Mark 4:35–41 (NRSV)
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The Biblical drama is full of stories about deliverance from the sea. We don’t give it second thought, but the book of Genesis begins with a story about the waters of chaos: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Before anything was created, in the ancient imagination, there was a dark, watery abyss. But the winds that swept over those waters on that first day were not the winds of chaos, but the Spirit of God, ordering what had been in disarray. Light was separated from darkness, the sea separated from the sky. It was all very good.
Yet, chaos continued: Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Cain murdered Abel, and the wickedness of humanity spread across the face of the earth, grieving the God of creative order. And so there was another chaos-storm. The floodgates of the earth were opened for forty days and nights to allow for a great do-over. Maybe this time chaos could definitively be held back. Through the storm, through the night God protected the seed of creation on a boat, with enough diversity of life to begin again, led by the righteous-one Noah.
In the great drama, we next see the waters of chaos as the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. The waters of oppression are up to their neck, forced to make brick without straw. But God leads them through the waters of the sea, from the land of bondage to a new land of opportunity, a place of their own. As Moses sings to God in Exodus 15, “[Our Lord] has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” The strong army of Pharaoh was no match for God’s power over the seas.
And then there’s the reluctant prophet Jonah. The one who knows the power of the Lord to redeem those held captive by sin. He decides to go, not to Nineveh where his word is needed, but across the sea to Tarshish. “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.”
Each of the sailors on the boat Jonah had chartered started to cry out to their own gods—the ones they trusted to lead them through the gale. So they scurry across the deck and into the hold and hurl all their cargo into the sea so that it won’t weigh them down into the waters.
Meanwhile, Jonah was fast asleep. Evidently, fleeing from God tends to tire one out to the point where you don’t notice that you’re about to die at sea.
The captain yells, “What are you doing? Get up and call on your god. We’ve tried all of ours and we need all the help we can get.”
The sailors begin to realize that their prayers aren’t working. The storm must be a punishment and the guilty party needs to give to the sea what it wants.
“So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.”
The Scripture tells us, when the sailors had seen the power of Jonah’s God to send the storm and to take it away, they “feared the Lord even more” and they started to worship.
Back to Mark’s Gospel, we find ourselves with Jesus on a boat with his disciples. These expert fishermen are following orders from their teacher and are sailing across the Sea of Galilee from their home to the land of the Gerasenes, a place filled, in the Jewish mind, with all sorts of unclean things.
Jesus had been teaching with the boat as his pulpit to the multitudes who were gathered along the shore, telling them about the Kingdom of God. But now, it is time for that message to enter a new place, to transgress the boundary of the sea.
As any preacher or teacher is after speaking for a long time, Jesus is tired. And so, as his disciples row to the other side through the night over the dark waters, Jesus is fast asleep.
While Jesus is sleeping, the waters of chaos begin to rebel. The waves beat into the boat and it’s quickly waterlogged. The disciples frantically try to bail it out. They’re frantically trying to make it through the storm with their lives intact.
Jesus is still sleeping in the stern.
And so they wake him up, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They want to awaken Jesus from his peaceful slumber so that he’s just as worried about the storm as they are! They want him to help keep the water out of the boat and steer it through the waves. Maybe, they think, Jesus can call upon God to calm the storm in a way that they can’t.
Instead, Jesus responds as anyone would who was rudely awakened in the midst of sleep:
“Shut up,” he says to the wind and waves.
And the storm listens to him.
How different this is than the story of Jonah! The waves are calmed with a word. But it is still God who brings peace to the sea.
Surely, the disciples, who were plenty frightened by the storm are now even more scared out of their wits. They could handle the fear of the storm, they were fishermen after all. But this new fear was something different. It was like coming face to face with the God who had first spoken over the waters of creation. Wouldn’t you be afraid too?
Jesus, in turn, just looks at them matter-of-factly and says “Why are you afraid?” He would have been content to sleep through the storm. That’s the kind of faith he wants his disciples to have—to remain calm in the face of chaos. But they’re a long way from that.
How often have we found ourselves in a similar situation? Okay, maybe we’ve never been out on the Sea of Galilee and maybe the last boat we were in was the safe, stable comfort of the Gateway Clipper in Pittsburgh.
