Engaging the Whirlwind

Mark 4:25-31

Preacher: Rev. Nindyo Sasongko

The In-Between Kingdom

What is faith? Today’s message is not about how to be strong in the midst of the life storm. Today’s message is also not about how to be calm and peaceful because the Lord is with us in our life-boat. Today, I shall ask you to think with me: What is faith? What does it mean to have faith in our world today? I would subtitle my message “Rethinking faith in the face of empire.”

This story is rich with symbolism. Jesus and his disciples are on a boat on the sea. Jesus then fell asleep on the cushion. When the storm came, the disciples were scared off and woke him up. Jesus said to the sea “Peace! Be still!” Amazed with what they saw, they said to each other that the whirlwind and the sea obey him. These symbols—sea, peace, and the power over the sea—perfectly depict the empire of that day. We shall see this later. But let us see the broader context of our story.

The story of Jesus calming the storm opens with the description that the evening had come. Jesus had preached the whole day. While he was speaking, a large crowd was attracted to gather around him; so many people so that Jesus had to get into a boat on the sea, and Jesus sat there.

He preached about the kingdom of God, a message about the counter-kingdom. This kingdom, however, is not like what the people were expecting. Jesus was not inciting a revolution by gathering a large crowd and arming them. Instead, he told parables. The kingdom of God is like the seed that falls into good soil. The kingdom, although it is small and vulnerable, must be made known as someone who brings a lamp and puts it on the lampstand. The kingdom is like seed scattered on the ground; the sower then takes a rest during the night, and the next day he will find that the seed has sprouted and grown; he does not know how. The kingdom of God is like the mustard seed, the smallest of all earth’s seeds; yet when it grows, it becomes the greatest of all shrubs.

Jesus wants to say to his disciples that the kingdom of God is among them. The kingdom of God is manifest in them. Even though the kingdom has not reached its fullness, the kingdom of God is there; or in the words of the Indian-Spanish philosopher Raimon Panikkar, “The kingdom of God is in-between them.” This also means that the Messiah is not like a king. It is as if Jesus wants to say to his disciples, “Don’t expect an emperor-like Messiah, for the kingdom is you. With or without the Messiah, you are the kingdom of God.”

The Messiah Slept!

With this context in mind, let us go back to the story of Jesus stilling the sea storm. “A great windstorm arose, and waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” What did the disciples do? They were afraid. What did Jesus do? He was sleeping. Wait a minute, why were the disciples afraid? We know that at least four of them were professional fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. The sea was the Lake Galilee. Was it the first time for them to face a lake storm like this? I don’t think so. They must have been familiar with storms on that lake than Jesus, who was only a humble carpenter. They knew better what to do in the midst of such storms; even they could predict that a great storm would take place. So, why were they scared to death in facing this storm?

“Sea” is intentionally used by the author of Mark. He does not use “lake.” A storm arising from the sea will remind the readers to the vision of Daniel 7:1-8, where the prophet saw four beasts arising from the stormy sea. The three beasts (a lion, a bear, and a leopard) were not so scary; but the fourth beast were “terrifying and dreadful, and exceedingly strong.” The beasts are indeed only metaphors depicting four empires which reigned during Daniel’s time: Babylonia, Medean, Persian, and Macedonian empires. The fourth empire under Alexander the Great was the most powerful and fearsome. After the death of Alexander, the west was divided up among his generals; and among their successors arose Antiochus IV Epiphanes, emperor of Greco-Syrian Empire. Compare Antiochus to Adolf Hitler, Führer of Germany or Idi Amin of Uganda in the twentieth century. Their eras, however, have passed. There is another beast, more powerful and terrifying than its predecessors, the one which is known as the “conqueror” or “Lord” of the sea—the Roman Empire.

We know now why the disciples are afraid. The symbolism is made clear to us. They are afraid not of the storm of the Lake Galilee, but the power of the Roman Empire. They are humble and poor fishermen who were oppressed by the empire.

Now, who is the Messiah? What did he do? He slept. Think deeper: the Messiah was sleeping. The word “sleep” here can mean normal sleep, like when you are exhausted you drop off to sleep; but this word can be used in a euphemistic way to depict death. As such, what does it mean to follow the messiah even if the messiah seems unable to help us? What does it mean to have faith when the Messiah whom we expect to be another king or counter-emperor fails us?

