Storms, Demons & Death
Mark 4:35-41; Mark 5:1-20; Mark 5:21-45
This is a hard age to be alive in. We hear of wars and rumors of wars—some of those whispers are growing pretty loud. We wrestle with the demons—the powers and principalities—that dwell within ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and our nation. So much seems out of our control [reality: it is]. I don’t know that it was any harder or any easier back in Mark’s day, just different. There was a different political system, a different social structure, a different understanding of the cosmos and the microcosms of creation. But Mark’s readers, too, were wrestling with the powers and principalities.
I love engaging with each of the different gospels for their own specific reasons. One reason I love Mark’s telling is that his style of storytelling is meant to present Christ as one who continues to speak and act in the context of crisis. The believers of Mark’s day lived in a climate of uncertainty; it was most likely originally written for Gentile believers in Rome, during the reign of Nero, where persecution and martyrdom were a reality. The Jesus that Mark portrays is one who subtly but successfully and subversively inaugurates a new kingdom; one ruled not by the powers and principalities that appear to dominate the present landscape, but a kingdom of justice and grace and mercy; a kingdom of wholeness, of shalom. Mark writes to put Jesus into the present, or rather, placing the listeners into the story, present with Jesus. As we walk through these stories, think about how they place you, us, into the present with Jesus.
Take a minute to read the 3 stories above: Jesus calming the storm. Jesus healing the tortured man. Jesus healing the bleeding woman & raising the dead girl.
This has been a hard start to our year, hasn't it? Whisperings of war with Iran and the death of celebrities. And now this global pandemic.
Some of you maybe know that the few months before this were also hard for our family, with the deaths of Kip’s step-father right before Christmas, and then his mother 15 days later at the beginning of January. Fewer of you know that we were also reeling from news my mom shared with us on Christmas Eve that she’d been diagnosed with cancer—uterine cancer in her lung, if you can believe that. It’s been a hard season for all of us.
I began writing this post—or procrastinating on it— the day my mom went in for surgery to remove 1/3 of her lung. What was really happening was that I was waiting to hear from my dad about how my mom’s surgery was going. That cancer which typically led to bleeding and loss of childbearing ability was actually causing my mom to struggle to breathe. It was a hard season (with little thought to the pandemic lurking around the corner). In the midst of the order I prefer in my life, there’s been a lot of uncomfortable chaos around these days. So coming to this text about storms and chaos and bleeding and women and death was pretty hard for me. As I sit with it now in the midst of physical isolation due to the pandemic, the chaos is even more prevalent.
In Mark’s gospel we are meeting a Jesus who is the one with authority. By his actions and his teachings, Jesus is destroying the assumed authority of the principalities & powers who cause chaos and fragmentation & isolation, and who foster a climate of fear and death.
The unclean spirit that Jesus casts out recognizes that the presence of God can destroy the dominion of evil. Whatever it is that Jesus encounters here, the more important thing is Jesus’ response. By bringing wholeness back to the person with the unclean spirit, Jesus strips the spirits of their opportunity to win over people’s bodies and minds, and they lose the authority they supposedly had; Jesus denies these forces the authority to hold ultimate sway over people’s lives.
What Jesus does is restore people and communities to wholeness by reclaiming the divine likeness within them and extending communion with God and one another. The Jesus whom we are following is the Subversive Savior, the one subverting those powers & principalities.
Mark is giving us his take on Jesus as the Savior who upends the powers and principalities, the authorities, those entities who think they’re in charge, or whom we think rule over us including microscopic viruses. All three of these stories have some very significant things in common, and that’s where I want to start, though we’ll primarily be looking at the third story about the healed woman and raised girl.
What we discover in these three stories—the calming of the storm, releasing of the demon-possessed, and healing of these two women—is a Jesus who clearly controls all three situations.
Jesus has power and authority over the forces of nature—he rebukes the wind and sea, “Peace, be still!”
Jesus has power and authority over the forces of evil, “Come out of him, you unclean spirit!”
