Calming the Storm

Ocean wave with black clouds in the background - storm

God’s Power Over the Elements

Read from a Christian perspective, Mark’s Gospel guides us, step by step, to the realization that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent to Earth to redeem our souls. Thus, the story of Jesus calming the sea becomes one more miracle tale, meant to be taken literally so we might be convinced. Children’s lessons highlight Jesus’s power over the weather, over disease, over everything in the universe. That’s how amazing he is. That’s how we know he’s God. And this God will help us when storms rage in our life. If we have faith, we need not be afraid. [1]

That message is not unique to Christianity. All the religions of the book—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—teach that God will help us during bad times. Maybe God won’t fix everything to our liking, but God will be with us and comfort us. In Buddhism, where there is no deity, practitioners nonetheless find peace in the power of practice, the stillness of enlightenment. Hindus pray, as do Sikhs, the Yoruba, and native peoples around the world. A belief in some kind of deity soothes many souls. When we feel powerless, we long for someone or something that can protect us. Many find this in the god Mark depicted, a god to whom we can appeal, who can quiet the seas with a word.

But there is more to this story than proof of God, as we can see if we examine the incident from the eyes of someone outside the Christian tradition, in particular, Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian who considered Jesus to be a “brother.” [2] But before we consider what Buber said, let’s look at the story.

Jesus Preaches About Seeds

Chapter Four of Mark’s gospel begins with parables. There’s the sower who spreads seeds far and wide. Some seed was eaten by birds, some fell on stone, some sprouted among thorns and was choked, and some landed on good soil that could nurture it so it might grow and yield fruit. And Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9). [3]

Then there is the lamp. Do we hide it under a bed or a basket? Of course not. We put it on a lampstand. “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:23).

Another seed parable follows, one in which the plant grows, not because of anything we do, but because growth is its nature. Finally, there’s the parable of the mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds, yet it grows into the largest of bushes, until its branches provide shelter for birds.

“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples” (Mark 4:33-34).

Jesus Sleeps

Jesus often talked about listening, about having “ears to hear.” He spoke to those who are receptive, as well as those who are not. He knew that only some would understand. Like the sower in his story, he planted seeds among the people, but also among the disciples. He was confident that the latter, at least, would be able to nourish the seeds he planted, so they might one day grow and become a kind of wisdom. Through his stories and his teachings, he was preparing his disciples to follow after him after he died.

Not that the reader sees their wisdom. Even though Jesus gave them special tutoring, the disciples failed to hear and understand.

After a long day of teaching, Jesus decided they should cross the Sea of Galilee and preach in the country of the Gerasenes, so they boarded a boat and set off. Other people followed in boats of their own, though we don’t know who they were or what they were thinking. Apparently, it was already hard for Jesus to get away from the people who begged his assistance.

Yet get away he did, for he found a cushion in the stern and fell asleep. As he slept, a great wind blew up, churning the water and swamping his boat. The disciples became afraid. Surely those who followed them feared, as well. How could Jesus sleep at a time like this? Did he not realize what was happening?

Ocean wave with black clouds in the background - storm
Photo by Matt Hardy

Blind to the Truth

Waking him, the disciples cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). In response, Jesus

woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Mark 4:39-41

Did they not know him yet? How obtuse these disciples could be. They followed Jesus, ate with him, served with him, yet even so, they failed to recognize his true nature. Not even when he died, did they understand.

After his death, Mary Magdelene, Mary mother of James, and Solome went to find him in his tomb and anoint him, but he was not there. Instead of a dead body, they discovered a man dressed in white who said:

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was sacrificed. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Mark 16:6-7

Amazed, the women fled, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). And that is all Mark wrote. The book ends with the women’s ignorance.

Jesus the Mystery

Not everyone agrees that is the end of Mark’s gospel. After all, what sort of “good news” is that? Because of this dissatisfaction, a few alternate endings appeared, one short and one long. These affirm Jesus’s glory and proclaim the mission of the disciples, making the end more fulfilling for many believers.

Yet these endings seem false. For instance, the language is unlike that in the rest of the book, and the alternates emphasize a different theme. Instead of revealing the weakness of the disciples, for instance, and thus our own, the longer alternative blesses the disciples with the power to handle snakes, speak in tongues, and cast out demons. Instead of asking the question, “Who do you say that I am?,” as Mark does, they provide a direct answer. [4] Mark would be more likely to leave the reader wondering.

And that is the point. Mark wants the reader to wrestle with truth. That’s why the disciples never really understand Jesus, for if they did, the reader might understand, too, but Jesus is not to be understood. He is a mystery as much as God is.

In a scene reminiscent of the storm story, the disciples again fail to recognize their teacher for what he is. Jesus sent them ahead in a boat. When they started out, it was evening. An “adverse wind” (Mark 6:48) blew up, so they had to strain with their oars, yet not until early morning did Jesus notice and walk toward them, striding on the surface of the water as if it were land. Thinking he was a ghost, the disciples were afraid.

“Take heart,” Jesus said to them. “It is I.”

But who is I?

