God in the Boat – Sermon
Posted on June 25, 2015
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:35-41
Sermon for Grace Baptist Church on June 21, 2015 by Chansin Esparza
Happy Fathers Day to all the men. Today is a day in our culture to celebrate the influence of men upon us, so I want to start by telling you a little about my father.
My dad is a jokester. Growing up, dad would tell me all kinds of stories. And I was a gullible child. Sometimes the story would be so fantastical – or I would notice a gleam in his eye – that I’d ask him if it was the truth. He’d say, “Yes, yes, of course.” But after thinking about it some more, if I still wasn’t sure, I’d say, “Dad! Do you promise?”
That was the magic word with my dad. Somewhere along the way my dad made a pact with me that whenever he used the words, “I promise,” then that was the honest truth. He would never lie or back down on his words if he promised. So sometimes I’d ask him to promise and he’d try to get around it by saying, “You shouldn’t have to ask me to promise! Why would I lie about this?” or something to that effect.
My dad is someone who will never lie to me when he says, “I promise.” And because I know who my dad is, I don’t have to fear that he will not follow through or he will trick me in a false story. When it comes to our key phrase, my dad is completely trustworthy. Knowing dad the way I do takes away my fear. Knowing, recognizing, understanding – it makes all the difference in life.
In our gospel reading today, we encounter the disciples at a point in their story when they did not yet know Jesus. The book of Mark is a fast-paced story, beginning with Jesus getting baptized in the Jordan. He is tempted, calls his disciples, rebukes demons, heals the sick, and begins a preaching tour – all within the span of one chapter. More encounters of the same continue until we read about the calming of the storm at the end of Mark 4.
This story teaches us that fear is calmed when you know God.
Jesus had just finished teaching parables by the Sea of Galilee. The crowds were so large and pressing that he stood in a boat while the people listened to him from shore. But the day was coming to a close, and he was ready to move on. Without disembarking, they pushed off and began the journey to the other side. The large freshwater lake is surrounded by high hills and its water lies below sea level. Those characteristics, combined with abrupt temperature changes could – with little warning – create a gust of wind sweeping down the valley, bringing a violent storm. These storms were well known and hard to predict. At least four of the disciples with Jesus were trained fishermen. And what they feared happened. A great windstorm arose. The word for storm in the story carries overtones of demonic power. Waves beat into the boat. Like demons intent to destroy, the water hurled upon the wooden vessel with great force, swamping the boat.
Thinking about the rain that swamped the town of Wimberley recently, and thinking about how storms affect us all, I suspected that rain most likely falls on every inhabitable place on earth. So I researched the “driest place on earth” to find out if there was water there, too. And I found most sources point to the Atacama Desert in Chile. They get maybe .6 inches of rain per year, although some locations receive much less.
While it is amazing to me that people actually live in this desert region, what was more amazing to me was to discover that in March of this year this driest place on earth experienced a devastating flood. I watched videos of Chileans wading through waste-high muddy water in their homes. The streets were flowing rivers. It only took 2 inches of rain within 24 hours to hit the ground in the desert … a ground that is rock hard, unabsorbing, and without vegetation. The dry riverbeds – consumed by multiple years’ worth of rainfall in just one day – became rushing torrents of water that destroyed nearly everything in its path, including the lives of more than 24 people.
How little rain it takes to cause a storm in our lives, too. It could be as little as two inches. It could be so much more. How rarely do we expect trials to invade our space. Troubles, like rain, come upon our fragile lives.
A few weeks ago my pastor asked our congregation – What was the problem they were facing that God was needed to do something miraculous? What is your big trial? He was asking about the storms. We all had a sticky note in our hand, having been given one as we entered the sanctuary. And we wrote our storm down. We took them to the front, and stuck them to the stage. Neon pops of color were sprinkled all across the front of the church.
Later I approached those sticky notes to pray for people. And as I read their trials – the anonymous notes with all kinds of pains and struggles jotted down in a few words – so many of them are in a storm. Sitting next to each other, it would be hard to guess what fear the other is facing. I read things like: Rebellious Son. Fear of future retirement. Constant pain. Porn addiction. Need a job. Alcoholism. Broken family. Depression. Parent’s dementia. Overeating. Loneliness. One note said, “I am supposed to be applying for college, but my dad has cancer.”
Storms are a part of this broken world. They affect each one of us. Jesus said in John 16, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” Christians face trials in the same proportion as those without faith. The difference between someone who knows Jesus and someone who does not is in how we react to those storms. The disciples in this story reacted with a question.
Mark 4:38 says, “But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’”
The truth was, they really were in danger of drowning. And there Jesus was, sleeping in the rear of the boat. What a stark contrast to the raging storm outside. Some say that Jesus sleeping was a sign of his humanity. Jesus was fully human, and humans sleep. Others say it was an image of trust in God. Like Psalm 4:8 says, “I will lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” Jesus knew he was sovereign and secure. Why not sleep? What it seemed like to the disciples, though, was that Jesus was unaware of their trouble.
They cried out to him, “Teacher!” That’s who he was to them. In the book of Mark, thus far Jesus healed people and taught people. We readers of Mark are told from chapter 1 verse 1 that this was the good news story of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” but the disciples didn’t see that yet. The disciples called on their teacher, not recognizing he was more.
And really, they didn’t call on him. They accused him. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” That was not a request for help. Maybe it was an indirect request. Maybe it was a cry of despair. They resented that they were facing death while Jesus slept. They believed him to be indifferent.
Some people ask questions when afraid. One day little Jerry came running into the house, having just been playing outside with his friend. They were eating a snack on the front porch when Jerry, terrified, ran into the kitchen to find his mom. He said, “I accidentally ate a seed, and Johnny says now I’m growing a watermelon in my belly! Is that true?”
The fearful question of a child – seen from the perspective of an adult – can sound ridiculous. Kids ask about the boogeyman. They wonder about the monsters under their bed. We see more and know more than children do, and so their questions sometimes look silly to us. I wonder what God thinks about our questions.
Doubts about God tend to emerge in times of crisis. Depending on your faith, depending on your circumstance, you may question or accuse God in the midst of your storm.
Instead, I pray that our faith takes us to higher places. Let’s take a cue from the Psalmist who doesn’t question but turns to God and makes the request – “Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, my God and my Lord!” (Psalm 35:23)
One bit of beauty I draw from the despair of the disciples’ accusation is that – if they didn’t actually ask for Jesus’ help and yet Jesus gave it, what does that say to us about our storms when we don’t ask for help? Might God still take care of things? I think so! Personally, I am going to ask for help because scripture says God hears our prayers. But I am comforted to see that sometimes – when we don’t have the strength or the faith to ask for what we ought to ask for – God will still intervene.
Christians are called to not just withstand the storms. We’re called to be faith-full and fear-less about the storms. The next part of Mark is about the miracle and the aftermath.
Awakened and accused, Jesus gets up and rebukes the wind like a demon. It’s the same vocabulary he used for silencing the demon in Mark 1:25. Two imperative words: Be Quiet! Be Still! The storm reflected the powers of chaos and evil, and Jesus performed an exorcism of nature.
And the wind ceased. In an instant, the disciples’ entire circumstance and perspective changed. Jesus asked them, “Why are you afraid?” It’s pretty obvious to me why they had been afraid. The waves. Swamping water. Imminent death. Remember? But Jesus correlates their fear with their lack of faith. “Have you still no faith?” After all the healings and exorcisms and teachings and just knowing me … do you still not know me? And apparently they did not.
The verse just prior to this story says that Jesus explained to them all things privately. They didn’t understand the parables, and they didn’t yet have faith in the power of Jesus. That sounds like me, at times. The Bible has been explained to me. I’ve learned all about God’s character. I’ve been following Jesus, but in the midst of my anxiety, I sometimes fail to see the big picture.
Well, the disciples were awestruck. Literally, it says they feared a great fear. Fear of the storm turned into fear – or reverence – of Jesus. Still realizing what happened, they wondered, “Who is this guy that even the wind and sea obey him?” The answer lies in the story itself. What is uncontrollable to people is easily calmed by God. Jesus is the Son of God. No mere human being triumphs over raging waters. Yet the disciples were unable to decipher the significance of his identity.
The final question shows the story is not focused on the miracle itself – though it was amazing – but the focus is on Jesus. Who then is this? We – as readers – have insight. We know how the story ends. But knowing the story, or even assenting to a belief in the Son of God – is different from facing a storm and calmly expressing faith in the God who can still storms.
