The thing I love most about Scripture is how it reveals something new every time you read it. Even with a story as familiar as the one Donna read for us today, there can be wonderful surprises. That has certainly been the case for me each time I’ve read this story.
This story is full of details I tend to blow right by. Even the experts don’t pay much attention to them. Their focus is on how this story shows that Jesus is more than a gifted teacher and healer and even miracle worker. People of that time were accustomed to those, even though Scripture does tell us that they were amazed from time to time by what Jesus could do. But in this story, Jesus does what only God can do. He controls nature by his word alone. This calming of the storm sets Jesus apart. It makes clear where his power comes from and reveals who he truly is. That’s the message the scholars focus on.
But I love the details that the scholars dismiss: how the disciples took Jesus into the boat “just as he was,” and that Jesus’ head lay on a cushion while he slept. (For some reason, I always picture that cushion as a once-bright red pillow, bleached by the sun to a dingy pink.) But, there’s another detail that has intrigued me ever since I first noticed it a couple of years ago.
I was at Annual Conference, and early one morning I had gone down to my favorite bench along the lakeshore to do my devotions. It tickled me that my passage for the morning was the same passage we read today; it just seemed so perfect that I’d be reading about Jesus calming a sudden storm at sea as I was sitting by a lake that’s notorious for sudden, violent storms. As I began to read this very familiar story, this detail jumped out at me: “On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them into the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.”
“Other boats were with him.” Have you ever noticed those other boats before? I hadn’t. And I was talking with a clergy colleague this week, and she said she hadn’t ever noticed it before either. When I read and imagined this story, I always saw Jesus and the disciples all alone out there, being battered by the waves and the wind. But there were other boats! And in those boats were other people—other people who could see what was happening in Jesus’ boat.
Now, all the scholars I read as I prepared for today dismiss these other boats and the people in them as unimportant. Some say they were included just so there’d be other witnesses to Jesus’ miraculous deed of power. Some say the boats either all sank or made it back to shore, since they aren’t mentioned again. Some actually call this a meaningless detail. But, I give the Gospel writer more credit than that. I think he pointed out the presence of those other boats for a reason. I think he wanted us to consider what the people in the other boats saw and heard.
Jesus must have been bone-tired that evening when he and the disciples got into their boat. He had had a long day, preaching from a boat to the crowd gathered on the shore. Maybe the sun had been beating down on him all that time, and you know how that can wear you out. Then, when he was done preaching and had gotten out of the boat, he continued teaching the disciples privately, telling them (among other things) the parables about the kingdom of God that we read last week.
By evening, he must have been so tired. The disciples must have seen it in his face. So, when Jesus suggests that they cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they take him into the boat with them, just as he was. They didn’t take time to make any preparations. They didn’t give him a chance to do one last healing or offer one more parable. They simply took him into the boat, just as he was, set sail, and left the crowd behind. An exhausted Jesus took the cushion that was used for special visitors and crawled into the little protected space under the helmsman’s platform in the stern, where he fell fast asleep.
But they weren’t entirely alone. Other boats were with him. We don’t know who was in those boats. Some might have been other disciples—ones who weren’t in the inner circle but who still followed Jesus from place to place and supported his ministry, like Mary Magdalene. Some might have been people from the crowd who were hungry to know more about Jesus and decided to catch up with him at his next destination. Maybe some had been lifted into their boats—too sick or injured or disabled to do it themselves but yearning for the healing they had heard Jesus offered. Maybe some were simply curiosity seekers, or the ancient version of paparazzi, people who were drawn by celebrity of any kind, with no idea about who the man they were following was.
So, there they are, all of them out in the Sea of Galilee. And then the storm comes up. Like Lake Erie, the Sea of Galilee is prone to sudden and unexpected storms. It’s located in a kind of basin with mountains all around. The air in the mountains is usually still and heavy, but as the cold air currents pass through the mountain gaps, they get sucked up by the warmer sea air and create the furious squalls that Mark describes. The sea is usually calm in the early morning and at night, when Jesus and the disciples set sail, but when storms come in those hours, they are especially fierce.
At least four of the men in Jesus’ boat were experienced fishermen, well acquainted with the ways of the weather and the waves of the Sea of Galilee. They had been out on that sea thousands of times. Surely, they wouldn’t have gone out if conditions didn’t seem safe. But they got caught by one of the sea’s sudden storms. And this, apparently, was worse than they had ever seen before. The wind hammered at the boat, and the waves poured over the sides, threatening to sink it along with everyone in it. This storm was so bad that the disciples, including the experienced fishermen who had surely sailed through storms before, panicked. Still, Jesus slept on.
And other boats were with him. They were enduring the same terrible storm. The wind was tearing at them, too, and the waves were just as high and hungry as the ones pouring over Jesus’ boat. Imagine the people in those other boats, peering through the driving rain toward Jesus’ boat as they held on for dear life. What did they hope to see? Jesus taking the lead, directing his men as all worked together to get the boat to shore? The disciples, calm and assured in Jesus’ presence, trusting that he would make sure no harm came to them? Steady guides, that those in the other boats could follow like the beacon of a lighthouse to the safety of the shore?