But we know what it’s like to be out on the waters of chaos in life. One thing changes, and we’re out at sea instead of safely on the shore. Every gust of wind seems to blow us off course, the waves pound against us and fill our life-boat with water.
The storm may be different for each of us, but we’ve all been in that place in life where we are sitting ducks, this close to being swept away by the waves.
In those times, we run over to Jesus and jolt him awake, filling the air with our prayers, pleading for help. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing,” we might say. We know that Jesus has power over the waves, and we long for him to do something.
It is in those storms of life that we remember that Jesus was here with us in the boat the whole time. So we go and wake him up, we come to him as an open book, with all of our emotions and fears laid bare.
In the moment, it’s often hard for us to tell how our prayer is being answered. Maybe with a bit of hindsight, we can see how Jesus was steering the boat and calming the storm all along. But when we’re in the moment, it seems to us like Jesus is asleep at the helm.
But we know that every storm will end. Jesus will speak and things will be still. No matter what forces of evil, chaos, or uncertainty come crashing into our boat, we know in faith that Jesus has the last word. That Jesus does care that we are perishing, and that is why he came all along.
Whatever our concerns are, we can bring them to Jesus.
But we shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus isn’t as concerned as we are. If Jesus reminds us to have faith in the midst of the storm. To have the kind of faith and trust to fall asleep in the boat, even when the storm is raging.
As I think about that kind of faith, I’m reminded of the notes John Wesley took in his journal about his trip to America in the early 1700s as a missionary to Georgia. On that transatlantic voyage, there was a group of Moravians traveling with him who regularly held services together, reading Scriptures and singing hymns. During one of their services, a great storm broke out and the sail was split in pieces. The deck was covered in water and the boat was becoming waterlogged. Wesley noted it was “as if the great deep had already swallowed us up.”
In response, a terrible screaming broke out among the English (Wesley does not say if he joined in the panic, though I expect he did). But the German Moravians just kept singing. Unafraid. Calm in the storm.
What would it be like to have that kind of faith? I hope some day I know.
But do you want to know the truth? I’m not sure I’m in the boat with Jesus on the stormy seas. I’m not even sure that I’m in the flotilla surrounding Jesus and his disciples as they travel to new places to share the news of God’s kingdom with those on the other shore.
I’m back there on the shore.
Too often, my feet are firmly planted on the dry land. I love the parables! I’m hungry for Jesus’s teaching and desperate for a word from God. And I can get all of that from the safety of the shoreline, nameless among the crowd.
And I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, all of us, right now are safely on the shore. We’re listening to the stories of Jesus and the good news of the kingdom from our pews while the word comes to us through Scripture.
How easy is it for us to have faith when our feet are firmly planted on the dry land. If there’s a storm, we’ll just seek shelter inside. But we’re not going to put ourselves out there in that precarious position on a tiny boat at sea.
When Jesus sits down in his boat and sets sail for the other side, we’re likely to just wait where we are until he comes back.
Sadly, I think Jesus says to us the same thing he says to his disciples:
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
No, Jesus, we don’t. We’re afraid. We’re quaking in our boots.
When Jesus offers us the invitation to “go across to the other side,” we stay in the crowd, content with his teachings.
“Jesus,” we might say, “we have important business to take care of here on this side of the lake! We need to get our ducks in a row before we go anywhere else.”
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Don’t be a spectator standing on the shore, just listening to the message!
Jesus is sending us out on the waters, from the place that is safe and comfortable to places of new opportunities. Opportunities to share good news with someone new. Opportunities to be part of something bigger than just ourselves.
Jesus is calling us, “get in the boat.”
He’s not going to lie to us and say that the water’s nice and calm. It’s not. There’s going to be some turbulence. We’re going to have to learn a new kind of faith and trust.
Even right now, Jesus is convicting us to act on that thing he’s been hinting at us about for awhile. He’s encouraging us to take a risk.
Each of us has a next step in our journey of faith. Together as a church, Jesus is drawing us farther out on the waters!
Let’s push our boat into the waters and see where Jesus is taking us.
At summer camp, we used to sing a song, “With Jesus in the boat, you can smile in the storm, as you’re sailing on!”
May we have the peace of Christ in our hearts, even as we sail our boats through the stormy waters. Amen.