Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:
“Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvited sleep
The Kraken sleeps: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seawards in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
There would have been a time in my life that I would have carried this poem into my AP Literature class, clapped this up on the big screen, and dived into its rhyme, meter, alliteration, and imagery. Alas, those days are no more. And yet, this poem bubbles up in my mind as I consider our Gospel reading from this morning.
In fact, the writing from Mark this morning offers a snapshot of an evening in the lives of the disciples. As we read last week, the disciples had been chosen by Jesus. He taught the crowds through parables, through illustrations that they would understand: planting, tending sheep, the preciousness of a father’s love. We also talked last week how Jesus took his ministry of shepherding the disciples a bit further in that he explained the parables to his closest companions because “to [them] ha[d] been given the secret of the kingdom of God.” And now, this week, Jesus desires to cross the Sea of Galilee. I would suspect, Jesus is intensely weary from his travel and never getting moment’s peace from the crowds that incessantly surround and harass him..
But before we look more deeply into the passage, it is important get a few details about the Sea of Galilee. This body of water is actually the largest freshwater lake in Israel, and it covers a significant area of land: 64 square miles! Its length is about 13mi and its width 8mi. That is roughly the size of Washington, D.C.! The average depth of the lake is 84ft with almost 200ft at its deepest point. But what is interesting about the topography of the Sea in reference to our reading this morning is that the Sea of Galilee is actually 700ft below sea level, and on its Eastern shore is a range of mountains. As the cooled wind swoops over the mountains and immediately drops when it hits the valley on the other side, the warmer air that comes from the Sea wants to rise up. When these two differences in air temperature collide with one another at the edge of the Sea, violent storms erupt, like the Kraken blowing ferocious bubbles from the deep as it seeks to breach without warning and causes the surface of the Sea to pitch and shift as the air currents fight for stability.
And it’s in this system of immediate storm that we find our disciples. Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat not fearing the terror of the storm. The disciples, in the other hand, know they are perishing. Their boat is likely a small fishing skiff, and the sounds of the wooden planks rubbing against one another terrify the disciples. And yet, Jesus sleeps.
There are many stories of seas and oceans and vast expanses of water throughout literature. The image of water, in much of literature, is home to terrors of the deep. The Biblical Leviathan. The Kraken of Norse mythology. The six-headed dragon Scylla and her partner Charybdis with its vast maelstrom sucking down the boiling seawater from Homer’s Odyssey. Water is chaos. Water is mysterious. Beneath its glassy surface swirls and swims unknown, unidentified creatures. Beasts of malevolent origin with malicious intent. This mythology of water consumes the peaceful minds of our disciples and transforms them into horrified individuals who have lost all control of their environment.
Oh, how we can relate! Aren’t we slapped in the face with the harsh realities of our existence such as: physical illness, rejection, loss of a job, divorce, failure, abuse, money struggles, death of a beloved, war, rape, crisis of faith, injury, surgery, political upheaval, loss of a child, loss of a parent, mental and emotional illness? Oftentimes these come without warning, pressing us down like the cold air blowing over the mountain range. And, in the grip of these powerful terrors, we look to Jesus. And what is He doing? Sleeping!
Make no mistake, these events can cause intense suffering and struggle. But, look at how Jesus responds to those chosen men who seek solace from the storm. What does He say?
“Why are you afraid?” Listen again to the words of the Master. “Why are you afraid?”
This question is so simple and yet profound with acceptance and love. Jesus, as exhausted as He is, could have responded with: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Imagine a weeping little child padding into a mother’s bedroom in the middle of the night. Mom, alarmed by her little one, asks what’s wrong. The little child says that he just had a very bad dream and is scared to stay in his room. Mom, exhausted, responds in the most comforting and reassuring voice: There’s nothing to be afraid of. This may be a matter of semantics, but the way I see it is that Jesus, responding the way he does by asking a question that engages the disciples further with their fears, honors the fact that, for them, there absolutely IS something to be afraid of. He acknowledges their fear. If He’d responded with, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” it would have negated their human response to a situation in which they had absolutely no control, one which well could have taken their lives. It’s like saying to someone who is going through a divorce or who has had a spouse die or some other trauma, “Give it time.” While we all well know that “time heals all wounds,” making that statement in the face of another’s fear and anxiety only calls their fear invalid, calls their anxiety void. It attempts to shut down what emotions they have while at the same time saving yourself the work of engaging with them in that moment of panic and alarm.
As Jesus asks his second question of “Have you no faith,” He identifies that their fear is entrenched in a lack of faith in such a moment of crisis. As we know, the disciples will face much deeper moments of terror when Jesus leaves their physical presence. They will endure beatings, imprisonment, starvation, betrayal, loss; situations that will certainly make this Kraken under the Galilean Sea seem but a worm. But, by including these two questions from Jesus, Mark wants us to have a faith that breeds confident witness, even in the face of situations that could cause justified panic.
These fears do not have ultimate power over us, because reigning over this world of fearsome beasts is a God who is mightier than they. Time and again in Scripture the word is, “Do not be afraid.” It is, you might say, the first and the last word of the gospel. These are the words the angels spoke to the terrified shepherds and the words spoken at the tomb when the women discover it empty: “Do not be afraid.” Not because there are no fearsome things on the sea of our days, not because there are no storms, fierce winds, or waves, but rather, because God is with us even amidst the beasts from the deep.
It was Herman Melville who wrote that mighty tome Moby Dick. He said, “Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”