January 27, 2002
JESUS AMONG US: AWESOME
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
Just this past Tuesday, Connor and Tully Ryan, sons of Tom and Heidi Ryan here in our congregation, spent the afternoon at my house. My wife took them downstairs to the family room to play, and they began considering their options. As they gazed around the room, Tully quickly focused on the vast assortment of Legos that my sons had collected over the years. His three-year old eyes opened widely, and he suddenly blurted out, ³Your sonsı toys are awesome!² Awesome. Itıs quite a word, isnıt it? Itıs a favorite among teenagers these days. The most popular songs are ³awesome.² The latest technological gadgets are ³awesome.² The preaching at the Grantham Church is ³awesome² (actually, they never said that I just made it up!).
Out of curiosity, I looked up the term ³awesome² in Websterıs New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, and found that ³awesome² means ³awe-inspiring.² That was not particularly helpful! So I next looked up ³awe,² and discovered that ³awe² means ³fear mingled with admiration or reverence; reverential fear; a feeling produced by a sense of the dreadful and the sublime.² By association, I concluded that ³awesome² songs must be those that scare our teenagers half to death, and that my sonsı ³awesome² toys left Tully nervous and fearing for his safety. That just didnıt quite make sense, so I asked my wife if she had any indication of what Tully meant when he reacted to those cartons of Legos in our basement. She had asked him. ³Awesome,² he told her with his face aglow, means ³really big and...BIG!² To Webster, ³awesome² conjures up images of fear, admiration and reverence. For Tully, ³awesome² means ³really big and...BIG!² For Mark, the term ³awesome² is wide enough and suggestive enough to encompass both.
In Markıs depiction of this Jesus who is among us, we noticed previously that Jesus is single-minded, saying ³Yes² to God in every area of his life and ³No² to everything else that seeks to sidetrack him. We saw that Jesus cares deeply about people of all sorts, caring enough to console and heal them, but also caring enough to go nose to nose with them when they needed it. Now, after a series of pictures in which Jesus heals a cripple, calls his disciples, and teaches his listeners about the Kingdom of God, we encounter this familiar scene in Mark 4:35-41. In the story, Jesus and his disciples seek to sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They are no doubt weary and exhausted after their intense ministerial activities, and they need a break. They need to get away.
The Sea of Galilee is of modest size approximately thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. The position of the sea, however, produces a stunning natural sight. It is located in the Jordan Rift Valley, some 685 feet below sea level, but it is surrounded on the east and the west by high mountains. As a result, the sea resembles a bowl that is half full. When the cool air masses from the tops of the mountains rush down the slopes towards the water, sudden and violent eruptions often occur. In
minutes, an otherwise calm and peaceful scene is transformed into stormy chaos.
This, no doubt, is precisely what occurred here in Mark 4. Soon after leaving the shore on what might very well have been a sunny day, Jesus and his disciples find themselves caught in the middle of a thunderous blender. Jesus has since fallen asleep, and like Jonah nestled in the bottom of his storm-driven ship, remains unaware of these frightful developments. The disciples, however, are distraught they see their very lives hanging in the balance and they abruptly awaken Jesus: ³Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?² While still wiping his eyes, Jesus commands the sea to be still, and the storm subsides as quickly as it had arisen. In its place, a dead calm settles in. You can almost feel it, canıt you? You were nearly hit by that speeding tractor trailer truck that seemingly came out of nowhere, but it missed you by an inch or two. You sit there, stunned. Mark simply informs us that the disciples ³were filled with great awe and said to one another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?ı² Jesus, the disciples alarmingly discovered, is awesome.
Mark uses what we might aptly call this language of astonishment with some regularity more than any of the other Gospel writers, in fact. In the same way that he calls our attention to the inability of the disciples to grasp the true meaning of Jesusı identity and teaching, so too Mark informs us that people who encounter Jesus first hand are frequently
left standing (or sitting) in awe. In so doing, he clearly likens the way people respond to Jesus to the way that many characters in the Old Testament respond to God himself. They too are amazed stunned when they cross paths with the words and deeds
of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
This sense of amazement, though prevalent throughout the Old Testament as a whole, finds its most vivid expression in the highly experiential language of the Psalms. In reflecting upon Godıs wondrous act of creation and how he now sits enthroned over all humankind, for example, the Psalmist shouts, ³Let the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him (33:8).² In a similar context, the Psalmist asks two rhetorical questions that, not surprisingly, go unanswered:
For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him (89:5-6)?
