Introduction: Asleep in the Back
Put your hand in the hand of the Man who stilled the waters. Put your hand in the hand of the Man who calmed the sea. 
And in our church, we’re also blessed to have a portrayal of this story in one of our stained glass windows—one of my favorites. put your hand in the hand
|Calming of the Tempest window, |
Congregational Church of La Jolla
We can easily relate to how the disciples reacted. They were scared. To be caught in a sudden storm on the water is never a pleasant experience. But this was two thousand years ago, and these were very poor men. And that’s really all we need to know if we’re wondering how sturdy their boat was. Doubtless it was pretty small and pretty rickety—not the sort of vessel you’d trust to withstand crashing waves, high winds, and the possibility of getting tossed against a rock.
But Jesus? Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat.
I. The Fear of Nothing
|Creation window, Congregational Church of La Jolla|
To understand a more ancient view of them, we need to look at the Bible—namely the very opening of the Bible: Genesis, the first chapter, the first two verses:
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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
In the Bible, water is not just a source of life and refreshment and renewal. That’s its controlled form, its friendly form. There’s another kind of water in the Bible, and it’s not just uncontrolled and dangerous. It’s the direct opposite of creation. It represents the very chaos that the Holy Spirit’s power brooded over until the Word was spoken and the process of creation began.
This uncreated waters of chaos didn’t just threaten in the beginning. According to ancient cosmology, the waters of chaos continued to churn in the oceans and seas—and not just there but above the firmament. The ancient universe was a much more threatening place than we can imagine. Open water was not just water, and a storm was never just a storm. They represented the very unmaking of all that was made, and so the fear of them was a fear of a nothingness that most of us probably can’t imagine. hebrew cosmology
The disciples may have feared nothingness, but Jesus himself feared nothing, and slept through whatever threat nothing posed.
And so this story is important to the church because it helps us develop what we call a christology—that is, it helps guide our thoughts and words about who Jesus ultimately is and how he relates to God.
But most of us don’t use words like christology in our everyday lives, because -ologies just don’t do that much for us when we’re struggling to get by, when we’re joyful, or when we’re frightened. It’s especially in that last instance—when the storms of life are raging —that the everyday meaning of this passage comes to the fore. And I think it’s at this level that we can best understand Jesus’ words to his disciples when they woke him up: Why are you so scared? Do you still have no faith? (v 40) He doesn’t expect them to perform the same miracle that he did. He expects them to have confidence that, because they belong to God, nothing can threaten them with nonexistence. Or, to use a triple negative: nothingness cannot threaten them with nonexistence.
II. It’s Raining Men
(and Women… and Children…
and Their Pets)
(and Women… and Children…
and Their Pets)
When we think about raging storms, the terror and uncertainty of September 11, 2001 stands out as one of the most anxious moments in any of our lives. I’ve never met a person who cannot remember not only where they were at 8:46 AM Eastern on that day, but where every member of their family was, where their friends were, what they talked about, and what they felt as well. And the fear was justified. Things that had seemed absolutely permanent were being turned into nothing before our very eyes. To have been in the air at the moment of the attacks sounds, after the fact, absolutely terrifying. But of course those of us in the air were completely unaware of what had happened. Had you asked me before it happened, I’d have said that the worst part of the experience would’ve been to be stranded at that moment in a country that was not my own among people I did not know.
|Flag of Newfoundland |
And that aspect of their experience, as much as anything else, is what the disciples should have had in the midst of the storm when their little boat was being swamped. The Lord, even though he was asleep, was in their midst, and they were together. Christ’s criticism of the disciples was aimed at their fear, but the fear wasn’t what we think. It was more of a timidity, and that timidity is what so often locks us within ourselves and prevents us from reaching up and within and out: Reaching up to God by knowing God’s promises to us; reaching within to find our core—a core which does not consist of terror, but of the peace of God’s Spirit; and reaching out to the community—even if the community is engulfed in the same fear. While the faith of individuals makes a community courageous, it is within the context of community that we arrive at that faith. So which came first, the faith or the community? Neither: God came first.
|Emanuel AME Church, |
Conclusion: ‘As the Pacific Sea’
In a sermon on the text, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, a 17th century pastor spoke of the attitude of Christ toward his enemies in this way:
Despite what some popular preachers tell us, God does not promise us that we would never suffer. But what God has promised us is to be with us, even if God’s presence is unseen—yes, even if Christ appears to be asleep while waves are crashing in upon us.
The fact of the matter is that the One who watches over us never slumbers,  and the body of Christ is never asleep. Should a faithful Christian in Syria be executed because of her faith, the community has not been killed; and should a prayer warrior in South Carolina succumb to the forces of hatred and violence arrayed against him, our prayers will continue.
The next time you face a struggle, remember: The sea has already been calmed. It’s okay if we don’t embrace suffering gladly. But no pain or violence or persecution or storm can threaten who we are. And that is because of whose we are: We God’s people are, and surely God will fold his own securely.
—©2015 Sam L. Greening, Jr.NOTES
- Written by Gene MacLellan (1970) and sung by Anne Murray (1971)
- Indeed, it is principally on Christ’s divinity that John Calvin concentrates when he discusses this event in his commentary on Matthew 8:23-28.
- When the Storms of Life Are Raging is the title of a hymn written by Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), an African American whose father was a slave but whose mother was free. Though his mother died when he was still a child, her family took him in in order to maintain his freedom.
- John Flavel, The Fountain of Life Opened Up: A Display of Christ in His Essential and Mediatorial Glory (London, 1672), Sermon 30
- See Psalm 121:3-4