And Jesus has power and authority over the forces of life and death, the very blood that flows to give life—“Daughter, be healed… Little girl, get up!"
Throughout these three stories, Jesus controls—he has authority/power over what appear to be dire situations, circumstances beyond all hope.
There was a powerful deadly storm, the boat was being swamped.
There was an uncontrollable swarm of demons within the man, the man was a danger to his community and himself.
There was untreatable continual bleeding and ultimately, an untimely death. All dire situations beyond the control of anybody
… except Jesus.
Then he steps in and says Peace. Come out. Be Healed. Get up.
That’s the subversive Savior. Entering uncontrollable situations and displaying influence over that which we cannot change….
And yet… subversive savior and all, I still live with a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear. Again, writing this as I wait for news of my mom’s surgery outcome. My stomach gets tight, my heart races, and my mind sorts through all possible scenarios on the silence I’m getting from Colorado. My heart hurts at the possible outcomes, possible complications. One more thing to add to an already difficult month. How are you responding to the current situation? To the isolation? The extra work? The new rhythms? The possibility of you or someone you love catching the virus? Dying? The unknown future?
And I feel an awful lot like the folks that are participants in all three of these stories. I think about those disciples in the boat, about to sink. Were they thinking about what it would be like to sink into the water, leaving their families behind? They cry out, “we’re perishing!”
The bleeding woman has spent 12 years menstruating—in pain and ostracized from her community—“I’m perishing” she thinks.
The synagogue ruler watches his daughter struggle for breath, for life—“she’s perishing,” he begs Jesus. I don’t know about you, but so much of my life seems to wrestle with fear and anxiety, the “what ifs” of this world.
And for many of the folks in these stories, the power and authority of Jesus don’t calm their fears, but add to them. The disciples in the boat are scared of the storm, but they’re terrified of Jesus when he calms the waves—he chastises them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
In Mark’s gospel, it seems that fear and faith are paired as opposites.
“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
The man possessed by the legion is healed by Jesus and when the townspeople discover the man, instead of celebrating, they freak out and, in fear, ask Jesus to leave. His power frightens them!
The menstruating woman first has the courage to touch Jesus and be healed, but freaks out in fear and trembling when Jesus discerns that someone in the crowd has touched him in order to be healed.
And after Jairus’ daughter has died, Jesus uses similar words that he used in the sinking ship of disciples, though this time as a comfort command rather than a critiquing question: “Do not fear, only believe.”
So often it feels like we’re pitting faith against fear. Faith that Jesus truly does control uncontrollable situations against the fear that bad things really do happen. Mothers in law die unexpectedly. Cancer hits those we love. Plagues hit and the world turns upside-down.
Hard times don’t pass any of us by, and hit some of us more often than others. None of us are immune to the uncontrollable circumstances of life. How do we respond to them though?
I think I want to be most like the menstruating woman in these stories. She had a lot going against her—a 12-year period was life-draining! And on top of that, she was ostracized by her community for her uncleanliness according to the law. Living in bankruptcy due to outrageous medical bills, without any healthcare. Unnamed, without an identity. Daring to interrupt a ruler’s request of the holy man. She was not allowed to be in contact with others because, by doing so, she would contaminate them with her impurities. But her courage! Her faith in Jesus! She had nothing left to risk and her only option was to be obtrusive. She sneaks through the crowd, with faith that merely a touch of Jesus will heal her. She doesn’t request healing; she steals it. She has faith that a touch of Jesus will heal her. She risks touching and contaminating Jesus with her impurity in order to be healed.
And it is Jesus’ response to her that confirms it: He names her and affirms her faith:
What does he name her?
Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace; be healed of your disease.
Fear and faith—it comes down to trust. Do they trust this man, this Jesus, this one with power and authority over all things?
Do we trust him?
Sitting on a still boat, the disciples are suddenly more afraid of the Calmer of Storms than the storms themselves. "Don’t you trust me?" he chastises them. The Gerasene neighbors are more afraid of the Releaser of the Captive than the evil-possessed captive himself. They don’t trust Jesus and ask him to leave.
