He was a professional thief. His name stirred fear as the desert wind stirs tumbleweeds. He terrorized the Wells Fargo stage line for thirteen years, roaring like a tornado in and out of the Sierra Nevadas, spooking the most rugged frontiersmen. In journals from San Francisco to New York, his name became synonymous with the danger of the frontier. During his reign of terror between 1875 and 1883, he is credited with stealing the bags and the breath away from twenty-nine different stagecoach crews. And he did it without firing a shot. His weapon was his reputation. His ammunition was intimidation. A hood hid his face. No victim ever saw him. No artist ever sketched his features. No sheriff could ever track his trail. He never fired a shot or took a hostage. He didn’t have to. His presence was enough to paralyze. Black Bart. A hooded bandit armed with a deadly weapon.
He reminds me of another thief-one who’s still around. You know him. Oh you’ve never seen his face, either. You couldn’t describe his voice or sketch his profile. But when he’s near, you know it in a heartbeat. If you’ve ever been in the hospital, you’ve felt the leathery brush of his hand against yours. If you’ve ever sensed someone was following you, you’ve felt his cold breath down your neck. If you’ve awakened late at night in a strange room, it was his husky whisper that stole your slumber. You know him. It was this thief who left your palms sweaty as you went for the job interview. It was this con man who convinced you to swap your integrity for popularity. And it was this scoundrel who whispered in your ear as you left the cemetery, “You may be next.” He’s the Black Bart of the soul. He doesn’t want your money. He doesn’t want your diamonds.
He won’t go after your car. He wants something far more precious. He wants your peace of mind-your joy. His name? Fear. His task is to take your courage and leave you timid and trembling. Fear of death, fear of failure, fear of God, fear of tomorrow-his arsenal is vast. His goal? To create cowardly, joyless souls.
Last week we began a new series “Christianity Explored” We want to discover who Jesus is and why he came. For answers we are reading the Gospel of Mark together.
In the opening chapters, Jesus demonstrates the power of the Kingdom of God through a series of awesome miracles. He trades words for actions. We see the Lord’s power and authority over Nature (4:35-41), over the demonic world (5:1-20), over sickness (5:21-34) and supremely over death (5:35-43). To the discerning mind, these miracles are not simply displays of raw supernatural power, like a series of superman episodes, they are much more. The clue is summed up in 4:41, when the disciples ask, “Who is this?” Lets try and answer their question for them as we consider the Master of the Elements. Lets begin by setting the scene. Though described as a Sea, Galilee is really a giant loch. It is my favourite place on earth. At over 200 metres below sea level, Galilee is the lowest fresh water lake in the world. At its widest the Lake is 13 kilometres wide from east to west and 22 kilometres from north to south. It forms part of the geological fault which runs from Syria to Africa. Within this rift, the river Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon bringing fresh water into the Lake of Galilee near Capernaum on the northern shore and flows out in the south near Yardenit on its way to the Dead Lake. The Lake of Galilee enjoys its own warm, mild, micro-climate, the perfect place for a holiday even in winter. An idyllic place to live, to retire or just visit on a pilgrimage.
The great abundance of fish and shellfish attracted a large population in an almost continuous belt of settlements along its northern shore. Important fishing towns like Capernaum and Bethsaida had populations of 15,000 residents. Conveniently, the Via Maris, the international highway from Egypt to Syria, passed along the northern shore near Capernaum. Forty different varieties of fish live in the Lake. These and other species were salted and exported all over the Roman Empire. Jesus chose Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, together with James and his brother John from among the fishermen of Galilee to be his disciples. He promised they would become ‘fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11). But first they must learn some lessons from the master fisherman. And that night they were going to learn a lesson they would never forget.
1. The Raging Storm
“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. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.” (Mark 4:35-37)
Hills surround the Lake of Galilee like a horseshoe on the west, north and eastern sides. They are between 360-450 metres high and, because the Lake is itself below sea level, abrupt changes in temperature can occur. On occasions, strong winds sweep down without warning leading to violent storms and turbulent waves. One moment all can be calm and serene, the next the Lake can be transformed into a swirling vortex.
The word used to describe this violent storm is seismic, a word associated with the power of an earthquake. This was a storm with some intensity that scared seasoned fisherman out of their boots. Both Matthew and Mark describe how the boat was swamped, the waves breaking over the sides. Luke adds that they were in great danger. The raging storm.
2. The Peaceful Lord
“Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” (Mark 4:38)
Watching Indiana Jones in action you may be forgiven for thinking that Harrison Ford is top of the unruffable ratings but take a look at Jesus and think again. Amidst this raging storm Jesus is asleep, while his experienced fisherman friends are wetting their pants at the prospect of an imminent encounter with the sea bed. Whether from physical exhaustion or spiritual peace, or possibly both, Jesus is oblivious to the threat to their lives. Jesus fully human yet fully divine. Asleep in perfect peace because heart and mind were at rest in God. The raging storm, the peaceful Lord.
3. The Faithless Disciples
“The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)
The greatest storm that night did not come from above in the sky or from below in the waves, it came from within, in the disciples hearts. The greatest fear was not from the storm driven waves. It came from the sight of their Lord and Master asleep in the middle of this raging storm. In their desperate panic the disciples forgot all they knew of the Lord and rebuked Him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” They must have been shouting to be heard in the wind. Matthew adds their cry “save us”
Don’t you care? Save us! The contaminated mixture of faith with fear. How often is our cry similarly confused and contradictory? How human, yet surely a slur on the character of Jesus. It was they not he who deserved rebuke, and Jesus gently administered it, as so often, with another question: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” The raging storm, the peaceful Lord, the faithless disciples, and
4. The Authoritative Word
“He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” (Mark 4:39)
Jesus response is immediate and awesome in its simplicity. A word is enough. He speaks to the wind and the waves as if they were listening, personified beings, the way you would speak to a naughty child or animal.
