God, Don’t You Care?

Delivered September 16, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
(The Sunday immediately following the 9/11 attacks
on the NY World Trade Center and the Pentagon)

Theme: Only Jesus can calm the storms (insecurity) of life.

Sermon Text:
Mark 4:35-41

Thank you so much, Choir, for that beautiful piece that has been a theme running throughout this week, and quoted by our President and sung in the National Cathedral. Today all of us gather here with a vast mixture of emotions, as elder Al Finch has already said, and not just with emotions but also by reactions to the incredible, indescribable events of this past week. We have all experienced, I believe, a collective trauma and some of us are still in a state of shock and disbelief. Others are keeping the pain at arm’s length and still others are filled with sadness, or rage, or both. In prayer this week I cried out to God, tears running down my cheeks, “I hate them, I hate them. I hate them. And then in other times I struggled, completely by faith, to pray for forgiveness because my heart wasn’t in it. It’s been hard to concentrate, our hearts are filled with pain, our minds are tired, and people tell me that they can’t do much work. Wednesday morning I awoke hoping that it was all a bad dream. It was almost like someone in my immediate family had died. I’ve felt like that all through the week, and no matter how many times I saw again and again the collisions and the collapse of the Twin Towers, there was still a part of me that could not believe it. Like you, every time, I listen to a story of someone’s loss or see the pained expression on the face of a loved one losing hope, my heart breaks. Sadness, rage, and fear intermingle. And then during the week I said, “Lord what should I say on Sunday?” Seeking inspiration, I looked at my desk calendar at home. It was pages off of the right date. So I flipped it to September 11 to see what scripture it quoted for the day. The quote was Zephaniah 1:15. I had forgotten that Zephaniah was even part of the Bible, but this is what it said. “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish. A day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” There couldn’t be a better image of the day God comes to judge the earth, than this past week, especially as seen in Dr. Mark Heath’s video that was taken only blocks away as one of the towers came down in clouds of smoke and showers of concrete. Then, for 30 seconds on the video you couldn’t see anything even though it was a bright day. I said, “Lord is this what I am suppose to preach?” I’ll feel like one of those guys on the street corner that everybody mocks, if I hold up a sign and say, “Repent, the end of the world is near.” Lord, how about another text? A text that teaches what it might feel like for people who thought they were about to live their last day. People who thought that their world was caving in and their end was near. So, listen now to Mark, Chapter 4:35-41 from the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

“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. Jesus was in the stern sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet, be still.’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him.

John Wesley was making a transatlantic voyage when his ship encountered a fierce storm. He and others clung to their bunks and hid their heads. Also on that ship was a group of Moravian Brethren Christians. At the appointed time, just as they did every day, they calmly gathered to hold their daily worship service and sing praises to God, much as we have done this morning. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was impressed. From that moment on he prayed that God would give him the ability to likewise ride out life’s storms with the same confidence he saw demonstrated that day. Friends, on September 11, America and the world, was hit by a terroristic wave that has us reeling in a storm of evil. And this familiar text teaches us some important truths that will help us be like the Moravians who were on John Wesley’s ship. This is not a profound sermon. I only have three reflections on this text. And here’s the first.

Even though Jesus was smack dab in the middle of that boat, with his disciples, they were not spared the storm. The clouds and wind didn’t say, “Oh, there’s Jesus, we better go around. And there are his disciples, faithfully serving him. We’d better side skirt them, too.” In fact, the clouds and wind hit so hard that professional fisherman thought they were going to die. And when that happens you know it’s got to be a bad storm. Have you ever seen that show on the Discovery Channel, “Savage Seas?” If you have, you are aware of the terror of a bad storm. In this world, we are not spared the storms of trouble and pain. But as we will soon see, the Lord in our midst will help us through the storm and we can outlast it. I want to say something about the stormy sea from a theological angle. In many Near Eastern mythologies and in Jewish apocalyptic literature, which is literature that describes the end days and judgment, the sea is specifically identified as a realm of evil. In Revelation 13:1, John describes images of the dragon and the beast, images of evil that indicate that the dragon is standing by the shore of the sea and then the passage says that the beast will come up out of the sea. Then in Chapter 21, John says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” The sea is spoken of as an arena of conflict between God and Satan.

You know if you were to look back at the earlier part of Mark, we are in Chapter 4, if you were to look from Mark, Chapter 1 to where we are, you would see seven or eight references of Jesus encountering Satan or demons. And in the text right after the storm on the sea, is Jesus casting the demons into the herd of swine and they rush into the sea. Mark is busy trying to tell us something. That Jesus confronts, and conquers, and masters the evil that we encounter in this world.

