Here’s an insight into sermon preparation and the church calendar.
Yesterday’s message — Storm Chasers — was actually the first one in the series that I wrote and yet it became the second one that I delivered.
Because when I wrote it, I really liked it. (I may be guilty of the sin of self-over-rating, but that’s how I felt.) I believed it had a unique take on a fascinating biblical story and that it lent itself to a point and application that would be highly relevant for many people.
But in looking at the calendar I realized that the first Sunday in the series would come on the Sunday immediately after July 4th — historically one of the lowest attended Sundays of the year in all churches, everywhere.
So should I preach a sermon that I felt the best about on a day when I knew the fewest people would hear it? I decided not to do that, shuffled the schedule, and delivered The Eye Of The Storm on July 7 and then saved Storm Chasers for yesterday.
I’ll leave it to you to determine if it was worth it.
One other thing I’m glad about: we have a Daily Storm Before The Calm Prayer emailed out to the congregation all week long in support of the Storm Chasers sermon. If you don’t get emails from Good Shepherd, you can sign up here.
Here’s the sermon that led me to change the calendar:
A long, long time ago, maybe even in a galaxy far, far away, I took my very first preaching class in seminary (ministry prep). I think I took about four overall – you only had to take one but I guess I was a remedial student. Anyway, sometime during that semester the professor – whom I LOVED – out of nowhere read us this story from Mark 4 (read ahead of time that day) and said to us, “here’s an outline for you for a sermon from that passage: GREAT STORM, GREAT CHRIST, GREAT CALM.” Catchy! I still remember it 25 years lager! And so I almostwhen ahead and delivered that even though I never preach “3 point” sermons anymore. It seemed memorable enough that it was worth deviating from the norm.
Except – and I LOVE that prof, remember – that’s NOT what the story here ultimately says. There’s NOT a tidy bow around it. It may be the best storm story of them all but it is really a story of storm chaserswith a twist at the end that’s kinda like the “I see dead people” line from The Sixth Sense.
Because here’s what you need to know as we plunge into Mark 4: the disciples (Jesus followers) here should have known better than to let Jesus get them to go out on the boat that night. Look at 4:35:
That day when evening came, he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’
And they said Yes! They even got other boats to join them! Now: why should they have known better? Well, they were from there, while Jesus wasn’t as familiar with the topography and the meterology of the Sea of Galilee. Because here’s what happens there, even to this day. (AV). The Sea of Galilee – these days renamed Lake Kinneret – is the lowest body of freshwater in the world. Not lower than the Dead Sea but still low. And it is surrounded on three sides by mountains which lead up to the Golan Heights which you may have heard of. So the lake sits in this low bowl and it is fed by both the Jordan River & hot springs. And because of the lowness of the lake, the heat of the water, and the coolness of the surrounding mountains, it is subject to sudden, severe, violent winds. Cold air meeting hot water and it’s a cauldron for violent weather. You know what the winds are called? Scirocco winds! (AV of car) That’s where that car’s name came from. But: the disciples knew all this and that night could have, should have said to Jesus, “Probably not safe. Tomorrow.”
But they don’t. Instead they take Jesus “just as he was” (v. 36) which raises all kinds of questions because look how he was in 4:38:
Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.
Sleeping? Does that mean the men carried Jesus prone to the boat or that he walked under his own power and promptly fell asleep there. We don’t know cuz it doesn’t say. All we know is that he was asleep. How’d that look? Did you know that research shows that if you sleep in the fetal position, you are more sensitive than others? Or that the soldier’s position (back, AV) means you are quiet & reserved? Or the freefall (AV) which is only 6.5% of the population means you are gregarious? Which was Jesus? We don’t know; we just know that he was sound asleep. Why? Because look at what he slept through in 4:37:
A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.
Not just a storm; a scirocco storm!
And I love that last detail of 4:37 – “the waves broke over the boat so that it was nearly swamped.” That’s so great. The disciples can’t keep up, the more they bail water, the more it rains, and they are just about to be capsized. The hits come faster than the relief. That’s the way life is, isn’t it? Some of you know exactly what that is like – waves pouring in on life on the verge of swamping you over. It’s what it’s like when your spouse leaves. When you discover that your child cuts. When you realize that your sibling binges. When your car breaks down the same month you have an emergency medical bill. When you mom tells you she has cancer. The waves break over you faster than you can bail the water out. You know what these guys were going through.
And in the middle of your bailing out, sometimes you want to scream at Jesus who appears asleep at the wheel, just like the disciples did in 4:38: ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ You’ve felt that! I’ve felt that! Parents get divorced, sickness goes unhealed, bills go unpaid, and you shake a fist at the sleeping Lord. Don’t you care is just another way of saying, “Wake up, will you! It’s a storm and I need you desperately!”
