[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during both worship services earlier today.]
In today’s Gospel lesson (and really in all our Bible lessons for today as well), Jesus confronts us with a simple question: Do we want Him or do we want to be comfortable? Do we want the God we meet in Jesus Christ or do we want easy trouble-free lives?
Some of the religious hucksters on TV sell a brand of Christianity that tells us if we believe in Jesus and stay positive, we’ll be flush with cash, healthy, and successful. The problem, of course, is that Jesus never promises any of this to those who follow Him.
Jesus does promise wonderful things.
But not once does the God we know in Jesus Christ promise that following Him will make us comfortable in this world.
Not once does he say that turning from our favorite sins to follow Him will go without a hitch.
Not once does He say that decisions will be easy.
Not once does He say problems will go away.
Not once does He say that the life of discipleship--of following Him, of sacrificing ourselves and our own comfort out of love and worship for God and out of love for neighbors will be easy.
In fact, Jesus says, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Our first lesson for today comes to us from the Old Testament book of Job. It’s thought to be the oldest book in the Bible. In it, Job, a man who strives to follow God, who repents not only for his own sins, but also those of his children, is struck down by some of the horrors that this world can bring. All his property and livestock are destroyed. All his children are killed. He is stricken with a horrible disease. Job had worshiped God and played by the rules. But in one fell swoop, his world was decimated. Following God had not brought Job a comfortable life.
Job's friends try to tell him that had he been more faithful, these bad things wouldn’t have come to him. He insists he doesn’t deserve his suffering and angrily challenges God to explain Himself. At the end of the book, God chastises Job’s so-called friends.
Faith in God isn’t a pass to easy street and Job’s distress wasn’t caused by Job being sinful.
But, as we can see from our first lesson, neither does God explain Job’s suffering. Job suffered in spite of being a follower of God because we live in a fallen world in which bad things happen even to faithful people.
In our second lesson, written in about 55 AD, the apostle Paul recounts some of the sufferings he underwent because he followed and proclaimed the crucified and risen Jesus. Paul said that he and his ministry team commended themselves to people in the church at Corinth precisely because they had endured calamities for the sake of their faith in the God we know through Jesus. He then catalogs some of the horrible experiences he’d been through.
Believers in Jesus are called to keep following Jesus even when it’s inconvenient, painful, challenging, uncomfortable.
When Christ commands sacrifice.
When being faithful disciples of Jesus threatens our reputations, our financial security, our lives.
Jesus calls us to choose between a life with Him, on the one hand, and a comfortable life, on the other.
He does this emphatically in our Gospel lesson, Mark 4:35-41. The incident narrated here comes right after Jesus gives a series of parables describing what the Kingdom of God, the kingdom He is going to die and rise to bring into being, is like.
It all begins with a command from Jesus: “That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.”
Of course, when Jesus issued His command to the disciples, they probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Most of them were experienced fishermen accustomed to sailing the Galilean waters at night, as He was now commanding them to do at sundown. “Easy peasy,” they may have thought...only in Aramaic.
Following Jesus may often seem easy peasy, a simple thing, comfortable. But we don’t know what storms may lay ahead.
You know what happens next. Verse 37: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’”
We Christians ask a version of that question every time adversity strikes, every time Jesus calls us to do hard things we’d rather not do, uncomfortable things: confront a fellow believer with a hard truth; forgive someone who has hurt us; give sacrificially. “Lord,” we wonder, “don’t you care if we drown? Don’t you care if we lose our comfort? Don't you care if what you're calling me to do could result in killing my reputation, killing my investment portfolio, kill my health, kill me? Can’t you ask me to do something easier than surrender my whole life to You?”
Jesus' answer to these questions, quite frankly, is, “No.”
The God Who tells us that "whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it," the God Who went to a cross to bear our sins cares more about fitting our character for eternity than about our comfort in this death-bound world.
He cares more about our learning to follow Him faithfully than He does about our ease. Our ease can come in eternity. For now, our call is to follow even in the darkest, most difficult times.
But Jesus doesn't leave us to wallow in the darkness of this world without hope.
Verse 39: “He [Jesus] got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’”
When storms come, we wonder how we can survive. We forget that nothing can separate those who trust in Jesus Christ from the love God gives through Jesus Christ. Nothing.
A young woman, a member of our church in Cincinnati, Karen, was dying. She and her husband had two young children. She gave her testimony of faith during worship one Sunday. This was in 1999. She talked about all the things she hoped to be able to see in this world: her children grown, the new millennium. She knew that she might not see any of these earthly hopes come into being. And it saddened her. She tried to understand. (I remember her telling me once as her battle with two forms of cancer went from bad to worse, "I just can't seem to catch a break.")
Yet she also told us that she was confident that the Lord Who was leading her through her darkest valley would not only lead her to Himself, but also lead her children. She said that she knew that Christ's Church in which her children were baptized would faithfully share Christ with them, forge their characters by the power of the Holy Spirit, and help them to know the eternity of hope we have in Jesus Christ.
When she died, she left a number of us with notes. In the one she wrote for me, she detailed some of her desires for her funeral service. But I can also recite by heart how she ended the note: "Please tell people, Mark, that just because I have died it doesn't mean that their prayers didn't 'work.' Life is so much more than having a whole and healthy body here." Jesus carried her through the storms and assured her of life, peace, and wholeness beyond the gates of death.
After Jesus had sternly spoken to the disciples, they contemplated in awe-filled fear, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey Him?”
The answer to those questions can be found all through the Scriptures. But I mention just two places in the Old Testament.
- In Psalm 104:7, the psalmist confesses of God, “...at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight…”
- Genesis 1:1 tells us that God the Holy Spirit moved over the waters of primordial chaos and brought into being peace, order, and life.
The One Who calmed the storm that so frightened the experienced fishermen sailing with Jesus that night was and is God Himself.
Storms, challenges come and go in this life. Jesus will sometimes ask us to do things, to endure things, to sacrifice things, and to trust only in Him, none of which, in our own power, we are capable of doing.
But, listen: Whenever we can’t, God can.
And after the storm, the God we know in Jesus Christ still stands. And so do all who put their faith in Him. They’re the ones who prove to be more concerned with following Jesus than with being comfortable. I pray each day that God will forge me to be one of their number.
What storms are you going through today?
What is Jesus asking you to do that you don’t believe can be done?
Is there a comfortable sin for which you need to repent?
Has a spirit of fear, or bitterness, of self-worship or self-loathing hijacked your life and carried you away from Jesus?
Follow Jesus and let the One Who can still our storms see you through and set you free to be the joyous child of God you are meant to be.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]