Choppy Seas, Calm Spirits: Reflections on Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012
Whenever I feel out of control, I clean out my car. I just vacuumed the floor mats of my car, my Dirt Devil making all the crumbs and miscellaneous debris disappear. I cleared all the dry cleaner receipts and spare change out of the middle console and wiped down the dash with a damp cloth. I have a full tank of gas and a clean car. Within that little world, there is order . . . unless I hit a nail and get a flat tire in the middle of a country road—but as my mother always says, "Don't run down the road to meet trouble."
Unfortunately, we don't have to. It runs down the road to meet us. We live in constant threat of chaos from life, nature, others, and our own unruly impulses. Allstate Insurance has a campaign called "Mayhem is Coming." The role of Mayhem is played by actor Dean Winter. He represents the unexpected and the disastrous in daily life, the times that test the kind of insurance you carry. Last night a weird, sudden hailstorm hit Dallas where my two adult children live. My daughter texted me pictures of her car's back windshield, which was completely shattered, shards of glass strewn over the back seat and street. My son didn't text me any pictures because he was on the outskirts of town driving home when the storm struck and escaped the damage.
Jesus' seed parables assure us that God works to bring the kingdom about in small ways, even in threatening circumstances. The seed parables, which deal with how to live on dry land with faith in God, are delivered from a boat on the sea. The sea, for Mark, connotes the powers of chaos, which the Bible connects with the demonic. Chapter 4 of Mark begins and ends with a reference to the sea: "Again he began to teach beside the sea" (4:1); "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" (4:41).
Presbyterian pastor Gary Charles, in his commentary on this passage in Preaching Mark in Two Voices, points out that there are three characters in this story of the calming of the sea that bring chapter 4 of Mark to a close. There are the disciples. There is Jesus. And there is the sea. Characters have personalities and they have a part to play in the plot a story. The sea has quite a strong personality in Mark and it certainly has a part to play!
People who think of the sea as a scenic view from the boardwalk as they slurp their snow cones don't understand where Mark is coming from in characterizing the sea. People who have been through a hurricane or a tsunami, however, get it. People who make their living by going to sea, then and now, resonate with Mark's depiction of the sea as unpredictable and dangerous. Throughout the Bible the sea is a metaphor for the place where chaos and the demonic reside. (Charles, 68) Moses leads the people from bondage to liberation through a sea. The sea threatens those who would follow God (Ps. 69:1, 14-15). God's power to calm the sea is affirmed (Ps. 46:1-3; 89:8-9; 93:3-4; Rev. 21:1). "For Mark the sea (thalassa) is a metaphor for the demonic and apocalyptic chaos that confronts Jesus, terrorizes his disciples and threatens the future of the gospel." (Charles 60)
The sea, the location of chaos and the forces that threaten God's purposes, is the context for Jesus' teaching of the seed parables. They cluster around the theme of trusting God's hidden purposes and what God can make possible with faith the size of a mustard seed. Seeds are a perfect metaphor for a persecuted, vulnerable community like Mark's—a sign that great things can come from small beginnings and that all of the results are not up to us.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.