Ike. Sandy. Andrew. Katrina. Harvey. Irma. Maria.
These are the names of some of the most devastating hurricanes in history— storms whose impact on the lives of people continued long after the clouds parted, the floods receded and the winds subsided.
In August last year we watched with horror the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast. Interstates in Houston became surging rapids.
Harvey was followed by Irma two and a half weeks later, which hit the Caribbean again and then turned her wrath on Florida.
Then Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, less than three weeks later, causing Puerto Rico to lose massive amounts of its infrastructure—and lives were lost in each storm.
The recovery from these storms is ongoing and will take years, but even then, the memories will linger.
The World Meteorological Organization began the process of officially naming storms in 1953, first using female names in alphabetical order. Male names were added in 1979. Storms are given names as a way of reducing confusion when two or more of them occur at the same time.
While reducing confusion may be the official reason these storms get names, something psychological is at play when a name is assigned to a force that threatens us. Ancient peoples often put names to forces of nature that were mysterious and destructive as a way of attempting to control or manipulate them. Of course, you can’t control a hurricane, but naming it at least gives us a way of identifying a common natural enemy.
The fishermen of Galilee, however, didn’t put names to the storms that impacted them. Nonetheless, they knew whenever a squall blew up on the water, it was a reminder that they were still subject to the forces of chaos, evil and death.
This is true throughout much of Scripture—water and the sea represents calamity.
For the Israelites the vast Mediterranean Sea, and even the smaller seas like Galilee, represented the unknown— the dark deep, the place where terrible sea monsters lurked. The sea was the place from which some people never returned.
But we can go back to the beginning, the first verses of Genesis and read again how the sea represents chaos.
When God created the heavens and the earth, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)
In the midst of the stormy chaos, God begins to separate things out, bringing light to pierce the darkness, separating the waters from the land.
The creation story is how God begins to bring order out of chaos, which becomes a metaphor for the whole biblical story: the story of how God deals with life’s hurricanes— evil and chaos and even death.
It’s no coincidence the first major story after creation is another boat story. Noah is a righteous man who obeys God, builds a huge ship, and prepares for God’s judgment on a world where the wickedness of humanity was its own storm.
God allows the chaos of the waters to break loose in a horrific flood, reverting back to the watery void of Genesis 1. And yet, while the waters rage, God saves Noah, his family and the creatures of the earth on an ark tossed by stormy seas. God’s judgment, God’s grace and God’s rescue come together on that boat. (Genesis 6-10)
Eventually, Noah steps out of the ark and into a new creation washed clean by the flood. Chaos is pushed back again, revealing how God is going to deal with chaos and evil going forward: not by unleashing the chaos, but by working toward a new creation.
The story of the Bible is the story of how God does that through the story of Israel—a story that reaches its climax in Jesus.
It’s the Exodus story of God parting the waters of the Red Sea to save Israel from the evil of slavery in Egypt.
It’s the story of Job railing at God in the midst of evil and suffering and God showing Job the great sea monsters under God’s control—a sign that chaos and death doesn’t have the last word.
It’s the story of Isaiah looking forward to a day when all can come to the waters and drink without fear. (Isaiah 55:1)
It’s the story of Jonah tossed into the raging sea but saved by the belly of a whale. (Jonah 2-3)
It’s the story of Jesus, going through the waters of baptism and into the desert to do battle with the forces of evil. (Mark 1:9-13)
The story of Scripture is the story of how God brings the people of God through the waters of evil and chaos and into a new creation.
It’s no accident, then, that Mark preserves our text for today, the story of Jesus and his disciples on a boat being tossed by an unexpected and violent storm.
The chaos rages once again; rickety boats are swamped by massive waves. Fear, panic and desperation engulf these fishermen—and rightly so. (vv. 35-37)
Mark tells us that in the midst of all the chaos, Jesus is in the stern of the boat napping quietly on a cushion. (v. 38) Jesus apparently doesn’t sense the chaos surrounding them, and so they go to him and cry out, “Wake up! Don’t you see we’re dying here? Don’t you care?” (v. 39 paraphrased).
Jesus wakes up, probably looks at them for a long moment with one eye open.
He doesn’t answer their question. Instead he stands and addresses the wind and the waves. Mark says Jesus “rebuked” the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” (v. 39) Mark, as well as the other Gospels, makes it clear: Jesus has command over the wind and waves, over chaos and calamity and over evil and despair.
Now we, along with Mark’s readers, might expect Jesus to give his disciples an explanation of how he calmed the storm. How did he turn a violent, raging sea into a placid pond of tranquility?
We might expect a presentation outlining Jesus’ humanity and divinity. We might even expect Jesus to smile and go back to sleep, leaving the disciples to wonder about what just happened.
But rather than riff on this display of power, Jesus instead asks them a question: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (v. 40)
You can’t help but wonder what the Disciples said “Of course we’re afraid! We were in a Category 5 hurricane. We almost died. But you stand up, raise your hands like Moses over the Red Sea, and the forces of nature obey you. Yeah. We’re afraid! Of the storm… and now of you a lil bit!”
In their fear, however, the disciples had forgotten one important fact: Jesus was in the boat with them. They woke Jesus up so he could share in their panic.
But Jesus wants them to have faith— not fear—saying in effect, “Always remember, I’m in the boat with you, and I’ve got this.”
Storms hit us, too, often with great fury. Many devastating hurricanes can hit our lives no matter where we are:
Hurricane Cancer. Hurricane Divorce. Hurricane Unemployment. Hurricane Financial Crisis. Hurricane Grade Point Average. Hurricane Child Illness.
We all can name our hurricanes.
But do we remember where Jesus is in the midst of these storms?
Where is Jesus when the hurricane of devastating illness hits?
Where is Jesus when the hurricane of a loved one’s death leaves us in shock?
Where is Jesus when the hurricane of desperation and doubt threaten to sink us?
In the boat, with us.
And there he invites us to turn from fear to faith—the kind of faith that Jesus himself had in the God who brings order out of chaos and will one day still all storms forever.
And we know he can do this because like the disciples who had many a storm hit them—we’re still here. We’re still here.
In the book of Revelation we see a vision of the new creation made possible by Jesus’ faithfulness on the cross and the triumph of his resurrection as the completion of God’s plan.
In chapter 21 we read about the new heaven and the new earth “coming down” and casting aside all the storms of evil from the old creation, making all things new. As John sees this vision, he notices in this new creation “the sea was no more.” (Revelation 21:1)
There’s no place for evil and chaos in the new creation. No place for tears. No place for mourning or crying or pain. (21:4) No more hurricanes.
All of us are facing serious hurricanes with memorable names. We’re afraid, and rightly so. But can we put our faith in the One who lived and died by faith?
We see the wind and the waves, but can we focus our eyes on Jesus, the One whom the wind and the waves ultimately obey?
When the ship is tossed, we can only think of our doom. But can we instead imagine the calm and hope of a new creation?
Faith doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. Jesus himself suffered and died while holding on to faith. But faith does mean we can trust him for our future—a future made possible by Jesus’ faith in God’s new creation, by an empty tomb and the defeat of death.
The World Meteorological Organization uses a rotating list of names to identify hurricanes, but some storms are so devastating their names are retired, never to be used again. Harvey, Irma, and Maria are now all on that list.
Whatever storm we are facing, may we do so knowing that the One who is in the boat with us will one day retire all those named and unnamed hurricanes forever. Amen.