She was obviously very religious, clutching a worn Bible in one hand, nervously fingering the tiny, gold cross that hung from her neck with the other. She was also obviously afraid to fly. She’d been anxious since going through airport security, and old images of 9/11 kept creeping into her mind. She glanced nervously at the other passengers. She settled into her seat, a window seat where she could keep a close eye on things. Be sure the engines were running and the flaps were attached to the wing.
Her heart beat faster as the plane rolled away. She clenched her jaw and shut her eyes. The take off was bumpy, the flight was bumpier still. The captain kept the seatbelt sign on and warned the passengers, in his officious monotone, that the flight was going to be a bit rougher than usual on account of bad weather. She watched the thunderheads rolling outside the plane. With every pitch and roll of the plane, however slight, she clutched the little cross ever more tightly, until it dug into the palms of her hands. She paged through her Bible looking for familiar passages. “Behold, I am with you always.” “Never will I leave, never will I forsake you.” Her lips moved silently to an old sailors’ hymn she learned from her father, a career Navy man:
Over life’s tempestuous sea.
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass come from thee.
Jesus, Savior, pilot me. (LW #513)
It was Jesus’ idea to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee that evening. The fishermen might have had another plan. They knew the shiftiness of the winds that blew across the mountains. They knew how quickly storms could kick up in the evening. They respected the sea, even feared it. Fishermen and sailors tended to be a superstitious lot when it came to the sea. They knew how quickly a boat could capsize and a man could drown. The sea was symbolic of Death itself, the great Deep, Tehom, the swirling chaotic waters filled with great sea monsters, Leviathan and Behemoth and Rahab. They might have overruled Jesus. What does a carpenter know about sailing, anyway? But this was Jesus, after all, the One who healed people with a touch and cast out demons with a word. So why not? If they got into trouble, Jesus was Coast Guard and life preserver all rolled into one.
So they loaded Jesus into their little boat and set out on the Sea. A bunch of other boats followed, a rag-tag ragatta heading out on the waves as sun set and the sky turned crimson. As the air cooled, the winds picked up, howling over the hills and blowing like a mighty breath over the water. It was an echo of Genesis 1:3 all over again, when the Spirit of God blew over the swirling, chaotic waters of creation. Or the Exodus, when the breath of God parted the waters of the Red Sea.
But the disciples weren’t thinking theologically or even Scripturally. They were thinking, “we’re gonna’ sink.” The waves were swamping over the sides; the disciples were being tossed around. Matthew, accustomed to the firm ground of a tax office under his feet, was probably turning a sickly gray-green color, leaning over the side. Even the fishermen were panicked. “All hands on deck! Start bailing! We’re taking in water! Who’s idea was it to go sailing, anyway?”
Their eyes turned to Jesus. There he was in the back of the boat, on the captain’s cushion, with His arm draped over the rudder, sound asleep. He couldn’t have been more at peace, or more in control. He’s the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He’s the Word through whom all things were made, and in whom everything in the universe holds together. He’s the Word who told the waters of creation, “This far you may go and no further,” who separated sea and dry land. This storm is no more threatening to Jesus than a Jacuzzi.
So what’s the problem? If the boat goes under, Jesus goes with them. They couldn’t be safer. There was no safer place on the face of the earth than that sinking little boat with a sleeping Jesus at the helm.
The problem is that He was asleep. He might as well have been dead, as far as the disciples were concerned. A sleeping Jesus is as good as a dead Jesus when you’re ship’s sinking. Gotta wake Him up. He can’t save you if He’s asleep, right? So they wake Him up. “Rabbi, get with the program. Don’t you care if we perish?” How can you sleep at a time like this. Wake up and grab a bucket before we go under.
The ancients thought that the gods slept. That’s when bad things happened, when the gods were asleep at the wheel. A awful lot of religion is an attempt to wake the gods up from their afternoon nap. Make a big noise, get their attention. It even creeps into Christianity. Even though “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” we figure more is better. Get lots of people to pray. Never mind what they believe, or even whom they are praying to. Make a big religious noise, and maybe God will wake up to our need, right?
In the book of Jonah, when Jonah’s ship was sinking, all the sailors on board got together and had a big ecumenical prayer service. It says that everyone prayed to his own god, and they threw the valuable overboard to lighten the load, and probably to bribe the sea gods too. But Jonah was below deck, in the inner part of the boat, sound asleep. And the captain of the ship came down and woke Jonah up. “What’s the matter with you, sleeper? Get up and call upon your god! Maybe he’ll listen to you and save us.”
And then the sailors try to figure out who’s responsible for this mess, because they’re thinking, what goes around comes around. They draw straws, and Jonah gets the short one. So they ask him, “Who are you and what did you do?” And Jonah says, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” That kind of exclusive talk put the sailors on edge. They were appealing to the wrong gods. In fact there are no other gods.
“So what are we supposed to do?” they ask. You’ll notice Jonah doesn’t tell them to all join hands and sing Amazing Grace or Kum ba Yah. “It’s because of me,” Jonah says. Throw me overboard and the sea will be calm.” Well, the sailors were a bit reluctant to throw a paying customer overboard, so they tried to row their way through the storm but they couldn’t. Finally, exhausted and at wits end, the sailors pray not to their own gods but to Yahweh – “We beseech thee, O Yahweh, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood; for thous, O Yahweh, hast done it as it pleased thee.” They tossed Jonah overboard and immediately the sea became calm. And it says, “Then the men feared Yahweh exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows.”
(By the way this is a good example of how to pray with pagans. Proclaim the only true God who has revealed Himself to be the Maker of the universe, and hold up the only Sacrifice that saves.)
And the rest, as they say, is history. Jonah gets swallowed by a divinely appointed big fish who deposits Jonah on the beach three days later, and God sends him off to preach to the pagans who all convert en masse, much to Jonah’s displeasure.
Jonah on the sinking ship a picture-type of Jesus Christ, the sleeping Savior. Sleeping comfortably on the captain’s cushion as the wind whips and waves crash over the sides of the boat and the disciples are in a panic. They wake Him up, and Jesus shouts at the wind and the sea the way someone might scold a bad dog. “Be quiet! Be still!” The same words He uses with the demons. “Be quiet, be still.” And the wind and the waves who know their Master are obedient. They have no choice. Jesus is the Word that called them into being. They must obey, and they do. There was a great calm.
That’s the power of Jesus’ Word. With a Word He heals, He casts out the demons, He calms the storm. It isn’t a big deal. He barely needs to be awake.
Jesus looks at His disciples – dripping wet, fearful, seasick, panicked. “Why are you afraid? Don’t you yet have faith?” He asks. “Don’t you trust me? Do I have to keep proving myself to you guys? Don’t you trust that I am who I say I am?
Mark says the disciples were “filled with fear,” no longer over the storm. Now over Jesus. “Who is this guy, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” He’s the Lord of creation, the Maker of sea and dry land, the creative Word. That’s who He is. And He ought to be feared more than wind and waves and cancers and clogged arteries and terrorists and demons. There’s more power in one little word from Jesus than in all the waves of the Pacific Ocean in a storm.
And yet we are afraid, aren’t we? When our boat is about to capsize. When the doctors say, “I’m sorry but there’s no more we can do for you.” When the economic winds begin to howl and all our safety and security goes overboard. And we start to sound like the faithless disciples a lot of the time. I’m glad for these accounts, aren’t you? The disciples are usually men of “little faith.” It leaves a lot of room of us “little faith ones.” We panic too, and want to wake Jesus up, forgetting that He neither slumbers nor sleeps.
And most of all we forget that sleeping Jesus reconciled the whole world to God in the sleep of His death on a Friday afternoon. There’s the power of God to save. When Jesus appears most powerless, most out of it, most unable to do anything constructive. When He’s hanging dead and naked on a wooden cross and all the people are standing around mocking Him and spitting on HIm and insulting Him, that’s when He is most powerful to save. His death is our victory over death. It’s the death of the Lord of all, the Word who subdues wind and waves, who takes up our sin and lets Himself be subdued by Death. Like Jonah thrown into the Deep, Jesus dives headlong into our death so that when we sink, and we all inevitably will sink into the sea of death, we are not alone. Christ is there to catch us. Jesus is with us, so that awake or asleep, we belong to Him. We are safe in His death. That frightened woman on the airplane. Those fearful disciples in the boat. You, me, the terrorized world. You are all safe in the death of Jesus who made peace with the world by dying on a cross.
The question for us here this morning is this: Will we trust a sleeping Savior? Or are we going to try to rouse Him, bribe Him, butter Him up with our religious ramblings? Will we trust that the death of Jesus has already reconciled this sinking ship of a world to God and live like reconciled people? Will we trust that sinless Jesus became our sin in His death so that in Him, raised from the dead, we are the righteousness of God? Or will we continue to try to shoulder the burden of our sin, atone for our sin, justify ourselves before God’s bar of justice? Will the love of Christ constrain us to say “Christ died for all and therefore all died,” even when the religious monopolies object and say, “It can’t be that easy.”
Will we dare to proclaim an inclusive Savior in Jesus Christ who atones for the sin of the whole world in the face of religious exclusivism that says “join me and you’re saved.” And, at the same time, will we proclaim that salvation esxclusively in Jesus Christ in a culture that believes there are many paths and many saviors?
On a more personal level, will we trust Jesus when our lives our threatened, our property is lost, our homeland secure breaks down, our defenses are shot? Will be trust Him when the wind kicks up and the waves pour over the side? Will we trust Him, sleeping quietly, (or so it seems)? Will we trust Jesus to be our Savior even when He doesn’t lift a finger to help us but lets us go under into the depths of death? Will you trust Him?
His death and resurrection verify that He is trustworthy. He won’t fail you. Your Baptism is His personal promise to you. You’re safe in His death. Crucified with Him, buried with Him, raised with HIm. His body and His blood are His pledge to you. He will not deny His own body and blood. And you can take that to the grave.
The old sailors’ hymn is still sea worthy, but it could use a touch up in light of sleeping Jesus in a sinking boat. I offer this attempt:
When asleep You seem to be.
When death’s waves crash o’er my head
Let me trust the Word you’ve said
“In my death you safe will be,
By my cross, I’ll pilot thee.”
In the name of Jesus,