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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 7: God Is a Peacemaker (Mark 4:35-41)


In January of 1991 a coalition of nations mounted a swift and terrible war against Iraq. The allies wanted to drive Saddam Hussein and his occupying troops from Kuwait. After several weeks of intensive air attacks, a ground attack was launched. It lasted 100 hours - not much longer than the hurricanes that batter our coastal states at the time of the September equinox. The operation was called, appropriately, "Desert Storm."

Sudden and violent storms are not uncommon in the Middle East.

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] 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 sea obey him?" (Mark 4:35-41)

In his fabulous Thomas Covenant narratives, Stephen R. Donaldson gives heroic names to his characters. A sea-loving giant is called Foamfollower; others are called Earthfriend, Hearthrall, and Farseer. The wonderful story in Mark 4:35-4 1 tempts us to borrow this literary device. Jesus - who has previously been seen as Painkiller, Breadbringer, and Truthteller - is now revealed as Stormstiiler. When he and the disciples are in danger of being lost at sea, Jesus quiets the wind and waves with a rebuke. The storm is suddenly replaced with a great calm.

The stilling of the storm has always tickled the Christian imagination. Benjamin Britten wrote a cantata about the fourth century bishop who in legend became Santa Claus. In one scene in Saint Nicholas the godly man is on the Mediterranean Sea, headed for the Holy Land. The ship sails on calm waters, under clear skies. While Nicholas kneels on the deck to say his prayers, the seamen gamble at cards. When Nicholas warns them that foul weather is ahead, the sailors mock him. A sudden and terrible storm does indeed burst upon the ship, and it seems that all hands will be lost. But in answer to the prayers of Nicholas, the storm ceases as suddenly as it began. All hands are saved.

In telling his sea story Britten may have built on an existing legend. Or he may have created a legend, drawing on the stilling of the storm. Perhaps he was inspired by the fable of Jonah and the fish. For it was also on the Mediterranean Sea that great waves threatened to overturn a sailing ship until Jonah persuaded the crew that he was the cause of their peril and should be thrown overboard. In Mark’s story there does not appear to be any human mischief for which the storm was punishment; it was just one of those sudden squalls that overtake inland lakes and swamp small boats.

Jesus’ calming of the storm has a predictable consequence: The terror of the disciples is turned to awe. They wonder out loud among themselves, "Who then is this ...?" The question does not invite an answer; it points to a mystery. What possible answer could satisfy the disciples? Nothing in their experience prepared them for the question. What could prepare them to understand the answer? They have been privileged to witness other marvels done at Jesus’ word and wave of hand. But miraculous healing and feeding are one thing; commanding the wind and sea to obey is quite something else.

The Peacemaker

This much is evident to us, who are the hearers of the story. Emmanuel means Peacemaker. "God with us" may mean much more than that; it cannot mean less. Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" echoes the more gentle rebuke on the mountain: "Why do you worry about clothing . . . you of little faith?" It is not fear, but faith that brings God close. God is not in the storms of life, but in the peace that follows. God is not Stormbringer. Rather God is Peacemaker.

While the tempest in the story is surely a real storm, the meaning of the story is not limited to why or how Jesus calmed the wind and waves with his "Peace! Be still!" The stilling of the storm is rich in portent. A scene so dramatic cannot be read as an anecdote. No composer sounds a trumpet call in the middle of a symphony except as a promise of what is yet to come. A smoking gun is not discovered in the middle of a murder mystery unless it bears upon the mystery’s solution. Neither is the stilling of the storm incidental to our Gospel narrative. It is no accident, like a car skidding on wet pavement. It demands not only attention; it demands interpretation. What is God up to?

As with Jonah and the fish, the stilling of the storm has been subject to varied expositions. It would be hard to find two preachers who would interpret the story in exactly the same manner.

"Two-Faced Mother Nature"

Suppose that you went to church on the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, when Mark 4:354 1 is an appointed Gospel lection. If the preacher happened to choose that scripture passage for exposition, you might hear the storm at sea used as a metaphor for environmental disaster. Depending upon the preacher’s point of view, this might be a natural catastrophe, such as a great earthquake caused by a sudden shifting of tectonic plates. Or it might be a disaster to which humans contributed, such as the superheating of the earth through the so-called greenhouse effect. Or it might be a nuclear storm triggered by the explosion of an atomic bomb, somewhat as the bombing of cities in World War II unleashed fearful fire storms.

If we think of humanity as sailing across a placid sea, under smiling heavens, in a ship steered by rational means, according to immutable laws, we are in for a rude surprise, the preacher might warn. For Mother Nature is two-faced. She is not always kind and beneficent. She can suddenly turn to us a wrathful, destructive face. Those of an earlier generation, who thought to see God’s face smile back from a pleasant meadow or a tranquil sea, reasoned from too little knowledge of nature. They did not know about tectonic plates or the greenhouse effect - much less about the horrors of nuclear holocaust. Had they known about such terrors, it is doubtful that Maltbie Babcock could have written:

"This is my father's world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres."

As the climax of the sermon, the preacher might raise for the congregation this question: How, in such a world, can terror be overcome by confidence in the future? Where can we find peace? How can we ride out or avert the dreadful storms that hang just over the horizon? And the answer the sermon supplies is Jesus Christ. He who calmed the wind and waves of that inland sea is also our Savior. We do not know precisely how Jesus may save us from environmental disaster, any more than we can know how he rebuked the wind or calmed the waves. But we do know that hope in him is not misplaced. He is our peace in the storm. The preacher might end the sermon as Britten ends Saint Nicholas, with this stanza from William Cowper’s hymn:

"You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head."