Afraid to Die

Ultimately, that is the question. Is Jesus the Messiah? If so, what sort of messiah? What do the disciples see? What do the women see? How should we, the reader, interpret thesse stories? Are they factual tales meant to amaze us with the power of the divine, or do they tell us something about the nature of God, of humanity, of our own hearts?

By leaving his gospel open-ended, Mark reminds us that none of us truly know who Jesus is, nor who God is, nor what it means to be true to our own nature. All of us are prone to ignorance. We are the disciples who can’t get it, the women who are told the truth, but are too afraid to believe, and we are the passengers in the other boats, terrified of dying in the storm.

In a sermon about those “other boats,” Carol Williams-Young talks about some passengers who sailed through a different storm. [5] This storm occurred in 1736, threatening the ship that carried the founder of the Methodist denomination, John Wesley, across the Atlantic on his way to America. While they sailed, a storm rose up. In his journal, Wesley wrote, “About nine the sea broke over us from stem to stern; burst through the windows of the state cabin . . . and covered us all over.” He managed to fall asleep, though he felt “very uncertain whether I should wake alive and much ashamed of my unwillingness to die.” [6]

How many of us are willing to die? Certainly the disciples didn’t want to.

Also of Grace

Yet Buber believed that, in the story of the storm, Mark meant to teach us about that kind of willingness, that kind of faith. Admittedly, it is a miracle tale. At the same time, for Buber, what was important was not that Jesus could save the disciples. What was important was that, even if they died, they would be okay. Even if they died, God was with them. Buber believed that if we have faith in God, we must also trust that God’s wrath is also God’s tenderness. Death at God’s hands is a kind of love. After all, what is wrong with dying? We all die, and Buber believed we all go to God in the end.

Maybe you don’t believe we go to God. Maybe you don’t believe in God, at all. Still, whether we go to earth or sky or sea, whether death is rebirth or the cessation of everything, does it matter?

Buber explained that, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are ye fearful? Have ye still no faith?,” he was asking not so much why they didn’t believe in the power of God to do miracles, as why they didn’t have “that unconditional trust in the grace which makes a person no longer afraid even of death because death is also of grace.” [7]

No matter what happened to the disciples—whether they perished in the storm or reached the other side—God’s grace was with them, as was God’s love.

Everything Is of Grace

Buber wrote that when God is wrathful, his wrath “is always a fatherly anger towards the disobedient child.” [8] God’s anger and tenderness are one. Because he believed this, Buber could say that “no assertion can detach one from the other and make [God] into a God of wrath Who requires a mediator.” [9]

For Buber, this may be the most important thing, that God does not demand a mediator. We don’t need a savior. After all, God might smite us, but God would never hurt us. It’s like Andre Gide said, “Death puts on velvet gloves to take us.” [10] Death may seem a terrible thing to those of us who feel unfinished with life, and the process may be painful, and at times, we feel cheated by our endings, yet when all is said and done, there is grace. Wherever we go when we die, to a place or to no place, our pain and suffering are over.

But Mark was not concerned about death. He wanted to figure out who Jesus was, and he was wise enough to know that a definitive answer is not possible. Even if Jesus were the Messiah, we still have to ask, “What is the nature of this Messiah?”

Buber did not believe we need intercession. God is full of grace, and Jesus is here not to save us, but to live God’s grace into the world. That is his nature, to reflect the fullness of the divine. We can’t understand the sacred with our minds, for some things must be understood with our hearts. So remember, the storm is a gift. Only love exists. Be not afraid, therefore, even of the storm, for that, too, is of grace.

In faith and fondness,



  1. See Wilson, Stephen R., “Jesus Calms the Storm: Sunday School Lesson,” Ministry-to-Children, June 19, 2021,, accessed 9/4/21 and “Lesson 7: Jesus Calms the Storm,” Live B.I.G., July 7, 2011,, accessed 9/4/21 and “Sunday Shool Lesson: Jesus Calms the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,”, Group Publishing, Inc.,, accessed 9/4/21.
  2. Berry, Donald L.. Mutuality : The Vision of Martin Buber, State University of New York Press, 1985, 73.
  3. All translations from the NRSV.
  4. See Van, Oyen, Geert. Reading the Gospel of Mark as a Novel, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014, 133-135 and Smith, Julie M., “The Ending of Mark’s Gospel,” Brigham Young University, May 24, 2014,, accessed 9/4/21.
  5. Williams-Young, Carol, “Other-hood: Other Boats,” Zion United Methodist Church in Whitehouse, Ohio, une 24, 2018,, access 9/4/21.
  6. Wesley, John, “Life on Board,” The Journal of John Wesley, Chicago: Moody Press, 1951,, accessed 9/4/21.
  7. Buber , Martin, Two Types of Faith, Goldhawk, Norman P., trans., New York: MacMIllan, 1951, 97.
  8. Ibid 139.
  9. Ibid163.
  10. Gide, Andre, Fruits of the Earth, trans. Dorothy Bussy, in Great Occassions: Readings for the Celebration of Birth, Coming-of-Age, Marriage, and Death, Carl Seaburg, ed., Boston: Skinner House, 1998, 231.

Photo by Matt Hardy

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.