Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jesus in the Storm

Stiller of the Storm

Gospel Reading: Mark 4: 35-41

A number of years ago we were in Pensacola on vacation, and I decided we needed to have a little more than our usual beach experience. We went to one of those sailboat rental places along a quiet-water beach. I paid the money to rent a small boat. The man in charge gave us a short sailing course on the shore. I, challenged as I am by all things mathematical and mechanical, pretended to understand what was utterly incomprehensible to me.

It was decided that we would take turns sailing out into water. The first group included Susan, Philip, and me. Somehow I managed to get the thing going in the right direction, and we sailed out into the sound. We were still trying to figure out how to maneuver the boat, when suddenly the sky became dark and the wind began to blow like a gale. It was a helpless feeling we had as inexperienced sailors. We were in a dangerous situation, and we did not know what to do.

Then, how I do not know, we got the boat pointed toward shore. That gave us a little relief till the wind shifted, caught the sail, and started to drive us toward shore. The owner was standing on the beach, waving his arms and yelling at us, concerned about his boat but not us. But there was nothing we could do but ride the boat and see what happened.

It was not the Lord’s time for us. The boat did not crash, and we were not harmed. The only damage was to my relationship with Susan and Philip. But all three of us can identify with what happened to the disciples one night on the Sea of Galilee.

I. The Stirring of the Storm

After a day of teaching along the lake Jesus told His disciples He wanted to cross the lake to the other side. He may have had in mind going across to preach in yet other places or of going across to get away for awhile from the stress of ministering to the large crowds. He may have been motivated by both interests. The disciples took him in the boat, and, accompanied by other boats set out across the sea. Jesus seems to have promptly fallen asleep in the stern with his head on a cushion. Do you know why Jesus fell asleep and slept so soundly? He was tired. Jesus was a man, fully so, except for sin. He got tired from physical, emotional, and spiritual strain, and needed sleep and refreshment, just as we do? I know some of you are tired today. You are tired from your work that seems never to end. You are tired from the stress of dealing with children and budgets and the needs all around you. You are tired from the spiritual battles you must fight as a Christian in this world where you are opposed by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Please know that Jesus understands, for He has experienced just these things. He knows, and He cares, and you can turn to Him and ask for help.

As they were crossing the lake and Jesus was sleeping, a storm stirred. Of course it was a literal storm. The Sea of Galilee is 660 feet below sea level, 12 miles long, and 7 ½ miles wide. At the southern end is a deep cliff lined valley. When the winds begin to whip through that valley and the cooler air of the upper elevations collides with the warmer air over the lake, the weather can get bad in a hurry. That’s what happened that night.

The question is whether we have any right to “spiritualize” this and use it to talk about “the storms of life.” I think we do, and let me tell you why. In writing this Gospel Mark seems always to have had his eye on the church in Rome facing opposition and persecution. I think he meant for the Christians in Rome to identify with the disciples in their boat on the storm-tossed sea. In fact one of the earliest pictorial representations of the church was as a boat on the sea. It seems the church is always on the sea threatened by turbulence. Sometimes fierce gales are stirred by external pressures and sometimes by internal pressures. When we find the church in this condition, we should also identify with these disciples as the face the furious wind and waves.

But there are also the storms in our personal and family lives. There’s seldom a time for any of us when we are not sailing through a storm or do not see the threat of a storm on the horizon. It doesn’t matter what kind of storm it is – it may have to do with your marriage, or your job, or your finances, or a relationship, or your health. But, whenever you feel yourself in a threatening storm, you, too, can identify with these disciples trying in their shallow boat to keep from drowning.

One other observation about the storm – Jesus took them into it. It was Jesus who asked them to sail across the sea that night. They were doing what He asked them to do when they encountered this danger. Just because the storms come, you should not assume that you are there because you are outside the Lord’s will for you. Sometimes it is His will, for His own good purposes, to take us right into the middle of a storm.

II. The Failure of Faith

The disciples were in a life-threatening storm, and they were there because they had followed Jesus’ direction to sail across the Sea to the other side. But how would they react?

Before we look at their behavior in the storm, it is important to remind ourselves where Jesus was during the storm. He was in the boat with them, but He was asleep. Isn’t that the way it often seems to us when we are in our storms? Sometimes it can seem to a Christian in a storm that Christ is not there at all, that He has abandoned him. But, often what we experience and find so frustrating is that we know He has led us into the storm and that He is still there in the storm. Yet He appears to be unaware of or uninterested in our plight. If He’s there, why doesn’t He do something? If He knows you are in trouble, and He’s present, why does he not show signs of some kind of activity on our behalf?

