“Who is this? What does it mean?” 24th June ’18 Madingley
1 Sam.17:57-18:5, 10-16 2 Cor. 6:1-13Mark 4:35-41
This week we have heard the startling news that the University of North Carolina has developed an e-fit picture of — God. They started with what they deemed to be a picture of an average American – of course, who else? – and made some adjustments so that they could offer people a variety of pictures, asking them, “Which looks like God?” Gradually the pictures were narrowed down until they ended up with a picture of: a relatively young, Caucasian male, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Elon Musk.
When questioned, the researcher in charge of this experiment agreed that it said more about the people participating in the programme, given that the pictures they chose frequently were based on themselves as far as age, ethnicity and even attractiveness were concerned, rather than about the possible appearance of God. But, there was one interesting point: the pictures chosen were always male.
This may be a strange opening to a sermon, but stay with me, and all will, hopefully, be revealed. Saint Mark in writing his gospel, introduces the idea of a secret surrounding Jesus, the full truth of which is gradually revealed as the gospel progresses. As we have seen in recent Gospel readings, Jesus was in the process of teaching his disciples about who he was and is, and the final words of last week’s reading told us that, “Jesus did not speak to the people without a parable, but privately to his disciples he explained everything.” They were receiving personal tuition so that their eyes could be opened up slowly to what that secret was.
Up to this point in the gospel, Mark has shown Jesus being baptized, healing numerous people of different diseases including exorcising them of unclean spirits, controversially forgiving a paralytic’s sins, selecting his 12 disciples, breaking the rules governing Sabbath observance, and teaching people through the medium of parables. It may seem strange to us, but apart from his baptism and the words of the God the Father addressed to him on that occasion, the rest of his ministry was not too much out of the ordinary. Other rabbis had been known to do most of these things, though they probably stopped short of forgiving sins and breaking Sabbath laws.
It is with today’s reading that Mark opens up a whole new area for reflection. Here we have the first indication that something is going on above and beyond the normal human experience.
Having completed a long day of teaching and ministering to the crowds, and probably having a quiet word of explanation with the disciples afterwards about what the parables meant, Jesus tells them that they should go over to the other side of the lake. It’s evening, and they’re all tired, especially Jesus. He knows he can leave it to these experienced fishermen to navigate the boat, and he settles down to a necessary and well-earned sleep. The crowds with their demand for more, more of everything: teaching; healing; just his very presence, are left far behind in the main, as they row out into the lake.
But then one of the unpredictable but dangerous storms which can occur there, blows up. The boat is a flimsy craft with little cover, yet Jesus sleeps on, seemingly unperturbed by the danger, and the potential loss of his life. Is it because he knows that his ministry is nowhere near finished yet, so nothing untoward could happen to him? Is it that he knows that even if he does drown, he would be returning to his Father, something he must have longed to do? Whatever the reason, Jesus sleeps on, perfectly at peace.
The disciples are too terrified to be mulling over such philosophical niceties. This Jesus, whom they address with the title they feel applies to him, is their only source of potential help, but they probably have no idea what they expect him to do. All they know is that the waves are being whipped up so high that the water is coming into the boat, and pretty soon they will all be in the water. There would be no possibility of survival; even fishermen in those days did not know how to swim.
So, “Teacher!” they demand, “Do you not care that we are about to die?” Hardly respectful, but maybe they can be forgiven knowing the circumstances. Jesus wakes up and straight away takes care of the immediate danger. Another leap forward is made in the revelation of Mark’s “secret” about Jesus. Addressing the wind like a misbehaving child, he says, “Peace! Be still!” and immediately all is calm again.
Whatever the disciples have expected him to do, it was not this. Jesus turns to them as their own inner tumult subsides, and asks a question which they might think to be unnecessary, and even lacking in sympathy. “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” It’s fairly obvious why they have been so fearful; but what or whom does this “faith” apply to? Up to now, they may not have thought in terms of having faith in Jesus. They had followed him because he had outstanding gifts as a teacher and healer. But power over nature. That they knew from their Scriptures was only something which God himself possesses. It’s no wonder then that they turn to each other, asking, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” and they are filled with awe.
The disciples’ knowledge of who Jesus is has been limited by their experience; that, after all, is the well-spring of faith. They had not seen anything yet that suggested that they were in the presence of anything other than a rather gifted man. Their understanding of Godfrom their Scriptures had taught them that He is often revealed through powerful or unusual forces of nature: a burning bush which the flames do not consume; thunders, lightnings and thick clouds on Mt Sinai; a still small voice after many other more “expected” signs of his presence, to Elijah; but above all, they knew that no human being could actually see God and live. They did not know what he looks like, and they certainly were not interested in finding out! From the ten Commandments handed down to the Israelites at Sinai, they knew better than to make images of what they thought God looks like; that was expressly forbidden.
What this experience on the Sea of Galilee had taught the disciples was that their previous way of thinking and believing was being challenged. They thought they knew what it would be like to experience God’s close presence; but what had just happened to them was not in keeping with that. And if they had just seen God’s power at close quarters, what did that say about Jesus? Who indeed, is he?
Their sense of awe and puzzlement is a fitting response; a much better approach to God and what he is like, than the efforts to produce a portrait we have seen in America this week. Admittedly, the whole exercise was probably tongue in cheek. Anyway, the lead researcher said that the picture reveals that we cannot help but think of God as a person. The danger of creating such pictures is that we make him in our own image – which is idolatry. What that picture lacks is any sense of awe, or of mystery. We are so used to the Gospel accounts of the loving human being who was Jesus, that we can be in danger of feeling too cosy in our relationship with him; too secure. That needs to be balanced by awe, and the realization of our own paucity of understanding, as we repeat the disciples’ startled question, “Who is this?” and work it out in our own lives.