ocean of what Christ would soon do to save the world from truly perishing:
To ‘perish’ is to be utterly consumed by the final, furious storm of God’s judgment against our sin (Rev 6:16). Since only Jesus can atone for sins, our only safe place is in the boat with Him. Just as Noah’s family was safe in the Ark when the Flood came, Jesus is the only and ultimate shelter from an infinitely more desperate death than drowning (Matt 24:37-39). Only those who believe in Him will be delivered when the storm of God’s wrath comes.
Jesus proved how much He cared. We only have to hear his prayer in Gethsemane, see his mutilated body on the cross, and listen to his cry of being God-forsaken, to know for sure that our faith in Jesus is well-founded. If that’s not proof that He cares, what will it take?
Let not your hearts be troubled
Jesus woke from his sleep of death to bring peace to our sinful, dysfunctional hearts. That’s the greatest miracle of all for those who put their trust in Him! And at the right time, the Lord will restore His disordered, furious, wild, turbulent and groaning creation, just as He stilled the winds and waves (Joel 2:25-26; Isa 65:25; Acts 3:21; Rev 21:4-5).
Be still for a moment and imagine that lake after the ferocious storm. Focus on the invisible person of Christ and his unseen Kingdom. Let him tame our our worries and fears as we make them obedient to his power and love:
In every storm, we can be sure that Jesus does care for us. The Lord never slumbers or sleeps, even if it appears that way (Ps 121:4, 1 Peter 5:7). If we’re in Christ, He’ll be in the boat with us by His Spirit, even when we die.
As we wash our hands and hunker down in our homes, we need to take this opportunity to anchor ourselves and our families in what we know is true, rather than being tossed about by every new case of COVID-19 and the uncertain future. We need to resist sensationalism and hysteria, because exercising faith means looking beyond what’s seen with the naked eye (2 Cor 4:18). Faith is seeing ourselves as a pinprick in the big storyline of Scripture: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. And faith means living now, not in fear and bewilderment, but in wisdom and the certain knowledge of what God is doing to redeem a people for himself and restore all of his Creation. Practical faith is making Jesus our secure hiding place by believing His Word and praying to him. It’s finding creative ways to care for each other as Jesus cares for us, and being always ready to give a reason for our hope in the rock-solid Kingdom of God– especially on social media! It’s the unseen things that must shape our values, our responses and everyday priorities. That’s how faith will win over fear. And that’s how our hearts will not be troubled.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).
Laura Story asks the question of God: “What if blessings come through rain drops? What if the rain, the storms, the hardest nights–are your mercies in disguise?”
Lord God, thank you for caring enough that you left heaven and took the storm of judgement on our behalf on the cross. Thank you that your Word gives us many glimpses of your wonderful, eternal Kingdom, where you reign with peace, order and righteousness. Lord Jesus, keep our minds focussed on these unseen things as we navigate the challenging storm we face. Reassure our hearts that you are always with our loved ones and you care for us. Help us to look beyond ourselves to our neighbours who are physically vulnerable, or those who don’t know the peace only you can give. Teach us creative ways to love people even when we cannot make physical contact. May your invisible Kingdom govern our responses in the days ahead. In Jesus’ name, Amen.