Not Sleeping but Strutting
Here’s the story:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
From a modern Western perspective, with our assumptions about how narratives work (which aren’t the same as ancient Middle Eastern assumptions), this is a slightly odd ending. If you were making a film of it, the closing scene, on the now-calm sea, would be one of cheering, rejoicing and praising Jesus, their mighty hero. Instead, there is rebuke, more fear, and confusion.
The point of the story, I think, rests in that final question, “who then is this?” That is what we are supposed to ponder and answer for ourselves. If the disciples had known the answer, they would have acted differently. We do know, so we should act differently. To understand how, we need to understand what they actually did wrong. Should they not have woken Jesus, but simply had faith that everything would be alright? Should they have followed their leader’s example and settled down for a nice nap?
To Western minds, that is the logic of the story. Jesus’ rebuke was that they didn’t have faith, and his example of what it looks like to have faith is that he was able to sleep peacefully in the midst of the storm.
Now I’ve never heard it preached that the disciples shouldn’t have woken Jesus – thankfully. The Bible is never going to teach that prayer is the wrong approach, or that Jesus doesn’t want to be bothered about our tiny little problems like deadly peril or impending doom.
However, I have heard in the past that the moral of the story is that when we are fully trusting God we can sleep peacefully throughout the storms in our lives. That a sign of our godliness is that trials and tribulations don’t bother us, and we sail through life unruffled and – possibly – barely conscious.
OK, they don’t quite push it that far in sermons – but that is the implication: if you’re getting anxious and afraid instead of resting in Jesus, you’re getting it wrong.
But I don’t think that is the lesson of this passage. The solution for the disciples was almost certainly not to lie down and sleep and let the storm sink the ship.
Why do I think this (other than basic common sense)? It’s because that wasn’t what Jesus told them to do when they woke him. If the solution to the problem was to lie down and sleep, that’s what he would have made them do.
So what was their mistake?
Strike one: they called him ‘Teacher’. They hadn’t yet got the faith – or the revelation – that he was more than just a wise human.
Strike two: they thought he didn’t care. They assumed that his lack of action indicated that he wasn’t concerned about their fate.
Strike three: they didn’t think he could actually help. When Jesus woke up and calmed the storm with a word, “they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
I’ve only noticed that last little fact relatively recently. The disciples were astonished when Jesus calmed the storm. That must mean that it was unexpected, which means they weren’t going to him for help so much as to get him to panic along with them. Maybe they thought he could haul on a rope or bail water or something. Whatever, despite all they had seen of him so far, when push came to shove, they still thought he was just a man like them.
But even if they didn’t believe he was God, they were Jews – they did, theoretically, believe God was God. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to call on him, either.
No wonder Jesus despaired of their lack of faith.
So back to us. What should be our take-away from this? What does it look like to respond in faith to the storms of life?
As I say, I think it is highly unlikely that the lesson is “don’t bother Jesus, just ‘have faith’ and it will all be well”. Neither is it “close your eyes to the problem and try to let it pass you by”. The disciples’ error was not that they went to Jesus, but that they went in the wrong frame of mind with the wrong expectation. And that’s why the closing question is so important. Who is this?
Lesson 1: He is God. When we go to him, we’re not just asking a wise teacher, but the Lord of all creation, the maker of heaven and earth. He’s not just some fellow traveller, but someone to be treated with awe and reverence, our holy, omniscient Lord.
Lesson 2: He cares. Can you imagine how hurtful it must have been for him to hear that question from them? Yes, he cares! He had come down from heaven for them, invited them to be his closest followers, was preparing to give them great heavenly authority (Mark 3:13-15), and was going to die for them – and they thought he didn’t care?!
Notice that he didn’t respond to that accusation, though. It is common for us in the middle of trials to question if God really cares. It must hurt him, but he still wants us to be honest and ask the questions that are really on our hearts, not least so he can answer them with his love.
Lesson 3: He has the power to help. When we ask, we need to remember that were not just asking a buddy to panic along with us. Let us ask in faith, with confidence that he can do abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine – and let’s not be astonished when he does calm our storms, or strengthen us to survive them. (But let’s pay attention, and remember to thank him for it, too.)
The disciples should absolutely have woken Jesus. They should have recognised who was in their boat and called on him to help, then they should have walked tall knowing that, wind and waves notwithstanding, they were under the protection of someone far more impressive.
How should servants of the living God respond to the storms of life? Not by sleeping through them, but strutting.
I’ve been sitting on this post for a weeks, mulling the ideas, waiting to get round to writing it. I uploaded it on Tuesday, then listened to this fantastic message from Andrew Wilson at this year’s Newday event. He makes a very similar point, but much, much better. Listen to the end. Superb.