As the storm worsened, and the desperation increased, Jesus continued to sleep. The disciples finally came to the point that they could not stand it any longer. They woke Him up and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Mark seems to come closest to what the disciples actually said in their panic. Matthew and Luke tone their words down some. In Matthew they say, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” In Luke they say, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” But in Mark we hear a different tone. This is probably because Mark had the benefit of the eye and ear witness of Peter who was there. The disciples who approach Jesus are frustrated with Jesus. They have come to the end of their wits as experienced seaman and know their situation is looking hopeless. There is irritation in the voices and the tone of rebuke. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Those are hard and hurtful words. When you love someone, nothing gets to you more than an accusation that you do not love the person. When you care about a person, it stings when he or she says you don’t care. Yet isn’t this the way we act sometimes toward others when life is stormy and we are feeling afraid and helpless. Don’t we sometimes turn on those who love and care for us the most? Don’t we accuse them of not caring? This is what the disciples did when Jesus was asleep in the boat. We might say they shook Him awake and accused Him of not caring about their circumstances. Their failure, of course, was a failure of faith. It was failure to rest in Christ in the storm, failure to trust the seemingly inattentive Christ in the crisis.

I wonder if you have done that. I have. In some trials it seems my faith gets a foothold early. Other times I have faced crises, and my response has been such that I had to wonder if I had any faith at all.  I’ve found, too, that I can get irritated with the Lord when He doesn’t come to my aid as soon as I want or in the way that I want. Now I cannot excuse my failures of faith, nor can I excuse yours. But what I can say is that you need not despair about your faith. Sometimes we feel like we are climbing barefoot on a hill slimy with mud and that all we can do is slide down while trying to grab something to stop the slide. But that does not mean we have no faith. The disciples of Jesus, who had left all to follow Him, nevertheless experience a big failure of faith in the storm.

The only good thing that can be said about them is that they knew where to turn in trouble, and they believed that, if Jesus would, He could do something about the storm. No matter how weak your faith may be at any moment, never stop crying out to the Savior to help you. He is able and He is willing to come to your aid.

III. The Rebuke of the Rebels

The hard words of the disciples did rouse Jesus. He got up and rebuked the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And, as soon as He spoke those words, the wind stopped blowing and the water became calm. This is a remarkable thing. Can you imagine speaking to a hurricane or tornado or flood and having them obey you? Your words would have no effect whatsoever for to rebuke the elements you must have control over them, control that you can exercise by merely speaking your will. This is exactly what Jesus did.

The world of the Bible is not a world governed by chance or by independent forces. The world is governed by God. In the Old Testament God is often portrayed as controlling nature and directing the forces of nature according to His will. In the opening sentences from Psalm 117 that we read this morning there is just such a portrayal of the LORD. “For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea” (25). But then what happened? “He made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed” (29). The LORD caused the storm and the LORD calmed the storm. He had power to send it, and when the men called to Him for deliverance, He had power to end it. Psalm 89 speaks in the same way: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (9). The LORD is sovereign over the wind and waves and nothing more than His word is required to cause them to do His will. Never in the Old Testament does a man have such power.

But here the Lord Jesus Christ does just what God does. He speaks to the winds and waves, as though they were persons, and says, as one commentator puts it, “Be quiet! Shut up!” And they obey. In fact the language He uses is the kind of language He also used in exorcisms. That was not because Mark or Jesus believed a sea demon caused the storm but because Jesus treated the sea as a hostile force to be subjected to His will. And as soon as He spoke His will into the situation the sea became as meek as a baby kitten.

Perhaps you wonder if there is any way the Jesus can speak peace into the storms of your life. Is there any way that He can speak to stir up our faith and to take away our crippling fears? The answer is the same one I remind us of so often and yet forget so often myself. He speaks to us now and to the end of the world through His written and preached Word and through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are no less than the words of Jesus to us assuring us that He is with us, that His grace is ours and is adequate for all our needs, and that He will not ignore us but help us, as we must sail through the inevitable gales that blow in this fallen world.

Jesus rebuked the rebel sea, but He also rebuked the rebel disciples. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” These men had experienced many privileges. They had been with Jesus when He healed the sick and cast out demons. They had heard His teaching and had been granted the insight to understand the secrets of the kingdom that were hidden from the multitudes by the parables. Why then were they so afraid when they had in the boat with them this One whom they had spent so much time with and whose power had been demonstrated to them so many times? And were they still without faith after all they had heard and seen? It is sad that sometimes we have to be asked the same question by the Lord. “Have you been a Christian so long, and heard my Word so often, and seen the sufficiency of my grace in so many circumstances and still you have no faith? Why are you so afraid just now?”

These are not words we like to hear. They stand us up and show how little we have benefited from all the privileges we have enjoyed. But they are not spoken to us as though we were our Lord’s enemies. They are meant to show us how weak our faith is and how much it needs to grow. They are meant to rebuke us but also to call us to repent of our unbelief and to renew our trust in the Lord.

What the disciples witnessed that day left them almost as disturbed as they had been in the storm. The calmness of the sea brought in its own way turmoil to their souls. They were filled with fear and asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” This is the big question in the Gospel of Mark. He constantly shows us Jesus and asks us to answer the question, “Who is this Person?” In this Gospel so far the only ones who can answer that question unambiguously are God the Father and the demons. God the Father says, “You are my beloved Son.” The demons say, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” But so far not even His disciples can speak with such clarity and conviction. However, Mark has told us at the very beginning of his book that it is “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” As we see him calm the raging storm, and hear the disciples’ question, “Who is this?” we should be prepared to answer, “This one, who is Lord of nature, is the Son of God who has come to us for our salvation.”

That is the beginning of true faith – faith that finds Jesus speaking peace into all life’s storms.


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