Which takes us to 4:39:
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
Jesus never answers their question (1stof 3 unanswered questions in this little section); instead he gets up. Evidently, the disciples’ voices awaken him when the storm doesn’t. And when he gets up, he says to the waves – though I think it’s meant as much for the disciples – “Quiet! Be still!” And SNAP! the storm does. Jesus stopsit. That tells me that he probably SENT it in the first place, but I can’t prove that. But when he stops it, the result is complete, thorough, eerie calm. Then he asks the disciples the second of the three unanswered questions here in 4:40:
He said to the disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
Why do you not recognize that my presence is enough in any storm? Why are your circumstances more real to you than your Savior? It’s like the woman struggling w/ cancer one time told me: “wherever I’m going, he’s already there.” Jesus wants that kind of faith in his followers and he’s not seeing it in the guys on the boat.
And then . . . BAM 4:41:
They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’
Look at that 2nd part first because it’s the third unanswered question here. Who is this guy? That’s the central question in the entire gospel of Mark: the unveiling of Jesus’ identity. The reader knows what the disciples don’t. All of chapter 5, by the way, answers that question. But track back to the first part of 4:41: “They were terrified.” That “terrified” is a stronger word than was ever used to convey how they felt about the storm. After the storm is overis when they are the most scared of all. The real terror happens not when the waves are crashing in the boat but when everything is perfect, quiet, still! I told you there’s more to this story than Great Storm, Great Christ, Great Calm!
It’s so interesting: there is something in that scene of perfect calm with AWAKE JESUS that is scarier than the furious, life threatening, boat drenching squall when Jesus is asleep in the stern. Why is that? Here’s why, all you storm chasers out there: Sometimes the calm is scarier than the storm.
Why is that? Because the disciples came face-to-face with of Jesus’ identity rather than THEIR storm. And his identity takes their collective breath away: the stopper of the storm is likely the sender of it in the first place which means that as great a teacher as he is, that barely scratches the surface of who he is: He Is God. The story is not about Jesus’ performance; it’s about his identity. And when you come face to face with THAT, that’s a cause for fear, honor, and awe. REFRAIN
And the reason that the calm is more frightening than the storm is in part this: we have to trust him with the routine. Get this: almost ALL of us trust him in the storm. When we’re desperate is when we get all religious! We come to church! We start to pray! We see a pastor! We open up a bible! And then . . . the crisis passes and we revert back to the same casual, occasional faith we had before. I’ve seen it a million times. The real measure of faith is this: can you trust him in the calm, where there’s no crisis, with the same level of desperation as you do when it’s stormy? When your marriage is good? When your kids are healthy? When the bank account is full? Can you acknowledge that you are not in control when you get that promotion? Rather than the layoff? Everyone gives their layoff to God; I think he’s looking for folks who give him their prosperity, too. I think maybe Jesus didn’t answer the disciples’ “don’t you care if we drown?” question because he more cared how they lived. Like the disciples all of a sudden you don’t need Jesus’ answers; you come face to face with Jesus himself. The calm makes you do that. REFRAIN.
It’s also true because – and get ready for an ouch – when it’s calm it’s much harder to complain. And some of us simply cannot be happy unless we have something to complain about. It’s why we sabotage relationships. It’s why we chase storms – remember how the disciples could have and should have told Jesus “Nope!” Some of us aren’t happy unless we’re in a crisis and – get this – if we’re not in a crisis we’ll create one. It’s why some of you married the wrong guy. Why others of you date the wrong girl. Why you drink the wrong drink. Why you take the wrong risks. Why you confront the wrong sin. It’s why you create drama where none exists.
And as I’m saying this, so many of your issues have come into focus. That’s why I do what I do! I’m scared of the calm so I create the storm! We don’t do this consciously, but it’s like the more subconscious it is, the more energy we bring to it. It’s why when things are going well you start feeling uneasy and you run off and chase down a storm and make it your own. REFRAIN
Really, most folks handle adversity better than prosperity. It’s certainly true in my business – the number of high profile pastors who have a kind of influence most of us long for but then blow it by falling morally is just astronomical. And beyond that, do you know what group of people has among the highest rates of depression, divorce, and discord? Lottery winners! Hello!
Here’s the deal: this story is not really about Great Storm, Great Christ, Great Calm but it’s about the great fear. Can you trust God with your every day? With the same desperation you trust him with your storms?
Will you stop making storms out of whatever is handy? Instead of making drama, celebrate peace. Instead of sabotaging relationships, give God glory for the ones that are going well. And when you enter that season of prosperity, that’s when you need God more than ever.
And I know that some of you are in storm today. You’re not on the other side into the calm. Count yourself blessed. Because you have that raw desperation that drives you to Christ and drives you to your knees.
And if you’re in that calm, don’t chase down a new storm. If you feel yourself running towards one, creating a new one, for God’s sake stop. Embrace the fearfulness of the calm.