"Do the Right Thing"

If you went to another church on that same Sunday in Pentecost, you might hear a quite different sermon preached on the same text. You might find the storm at sea used as a metaphor for social unrest. The preacher might describe in vivid detail the racial hatred, class envy, economic injustice, envy, aggression, and war-mongering that threaten the Good Ship Human Enterprise. The sermon might be designed to persuade you that the natural state of society is one of conflict and unending struggle, with destruction and death never very far away. If the preacher is given to historical illustrations, he or she might liken the terror of the disciples to that period during the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror, when passions and politics spun out of all control. The Revolution began as a voyage to Utopia; people thought to find a new and better society. But things went haywire; and the best-intentioned cried out to one another, "Do you not care if we perish?"

Or the sermon might refer to contemporary problems. A highly acclaimed film of 1989 was Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee. In the movie Lee plays the role of Mookie, a young black man living in an urban ghetto. Mookie works as a deliverer for a pizzeria owned and run by an Italian American and his two sons. Throughout the film, like a fuse that burns faster and faster as it approaches dynamite, resentment of the whites by young blacks grows. A minor incident sets off a fight between the store owner and the residents of the block. In trying to subdue one of the residents, the police kill him. When the police have gone, Mookie throws a garbage can through the window of the pizzeria, triggering the trashing of the store.

What happens in the movie could happen anywhere, the preacher might say - anywhere there are Catholics and Protestants, blacks and whites, Hindus and Sikhs, rich and poor, Jews and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites. Explosive social unrest is not the province of one society or social system. Racial differences, economic imbalance, religious bigotry - all are recipes for rioting.

Once having painted this bleak picture of how human differences are recipes for disaster, the preacher might hesitate to offer a Christian blueprint for social reform. But he or she might very well point to Jesus, who stilled the wind and waves, as humanity’s only hope. And the sermon might end with the first verse of a hymn written when American Christians were more hopeful about social progress:

"Where cross the crowded ways of life
Where sound the cries of race and clan,
Above the noise of selfish strife,
We hear Thy voice, O Son of Man."

"The Lower Lights"

In still another church, you might hear a sermon in which the preacher used the storm at sea as a metaphor for the internal turmoil from which humans suffer. There are many who are torn apart and tossed about by emotional strains and stresses every bit as frightening as the storm on the Palestinian lake. If the congregation were quite sophisticated, the sermon might include references to Freudian psychology, which describes the self as threatened by emotions and memories that are thrust below the surface into the unconscious, from which they may break forth and destroy a fragile equilibrium.

And for those who either did not understand or pooh-poohed such notions, the preacher might tell the heartbreaking story related in Michael Dorris’s The Broken Cord. Dorris adopted a child who soon displayed serious problems in development and adjustment. By digging into the boy’s history, Dorris discovered that the boy’s mother was an alcoholic. The watery womb in which the fetus developed was no safe world, but one in which the unborn baby was slowly poisoned.

How are we to live at peace with a world where this sort of thing happens to an innocent child? More to the point, how are we to live at peace with such children, who are sometimes disruptive and difficult? No preacher with a heart would, of course, promise that God will heal such a child of his afflictions. Nor would the promise be made that God will heal the mentally ill. But the preacher might well ask that if Jesus could still a storm in Galilee, then might we not trust God to help us to live peaceably with problems that are beyond our solving?

Such a sermon might end with the following story, which is a favorite among preachers: Once there was a small child whose mother died. To help the child through the night, the father took the child into his own bed. In the middle of the night the father woke to find the child in deep distress. "What’s the matter?" the father asked. "I can’t see your face," was the reply. "But l am here," said the father. Even so, Jesus is God’s word to us in the darkest night and blackest storm, assuring us that we have not been abandoned.

Some might say that those three sermons don’t exhaust the possibilities of the stilling of the storm. What about Jesus as the Savior of the storm-tossed soul? Indeed, when I was a small boy, I often sat on Grandmother’s lap while she sang,

"Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save".
God the Peacemaker

A perceptive critic may grumble that each of these sermons is a bit simplistic. After all, peace is more than environmental survival; peace is more than the cessation of tribal wars; peace is more than the resolution of inner conflicts; peace is more than the assurance of the soul’s salvation. Granted. However, taken together the sermons create a vector that points in a single direction. In all of them Jesus is proclaimed as one who brings peace. Both the storm and the fears of the disciples are calmed by the words of Jesus. Stormstiller is Peacemaker. In the context of this book, that means that God also is Peacemaker. God cares whether or not the human enterprise perishes. God works in mysterious ways to bring peace. The storm clouds above our heads are rich with mercy.

Operation Desert Storm was a sharp reminder of what a warlike people we Americans are. In time of war our great diversity suddenly becomes our strength; our idealism is annealed into steely resolution. Our defining moments, to use George Bush’s phrase, have been the Revolutionary War, Civil War, the two World Wars. And yet our most cherished national symbol is not a warrior, but a woman; she holds in her hand not a sword, but a torch; she was given to us out of friendship; and she faces the sea, to welcome those who have endured storm-tossed voyages. To millions of American soldiers, returning home by ship, she has been a gentle reminder that peace is indivisible from liberty and justice for all.

The Statue of Liberty is a kind of perpetual question, directed at Americans. What kind of people are we? What is the destination of that voyage on which we are together embarked? What does it mean to be "one nation, under God," when God is known as Peacemaker?

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