Text: Mark 4:35-41 W 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Crossing Over with Jesus
In the name of him whom even the wind and waves obey, dear friends in Christ: For today’s Gospel lesson we heard the familiar story of Jesus calming a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee. It’s a text that often serves as the basis of a sermon that’s purpose is to prove the divinity of the Lord Jesus. His ability to control the forces of nature merely by speaking a word is a clear demonstration that he is indeed the God of all Creation. And the fact that he rescues his fishermen disciples from the terrors of the tempest is proof that he is willing to use his divine power to save “those in peril on the sea”.
But I seriously doubt that anyone here today questions that Jesus is truly God. When the disciples ask in amazement, “Who is this?” you already know the answer – that’s why you’re here today: to worship Jesus as God, along with the other Persons of the Holy Trinity. It’s not very likely either that any of us are one day soon going to find ourselves caught in a violent storm in a small boat on the open sea. So as nice and familiar as this story is, it may not seem to have much to say to us today.
I’d like you to consider, however, that this episode in the ministry of Jesus is about far more than proving that he is God, and that though we are not professional sailors or fishermen, it does indeed have direct application to each one of our lives. It’s true that few of us will ever know the raw terror of a stormy night at sea. But you don’t have to get into a boat and cross a body of water to be caught in a storm. In our lives we often come into gales and squalls every bit as terrifying as the one the disciples faced that night on the sea. Take Job, whom we heard about in this morning’s Old Testament lesson: he lived in a desert country; but he probably sailed through the toughest storm any mere human has ever had to face. In just one day successive waves of enemies and disasters killed his servants and carried off all his worldly wealth. And then, just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, a servant appeared and told him that a powerful wind had blown down a house crushing the life out of all ten of his children. One of life’s storms? More like a hurricane, I’d say. And to his heartbreaking situation was later added the misery of an excruciatingly painful skin disease – his whole body covered with festering boils and running sores.
And that was only the beginning of the storm for Job, because some of the hardest winds and highest waves occur where you can’t see them. They’re on the inside: like the storms of wondering, “Why did this happen to me?” and then the guilty conscience coming up with plenty of answers: some reasonable, some not; but all very real to the tortured soul. And there are the storms of second-guessing: “If only had done this, or hadn’t done that, maybe I wouldn’t be in this mess.” And there are also storms of doubt and worry: long, desperate hours of pleading to a God who seems so distant and detached, as if he were concealed by dark, angry clouds … or who seems totally indifferent to our danger. It’s as if he were sleeping on his watch at the helm.
These storms come to us in different forms. Some are sudden and acute, like the storm suffered by the disciples on the lake. They blow into our lives unexpectedly when we or someone we love suffer a tragic accident, or become the victim of a violent crime, or when the doctor gives one of those diagnoses that no one wants to hear like “cancer”, “Alzheimer’s”, “COPD” or something else just as frightening. They might also take the form of the loss of a job, a fire that destroys a home or business, or as an actual storm like the tornadoes we have around here or the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans a few years back. Other storms are more like unrelenting strong winds and heavy seas that make the going wearisome, miserable work; but that don’t directly threaten life and limb. These might correspond to a long-term stormy relationship between a husband and wife, between parents and children, or between business partners; it might also be a permanent disability of some kind. With this kind of storm there’s forward progress, of sorts, but it’s a bitter, joyless way to go. Then again, some of life’s storms are more like being becalmed in the middle of an endless ocean. When they come you feel like you’re stuck where you are in a miserable situation, that you’re not going anywhere, and that things are never likely to improve. And then there’s that final tidal wave you’ll face one day, when your days begin to shoal up and you prepare to be wrecked on that rocky shoreline we call death.
We’ve all faced such storms in the past. And it’s certain that we will face more in the future. Not one of us likes it when they happen. So I guess the real question is, “Why?” If God is in control of all things, if Jesus can command the wind and waves – and therefore every other potentially destructive force we might encounter – why doesn’t he just prevent them from happening to begin with? If God is the loving, caring Father we’ve heard so much about, why does he allow the storms of life to happen at all?