Why, in Psalm 76:7, the Psalmistıs amazement concerning God reaches a crescendo, and he seemingly borrows a phrase right out of our teenagersı very own mouths: Lord, he simply but no doubt enthusiastically cries, ³You are indeed awesome.² There is overwhelming sense of astonishment that a person and even a community as a whole feels when they truly come face to face with who God is and all that he has done. ³The deeds of Yahweh,² as Walter Brueggemann phrases it, ³take our breath away.²
Mark agrees, and he rigorously attempts to show us that a firsthand encounter with Jesus similarly takes our breath away. People are astonished, for example, by the miracles that Jesus performs. The paralytic stands up, and the onlookers are all amazed. ³We have never seen anything like this,² they conclude (2:12). On another occasion, Jesus approaches the disciples, walking on the water, and they were utterly astounded (6:51).
In addition to such miracles, people throughout Markıs Gospel are amazed at the authority that Jesus possessed. During a teaching session in Capernaumıs synagogue, the crowd was astounded at Jesusı words (1:22). During my career as a college professor, I soon learned that the easiest way to arouse a standing ovation from my students was to cancel class from time to time. Jesus didnıt need to do that his students hung on his every word. Jesusı authority was so powerful that even the evil spirits did whatever he commanded. ³Be silent, and come out of him!² Jesus instructs such a spirit, and the spirit obeys. The observers were ³all amazed,² Mark informs us, and ³they kept on asking one another, ³What is this? A new teaching with authority (1:27).²
Why, this Jesus who is among us is so overwhelmingly ³awesome² that, before long, people shuddered in amazement just to see him. On one occasion, a crowd looked on as some of the disciples verbally jousted with a group of argumentative scribes. When they noticed Jesus approaching in the distance, they were, as Mark phrases it, ³immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him (9:15).² Later, as Jesus walked along the road heading for Jerusalem, the people standing by ³were amazed (10:32).² Mark offers no specific reasons for their astonishment nothing peculiar immediately stands out in the text. Apparently, the sum total of who Jesus is, what he does, and what he says is in and of itself overwhelming for many who encounter him face to face. Jesus, Mark repeatedly informs us, is awesome.
One of the crucial developments in human history has been the domestication of various animals. Though originally wild and untamed, many animals have over the years been controlled and now serve roles that, at least in many peoplesı minds, benefit society as a whole. Thousands and thousands of years ago, human beings managed to change the temperaments of goats, sheep and oxen, to name just a few, and in so doing gain their support and assistance. Animals that at one time posed a risk itıs hard to imagine that my wire-haired miniature dachshund would have ever fit in that category! now provided wool and leather, supplied milk and meat, served as a means of transportation, and pulled heavy plows. By domesticating animals, the human race tamed the beast, and in so doing created a new set of servants to meet our needs and to do our will. Domestic animals have played a major role in human achievement ever since.
This human tendency to domesticate other living creatures, however, has increasingly reached new and far less positive heights. Rather than stopping with animals and even other people, we have, whether knowingly or not, attempted to domesticate God himself. The Jesus we know is typically tame and gentle. He is conveniently available to do whatever we might want, and he fortunately asks very little of us in return. There is nothing surprising about him, and he normally minds his own business. He is content with our lackadaisical attitudes, low expectations, self-serving lifestyles, and general lukewarm commitment. What could be better than a Jesus refashioned to suit our own interests and wishes?
In her book entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard comments about the lingering effects of this domestication of Jesus. ³Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?² she asks.
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they
should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
In taming Jesus, we forfeit his fire. In keeping him on a leash, we sacrifice his guidance and direction. And by fencing him in, we turn the Lord of the universe into our servant, summoned only to console us and to do our bidding.
Are you amazed at Jesus? Are you astonished at the power of his words? Are you astounded at his authority, and the new possibilities made available by his presence among us in this very room? Do you think Jesus can help free you from ongoing sins, destructive habits, and the forces of evil that seem overwhelming to you at times? Do you think Jesus can restore your floundering marriage and assist you in raising godly children? Do you think Jesus can transform your lonely neighbor and empower people to confront the injustices in our society? Do you think Jesus can raise you up from the ordinary and the mundane, deliver you from a self-serving approach to life, and use you for advancing his kingdom? Do you believe that Jesus can do immeasurably beyond whatever any of us could ask or imagine? Do you think Jesus is awesome? If not, you simply havenıt encountered Markıs Jesus face to face for a long, long time, if ever. Look again. Closely. Consider his deeds, and let yourself marinate in his words. Let him out of his cage. Throw away the leash. Like Tully scanning the wide assortment of Legos and exclaiming, ³Your sonsı toys are awesome,² so, too, might you be astounded at this Jesus who is among us. This same Jesus who calmed the storm. Markıs Jesus is awesome. My Jesus is awesome. Is yours?