“Listening for the Questions”
June 20, 2021
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 gale 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?’
The Bible is a rich resource for life. For many it is the place they turn looking for answers to life’s questions, especially the most challenging ones. But what if we considered the Bible for the questions it presents to us?
Years ago, I encountered the author Frederich Buechner who said something that I have never forgotten. He said “Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.”[i]
Think about some questions the Bible asks:
“Where are you? (Genesis 3:9)
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)
“Who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29)
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? (Matthew 18:21)
“Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6)
“What is truth?” (John 18:38)
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18)
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5)
Buechner went on to say this: “When you hear the question that is your question, then you have already begun to hear much. Whether you can accept the Bible’s answer or not, you have reached the point where at least you can begin to hear it, too.”
The Bible contains its fair share of challenging questions. This week’s reading from Mark is no exception. It is the story of Jesus’ calming a stormy sea.
The setting is the Sea of Galilee, actually a freshwater lake about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. Surrounded by rolling hills and 680 feet below sea level, the geography makes the lake prone to sudden, violent windstorms.
The time is evening. After a long day spent preaching to the multitudes, Jesus is curled up in the stern of a boat and sleeping soundly as his disciples steer the vessel to the other side. Suddenly, the winds pick up, the waves grow huge, and the boat threatens to capsize. Though many of the disciples are seasoned fishermen, they realize quickly that their efforts to bail water from the boat and save their wind-whipped sails are futile; the storm is far too powerful.
In desperation, they rouse the still-sleeping Jesus. Not with a gentle plea for help, but with a question so full of bewilderment, accusation, and panic: “Teacher, don’t you care that we are drowning?”
Boom. Question One. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are drowning?”
For some people, holding to belief that Jesus cares for them comes easily. Others, for various reasons, do not. Some have been wounded by misuse of religion which has judged or excluded them. Others have suffered forms of abuse — emotional, physical, sexual — that make it hard to trust in anyone’s goodness, even God’s. Others have cried out for help in the midst of life’s catastrophic storms and experienced a sleeping Jesus.
Intellectually, of course the answer to the question is yes. Yes, our Teacher cares when we are drowning. But as the saying goes, the greatest distance on earth is the distance between our minds and our hearts. For some people, the “yes” of God remains a promise to grow into.
“Teacher, don’t you care that we are drowning?” Jesus says nothing. But he stands up, rebukes the wind, and calms the sea. Then he turns to his stunned disciples and responds to their question with a couple of his own.
Questions Two and Three: “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
The disciples do not answer him. Instead, Mark writes, they “were filled with great awe.” Question Four: “Who is this?” they finally ask each other “that even the wind and the sea obey him.”
Four questions. Remember the quote at the start: “Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.”
Jesus asks big questions. “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
I sympathize with the disciples’ fear. I have never experienced the feeling of drowning. But what if we extend the meaning of “drowning” to include all the ways in which we human beings find ourselves in over our heads — overwhelmed, overpowered, and terrified. Why are we afraid in the midst of violent storms, catastrophic disease, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, wars, droughts, and large-scale starvation? Why are we afraid when we face broken marriages, depressed children, unfriendly neighbors, grinding jobs, and financial uncertainty?
Why? Because we are human. Because fear is a reasonable response to a frightening world. Because God created human beings with a necessary capacity to feel fear so that we will know to pay attention and take reasonable measures to protect ourselves. And because sometimes our genetic makeups or our early childhood experiences pre-dispose us to anxiety and panic.
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked the storm-lashed disciples on the lake that night. I have had to read this Gospel story many times to see a helpful connection between the disciples’ question and Jesus’, but I see now that a connection is crucial. What if Jesus’s question about fear has nothing to do with the sea, the wind, and the killer waves? What if it has to do only with the disciples’ relationship with him?
Notice the first place the disciples’ fear takes them. They have every right to be afraid when the storm breaks; feeling scared in the face of danger is not the problem. The problem is that their fear does not lead them to lean harder on Jesus, or to seek comfort in his presence. Rather, it leads them straight to suspicion, distrust, and accusation: “Teacher, don’t you care that we are drowning?”
What is their underlying assumption? That Jesus must not care. If he cared, he would not be sleeping. If he cared, they would not have to seek him out or wait for him. If he cared, he would hurry up. If he cared, they would be safe.
Like the disciples, we might be quick to assume the worst about Jesus when the going gets rough. When we face fearsome circumstances, our go-to position is not trust; it is suspicion. In fear, we conjure up a God who is stony-faced, implacable, and loveless. What should be a rich, vibrant, and multifaceted relationship between my heart and God’s becomes instead purely consumerist and transactional: Okay, Jesus, prove that you care about me by fixing my circumstances. I will do A (trust and love you) if you will do B (protect and save me).
When Jesus asks the disciples why they are afraid, what he is really asking is: why are you afraid of me? Why do you still not trust that I love you, that I am with you, for you, in you, and around you? After all this time, why do you suspect my heart, my intentions, my good will?
The next question is a little easier. “Do you still have no faith?” Well, sometimes I do and sometimes I do not.
One of the odd things about this passage is that Mark surrounds it with a perplexing set of contrasts. In the chapters preceding the calming of the sea story, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as small, secretive, and quiet. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, so tiny it is almost invisible.
In the chapters that follow the calming of the storm, Jesus makes known a kingdom of dramatic, supernatural power. He casts out demons, raises a little girl from the dead, heals a hemorrhaging woman, feeds five thousand people with a few handfuls of bread and fish, and walks on water.
To have faith is to hold these two pictures of the kingdom in productive tension and allow God to be revealed in both. Sometimes God’s ways are shown in the power of the miraculous. At other times, the revelation of God comes in the abiding, quiet presence in our lives.
The last question in the story returns us to the disciples. After Jesus calms the storm, the stunned disciples who were “filled with great awe” ask the most important question of all: “Who is this man?” Indeed. Who is this man, this Christ, this God, who sleeps through storms, accepts our accusations, and offers us his quiet, mysterious presence in wild and wind-swept places? Who is this God who loves us in the chaos?
I have known many people for whom the storms of life, the suffering and evil do not lead to a loss of faith. I have been graced to know others for whom the harsh realities of this broken, disordered world are what draw them to faith.
It is after the storm that the disciples recognize the holy in their midst. It is after the boat fills with water that they are “filled with a great awe.” It is after Jesus accompanies them in the chaos that they realize who he is. May the same be true of us.
[i] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner, Harper Collins 1973