Do they trust this man Jesus, who has power and authority over all things?
It is the healed woman who trusts him, in spite of her fear. After Jesus realizes someone in the crowd has “stolen” power from him, she steps out of the shadows and tells him the whole truth. With fear and trembling, in spite of her fear, she tells him the whole truth of her circumstances, why she touched him, how her touch healed her body. And because of that, Jesus publicly affirms her, affirms her faith, her trust in him, and makes her well by restoring her to peace—
Peace with her body
Peace with her name
Peace with her history
Peace with her future
Peace with her community
And peace with her God.
Then finally, we come to Jairus (the other side of the sandwich). Mark the storyteller ends this trio of events with Jairus, a man devoted to his daughter who has just died. We, the listeners, have seen all these other responses to Jesus’ power over
the forces of nature
the forces of evil
and the forces of life & death.
The circumstance is obvious, it’s beyond hope, futile. His daughter is dead. Not just mostly dead, but dead dead. In the three previous events, the people respond with trust or lack of trust in Jesus after he does something amazing. Now here, Jesus is asking Jairus to respond before Jesus does anything for him.
The disciples in the boat are left with a question of choice—will you trust me?
The Gerasenes choose not to trust him.
The healed woman shows she trusts him.
Jairus, don’t be afraid, keep trusting. Nothing has happened for him yet. His daughter is still dead when Jesus offers these words to him. And it comes full circle back to the disciples [who are us, the listener], who are with Jesus headed to Jairus’ house. Don’t be afraid, will you trust me?
I don’t know about you, but I live with a lot of fear. Will my mom come out of her surgery? Will my boys be safe when they drive? Will Kip’s airplane land safely? Will we survive this plague? What will the world look like on the other side of this evil? Will… well, the list goes on. But all of those are fears of the storms, fears of the forces of evil, fears of death and loss. In spite of them, I refuse to allow those fears to control me, to have authority over my life. It’s hard, often I’m not very good at that.
But regularly, consciously, I have to turn those fears upside down, and choose to trust the One who calmed the wind and waves. I am still working to trust my family to the One who has authority over nature and death. I am still working to trust the One who has authority over our future, over the world.
Don’t be afraid. Jesus said.
Jesus took the 12-year old’s hand, Little girl, get up.
The blood began flowing through her body again. Her stiffened pale flesh softened and blushed. Eyes opened. Her stomach growled from hunger. Give her something to eat. Don’t be afraid Jairus, trust me. Don’t be afraid disciples, trust me. Don't be afraid, Beloved, trust me.
My prayer is that we can be people who trust the One who has power and authority over all things. Trust him in spite of our fears. Our fears of storms, of evils, of death and loss, of life’s circumstances. Trust him in spite of ourselves. And live in a way that doesn’t allow those fears to control us, but instead trust the One who has power and authority over even our fears. Jesus is the Savior who upends the powers and principalities, the authorities, those entities who think they’re in charge, or whom we think rule over us.
That, I believe, is good news.
A prayer from the Correymeela Community:
God of stilled waters, God of calmed seas, on a night of a difficult crossing as your friends began to lose faith, you awoke and hushed the turbulent waves with the power of unearthly peace. May we respect the sheer force of what we cannot control and believe in the strength that sleeps in this storm. Amen.
Update: My mom is doing well, thank you. Surgery was successful, she's cleared of cancer and back to playing pickleball with her friends, though right now she & my dad are safely isolating at home.
 Whether the demons and unclean spirits are spiritual beings, mental illnesses, or some other understanding is really irrelevant here; how to understand this is largely based on a community’s worldview—in Africa, the people understand certain phenomena in people to be demon possession; the American context more often identifies it as mental illnesses; but having lived in both places, I don’t see them contradicting each other. Whatever it is that Jesus encounters here, the more important thing is Jesus’ response.