Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4–11, 19–23, 32–49 | Psalm 9:9–20 | 2 Corinthians 6:1–13 | Mark 4:35–41
“He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40).
What are you afraid of? What are we afraid of today?
I know this can be a deeply personal and uncomfortable question. One we may not be all that eager to answer, or even think about. Each of us have our own struggles… our own scars, wounds, and worries that can suddenly stir up great storms within us, or leave us feeling paralyzed. This past year our whole world has faced a prolonged season of heightened anxiety… hitting so many, especially those most vulnerable, with big reasons to be afraid: afraid of sickness and death; afraid of financial instability and loss; afraid of isolation from family and friends… afraid of our mistakes… and having them come to light.
How are we going to get COVID-19 under control? How are we going to resolve deep seeded injustices? How are we going to preserve our planet? Prepare for our future? Provide for our loved ones?
When what matters to us is under threat, it’s natural to be afraid. But what helps us conquer our fear is finding something, or Someone that is stronger than all of the foes and forces that would otherwise overwhelm us. From giants to storms, our Scripture readings today have a lot to tell us about faithfulness in the face of truly fearful circumstances.
Today we have heard to stories that we have likely heard before… two dramatic episodes in the biblical narrative that have been a source of inspiration and hope for believers for centuries: David facing Goliath, and Jesus calming the storm. On the surface, they both seem to be about overcoming overwhelming odds. About the importance of not giving in to our fears… no matter what. But as familiar as these stories may be, there’s more going on than we often assume. And reading them together may help us discern their deeper message of hope… and perhaps help us to discover that these stories are not primarily about us… about our actions, our battles, what we need to do to overcome. These stories are about the power of God, and they point us to our Saviour.
Turning to our reading from 1 Samuel, we heard the story of David: the brave young shepherd who steps up to fight the fearsome Philistine champion Goliath, when the rest of Israel’s soldiers were left trembling in fear. This is one of those famous stories used to lift up the victorious ‘underdog’… the unlikely hero who overcomes all odds and wins the day, a theme that’s replayed, again and again, in all sorts of novels, stories, and films. We find these kinds of stories exciting, but even more than that, they are often held up as examples of what can be possible in our own lives… of what we too could achieve if we are willing to face our fears. Just as David defeated Goliath, maybe we can take on all our troubles too… if only we can find the courage, the inner strength to overcome.
This kind of reading seems right to us… it fits with what we might think the story’s about. A straightforward moral example for us to learn from and put into practice. But the story of David does not stand alone: it belongs to the much bigger story of what the Living God Himself is doing to rescue His people… and rescue His world. The point of this part of the story is not that just anyone could have beaten Goliath, precisely because David is not just anyone anymore! Last week we heard, (in 1 Samuel 16), that this young shepherd had been chosen by God Himself to replace Saul as the anointed King of Israel. Though the time had not yet come for Saul to fall, and for David to be raised to the throne, this episode with Goliath marks the beginning of that journey: of David serving as God’s faithful servant, when all others fail… overcoming the forces opposed to God’s kingdom by trusting in the LORD. David’s story is meant to be inspiring, but what does it mean to inspire us to do? It’s not about pushing us to face our fears, it’s calling us to trust in the LORD. To show us God’s saving hand at work in and through His chosen one, who embodies God’s victory and power… and who points us to Someone greater than David… to God’s anointed Son.
This is the story the Gospel of Mark is ultimately concerned about. From chapter 1 verse 1, St. Mark is wanting to share with us “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” revealing God’s powerful victory, and kingdom coming through Him. All throughout Mark’s Gospel, but especially in the first half of his narrative, all sorts of questions are being asked about the identity of Jesus… focusing our attention on the things He says and does, and forcing us to try to figure out how He fits into God’s great story. So far in Mark, Jesus has done some very surprising things that have convinced many people that the Living God is truly at work in Him: He has restored the health of many who were sick, paralyzed, and suffering from leprosy, displaying God’s life-giving power, as well as His compassionate care. He has exorcized many demons with unheard of authority, displaying God’s sovereignty over the forces of evil, as well as His will to free all those who are bound by their oppression. He has put Himself in the place of Israel’s priesthood and Temple, offering forgiveness of sins, which God alone can give. And today we heard Him display God’s power over all His creation… as the Master of mighty winds… Lord over chaotic waters.
