A Reflection on 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 & Mark 4:35-41
for Proper 7B / Ordinary 12B
It’s always in our times of greatest chaos, confusion and struggle that we question God’s existence, love and presence. It is also at those times that we are most likely to cry out to God. It’s like we expect, if God were really present and active in our lives, that everything should be peaceful, calm and, well, ordered. Throughout the ages chaos, with its unpredictable randomness, its uncontrollable energy, and its rampant disorder, has been viewed as synonymous with evil. Certainly that seems to be the case in this week’s Lectionary readings – both the Old Testament continuous and the Gospel. But there are also hints that something else is going on, and it is here that things get interesting and really challenging.
In David’s showdown with Goliath, we are given the first signs that God is at work to replace the errant king Saul with a new king of God’s choosing. This lowly shepherd boy, from an insignificant family, is about to meet his greatest challenge ever, and it’s going to happen in a public forum that will burn his name and his image into the hearts of every citizen of Israel. From 2 Samuel 21:15-22 we discover that Goliath was one of four remaining descendants of the Nephilim, the offspring of the “sons of God” and their human “wives” that are mentioned in Genesis 6. In the worldview of the time, angelic beings had no business reproducing with human beings. This was a violation of the natural order, and the consequences could only be devastating. In the flood story, this is the evil that brings about God’s judgment on the world. But, as the history of Israel unfolds, we are told that somehow the Nephilim survived the flood and their four remaining descendants appear to challenge David both at the start and near the end of his rulership.* David’s defeat of Goliath, not by spear or sword, but by God’s name, represents the defeat of chaos, of the evil of God’s order gone wrong, by God’s power and authority. The offer of the kings’ armour is, in a sense, an invitation to use the ways of chaos to overcome chaos – which David, wisely rejects. The shepherd boy appears in this story, then, as God’s representative who comes to set the world to rights.
In an amazing, parallel passage, the storm which inspires such fear in the disciples, is also associated with chaos and evil. For the Israelites, who, apart from fishermen, were not known for their sailing skills, the sea was mysterious and frightening. Throughout the Old Testament it represents what is chaotic, unknown, evil and resistant to God’s order. It is out of the chaos of the waters that creation comes in Genesis 1. It was through the threatening sea that the Israelites were delivered in their Exodus from Egypt. It was the sea that confronted Jonah when he fled in disobedience to God’s call. In the poetic literature, the sea contains fearful and mysterious monsters like the famous Leviathan (Job 41:1; Psalm 104:26), and in the apocalyptic writings (echoed in Revelation), the sea offers up terrifying beasts that defy God (see Daniel 7 and Revelation 13). Faced with a fearful storm on the frightening sea, the disciples are dismayed that Jesus lies asleep in the boat, but this only demonstrates that Jesus is not afraid of chaos or evil, but trusts completely in God’s authority over all things. When his friends wake him and Jesus confronts the storm, Mark uses language that we have already encountered in his account of the healing of the man possessed by an evil spirit in Mark 1:23-27. Jesus “rebukes” the wind as he had “rebuked” the evil spirit in 1:25. He commands the waves to “be still”, just as he had commanded the demon to “be still”. Finally, the disciples are amazed that the wind and waves “obey” Jesus, just as the onlookers in the synagogue were amazed that the demon had “obeyed” Jesus.** Mark makes the connection between the evil spirit and the storm clear, revealing them both as chaotic forces that need to be brought under the authority of God’s order.
Both readings, then, describe a clash between chaos and God’s order. It is a tempting dualism, but as we explore the implications, we discover that the Scriptures don’t allow us to simplify things quite this much. If they did, we could easily assume that any chaos or struggle we faced was evil, and we could legitimately expect God to rush in and subdue it as soon as we invoked God’s authority. Indeed, many Christians, believing that the miracles from the Gospels can be literally carried into our place and time have attempted to build their faith on exactly this view of the world. However, the Lectionary developers have invited us to go deeper and to wrestle a little more with the implications of this week’s readings.
It is the clash with Goliath that starts David’s ascent to the throne. It is the calming of the storm that starts the disciple’s journey to understanding Jesus as Messiah and incarnate God. In the reading from Job that is set for this Sunday, we find that God set the boundaries for the sea, and in one of the Psalms, we read that it is God who speaks and causes the winds and waves to rise up. These passages suggest that to create too clear a distinction between God and chaos is dangerous. Chaos, it seems, is the raw material for God’s creative ordering of the universe, even as it was the reality from which creation emerged in the beginning. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he speaks very personally of the suffering and persecution he has had to endure as an apostle of Christ, but rather than view this as somehow “wrong”, he points to the chaos as validation of his ministry. Chaos, then, may not be the final reality that God seeks to bring into being in the world, but is certainly part of God’s creative process in establishing God’s order.
Which is good news. If chaos is seen as a kind of “equal and opposite” force that is locked in a perpetual battle with God, we are little more than pawns or foot soldiers in the cosmic conflict, and our lives are constantly under threat. God’s authority, then, is questionable, since, if God truly was God, God should be able to still the chaos once and for all and liberate us from its destructive influence, which God clearly isn’t doing. If, however, chaos is the fuel for creativity, if God has created boundaries for the storm, if God’s Reign emerges out of the chaos of what is not yet fully formed and redeemed, then we have both hope and purpose. Our hope lies in knowing that God is not surprised or overwhelmed – that Jesus’ peaceful sleep in the storm-tossed boat is, in a metaphorical sense, an appropriate response to chaos. We can rest assured that when we see chaos, God’s creative Reign is at work. Our purpose is to co-operate with God’s creative mission, drawing on the same authority that David and Jesus used to challenge the chaos and bring order out of it.
As co-creators with God, then, we are freed from despair, but recruited to challenge the chaos of poverty, war, hatred, dread disease, climate change and lack of education with the principles of justice, love, peace, grace and creativity that we learn from the Reign of God. Chaos will come, but we need not fear it. Rather, we can face it, in the name of God, and call forth the creative order that it hides.
- I am indebted to Samuel Gier’s excellent commentary at WorkingPreacher.org for these insights.
** Again, I must acknowledge my indebtedness to Meda Stamper’s commentary at WorkingPreacher.org and N.T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone.