During this season of Epiphany—this season of revelation—our Scripture stories have revealed Jesus in many ways. The visit of the magi revealed him as the King of all people, everywhere. Paul’s words revealed him as the High Priest who forgives our sins and allows us to approach the throne of grace without fear. He’s been revealed as the One who disrupted the status quo, the One who taught, and acted, and taught some more, and the One who gives us permission to reimagine God’s Law so that we may faithfully follow it in the present. Today’s story offers yet another epiphany. It reveals Jesus as the Lord of All Creation, and it reveals what it looks like to follow such a Lord.
Jesus’ order to go over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee comes after he has finished the Sermon on the Mount and gone on to perform a series of miraculous healings. Understandably, crowds have gathered around him. On his way to the boat, two men speak with him. The first is a scribe who wants to be a disciple. The other is a man who was already a disciple, although not part of the inner circle. To both of them, Jesus speaks radical words about what discipleship entails. To the would-be disciple, Jesus speaks of a life of absolute poverty. To the man who already claimed to be a disciple, Jesus speaks of a life so devoted to Jesus’ mission that even the most sacred duties must take a back seat. Matthew doesn’t tell us how the two men responded to Jesus’ words.
Jesus gets into the boat, with his disciples getting in after him. Apparently exhausted, Jesus falls sound asleep. As he sleeps, Matthew tells us, “A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves.” Our translation doesn’t come close to describing how terrible this storm was. Matthew’s Greek word that’s translated as “storm” is seismos—the same word that our word seismic comes from. This storm is akin to an earthquake at sea—a violent shaking of the water. The wind was tempestuous. The boat was literally being covered up by the waves—hidden by them. This was no ordinary storm.
I can identify with the disciples, because I’ve been in a boat on a lake in such a storm. I was nine or ten years old, and my youngest brother was three or four, when friends of my parents invited us to spend a week with them at their house on Pelee Island in Lake Erie. Another friend, whom we called Captain Mike, would take us from Sandusky to Pelee Island on his boat. Mike was a capable sailor with years of experience on Lake Erie.
We arrived at the dock in Sandusky on a blisteringly hot, sunny morning. My brother Doug says that the boat wasn’t technically large enough to qualify as a yacht, but we were pretty impressed by its big deck and living quarters below. I remember Captain Mike telling my parents that rain was predicted for later in the day, but we would be on Pelee Island long before it arrived. He expected an easy trip of less than two hours.
We were about halfway there when the storm boiled up. The sky turned black, the wind began to blow. The waves rose to alarming heights and fell in sickening drops. I remember the crackle of the radio as Captain Mike alerted the Coast Guard that we might be in trouble. As the waves continued to toss the boat up and down and from side to side, our father strapped my youngest brother into a chair with our mother. My parents’ friend Russ was attempting to come below when a wave hit and threw him down the stairs, resulting in a bloody wound to his head. The anchor started to loosen, and we could hear it banging against the side of the boat. The waves poured over the boat—covering us, Matthew would have said. As the storm intensified, I overheard my parents and Captain Mike talking about whether my brothers and I would be better off on deck or down below. I was much older when I realized that what they were really discussing was whether we were at greater risk of being swept overboard or being trapped if the boat sank. I don’t know how long the storm lasted, but it felt like a very long time.
Eventually we reached the Pelee Island breakwall and arrived at the dock. People had heard about the boat in distress with four young children aboard, and a crowd had gathered to watch and wait. As my brothers and I hung over the side of the boat, losing what was left in our stomachs, a woman wandered up and complained that someone should stop us from doing that. A man yelled at her to shut up. He shouted at her, “Those children could have died out there!”
Lake Erie and the Sea of Galilee have a lot in common. They’re both very shallow, as lakes go. They’re situated so that strong winds can develop suddenly and strengthen quickly. Storms on Lake Erie often produce a particularly violent kind of wave called a “seiche.” The winds push the water to the east, creating a storm surge, and when the wind abates, the water sloshes back and forth across the lake until it evens out again. This can go on for hours. Seiches occur on the Sea of Galilee as well.