Suspense movies are a popular genre of entertainment. Suspense movies play on our fears. If “knowledge is power” then knowledge likewise reduces fear. And suspense movies keep us holding onto our seats, unsure of what will happen next. That’s what makes them so scary; you don’t know what is going to happen. I looked at lists of the top suspense movies, and I’ve seen only a few. I avoid them because I know I’d end up closing my eyes through half the movie. My heart just can’t take it. Last week I saw Jurassic World – which is technically a science fiction adventure film and not a suspense film – but it was suspenseful enough for me! I found my fear rising as the Indominus Rex crept through the jungle, with his big-toothed face an arms-length away from the hiding people. I didn’t know who he would attack next. People are afraid when they don’t know.
How do we transcend fear? This story tells us that we learn to not fear when we recognize who Jesus is. When we recognize we are loved by the all-powerful God who is with us in the storms.
Let’s be honest. God does not always calm the storm. When I read the story of the disciples and Jesus on the boat it seems obvious to me that Jesus was going to calm that storm. It was not time for him or the disciples to die. There are several more pages to the book! But it’s less obvious to me when I am the one facing a storm. Or when my loved ones are entering storms. History shows that God does not always calm storms. Faithful and faithless people are stricken by tragedies. We talked about that earlier – how everyone experiences storms.
When I face a hard time – I know that Jesus is powerful enough to eradicate the situation. He can heal my father, dissipate addictions, reconcile broken families, divert natural disasters. He can! But I’m less certain that Jesus will. My faith never wavers that God is able. My faith wavers in God’s choice. For reasons unknown, God sometimes lets things be. So I pray, “God, I know you can heal my friend. But will you choose to intervene here? Please intervene.”
Faith in God’s power to change our current situation is one thing. Jesus calls us to a step above that. The most beautiful faith is not seen in the people who face a storm and confidently say, “My God will save the day” with a foolhardy belief that Jesus will calm that storm. Sometimes people believe that if they just believe hard enough, then God will have to obey. However, the faith that Jesus is calling us to, and the most beautiful faith, is seen in the person who says, “I am in this storm, and God is with me. I ask God to calm the storm, but I trust that regardless, God holds me through the outcome, and I will never be alone. There is no need to fear.” Because the truth is, the outcome may not be as we hope. It may not be what we would have chosen for ourselves. The storm may indeed devastate us. We may go under.
The disciples could have died in the lake that day. It would have made Jesus no less a loving Savior and God. God sees bigger than we do. We are not always going to understand. Our consolation in facing the storm is that no matter what, in the end, God gathers us to himself.
Can we be like Jesus – who had such assurance that he was serene during a storm? How do we transcend fear? With the help of the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge Jesus is the Son of God. We must get the identity question right.
The disciples asked, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Of course Jesus cared! Jesus was in the boat with them. He bound his life to them. And when we bind our lives back to him, our fate and Jesus’ fate are one and the same. His triumph is our triumph. Our struggle is his struggle. When we are afraid, we too try to wake God up to take care of us. But Jesus is present and concerned even when we do not perceive his care. In Jesus we have the God whom all of nature obeys – even when it appears the storms may overwhelm us.
It’s natural to be afraid for a little while. Max Lucado says, “The presence of fear does not mean you have no faith. Fear visits everyone. But make your fear a visitor and not a resident.” — When fear persists, it is because we forget who our God is. The disciples didn’t yet know that Jesus was God. They didn’t see the extent of Jesus’ care – that he would die for them. Jesus came to earth and took on humanity because he cared about us perishing. No one could care more. God is in the boat with you.
There’s a kid’s book called Chester’s Way about some mice who are friends. On one page you read this: “Once, when Wilson accidentally swallowed a watermelon seed and cried because he was afraid that a watermelon plant would grow inside him, Chester swallowed one, too. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Chester. ‘Now if you grow a watermelon plant, I’ll grow one too.’”
I think God is like Chester. He gets in the boat with us. God tells us in Isaiah 41:10, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” Moses told Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
We have faith in a God who saves us even beyond death. He doesn’t save us from death. He doesn’t prevent all bad things from our path. Neither did he spare Jesus. But he raised Jesus from the dead. And he will raise us. Do you know this God? Fear is calmed when you know God.
In the big storms and the little trials – two inches or waist-high waters – I pray we remember God is with us and God is for us. God is in the boat with you.