I’ve read several stories of people who claimed to be committed Christians until the time came that they had to face one of life’s storms, who then, unable to understand why a loving God would allow such terrible things, turned their backs on the faith. Such people, and it’s likely that we all feel the same way sometimes, have a very shallow view of what Christianity is. They hold to the mistaken idea that “if I’m a faithful Christian, I will be spared all of life’s problems. Everything will come up roses for me all the time.”
But we see in this morning’s story that’s not true. It is, in fact, Jesus who directs his disciples to get in the boat and make this night crossing. He does it knowing what potential dangers might lie ahead. Now, in the past, I confess I misunderstood part of this story. I used to assume that Jesus knew the storm was coming – that with his divine knowledge he foresaw everything that was about to unfold. My position has since matured. I’ve come to see that while Jesus lived among us during his earthly ministry, he truly lived as one of us, and never used his divine power or foreknowledge for his own benefit. What Jesus has is faith. He has perfect faith in his Father. He trusts him implicitly. He knows that if his Father chooses to send a storm – or anything else for that mater, then he must have a good and loving purpose for it. And secure in that knowledge, Jesus has no fear whatsoever of any peril that might come.
And two points need to be emphasized here. The first is that Jesus is with his disciples in the storm. He is not a distant God hiding above the clouds and pouring his wrath down on these hapless sailors. No, he endures exactly what they do. Their struggles, toils, and discomforts are his own. What he does not share is their fear – that’s the other point to be made. By sleeping peacefully through the rising tempest Jesus demonstrates how little there is to fear from one of life’s storms.
But the disciples, like we often do, misinterpret his calm assurance for a lack of concern. “Don’t you care if we perish?” they cry. And this is strange, because if you consider their state of faithfulness at the time, they really don’t think Jesus can do anything to help anyway. They’re the seasoned sailors, not him. What exactly do they expect him to do that they can’t? Remember, they’re all surprised and amazed when he stops the storm. It was unexpected – thought to be beyond his ability. They just can’t stand the idea that he’s not panicking like they are. “Wake up and be terrified like the rest of us!” is what they’re really saying. But in the process they make what is mankind’s cruelest accusation against God: “Don’t you care? Don’t you love us?” And unfortunately, this is often our cry. The difference is that we know what Jesus can do, and we know exactly what his love for us cost him – a horrendous death on a cross; but in those times that he directs us into a storm, it’s “Why, Lord? Don’t you care if we are lost?”
The truth is that it’s precisely because he does care if we are lost that he directs into the storms. The sort of “fair weather” faith that is washed overboard by a little squall isn’t true faith at all. It is instead the shallow rooted response of the seed that fell among the rocky soil. It sprung up quickly, but soon perished for lack of root. The Lord is interested in washing away from us such half-hearted attachments that we mistakenly call faith so that he can install the real thing. He is in the process of perfecting our faith – purifying it as if by fire, or to use today’s theme: by the storms of life. And he controls each and every one of these storms to create and strengthen the faith in us that he desires.
What good can from life’s storms? Too many to name. But for starters there’s the introspection and self examination that leads to repentance. When times are good – and for as long as we think we’re getting away with them – it’s easy to harbor all kinds of sins in our lives. There’s nothing like a good crisis to shake us out of our comfortable complacency with sin. When it finally dawns on us that we might go down on account of them, they’ll be the first thing tossed overboard, and we’ll turn to the Lord seeking his forgiveness and cleansing in Christ. Beyond that, there are the virtues of patience and perseverance that can only be learned through having to actually exercise them. It’s also by our own suffering that we learn to be caring and compassionate for others who are suffering – and we also learn what we can do to best help them. We know because we’ve been there. On top of all this, it’s during the storms that we’re forced to grapple with the really important questions of life. They reorder our priorities, causing us to ask the hard questions; and too, they open us to hearing the answers from God’s Word – which in turn increases our faith, because that’s how faith grows: by hearing the Word of God. And that, of course, is the main goal that the Lord has: to build in us strong, lasting faith and complete Christian character and virtue. That’s why we need the storms. The problem is that we keep forgetting who it is that’s with us in the boat. The disciples didn’t really know that it was their God and Lord who was sitting right beside them. We do know; and we can therefore be one hundred percent confident that with the Lord Jesus in our boat no serious harm can befall us and that we will safely cross with him to the other side.