Kin-dom, not Kingdom

Friends, remember that Jesus has told them: you are the kingdom. The kingdom is in your midst. It is in-between you. In 3:33 Jesus said to the crowd who told him that his mother and siblings were outside, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” They are those who do the will of God. In this kingdom, there is no more master-slave, king-servant, or patron-client relationships. Instead, Jesus brings about a kingdom of sisters and brothers, where he is our brother, a new reality which mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz calls “kin-dom.” In this kin-dom, we find new ways of relating to one another. There is no domination, no oppression, no separation, no fear in it. Jesus brings about peace, reconciliation, nonviolence, and restorative justice in the kingdom.

Now we know why Jesus rebuked them, saying “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” In other words, “Don’t you know that you are manifestation of God’s reign? Do you forget all that I’ve told you?” Jesus then calmed the wind and the sea. This, indeed, reveals the truth: it is not the emperor Augustus that conquered the sea; Jesus the Messiah, brother of all his sisters and brothers, is the one who has the power over the sea. As such, the Roman empire is dying, but lo and behold, there is another reality, a new reality which emerges in the new relationship of sisters and brothers under one Father-Mother of us all—indeed, a family!

What does it mean to hear Jesus’ question again, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” What does it mean to have faith in the face of empire? Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a Lutheran pastor, a young and stellar professor of theology, a conscious objector to the oppressive regime of Adolf Hitler, lived in an era in which many of his Christian fellows, including his theology professors, supported Nazi. Bonhoeffer is known to many of us for his Cost of Discipleship, in which he wrote that the cost to follow Jesus is very high; it demands our lives. Because of the accusation for a plot to kill Hitler, he was then imprisoned, and finally executed by hanging on April 9, 1945.

During his last years in the prison, he wrote many tracts and letters to his family and friends. In one of his letters he wrote,

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God.

These words strike many people. Does Bonhoeffer propose an atheistic Christianity? Not at all. Bonhoeffer lived in an era in which the word “God” was easily used to justify wrongdoings. He saw that among his university professors, church leaders, and politicians. Yet, Bonhoeffer challenges us to rethink a God who forsakes us, a God who leaves us alone. Does this God not exist? Not at all! We always stand before God. We are always with God. If the love of God has grasped us, and if we are in an indissoluble relation to God, dare we walk alone without invoking God’s name all the time? Bonhoeffer reminds the Christians to stop using God’s name very easily to back up their wrongdoings.

Further, Bonhoeffer wrote,

“The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness.”

Indeed, in Jesus the Messiah we saw not a powerful and fearsome God, but a powerless and weak God. The God of supernatural interventions must die out. Mark Gospel tells us that the one who died on the cross, weak and foolish for the world might be, has risen from the dead and lived forever. Only this weak God can help us, for this God has conquered the world not through wars or threats, not with the power of estrangement or alienation, but the power of love. Only by the power of love and peace, a power that brings together the separated, God has conquered the world.

Faith: No and Yes

What does it mean to have faith in the face of empire? Today, our politicians are using God and the words of God to talk about things being biblical to defend their political views. You already know that people like Jeff Sessions or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for examples, use verses of the Bible to enforce the anti-migration law which separates children from their parents. However, we know that throughout the Bible, God’s people are supposed to show radical hospitality toward the strangers and migrants. There are many reasons why people migrate, such as to escape warfare, famine, rape, or drought. The little Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were also migrants escaping Herod’s mass killings. But the baby Jesus was not separated from his parents until they came back from Egypt to stay in Nazareth. But politicians such as Sessions and Sanders can also be found in my home country. By invoking God’s name or quote verses from scriptures to back up their political positions, they seek supports from the people.

What does it mean not to be afraid before the empire? How to engage the whirlwind in a conflicting time like ours today? It means saying No! to fear, No! to separation, No! to alienation. But it means Yes! to love and peace, Yes! to courage and humility, Yes! to communion and community. For we do not follow any emperor, any president, any political leader. Our faith is not rested on the power of the president of the United States of America, or Russia, or Indonesia, or the supreme leader of North Korea. We have the faith that lives still, the living faith of our fathers, the faith that love:

Both friends and foe in all our strife,

And preach thee, too, as love knows how

By kindly words and virtuous life.

Faith of our fathers! holy faith!

We will be true to thee till death!