Sleeping In

Text: Mark 4:35-41
Date: Pentecost III (Proper 7) + 6/21/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Up to this point in Mark’s Gospel the evangelist has told of Jesus performing a number of healing miracles. It’s really something, isn’t it? that we so easily get to the point of not being impressed, of taking it for granted that Jesus can perform miracles of healing…until, of course, we are the ones in need of and praying and looking for deliverance from a threatening illness! Then, maybe, we’re not so sure, and wonder. Today Mark relays an eyewitness account telling of Jesus’ power over even the elements of nature in the stilling or subduing of the sea. And again, how many people to this day aren’t moved to pray, if rarely before, when the tornado sirens sound loudly or the floor starts rolling and the walls start shaking at an earthquake? This account, of course, testifies to the divine nature of Jesus, that this Man is also the God who created everything in the first place. In today’s Old Testament reading we hear God putting Job in his place almost mocking him, asking what a mere man had to do with “my establishing the earth.” In Jesus, however, we have that Man, the One who has harnessed God’s almighty power with His love for the benefit and the deliverance of the whole world.

While the obvious application of this incident is the Lord’s power to help us in the storms of life, there is more revealed in the details. Let’s hear this account carefully.

I said this was an eyewitness account. Even though St. Mark was not that eyewitness, his Gospel is based primarily on the witness and preaching of Simon Peter who was there. There are so many little details that suggest a personal witness like the otherwise seemingly unimportant detail that there were other boats around the one in which Jesus was standing and teaching the crowd on the shore. In fact other than serving as evidence of an eyewitness, there really isn’t any other reason for Mark to notice that detail except maybe to indicate that Jesus was gaining in the number of followers.

Jesus orders His companions to set sail for the other side of the sea of Galilee, as He had said in chapter one, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (Mk. 1:38).

It is a fact that the weather around the Sea of Galilee is like the weather in St. Louis, Missouri, in this respect, at least, that sudden squalls and storms arise and then, just as suddenly, they pass and the weather calms again. As the Lord spoke to Job out of a whirlwind, so here there is a great “windstorm” causing wave upon wave to beat upon and break into the boat so that the water was already beginning to fill the boat.

The twist in the story, of course, is how Jesus was in the stern of the boat asleep on a cushion even while the wind and waves were tossing the boat back and forth, up and down. The fact that He was not just sitting there but sleeping is one oddity around which this story turns. Certainly this speaks to the many times you and I feel that God must be sleeping, that He is ignoring me in my plight, that for some reason He is just not listening. But the disciples didn’t just sit there and wonder. They roused Him and woke Him up. The disciples don’t seem to question Jesus’ ability to do something to save them, as much as wondering out loud whether He cares enough to save them. “Teacher, isn’t that we are perishing of concern to you?”

Before He questions their faith, he acts. As at the creation, God said “let there be” and there was, as “the universe was created by the word of God” (Heb. 11:3), as “God, whose almighty word Chaos and darkness heard And took their flight” (LW 317:1; LSB 971), so here, with but a word, Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And this isn’t the usual word for peace used as a greeting of well being but more like “hold your tongue,” “be quiet,” even “shut up!” and “be silenced” or “put a muzzle on it.” The amazing thing here is not only that the wind and the sea obeyed, but that the wind and sea didn’t just gradually calm down but the words imply that the wind ceased immediately and the sea was perfectly calm, like glass, not even a ripple of a wave.

Now, in the calm, He asks His disciples, “Why are you so fearful? Have you still no faith?” Fear vs. Faith. That’s the way it always is. Apart from faith in Jesus there is only either rank presumption or fear, because apart from faith in Jesus you’re on your own, alone amid the seemingly random threats to your safety or progress. But by faith in Christ you know that God Himself is on your side. The hymn asks,

If Christ, my head and master
Befriend me from above,
What foe or what disaster
Can drive me from His love? [LSB 724:1]

Answer: none! And that is to acknowledge also that Jesus provides deliverance and peace, not always by taking the storms away, but even in the midst of those storms.

I’m told that St. Augustine made the observation based on this text that when troubles surround us like winds and waves it is because Christ is asleep in you. And so he says, “Rouse Him, then!” Of course it’s not that Jesus is asleep. We pray in the words of the Psalm,

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep. (Psalm 121:1-4)

It is, rather, when we let our faith fall asleep, faith that remembers that Jesus is still there. Faith falls asleep when we cut off faith’s nourishment and breath, namely, the continual hearing of God’s Word. Whether in prayer or preaching, in singing hymns or simply reading the Bible or a devotion, the Word of God keeps faith alive and strong, faith that knows and relies on Jesus being present to save and deliver us from all disaster.

The rhetorical question of the disciples invites us to answer, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” And we add, “even when He appears to be sleeping in?” The answer? He is the Christ, the Son of God! What is true of the God of Israel is true of Jesus. At all times he exercises sovereign control over the situation. And this becomes the most important part of faith, not as much with respect to any specific trouble you may encounter, but especially as Jesus approaches the goal of His earthly ministry, and your greatest need, His atoning, vicarious death on the cross by which He cancels any further punishment of sin and opens the kingdom of heaven to everyone who believes in Him. Because He is God, even though He dies, yet He lives. Because of His atoning death and triumphant resurrection, now the same can be said of any and all who trust in Him, as He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

In times of trouble, when it seems like God is asleep, rouse Him with your prayers, trust in Him. And when it comes to confronting death and the grave, have faith in Him who has disarmed sin and death and has gone to prepare a place for you, and for you, and you, and you, and you, and all who have become His sons and daughters, his brothers and sisters, His children, His disciples, His body by His own triumphant sacrifice and victory of the cross and resurrection. Let there be a great calm in your heart at His triumphant, saving word.