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4th Sunday after Trinity

14 June 2024

23 June, Proper 7: Job 38.1-11; Psalm 107.1-3, 23-32 (or 107.23-32); 2 Corinthians 6.1-13; Mark 4.35-end


THREE things are called “great” in this Gospel: the storm, the calm, and the fear of the disciples. One has been ironed out in some translations, which find the disciples’ fear embarrassing. Instead, they say that they were “filled with great awe” (NRSV) or “overcome with awe” (NJB). The NIV is truer to the Greek: “They were terrified.” So is the AV: “They feared exceedingly.”

There are many things in scripture which are alien to modern taste and mores. Acknowledging fear in the presence of God should not be one of them. For one thing, we can pile up quotations showing that “the fear of the Lord” is a positive, not a negative, thing: for instance, “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 110.10; Job 38.38). In Proverbs 19.23, fear and security are bound tightly together: “The fear of the LORD is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm.”

At every confirmation service, we are taught (from Isaiah 11.2) that “fear of the Lord” is one of the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit.

Having “fear of the Lord” does not necessarily mean being afraid of him in the sense of feeling terror or trepidation. People who have transgressed and fear the Lord, like Adam (Genesis 3.10), do indeed feel terror. But there is no reason that terror should be felt by the righteous. And terms such as “awe” or “reverence” (a popular fudge by translators) are also off-target; for they are really ways of making the same emotional response — fear — sound more palatable. They do not nail the key concept found in Deuteronomy and other Old Testament/Hebrew Bible texts: that fearing the Lord is synonymous with keeping his laws.

“The fear of the Lord” has two elements to it. First, it is an acknowledgement that his power is real. Second, that acknowledgement shades into the only reasonable response: “fear of the Lord” becomes a virtual synonym for “worship of the Lord”. And this worship excludes the worship of other gods.

Mark does not use the regular word for fear, phobos, to describe how the disciples were feeling when the storm threatened to sink the boat and drown them all. He keeps it for the emotion that comes upon them after they have been rescued by Jesus’s word of power. Nor does Mark use the language of fear when Jesus asks them why they reacted as they did: the English, “Why are you afraid?”, is translating a Greek word, deilos, which means something more like “cowardly”.

As well as the three things that are called “great” in this Gospel, there are also three direct questions. The first is straightforward: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’s swift response proves that he cares. The last, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” is a Christological one; for the disciples have perceived his action and his power as divine (this is Jesus’s first nature miracle in Mark), and, in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, control of natural phenomena such as storms is a divine characteristic: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Psalm 89.9).

In displays of the Lord’s power, natural phenomena can be personified, suggesting that a clash between competing divinities is taking place. Hence, Jesus tells the storm here to “Be quiet! Shut up!”

The disciples’ natural response to the revelation of this power is, first, an emotion — they (literally) “feared a great fear”. Next, they enquire into the truth behind the experience: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” So, when Mark says that their response to Jesus’s question is fear, he is not suggesting that they are weak, but that they are wise.

Now we have another brick to add to the wall of facts building up into a divine identity for Jesus. We are not yet equipped to pin down the fullness of that divine identity, or its power, but its existence has been put beyond doubt. One small word in Greek, oupo, confirms the picture of an edifice being constructed, or a jigsaw puzzle being added to. Some translators omit it. Others translate it as “still”. I prefer to translate oupo as “not yet”. Jesus is saying: “Have you not got faith yet?”, which confirms that it can be a cumulative process, as well as a revelation from on high.

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