When the water is still, it is easy to have faith in the captain of your life vessel. When the sound of the sea returns dead calm and the winds are blowing somewhere else, you may even excuse the captain of your vessel to take a nap. Nothing is happening here - the skies are clear - the sailing will be smooth for this journey - so go to sleep captain - we got this - you need your rest. But faith is a delicate thing. It has a tendency to escape and go into hiding right when we need it the most.
- When your heart is tugging you towards an uncertain future but where you are right now is cozy and comfortable.
- When the people who pay your bills expect something from you that your spirit isn't able to give.
- When your family is being ripped apart by the kind of quiet conflict that we are so good at hiding.
- When you lose a friend, maybe for a minute while they explore new interests that don't align with yours.
- When you lose a friend, maybe for a lifetime.
In moments like this, when the sounds of the sea rise from their slumber with enough haste and violence to terrify experienced fishermen, and those of us that are just along for the ride...the faith that once gave us the confidence to send our captain to sleep can quickly disappear. In moments like this, the water which once suspended us above the darkness lurking below the surface of the sea now threatens to not hold us at all. We challenge ourselves to not let noisy distractions get in the way of God's voice. But what happens when the distraction appears to be an impending disaster, when the thunder rolls and lightning strikes?
I had a moment like this in college. One of my best friends was a mess. His name was Paul, but he was also a man among boys. Paul wore his shirts tucked in, his pants were skinny long before it was fashionable. His hair did its own thing. He drove a Cutlass Supreme, a car specifically designed for retirees, but Paul drove it like he bought that car on purpose - if you asked him why he drove a Cutlass, he would lie and say it was used as a prop in a famous movie. And then, you'd wish you were cool like Paul. Paul was charming like that. He played guitar and had a classically trained voice. The girls thought he was cute and told him so. The boys silently regretted not keeping it as real as Paul. And he had a distinctive style that no one bothered imitating, because none of us had the courage, like Paul, to love all the quirky, peculiar parts of ourselves that God made just right, on purpose, from the beginning.
But Paul wasn't perfect. He was also depressed. His depression was manic. He'd disappear for days and sometimes weeks. When he came back, he'd have a story to tell. But he left out the boring parts where he stayed in bed under the covers all day. Depression does that to you. It makes you want to hide from life. Eventually, he couldn't bear the pain of faking it anymore. If he couldn't live life with integrity, he decided that life wasn't worth living. He committed suicide when I was a sophomore in college. I thought Paul was fearless. That, if a violent storm caught our crew out at sea, he'd probably sleep through it. But then he died. And for many months afterwards, I had a hard time believing that "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
I suspect I'm not alone. You, too, might have been there, in that place where faith feels like a relative term. It's easy to believe the water will hold you as long as the storms beat on someone else's boat. But when they come up on mine, I'm capable of asking all the wrong questions, just like the disciples in our story today. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" "Whose idea was it to go sailing today?" "It definitely wasn't mine, I don't even like sailing and I was content right where we were, back there on dry land." "And who hired this captain anyway? Was it you, Peter; or you, James? Did someone check his references because I can't imagine his previous customers would put up with a captain that can't stay awake."
I should be honest with you. I try my best to avoid activities that involve boats or water in the first place. I've gone off-shore fishing before, but I'm not going again. I've attempted to water-ski on a couple of occasions, but it was not pretty. I've done some laps in a pool to train for a few triathlons, but it was miserable.
On one memorable occasion, I ignored my instincts and went on a boat ride with six friends in search of an island near Edisto, down on the South Carolina coast. The leader of our voyage said that there were monkeys on this island, and we were all curious. Well, we never saw the moneys because we got lost on the tiny boat for six hours. The captain of our boat that day said he knew where he was going, but he did not. He didn't know where to find the monkeys. It should have been a 30-minute round trip, but we never made it to the island and we didn't know how to get home. We were lost and then it got dark, so we just sat there, hungry, scared, pessimistic, and angry at the captain for getting us in this mess. He might as well have been sleeping.
After a peaceful day of preaching to large crowds and his small inner circle of disciples, Jesus sets out in the evening for the other side of the sea where we suppose he will do the same thing the next day. We aren't told which sea it was exactly, but we can assume that it was the Sea of Galilee. Throughout Mark's gospel, Jesus and his crew crisscross the sea, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles to people on either side. This trip doesn't appear to be any different than countless other trips this crew, which includes four experienced fishermen, will take. They set out in the evening and it's not long before Jesus is passed out in the back, sleeping in the stern on a cushion. He has had a long day. Earlier in chapter four, we are told that his work was being received well. The crowd that gathered to hear him was so big that he had to board a boat, wade out from the shore a little, drop anchor, and speak from the sea because there wasn't enough space on land. If anyone's keeping score, it was a good day. His message is gaining traction, word is spreading, and now he needs to rest so he can do it again on the other side.