Imagine what they did and didn’t see. At first, they saw no sign of Jesus. But they did see the disciples, in a state of panic. Maybe they could catch the words of the disciples carried on the winds of the storm, but what they didn’t hear were words of prayer to God for rescue or pleas to Jesus to help them. Because the disciples never did that. When the disciples finally woke Jesus up, it was to let him know that they are all going to drown and accuse him of not caring, not to ask him to save them. Theirs were the words of people who still didn’t understand that Jesus had the power of God to command the elements. What the people in the other boats saw were disciples who were feeling alone and helpless and frantic.
Seeing that, maybe the people in the other boats felt foolish for thinking that Jesus had special powers. Maybe they felt betrayed, believing that Jesus didn’t care about his people, or that he was too afraid to come out from his hiding place in the stern, or that he wasn’t even there after all. Maybe they were convinced by the disciples’ behavior that there was no point in ever trying to get into in Jesus’ boat themselves.
This story raises an important question for us to think about. If we’re in Jesus’ boat, what do the people who are other boats see and hear in us? And, what do they learn from our words and actions about the One whose boat we are in?
It would be great if, when we start to feel battered by the winds and waves, we could always react the way we know we should—with complete calm and without fear. That our first and constant response would be prayer. That we would have confidence that Jesus’ presence with us is enough, and that the master of Creation is the master of anything we face. That we would find rest in prayer, joy in worship, and strength in service.
But, we often react more like the disciples. Jesus is right by our side, but we panic. We get busy trimming the sails and bailing out the boat. We may even forget to pray, not even asking him for what we need—courage, wisdom, comfort, forgiveness, direction, salvation. And then, when we realize he’s been right there all along and we are still in danger—from pain, fear, confusion, foolishness, hard-heartedness—we blame it on him. “Don’t you care that we are drowning, Jesus?”
John Wesley was in Jesus’ boat when Wesley sailed to the America in 1736. He had been ordained as a priest in the Church of England and was anxious to share the Gospel with the Native Americans and colonists in Georgia. While he was at sea, terrible storms overtook his ship day after day, and Wesley found that he had a lot in common with the terrified disciples. Wesley was thinking of our passage while writing this in his journal:
“Many people were very impatient at the contrary wind. At seven in the evening they were quieted by a storm. It rose higher and higher till nine. About nine the sea broke over us from stem to stern; burst through the windows of the state cabin, where three or four of us were, and covered us all over, though a bureau sheltered me from the main shock. About eleven I lay down in the great cabin and in a short time fell asleep, though very uncertain whether I should wake alive and much ashamed of my unwillingness to die. Oh, how pure in heart must he be, who would rejoice to appear before God at a moment’s warning! . . . In the evening [a few days later], another storm began. In the morning it increased so that they were forced to let the ship drive. I could not but say to myself, ‘How is it that thou hast no faith?’ being still unwilling to die.”
But, on that same boat with Wesley was a group of German Moravians. They had an entirely different reaction as the winds howled and the waves pounded ceaselessly against the ship. Here’s what Wesley wrote about them as the third storm struck:
“At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before. At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behavior. Of their humility they had given a continual proof . . . every day had given them an occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move . . . There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger and revenge. In the midst of the psalm with which their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’”
Anyone watching the disciples might well have wondered what good it was to be in the boat with Jesus. Anyone watching Wesley’s reactions to his storms might have wondered the same thing. But anyone watching the Moravians would have seen that trusting Jesus, deeply and fully, brings a sense of peace, even in the face of death. They would have seen that placing your life in the hands of Jesus means that you are being carried by the Lord of the universe. They would have seen that death holds no fear for those who look to Jesus for help in the storm.
A hundred years before John Wesley sailed to Georgia, the artist Rembrandt painted a picture called “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” Maybe this was the scene as viewed by the those in the other boats. They would have seen twelve men, terrified, trying to control the rudder and the sails, crying to Jesus that they were about to die, and in the case of one man, throwing up over the side. But they would also would have seen a thirteenth passenger. He’s nestled at the feet of Jesus, head bowed and hands clasped in prayer.
The disciples, Wesley, the Moravians: they all faced death by drowning. At some point, we will all face our own deaths. And, even though we are in Jesus’ boat, we face other dangers, toils, and snares throughout our lives. People in other boats are watching us. What will they see when they look at us through their own storms? Will they see us in a panic, frantically relying on our own devices to survive? Will they hear us cry out in fear? Will they see us looking everywhere except to Jesus for help, only going to him when we think all is lost?
Or will they see us on our knees, close by Jesus’ side, praying for him to calm our storms and strengthen us as we go through them? Will they hear us singing with confidence and trust? Will they witness in us our utter faith in the one who can command Creation’s storms and our own to be still?
We sang of this trust a couple weeks ago: “In Christ alone my hope is found; he is my light, my strength, my song, this Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease; my Comforter, my All in All, here in the love of Christ I stand. No guilt in life, no fear in death; this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand. Till he returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”
The people in other boats are watching us as we go through the storm with Jesus. But, you know, they also watch when the sea is calm. They see how we live and speak when life is good. In fact, they start watching before we leave the dock, to see how we treat those who have doubts, those who are outsiders, those who want to come along but aren’t sure they’re welcome, those who haven’t yet seen a good reason to get into the boat with Jesus. When you’re in the boat with Jesus, someone will always be watching to see why they should want to be there, too.
“On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them into the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.” We are blessed to be in the boat with Jesus, but other boats are with us. May they see how our lives are shaped by trusting Jesus, no matter what the weather is like, until we are all together in Jesus’ boat. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young