So, when you read this story about Jesus and the disciples in a boat in a storm, picture that kind of storm. That kind of wind. Those kinds of waves. It’s no wonder the disciples were afraid, in spite of the fact that at least a few of them were seasoned fishermen. They had sailed this sea a million times before, and they had weathered storms before, but this one made them afraid.
In spite of all the commotion, Jesus sleeps on. It seems impossible, doesn’t it? I can tell you, no one was sleeping on that boat of ours, and there was no sleeping for the disciples on theirs. They actually had to go and wake Jesus up with a plea and a prayer: “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And when Jesus awakes, his words are a little surprising: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”
“Why are we afraid? Look around, Jesus!” they may have shouted over the wind and the waves. And, if their panic allowed them any other thoughts, they may have wondered why he accused them of having only a little faith. They had followed him into this boat, to go to the land of the Gentiles, trusting in him and his mission. When the storm threatened to overwhelm them, they called on him to do something, trusting that he could and would. They had seen his miraculous healing powers over broken bodies. Surely, he could work a miracle now. “Lord, save us!”
And he does. Jesus got up and rebuked the winds and the sea. That word, “rebuked,” is an interesting one. It suggests something other than a magic trick, like waving a wand or chanting a spell that calms the storm. A rebuke is a parent scolding a misbehaving child. Or, a supervisor reprimanding an irresponsible employee. Or, perhaps, a king, commanding obedience from a rebellious subject.
It’s in this rebuke that Jesus is revealed as that King. The magi revealed his kingship over all people, of all nations. Now, the obedient wind and waves reveal his lordship over all of creation. Nature obeys his word, and obeys immediately. The wind and waves don’t gradually ease up. The storm abruptly became a dead calm. Like a chastised subject before his king, nature dropped to its knees and bowed its head in obedience to its lord and master.
The boat, with Jesus and the disciples aboard, arrives on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew concludes the story with these words: “They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’”
Almost always, we assume that it’s the disciples asking that question. But think about that for a moment. The disciples had had a front row seat for all of Jesus’ miracles so far–when he healed the leper in front of him and a centurion’s servant from a distance. When he cured Peter’s mother-in-law with a touch and cast out demons with a word. The disciples had been witnesses as Jesus cured all who were sick, fulfilling the words of Isaiah: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
They may not have completely understood who Jesus was yet. They hadn’t put all the pieces together. They didn’t yet comprehend that Jesus was no mere miracle worker, capable of impressive tricks. They didn’t yet fully understand that Jesus was the Messiah, sent from God to redeem the world. But, they had committed themselves to Jesus. They had an inkling of who he was, and this incident on the boat would have revealed even more to them. Is it likely that they were the ones who would what sort of man Jesus was?
The Greek word our version translates as “they” can be translated in a number of ways. Some translations say that “the men” were amazed. Others say that “the disciples” were amazed, supporting the interpretation that it was the disciples asking the question.
But that Greek word actually means “the people”—sometimes male people, but frequently people of both genders. So here is another possibility. The men and women who had been following Jesus saw him getting into a boat. The people knew where he was headed. It would be relatively easy to walk around the seashore and meet him on the other side. As the people wait for him on the shore, they witness the violent storm as it arises. And they witness the moment when the winds and waves cease at Jesus’ command.
The people knew that Jesus taught with an authority unlike the scribes. They had seen his healings, but they had also watched magicians produce what looked like similar results. But this—this rebuke of a storm and its immediate obedience is on a whole different level. This is something they’ve never seen before. This is an event that would surely prompt wonder and amazement among the people on the shore: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
This story raises a question for us. Are we on the boat, or are we on the shore? Are we the disciples who have a little faith, or are we among the crowd, wondering what sort of man Jesus is? I think we can find ourselves in both places.
