“Who Then is This?”
Fear is a powerful emotion. We’ve all dealt with it. Fear of loss. Fear of the unknown. Fear of pain. Fear of death. Fear of a hostile world. Fear can either motivate us to act or it can paralyze us. And fear of two very different sorts is present in our text today.
Jesus has just finished a long day of teaching by the Sea of Galilee. After evening has come, He and his disciples begin to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But the calm after a long day doesn’t last. Soon a great and violent windstorm arises, the type of which the Sea of Galilee is well known for. The fishing boats used by Galilean fishermen at that time had low sides (so that the men could cast and draw in their fishing nets more easily), and would have been strongly battered by the wind and waves. Indeed, Mark tells us that boat was quickly beginning to be swamped by the waves of the storm.
The disciples were confronted by fear, but the not the ordinary fear of everyday life. This would have been sheer terror. It is the kind of fear that happens when you are confronted with something that is far larger than you, far stronger than you have the power to control. The kind of fear that the disciples were experiencing was grandeur turned to terror, the terror of a chaotic world indifferent to their lives. We have all experienced this at some point, even if only as children when we first heard a thunderstorm and realized that there were forces in this world that were far bigger than us -- and indifferent to us.
This, then, is what the disciples are confronted with: the terror and chaos of a great storm. You can hear Mark echoing the chaotic waters of primordial creation in Genesis 1, when the world was dark, wild, and waste (Gen 1:2). You can hear the echo of the terror in the Psalmist’s voice in Psalm 107 at great, stormy waves that “mounted up to heaven,” and that “went down to the depths,” causing the courage of mere mortals to be “melted away in their calamity” (Ps 107:26).
It is the terror of an awful storm. And yet, Jesus is fast asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. Not only is Jesus unafraid of the chaos raging around Him and his disciples; He is sleeping! In the face of certain death, Jesus sleeps soundly.
They rouse him from sleep and ask Him what any one of us would have asked: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” It is a reasonable question, and Jesus provides an answer to them, but not in the way you’d expect. Rather than assuring them that everything will be alright, Jesus instead turns toward the wind and the waves, toward the darkness and chaos that threatens to engulf them all.
A great calm then comes over the sea. Order is established. The awful terror of the storm is driven away. The wondrous order of creation is restored.
Jesus turns to his disciples and speaks to them for the first time since He’d fallen asleep. He asks them, “’Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’“ And they were filled with great awe.” Mark’s Greek literally says here that they “feared a great fear.” The terror of the storm has been done away with, but a fear of a very different sort has taken its place. This fear, this reverent awe, is what a man named Rudolf Otto famously called the mysterium tremendum, the Grand Mystery that is simultaneously fearful and fascinating. It leads the disciples to ask, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
Granted, we may never face imminent death in a seaborne windstorm, but the fallen world we live in thrusts terrors and trials before us every day. We are confronted daily with the dark terrors of a creation that is riven through with evil. And yet, like the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, we are upheld by One who rebukes the wind and says to the waves, “Peace! Be still!”
So we must answer the question posed by the disciples: “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Jesus stands before us and fills us with reverent awe, with what the Old Testament writers call the “Fear of the LORD”. But this fear, this terrible and beautiful awe, is not at all like that terror brought on by the chaotic storms of this world.
No, this is the shocking and wondrous awe—the fearful and fascinating Mystery—of the Creator God Himself, dwelling in our midst, keeping us afloat in the midst of life’s storms and asking us all, “Why are you afraid?” Though we might be filled with awe at the terrible wonder of Christ, it is this wonder that is the beginning of God’s wisdom. And so we, like Mark’s first hearers, must answer the question for ourselves, each and every day, with every part of our lives; for how we respond to this question dictates how we will respond to all others. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”