All throughout the Holy Scriptures, the Living God alone was portrayed in this way, as the only One who could bend the forces of creation to obey His voice. At times He would send prophets who would pray to the LORD for a sign of this sort, but it was always clear that God was the one who was calling the shots. For instance, Psalm 89 speaks of God’s rule of creation in this way:
“O Lord God of hosts,
who is as mighty as you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them…
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.” (Psalm 89:8-9, 11)
But right before the eyes of the bewildered disciples, Jesus stands up in the midst of the storm and stills it all with a word. “Peace! Be still!” Peace! Be still!
Moments before, they thought they were done for. Their ship was about to be lost, along with their lives, and their Rabbi seemed oblivious… asleep, while they suffered. In a panic, they woke Him up, crying out ‘Don’t you care that we’re perishing?’ In our own darkest moments, who hasn’t cried out terrified words like these? Who hasn’t questioned God’s purposes, or His power to rescue us when all we can see is the wind and the waves… when our fears are overwhelming us?
But again, this story is not primarily about the disciples… or us… as if there was something that they, or we, could have done to overcome the storm… like saying the right kind of prayer, or having the right attitude, or choosing to face our fears in the right sort of way. No, the story is about Jesus. It’s about the Son of the Living God, the One who has come to rescue us, and who calls us all to trust Him.
Back to the storm, the theologian and author Jane Williams has this to say about the impact that Jesus’ display of power had on His disciples: “As Jesus stills the storm… we see again the awesome power of God. The unpredictable and merciless forces of nature suddenly respond like obedient children to the voice of Jesus, and the disciples are amazed. They were already terrified by the storm, but they are almost equally terrified by its sudden cessation at Jesus’s command. When Jesus asks them, ‘Why are you afraid, have you no faith?’ the Gospel is deliberately unclear about which fear he means.”
In other words, the disciples were blown away by what Jesus just did. This didn’t fit with anything they’d expected or experienced, and suddenly they were filled with great awe, or rather fear in the presence of Jesus. “Who then is this,” they say to each other, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). We are meant to be asking the same kind of question: to let the unsettling reality of this display of God’s power in Jesus to lead us to re-examine our own ideas of who He is, and what He has come among us to do. Of course, there’s much more to Christ’s story. To truly answer this question, St. Mark wants us to read through the rest of his Gospel, right through to Christ’s cross, and His resurrection. To God’s ultimate victory over our greatest enemies: the forces of sin, of spiritual evil, and even death itself… facing it all for us, and overcoming it all for us.
This stormy episode doesn’t stand all on it’s own. It’s a sign reminding us that in Jesus Christ God Himself has come to save us. That our Risen Lord remains with us, and will not leave us to fend for ourselves. That He’s poured out His Holy Spirit on us to set us free from our fears: fear of our failures and weaknesses; fear of oppression and evil; fear of suffering, grief, and loss… fear of the grave. Not by telling us we can take all of these ‘enemies’ on by ourselves. Not by promising we won’t face problems if we just do things the ‘right way’. Not by diminishing our struggles or pain, or pretending there’s nothing to be afraid of. But by calling us to trust Him. To place our faith in Jesus. To count on Him to be with us, and to place our lives in His loving hands.
The scholar Donald English makes this point well: “For the disciple it should be enough to be with the Lord, whether life’s seas are running smoothly or not. Forms of Christianity which encourage and promise a life of continual success, excitement and growth will not only lead to frustration and despair; they actually point the disciple towards the wrong goal in the Christian pilgrimage. It is enough that Christ goes with us on our journey. We do not judge his care for us, nor the state of our discipleship, by the roughness of the seas over which we sail.” In Christ, we’ve found Someone who can handle everything we’re afraid of, and who has promised never to leave us… never to forsake us. Just as the sea brings wave after wave, so life will always present us with another thing to fear. But faith in Jesus frees us to find shelter and refuge in His arms. Trusting Him, we find God’s power at work in us as well, stirring up something stronger than our fears: the life-giving power of Christ’s love.
So I ask again: What are you afraid of? What are we afraid of today? May the Holy Spirit help us to bring all of our fears to Jesus. Again and again, as often as the waves of the sea roll in to the shore. May we entrust our lives to Him, and lean always on His faithful love. And may His love free us from fear to join Him in His kingdom work. Amen.
 Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections: Year B (London: SPCK, 2005), 82.
 Donald English, The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 107.