This Sunday, the Lord of Storms Gives Us More Than We Can Handle

Jesus is gentle, Jesus is kind, Jesus is caring and Jesus is attentive to our needs. But Jesus is God, Jesus is challenging, Jesus is demanding, and above all Jesus wants us to be attentive to what he wants. That is the message the Church gives us in the readings for Mass on the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The lesson comes, as lessons so often do, in the form of a storm. His disciples disciples find out that Jesus isn’t just unafraid of storms. Jesus is the storm.

The Gospel this Sunday sounds like an eyewitness account.

The Gospel reading for Sunday follows the one we heard last week. Jesus taught “the crowds” about what the Kingdom of God is. Locals have identified a likely spot on the Sea of Galilee where he taught: Picture a hillside that is situated like an amphitheater, with the sea as the stage.

Jesus would have stood by the sea and taught all day — of perhaps he taught from a boat, as he did elsewhere. And you can picture the other boats pulling in around him to get close to Jesus and hear better what he had to say about how the Kingdom is like the slow but inevitable growth of a crop, or a tree.

Then we get this Sunday’s Gospel: “On that day, as evening drew on, he said to them, ‘Let us cross to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him.”

That sounds like the description of someone who was there — presumably St. Peter, since this is written by his secretary, Mark. Then after the mentally and physically exhausting day of teaching, Jesus lies down on a cushion in the boat. He had just told them God is always with them, as the mysterious, unstoppable principle of grace and growth, and that they can rely on him like a farmer relies on seeds to grow even while he sleeps.

But now it’s the Divine One, not his helpers, who falls asleep.

Mark describes what happens next: “A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.”

The Apostles have no ground under their feet, and the craft they are in is being lifted and dropped and slapped, creaking and groaning and filling up with water.  First, they are afraid and then they are a little bit angry. How is it possible that Jesus isn’t even aware of what’s going on? Why is he doing nothing? How dare he sleep at a moment like this?”

Says the Gospel: “They woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

He wakes up and with a word quiets the storm. Then it’s his turn to get angry at the apostles — not for their prayer, but for their accusation. Jesus says, “Do you have no faith?” Because faith is exactly what is at question here: This story is a very clear early sign of the Divinity of Christ.

Skeptics love to make the claim that the early Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God, and their crowning proof is that Jesus himself is never quoted saying that he is God until the Gospel of John came later. But the fact is, right here in the earliest Gospel written, Jesus is already showing himself to be God. But he shows it, rather than his stating it.

Because while people had seen holy men who brought about healings, and who exorcised demons, and taught powerfully — no mere man could do what Jesus was doing. No one but God could forgive sins like Jesus did, and no one could calm the sea except God himself. Sunday’s Psalm uses God’s unspeakable holy name to say: “They cried to the LORD in their distress. … He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze.”

This is God himself, the only one who can change the weather.

But there’s also something a little unsettling here.

Jesus here sounds divine for sure, but according to a more primitive understanding of divinity — like Zeus hurling thunderbolts or Poseidon lashing out at Odysseus. And that makes us uncomfortable. We Westerners love what Aristotle has to say about God the Unmoved Mover, but we don’t love what other Greeks, such as Homer, say about the gods. Their gods are petty, sinful, weak and fallible.

But the fact that the Greeks saw divinity as persons capable of having a real relationship with humanity is a great truth, as great as Aristotle’s. Put Aristotle and Homer together and purify both and you get God as the first cause of all contingent things, including storms, and God, a Trinity of persons, who is love, and creates us because of his love.

And that of course raises another worry: If God is the ultimate cause of all things, including storms, then he isn’t just the calmer of storms. He is the brewer of storms as well. He is there assenting and creating and powering every storm that ever wrecked a boat or pummeled a coastland.

Because that’s what we’re seeing this Sunday, right? God is the one who brings storms and he is the one who calms storms, and to have faith is to accept the storm and the calm, both.

The First Reading introduces us to Job. This is Job, who when his property and family were taken from him, had said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;  blessed be the name of the Lord!” This is Job who when urged to curse God, had said, “We accept good things from God; and should we not accept evil?”

Now, as boils cover his body, he struggles to keep his faith. How could God allow all this? Today he gets his answer. From a storm.

“The Lord addressed Job out of the storm,” says the First Reading, then quotes him:  “I made the clouds” and “I made the thick darkness.” In Job chapter 38 God adds much more: He made the snow, he made the hail, he made the winds, and he made the thunderstorms.

The conclusion is inevitable: God himself brings storms into our lives.

They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. That hasn’t been my experience.

I have friends who have been abandoned by spouses or abandoned by children. They have given their youth to organizations that proved unworthy, and their trust to people who destroyed them. They have been given every reason to believe that the universe is only here to beat them up, yet they don’t give up. In my own life, I have written about how the hardest workplace crisis of my life came at the same time as the biggest spiritual crisis of my life, followed quickly by the biggest health crisis of my life and the biggest family crisis of my life.

Pretty soon it becomes undeniable: God does indeed give you more than you can handle, because that is the only way to get you to finally surrender control and begin living in his world rather than keep trying to fit him into yours. He is the creator of every violent squall in your life and if you ask him why, you may get the answer from a brand new storm.

God speaks calm whispers; it’s true. But he is also free to shout.

When he was a young man just giving himself to religious life, British poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “Heaven-Haven” about a nun entering consecrated life. She says:

“I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.”

Later in life, after experiencing the dramatic trials and terrifying tribulations that come into every vocation, he wrote about religious life again, but took as his subject a group of Franciscan nuns killed in a storm at sea in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

The voice of the nun in this one no longer sees her vocation as a “Heaven-Haven.” She sees: “Thy terror, O Christ, O God” as she rises up and down at the mercy giant waves, one moment “Hard down with a horror of height” the next seeing “Before me, the hurtle of hell.”

And she surrenders.

“Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.”

She no longer sees holiness as living “out of the swing of the sea.” She finds God is in the violence of the storm.

He is in our storms too.

When the world overpowers us, we may imagine God reclining somewhere on an air mattress somewhere, enjoying heavenly bliss while we suffer.

We might even feel like praying as the apostles do: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Only we might say: “Do you not care that philosophies of selfishness are taking over our schools, our neighborhoods and our way of life? Do you not care that we are awash in a world of harsh opponents who are tearing away the foundation stones of our civilization: the family, religious freedom and the right to life? Do you not care that even our Church seems overwhelmed by faithlessness at times?”

The apostles learn that what the storm is showing them isn’t that God has forgotten them, but that they have forgotten him. They have gone from gratefully accepting his generous gifts to expecting his gifts as their right. They now expect life to be comfortable and storm-free. In fact, their job in life is to do the will of God, not demand that he do theirs.

God knows the storm we feel is here; he cherishes the family, religious freedom, the right to life and the holiness of the Church more than we do. He will quiet the storm in time — in fact, he is already quieting it. Years from now, we will look back and see what we were supposed to learn from the storm: We will learn that we should never take the family, religious freedom, the right to life and the Church for granted the way we did. We should have defended them more fiercely. We should have been more awake.

And we will see that the Lord may have been sleeping, but he was never unaware of the storm. We will see what we can’t see now: He sent it because he loves us and he wanted us to surrender.

This is a version of Extraordinary Story Season 3, Ep 2: Jesus Brings the Storm

Image: Bakhuizen Christ in the Storm, Wikimedia.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.