I’ve told this story before; but it fits so well here I can’t resist the temptation to use it again. It happens that I used to own a small sailboat. It was a home built craft (no, not by me – I’m not so stupid that I’d try to sail anything I built). It was about seventeen feet long, and had an open cockpit. When I was stationed at Fort Ord, California, I used to take it to a lake on the east side of the coast range opposite Monterrey Bay. Geographically, this lake was situated very much like the Sea of Galilee, and was subject to the same kinds of sudden squalls for which Sea of Galilee is notorious.
One day I took it there with Steve, who was my executive officer, and his friend Ken, who was exec of a different company in our battalion. Neither Steve nor Ken knew a thing about sailing. They had been power-boating – which, if you ask me, is about as fun and interesting as driving a car in parking lot – but there is a world of difference between power-boating and sailing. Sailing requires thought, and some respect for and understanding of the powerful forces being harnessed to drive and control the craft. It’s a science … an art … one that takes years of practice to master. I gave them the ten-minute crash course. It was, after all, a nice, sunny day with an ideal steady breeze … for the first half hour or so, anyway.
I realized the wind was increasing while we were making a long run down the length of the lake; but you really don’t feel it when you are going in the same direction as the wind. I even cut the run short because I knew it was going to be a long series of tacks to get back to the docking area, but I was surprised to see just how hard it was blowing when made that turn. Now, at that point, I would have been okay with two guys who knew what we were doing – but I didn’t have that … and that’s when the squall hit in earnest, and I knew I was in way over my head. To be fair, I didn’t believe we were in danger of drowning. We could all swim, there were life preservers, and the water, though cold, wasn’t so cold as to cause hypothermia. I did think there was a good chance we’d lose the boat—that it would capsize and sink. I feared mostly the humiliation and damage to my reputation.
But what I want to share is the difference in the way my two crewmen understood what was happening. Ken, whom I didn’t know very well, was having a tough time. His face turned about the same gray color as the sky, and he was clutching the side of the boat in what can only be called “white-knuckled terror”. It was with great difficulty that I was able to get him to help me shorten sail. Steve, I’d put on the tiller while I went forward to work on the sails. He was completely oblivious to any danger. I can remember distinctly that at one point he let the bow drop too far off course so that the full force of the wind caught the sails broadside. We’re almost turning over, water is pouring into the cockpit, and he’s back there laughing and having the time of his life.
Make a long story short: at length, and with no small effort, we got both boat and crew to safety. It happened while I was finishing getting her tied down on the trailer that I overheard Ken taking Steve to task for his behavior on the lake. “What were you thinking? Do you have any idea how close we came to getting killed out there? Why weren’t you worried about what was going on?” Steve just couldn’t understand what Ken was talking about. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I figured the Captain knew what he was doing.” He turns to me and says, “Isn’t that right, sir?”
… How do you respond to a question like that? However misplaced Steve’s trust might have been in me, his perfect faith is a good example of the faith Jesus seeks to create in each of us. The Captain knows what he is doing. And he loves us with an everlasting love. He proved it when he suffered for us the mightiest storm God has ever produced: the storm of his wrath against all the sins of mankind. So when we face the storms that our Father in his wisdom sends, we can be sure that they are a part of his plan to perfect our faith. May our gracious God and Father so strengthen our faith, so that when we sail through life’s storms we allow the Lord’s voice to calm our troubled hearts when he bids us, “Peace. Be Still.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!