Grace Presbyterian Church
June 20, 2021, Pentecost 4B
Who Then Is This?
Who then is this, that winds and sea obey?
Who is this one who swirling storm can sway?
See how the danger now has passed away!
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s possible that the polished language of this NRSV translation of Mark 4:41’s climactic exclamation is just a little too tame, a little too composed-sounding to capture the moment fully. The Common English Bible goes with “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” The exclamation point as a finisher helps, but that first phrase – “Who then is this…” – just seems…awfully formal for having just seen Jesus turn a raging storm into dead clam with just a few words. It’s regrettable that Clarence Jordan, the creator of the especially vivid Cotton Patch Gospel renderings of selected books of the New Testament, did not include Mark in his selection. You just know he would have found a way to get it across.
It’s worth noting that there’s another word in v. 41 upon which we should cast a skeptical eye. The NRSV speaks of the disciples being “overcome with awe,” but that is a characterization of those disciples that would most kindly be called generous. In just the previous verse Jesus had called them out for being “afraid” (NRSV) or “frightened” (CEB) in v. 40; a more literal translation of v. 41a acknowledges this as it speaks of the disciples being “fearful with a great fear.”
This is not unprecedented behavior. Think of Isaiah, in chapter 6 of that prophetic book, exclaiming “woe is me!” at the sight of the Lord in the heavenly temple surrounded by all the heavenly beings at worship. You could also stick with this gospel, for that matter, and skip ahead to its ending. When the women who had come to the tomb are confronted with an open, empty tomb and a man in white giving them a message to go ahead to Galilee where Jesus will meet them, we are told that they “fled from the tomb with terror and amazement” (the CEB says they’re “overcome with terror and dread”).
So yeah, “who then is this” seems too calm. These people, fearful and overcome, just aren’t going to sound that composed. Something like “who in the world is this?” or even stronger, depending on your tolerance of the idea of one of Jesus’s disciples letting loose with a first-century Aramaic expletive.
Who then is this, so calm amidst the waves?
Who takes his rest, while tempest ‘round him raves?
Awake at last, with his own word he saves!
Let’s be fair to the disciples. What they’ve just seen defies all logic and comprehension. It wasn’t just that they survived the storm or are preserved through the storm, the way that the singer of Psalm 107 describes in the reading we heard earlier; it wasn’t just that the storm subsided really quickly, as we can see storms do in these parts. Imagine a powerful hurricane coming ashore at Cedar Key, waves ratcheting up and winds pounding and rain pouring, and then, all out of nowhere, the wind has stopped, and the sea is absolutely still – a “dead calm” as v. 39 says. And no, it’s not just the eye of the hurricane; the storm is gone.
You’re going to tell me that, no matter how much we’re all celebrating and rejoicing, there isn’t going to be just some chill of fear about witnessing such a thing?
So yeah, even if I feel like the NRSV’s phrasing is a little stiff and bland, I can absolutely understand the disciples wondering who this is.
Who then is this, whom crowds have flocked to see?
This teacher, healer, from whom demons flee;
What is his call? What can his mission be?
It’s not as if the disciples haven’t seen some things, even in the relatively brief time they’ve spent with Jesus. These first chapters of Mark routinely depict massive crowds of people pressing in to be healed by Jesus, and Jesus, well, healing them. We also see accounts of demons not even waiting around for Jesus to spot them. They’re terrified just by his showing up.
Thing is, though, this kind of thing wasn’t necessarily considered that out of the way or bizarre or non-credible. If we were to hear of such a “healer” coming to town we’d scoff and make jokes about it, and the very mention of casting out demons would bring up even more jokes about Linda Blair’s head spinning around in The Exorcist or similar Hollywood treatments. But in first-century Palestine, while this wasn’t necessarily commonplace, neither was it unheard of. Remember elsewhere when the Pharisees start challenging Jesus, it isn’t over the act of casting out demons itself, it was over by what authority he does so – the act itself apparently wasn’t all that shocking.
So while the disciples have seen some stuff so far, we can’t necessarily presume that what they’ve already seen would have prepared them for this. This is a different order of power. Great storms being stopped dead in their tracks compares with healings and exorcisms in the first-century Judean mind the way that the one thing doesn’t fit in that little childhood song about how “one of these things is not like the others…”.
So yes, it’s believable for the disciples to ask “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
But here’s where we have the advantage over the disciples; we’ve been able to read Mark’s first chapter, the stuff that happens before the disciples have fully joined up with Jesus. We are able to see how Jesus confronted Satan out in the wilderness, and came away proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” We saw the baptism of Jesus, with the heavens torn open and the Spirit crashing down on him from on high. And for all the challenging stuff that this gospel writer puts before us, not just here but for all that is to come, we have the very first sentence of this gospel lingering over us and in us through every part of this book we read:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
This is the Christ, the Son of God most high!
Baptized and tested, hear his calling cry:
“See how the kingdom of our God is nigh!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #830, Jesus, Priceless Treasure.