Wondrous Sovereign of the Sea

Text: Mark 4:35-41
Date: Pentecost IV + Proper 7B + 7/21/15

I’ve always been reluctant to sing the hymn “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” because it just didn’t sound “Lutheran.” Instead of a strong, rhythmic or beautiful tune, “Pilot” has the syrupy sound of the Baptist and Methodist hymnals in which it is found.[1] It was written in 1871 by Edward Hopper when he was requested to provide a hymn for the anniversary of the Seaman’s Friend Society of New York where it appeared in The Sailor’s Magazine. Yet here it is in our Lutheran Service Book! But the text is stronger and sturdier than the tune that carries it. Based on St. Matthew’s record of today’s Gospel from Mark the hymn is a prayer imploring the help of the Lord in the midst of the storms of life as here He stilled a literal storm on the sea.

Such a metaphoric treatment or interpretation of this text is not altogether incorrect if the main emphasis does not end on the storm and the waves and the fears and the frustrations of the disciples. For the main emphasis must be on Jesus, and this in two ways. First He is the example of the trusting faith He wants His disciples, you and me, to have. But second, and more importantly, He shows Himself to be the very object of that faith. It struck me, then, that our Mr. Hopper poetically captured this as he has us address the Lord in his hymn as “Wondrous Sovereign of the sea, Jesus, Savior, pilot me.”

Jesus is the example of the trusting faith He wants His disciples, you and me, to have.

They were crossing over the Sea of Galilee to the other side, the Gentile side. Then “a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” Have you ever experienced something like that? I remember a high school senior outing where we were all on a small pontoon boat. At one point too many of us were standing near the front so that the water began to come up over the pontoons. I suppose I remember that because that was a year before I finally learned how to swim. Well, that was nothing compared to this situation which is wonderfully portrayed on the front of your service folder in a painting by Alexander Bida.

Then the drama. But first was the note that Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” Why this strange detail? This was to be remembered as an illustration of trusting faith. This is the trust of confidence in God’s promised providential care, the trust God wants us to have. It is demonstrated here by Jesus sleeping through the storm.

Sleep is a sign throughout the Bible of this confident trust of faith in God. Psalm 3 teaches us to pray, “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (Ps 3:4-5). This could be a daily morning prayer. This is the confidence of faith as we pray in the very next psalm, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8). Sleeping peacefully is a sign of trust in the protective power of God as in Proverbs 3, “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (Prov 3:24).

But that Jesus is sleeping bothers the disciples for they were seized by fear. They wake Jesus and ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Think about that question for a moment! Surely they didn’t expect Him to say He didn’t care or to apologize to them for appearing not to care. Answer the question. Does Jesus care that we are perishing? Last Wednesday night in a historic Charleston, South Carolina church Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Rev. DePayne, Rev. Clementa, Tywanza, Rev. Daniel, Rev. Sharonda and Myra didn’t have time to ask Jesus, “Hey! Do you not care that we are perishing?” They just suddenly, tragically perished, the victims of a crazed and deranged individual, an unwitting tool of the devil himself.

It was a bigger question, though, than even the disciples knew at the time. Because the answer is yes. But it is not the wind and waves the troubles and frustrations the fears and terrors or tragedies of everyday life that threaten to kill us and that fill our prayers with urgency. It is sin. It is our sin and the sin of others. Our alienation from God. The soul that sins will die. And it will take way more than a miracle of “climate change” to save us.

It took nothing less than our Lord taking our sin into Himself, letting it kill Him on the cross, He there taking our death and thus taking our sin away. Yes He cares very much that you are perishing. And because of His completed work of salvation on the cross, through the tomb and into the sunshine of the resurrection we are to gain that confident trust in the protective power of God and the promise that not even the worst, not even death can separate us from the Lord of Life ever, ever again, not last Wednesday night in Charleston, South Carolina, not ever. So we remember Jesus’ demonstrating that trust of faith in His “sleeping through the storm on a cushion in the stern of the boat.” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov 3:5-6).

“σιώπα, πεφίμωσο!” James Voelz’ translation, “Shut up! Be muzzled!” Jesus said to the sea. Literally “stop speaking, be quiet,” (or “peace!” as our translation says) and “stay shut up after you shut up!” (Did Jesus ever say, “Shut up”? Well, here’s your evidence. “σιώπα!”). “And the wind ceased; and there was a great calm.” Now the question becomes, “Who then is this?” Jesus not only demonstrates the confident trust of faith He wishes us to have but then reveals that He is the object and content of this confident saving faith.

Who can command even wind and sea? Not Job of old as we heard God reprimand him for his sin saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther’?” Certainly not Job. And certainly not you! Only God Himself can do this. Jesus is the “Wondrous Sovereign of the Sea.” Jesus is the almighty God through whom all things were made. Nothing ultimately bad can happen to the one who is with Jesus. “With Jesus!” “Emmanuel,” God with us. Jesus promises “you will be with me in paradise.” And for now, amid the winds and the waves, His promise stands, “I am with you always to the end of the age.” He is with us with His power and peace and salvation.

So we return here every Lord’s day to receive the rest of the forgiveness of our sins in the safety of the nave of this ship, the Church; even when that safety is shattered by the attacks of the evil one. And we return here every Lord’s day to sing His praise as our Lord and God for our faith is in Him. And we give thanks to God every day regardless of the threats or doubts or tragedies we witness, undergo and endure.

Faith is confident trust in the protective power of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As a mother stills her child,

Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boist’rous waves obey Thy will
When Thou say’st to them, “Be still!”
Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea,
Jesus, Savior, pilot me. (LSB 715:2)

[1] The Baptist Praise Book and The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashille, 1989).