Back in Mark 1:24, there is an evil spirit of a demon possessed man who cries out, “What do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth?” Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, you’re the Holy one of God.” He said, “Be quiet.” And the demon came out. And amazed the people said, “What is this, a new teaching?” You see we are not spared from storms. Storms are those times that we believe that we are in a situation that even God can’t handle. When we feel totally vulnerable and hopeless, we have hit a storm.

One of the survivors who was on the 71st floor of the second tower was interviewed and he said, “If I had been in the first tower, I would not be here today.” Those 18 minutes allowed me to escape and he said, “You know you realize how fragile life is when it’s measured in minutes.” It’s not a shame to be afraid in the storm. And being hit by a storm doesn’t mean we have done something wrong, it means that there is great evil in this world, but it’s not an uncontrollable evil.

The second thing I would like to say about this text is that the disciples, even in the midst of their desperation, finally looked in the right direction. My guess is that at first they were looking at each other. They were probably saying, “C’mon John grab that sail harder.” “Andrew, steer, row.” Some of you may come here today and say, “Pastor, tell us, preach harder, give us answers.” I am just a bailing disciple, just like you. And I say, “What are you looking at me for?” Look at him! He’s the only one who can help at this time. The problem for many people is they have never hit a big enough storm. They have never come to the end of their limits or themselves. Have you found yourself praying more in the last five days? Why? Because we realize how dependent we are on God. And we are desperately aware of our limits. That’s what storms are. They bring us up short of our limits.

You know one of the great dangers that we face today is to rely on our military might. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I want us to bring someone to justice as much as anyone, but if we are not looking to Jesus, we are not looking in the right direction. The scripture says, the arm of the flesh will fail. It is vain to trust in princes. Our trust is in the Lord who strengthens us. But some may be saying what the disciples are saying, which is, “Don’t you care if we drown?” That’s what they said. The disciples said, “Don’t you care, Lord, that we are drowning?” “God, don’t you care? How can I trust you? It seems like you’re sleeping. Don’t you care?” Yes, he cares. That’s why he was in the boat with those twelve human beings. God became a human being and he cares so much that he took on evil full force on the cross. So that he might bring you and me back to Him, so that he might confront the evil that lives in each one of our hearts and forgive us and make us right with Him.

I can think of at least three reasons why they didn’t need to be fearful in the trouble. First, they had Jesus’ promise. He said, “Let’s go over to the other side.” They had his promise that they were going to go to the other side. Secondly, they had his presence. He was right there in the boat with them. And thirdly, they had seen his power. For weeks on end he had been doing all kinds of things to demonstrate his power over evil and he was completely at peace sleeping in the midst of the storm. And we have these same things available to us, these same indicators. The great danger is not the storm, it’s unbelief.

And that brings us to our third point. That the disciples needed to understand their main problem was internal, not external. Our greatest problems are always those within us, not those around us. Jesus did calm the storm. He did take care of their fears. He did stand up and look at the wind and waves and said, “Quiet, be still.” But he didn’t take care just of their fear, and just of their felt needs, he went deeper to look at their unfelt needs and he said, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” And they said, “Who is this?” They were terrified, they said, “Who is this that even wind and the waves obey him?” I know that 99% of us here today probably have deep faith in Jesus. I would say that if you don’t have deep faith in Jesus, if you don’t trust him alone in times like this, turn to him. He is the only one that can help us. But I want to ask you–do you really know whom you say you believe in? Do you really know who is traveling with us? He said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Not some, not most–all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Turn all that you know of yourself to all that you know of him. And he will calm your heart through this storm as well.

Many of us know the story of Horatio Spafford. Horatio Spafford penned the hymn we are about to sing. For those of you who don’t know, Horatio Spafford was waiting on his wife and children to cross the Atlantic. And midway across, a storm capsized their ship and his family was lost. On his return voyage, he asked the captain to stop somewhere in the area where he believed his family’s ship capsized. And as Spafford looked over the side of his ship he penned these words, “It is well with my soul. When peace like a river attendth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say. It is well, it is well with my soul.”

The Psalmist, King David, knew this peace as well and he said what the choir often sings. But I want to read it to you again to close out this sermon and to remind you that God alone is our hope. “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, Oh Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

With understanding, let us now stand and sing our prayers by singing, “It is well with my soul.”