“Quiet, be still” and the fury of the storm abated and there was total calm. Just think about it – Jesus rebuked the wind and waves as if they were responsible for their own actions. The inference is that this storm was yet another attack by the powers of darkness seeking to destroy Jesus before his work was accomplished.
Jesus discerned under the natural phenomenon of a sudden storm, the work of the Devil. But rather than relieve their fears Jesus multiplies them for He is more concerned for their souls than their bodies.
With an awe that only comes when you know you are standing before the presence of almighty God, “They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” The disciples traded one fear for another. They were not yet able to answer either his question: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” or their own question “Who is this?”
They had already seen him perform miracles. They had heard the testimony of the demons before they were silenced. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures teach that God alone has the power to control the elements (Job 38:8-11; Psalm 107:23-32). But here it had become their personal experience. Jesus had done what God alone can do, before their very eyes. The raging storm, the peaceful Lord, the faithless disciples, and the authoritative word. “Why are you afraid?” This is a question Jesus still asks of us.
1. Fear is Widespread
If we are honest, we are afraid of so many things. We fear for the health of our bodies, for the safety of our children, for our security in old age. Afraid for the promotion we seek, afraid to lose the employment we have. Afraid of what people may think of us. Afraid that the past may catch up with us. Afraid for what the future holds. Fear is widespread.
2. Fear can be Creative
There are fears that safeguard and protect us. There are some things we ought to be afraid of – afraid of taking needless risks when we cross the road or drive our car. We should be afraid of ignoring our health in body and soul. We should take care over what we feed on physically and mentally. Fear is widespread but creative.
3. Fear is Destructive
More seriously we ought to be afraid of violating God’s moral law, for the pleasures are always fleeting and the consequences always destructive. “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” (Job 3:25), cried Job.
This pathetic wail is the soundest psychology. For invariably, fear tends to create the thing it fears. Guilt and worry kills far more people than we realise. Along the way fear paralyses and is the ultimate kill-joy. Fear is widespread, creative but destructive.
4. Fear is also Contagious
You will know from childhood the story of Chicken Little who was in the garden one day when a cabbage leaf fell upon her tail. She at once concluded that the sky was falling. Crazed with terror, she began to run. By and by she met Henny Penny and told her the fearful story. Seized by panic, she too, began to run. Soon all the other fowls in the farmyard heard the horrible news and joined the stampede. Running for their lives they came across Mr Fox, who kindly offered them refuge – in his den, then in his tummy… So how do we conquer fear? The answer lies in the second question Jesus asks his friends. “Do you still have no faith?” Goethe writes in Faust, “Nature is a great organ, on which our Lord God plays, and the Devil blows the bellows.” That is faith, for God is at home with his nature, even when it goes wild.
And the Lord God has made his home with us, despite what ever the world throws at us. Fear gets Satan and God mixed up and in the wrong positions. Like oil and water, faith and fear do not mix. Like a dose of WD40 on a damp car engine in the early morning, the one will drive away the other. There is no doubt that the Lord has the power to save. The crucial question is faith. Jesus has God’s power to quell any force that comes upon you. He asks only one thing. Trust. This trust, however, is far more than a mere belief that we have a good and fatherly God who will keep us from harm or difficulty.
A faith that expects God to still all storms may calm us for a while when the sun is shining, but such relief is naive and temporary. For we shall become only the more fearful when we realise that God does not save us from all trials and difficulties. When these disciples appealed to Jesus, He stilled the storm, but countless others who have prayed just as earnestly have gone down at sea. What then is this faith? It is a faith that trusts God so completely that it puts his will first in all things. It is a faith that believes that the will of God is so perfect that nothing will happen to us without his knowledge, purpose and consent.
This was the faith that gave Paul his undaunted courage. “We know,” he declares boldly, “that to those who love God, all things work together for good.” If we are convinced of this in our deepest depth of our soul, then nothing can make you afraid. You may be called upon to face loneliness, unpopularity, bitter loss, intense suffering. But these need not frighten you because you will know that God can turn your foes into friends, your calamities into capital, your losses into gains.
And by the way. Remember Black Bart? As it turns out, he wasn’t anything to be afraid of, either. When the hoods came off, there was nothing to fear. When the authorities finally tracked down the thief, they didn’t find a blood-thirsty bandit from Death Valley; they found a mild-mannered chemist from Decatur, Illinois. The man the newspaper pictured storming through the mountains on horseback was, in reality, so afraid of horses he rode to and from his robberies on a buggy. He was Charles E. Boles – the bandit who never once fired a shot, because he never once loaded his gun. Are there any similar falsehoods in your world?
“This is the victory that overcomes the world” with all its fears and all of its terrors “even our faith”. With Christ on board, fear is never necessary or justified. You are safe in God’s arms. He will not call you home until your work is done. See your circumstances, however bleak, from his perspective; allow him full command of your situation; obey his Word and witness his miraculous intervention. If we trust God enough to put His will first, if we have no fear save the fear of disappointing Him, then that fear will banish all others as the sunrise banishes the darkness. Jesus is indeed Master of the Elements. Is he your Master too?
Lord Jesus, help us to discover for ourselves who you really are, not only in our minds but also in our hearts and wills. Help us to trust you and place our confidence in your as our Lord and Saviour.
 With thanks to Max Lucado for the story of Black Bart, The Applause of Heaven (Dallas, Word, 1990), pp. 77.