While he's asleep, the winds that carried their sailboat across the sea picked up force. Before long, the same winds gathered enough strength to unsettle the water. The boat that was gliding to the other side as it had done many times before was now being swamped by waves with no regard for the travelers' plans, schedule, or sense of direction. They never saw the storm coming. It surprised them and sent them running - running to Jesus who was still asleep in the stern at the back of the boat.
They jolt him out of his peaceful slumber to ask him if he cares that they are about to die. The boat is sinking and Jesus is sleeping, but it doesn't take long for him to respond to their question. In an instant, he speaks to the wind and rebukes the sea with the same command he used on a demon in Mark, chapter 1. "Peace! Be Still!" he says. And the wind stops, and the sea returns to its natural state. The chaotic waters are now still.
When the storms of life surprise us and the water we thought would hold us up on the way to the other side, is now slapping our boat around and threatening our lives, it can feel like Jesus is sleeping.
There were at least four fishermen on this trip, but none of them knows what to do. Some storms are so big that our technical knowledge is no match. We might know what we ought to do, but the chaos that surrounds us makes a mess of our minds. We can't think our way out of them because they are controlled by forces that elude our ability to reason, they escape our creativity, they ignore our determination to work harder. Some storms can't be calmed without Jesus.
I won't dare to guess about why these storms come and who controls them. I don't know. These were good people trying to get across to the other side so they could share the gospel of Jesus with people that needed to hear it. That sounds like a good reason for God to protect them. They're just following Jesus, like they're supposed to, and he leads them right into a storm that seems deadly enough to threaten their lives. I don't know why the water turns against us sometimes and I don't think the text cares. Ask Jesus why and you might put him back to sleep.
But it is worth our time to wonder why Jesus gets in the boat with us. And, if we pause here, where God determined to step into our small, fragile, exposed boats and glide into the center of our storms, there is something for us to learn. You see, the more pressing question isn't why the storms keep coming, it's why Jesus keeps bothering to get in the boat.
If you are in a storm where your boat's getting thrown around and it feels like the water won't hold you, look around. Someone is in the boat with you.
If you are unemployed and your vocational vessel is getting rocked by the tumultuous waves of this economy that you didn't see coming, look around. Someone is in the boat with you.
If the partner you've been sailing with for a long time has left for another boat or another sea, look around. Someone is in the boat with you.
If it feels like your life vessel is drifting off course and the compass you've relied on sent you in the wrong direction, look around. Someone is in the boat with you.
If you're in a stormy relationship and tempted to throw somebody overboard or at least drop them off at the nearest port, look around. Someone will be in the boat with you.
If you've been trying to navigate the waters of life on your own but keep running into the persistent storm of your own sin and now you are lost, look around. Someone is in the boat with you.
It may look like he's asleep, but don't be afraid to wake him up. He has the power to subdue chaos that is out of your control and the power to tame the waters so they can once again hold you. Jesus knows the storms are coming, but he keeps getting in our boat.
Up to this point in our conversation, I have ignored an important part of this story. Did you notice that Jesus rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith about as quick as he rebuked the sea? Immediately after he calmed the waters, Jesus asked the disciples why they were afraid. It sounds like he's growing a little impatient with the disciples. He's sleeping and they are anxious and afraid. He's sleeping and they are confused that Jesus isn't as worried as they are.
Jesus is fired up, but I think a close reading of the scripture will reveal that his frustration wasn't due to their lack of faith. I'm not sure he expected them to make it through the storm alone - there's nothing faithful about suffering alone or refusing to ask for help. But read closely, and you'll see that the disciples never asked for help. They woke him up so he would worry with them. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" they ask. The boat is sinking and Jesus is sleeping. So, they tap him on the head and shake him and when he finally wakes up they say, "Hey Jesus, wake up, can't you see how bad things are?" Even if they believed that Jesus could do something about the sorry state of things, they never asked! They'd surrendered to their suffering and the only thing worse than suffering through a storm, is suffering alone.
What about you? Have the storms of life ever been so bad that you just wanted someone to know? The chaos of life has unsettled the waters that once held you and you are sinking. But all around you, people sleep walk right past your troubles. They don't notice your tears or your lack of laughter or the way you avoid looking people in the eye. They don't hear your prayers that come in the form of subtle hints you drop in everyday conversations. They don't see the trouble you're in. Or even worse, it feels like God doesn't notice that your ship is sinking. It feels like God went to sleep on you.
The disciples scamper back to the stern to wake him up because they don't believe that he's paying attention. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? The water won't hold us and you are asleep. Wake up and worry with us."
But Jesus didn't get in the boat to worry and he didn't get in the boat to die. The water will hold you because it's going to hold him. Why wouldn't the Word that spoke the still waters into existence be able to still the stormy waters into submission? The water will hold you. The storms will come and threaten your life. The noisy distraction of worry is keeping you up all night, but Jesus is resting easy. The water will hold you.
Jesus got in the boat with you knowing there was a storm ahead and the Word that became flesh is not worried. The storms know what to do when he says, "Peace! Be still!" The water will hold you. Amen.