SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, JULY 26, 2015, THE NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
“Take heart, it is I; have no fear. And he got into the boat with them
and the wind ceased.
The Sea of Galilee is, I think one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. It is unusual, as we shall see. It is remarkable, and it is breathtaking. It’s not really a sea, of course; it is a lake and not a particularly large one. Only thirteen miles long and at its widest part, eight miles across.
But there are reasons that people have always called it a sea. For one thing, the terrain changes quite drastically as you move around it. At the top there are extensive marshes fed by water from the Jordan, from several springs, and from melting snow off the south slope of Mount Hermon, nearly twenty miles away. To the east and west of the marshes, the land slopes fairly gently to the water, and it was from these gentle slopes that fishermen launched their boats in ancient times. And it was on one of these slopes that Jesus preached the sermon which included the Beatitudes and fed the five thousand. Further to the east are the Golan Heights, which continue on the east to the end of the Sea.
These are precipitous rock cliffs which form much of the eastern coastland and make the area almost uninhabitable. Beyond the Heights is the desert, the wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the devil.
On the west the coast is gentler; there is even a beach for swimming near the city of Tiberias. Along that western coast, however, the terrain is arid, rough and forbidding. At the bottom of the sea there are forests where the Sea turns again into the Jordan River.
And so, if you circumnavigate the Sea the landscape changes so quickly that one has the feeling of traveling a considerable distance when it has actually only been a short one.
Also, the lake behaves like a sea and not a lake. It is tricky, and very, very dangerous. A ferocious storm can arise suddenly and with almost no warning on the Sea of Galilee. Even today there are signals and sirens on the shore, letting people know when they can go out and, most important, when they must come in.
These sudden and violent storms happen because of the confluence of hot dry air from the east coming out of the desert and over the Golan Heights - the confluence, the mixing of this air with cool moist air coming from the Mediterranean to the west. These air masses come together in the valley of the Jordan, of which the Sea of Galilee is a part, and storms are created. Violent storms. Sudden storms. It is a difficult and dangerous place to fish and a difficult and dangerous lake to navigate. It is today, and it always has been. It behaves like the open sea.
And yet the Sea of Galilee is very important to the region. It is the only sizable body of fresh water anywhere around. But even this is unusual, for, since it is part of the Jordan Rift Valley, it is seven hundred feet below sea level.
And it’s full of fish, the Sea of Galilee, and because Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry in towns on the shore of or near the Sea of Galilee, we hear a lot about fishermen and fishing in the Gospels. It was a very important source of food and created a fairly prosperous livelihood for the men who fished it.
In the Gospel this morning we hear something about the trickiness and difficulty of the Sea. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him by boat while he dismisses the crowd and remains to pray. Time passes, and, Mark tells us, when Jesus has finished his prayers, he notices that the disciples’ boat had gone almost nowhere. One of those fierce winds common on the Sea was against them and row though they might, they made little headway. It is then that Jesus walks toward them on the Sea. He almost passes them, the Gospel tells us, but scared out of their wits, they cry out.
“It is I; have no fear,” he says, and he joins them in the boat. The wind dies down.
That’s the story according to Mark, and it’s a miracle. Jesus walking on the Sea. Well, you know, as I did last Sunday, I’m going to refrain from talking about miracles in general - their possibility or their mechanics, belief in them or disbelief. Frankly, I think the topic is more about personality than it is about science or theology. But that’s a subject for another sermon or sermons. Besides, it’s summer. It’s hot and such abstract thinking is too heavy for summertime.
Rather, let’s take the miracle - Jesus walking on the sea - at its face value. Except . . . that we can’t take it at its face value, for there is always more to Jesus’ miracles than their face value. The miracles point beyond themselves. Always point beyond themselves. They are signs - as St John tells us - they are signals which aim to tell us who Jesus is and which point to what is happening and to what has happened in his ministry. This is what is important and indeed what is crucial about the miracles in the Gospels. What they point to, what they are telling us about Jesus. And you may have noticed that as the Gospel reading ends, the author quietly disparages the disciples precisely for not getting the point. He tells us, “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, for their hearts were hardened.”
* * * * *
Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark begins with these words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” And what St Mark records in the pages which follow is how this proclamation is realized by Jesus. The Kingdom of God is the future of the world as God wills it to be. The Kingdom is also the world as God created and intended it to be, before the catastrophe of disobedience, disharmony, sin and subsequent death. By his words and by his deeds Jesus is making the Kingdom real and active within the world; Jesus is bringing in the future of the Kingdom of God, and he is recreating the world by restoring God’s legitimate past. Jesus does this and this means that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the Christ. He is the One promised by God to come into the world and make things right. That’s what Mark wants you and me to know, and so Mark writes his Gospel to show us how the Kingdom is entering the world in Jesus the Messiah. Mark writes his Gospel that our hearts might not be hardened; that through his words, through what we see and what we hear in those words, we might come to understand and ourselves enter into the reality of the Kingdom.
There are many miracles in Mark, and we have heard about them in the past few weeks. The choosing of disciples to become “fishers of men”, that is to say, to bring people in and to bring them together. The way of the world is to keep people out, to separate people and to alienate them one from another. The way of the kingdom is to bring people in. Jesus eats and drinks with those who are hated and have been excluded and brings them in. He sends out his disciples to preach the coming of the Kingdom which will include all humanity.
In the Kingdom, the powers that are against God and which destroy his creatures are done away with. Mark shows us Jesus, the Messiah, casting out the unclean spirits and putting them to flight.
In the Kingdom, we are healed and made whole, as God intended us to be. Mark shows us Jesus, the Messiah, healing the sick and afflicted. He cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. He cleanses a leper. He gives a paralytic the ability once again to walk; he restores a withered hand. He cures a little girl whom everyone else had declared to be dead. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, making people whole.
In the Kingdom, there is abundance and no one goes without what they need. For the Messiah, for Jesus, five loaves and two fish are more than enough to feed five thousand, and there is a great deal left over. In the Kingdom there is abundance and there is more.
In the Kingdom, the natural world, the creation, will become once again ordered and harmonious, as God intended it to be. Not only will the lion lie down with the lamb, as Isaiah prophesied, but also the creation will be no longer a threat, but rather a servant. The Messiah walks on the dangerous and threatening sea. The elements obey him. He is in control, for in the Kingdom of God there is harmony and order. The Messiah reassures his disciples. He quiets their fear. “Take heart. It is I; have no fear.” . . . He joins them, and the winds die down.