Most of us would like to think we’re in the boat with Jesus. But it’s the disciples in the boat whom Jesus describes as having little faith. Maybe it’s more a case of having a small faith—a faith that’s not big enough to encompass all that Jesus is. Aren’t we that kind of disciple, too—disciples like the man who once cried to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief”?
When I hear or read of things like a natural disaster, or a terrible crime, I confess that I wonder where Jesus was when they happened. That question has especially been on my mind this past week, as the terrible reports come out of Syria and Turkey. Tens of thousands dead, with more tens of thousands dying beneath the rubble. Untold numbers of injured, with no hospitals to care for them. Hundreds of thousands made homeless, in the dead of winter, in a country already devastated by war. Situations like this make me ask, “Why didn’t Jesus rebuke the earthquake—the seismos—like he did on the Sea of Galilee?” Why doesn’t Jesus rebuke floodwaters that inundate communities, or wildfires that consume everything in their path, or a virus that leaves no part of the world untouched?
In Jesus’ time, the sea, and especially storms at sea, represented the powers of evil and the chaos they create. When Jesus subdued the power of wind and waves, he was revealed as the One who defeats those powers and the chaos they command. That leads me to ask, “Why doesn’t Jesus rebuke the people who cause chaos and misery—the warmongers, the liars and conspiracy theorists, those who value profits and power over people?” And yet, I continue to pray, “Lord, save us!”
t I hear Jesus saying, “Oh you, of little faith.” But I don’t hear rebuke in those words. I hear compassion. Jesus knows that, in our humanness, we aren’t capable of truly knowing Jesus in all his fullness. We have our epiphanies—glimpses of who he is. Our faith can grow and mature. But we still have questions. We still have doubts. We still feel like we have to awaken Jesus to the difficulties we find ourselves in—in our personal lives and as citizens of the world. But Jesus looks at us with compassion and grace, and he says to us, with love in his eyes, “O you of little faith.”
We may think of ourselves as disciples in the boat, but we have a lot in common with the people on the shore. I think it’s possible to go to church your whole life and believe yourself to be a Christian, and still wonder what sort of man Jesus is. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a good thing. Continuing to ask this question encourages us to know him better. When we think we know exactly who Jesus is, we’re kidding ourselves. Jesus is fully God, and the moment we say we have Jesus figured out is the moment we put God in a box of our own making. A sense of wonder and amazement keeps us in an appropriate relationship with Jesus. We love him as a brother, but we worship him as the Messiah, the Son of God who saves us from our sins, the One who will draw all things to himself when he comes again, the Lord over all of creation.
Many theologians interpret this story as a primarily a lesson in discipleship rather than as a revelation of Jesus’ cosmic lordship. They point to Jesus’ words to the men at the beginning of the passage about severing attachments to the past, to comfort, to prior responsibilities. They point to the disciples’ willingness to follow Jesus to the other side of the Sea, into a mostly Gentile and possibly hostile place. They point to the fact that discipleship can mean being tested, as individuals and as the community of faith.
But, the lessons about the nature of discipleship are embedded in the revelation of Jesus as the One who commands creation. We see that discipleship requires trusting Jesus both because of what we do know about him and in spite of what we don’t know. Disciples confess that Jesus is Lord of All—all people, all places, all events, all of creation—even when the evidence may cause us to question that. Discipleship includes being humble enough to continue asking, “What sort of man is this?” As disciples, we acknowledge that our faith is small, precisely because we do know, in part, what sort of man Jesus is—a fully human man who can’t be fully known because he is also fully God.
My brothers and I remember a lot about what happened on that eventful boat trip to Pelee Island. But the funny thing is, none of us actually remember being afraid. I have only one explanation for this. We trusted Captain Mike, and with him at the helm, we believed that we would make it through the storm. Discipleship, too, can feel like a ride on a tempestuous sea. But, we can entrust ourselves to Jesus, because he is the sort of man who is not only with us in the storm, but commands it. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young