Trusting in a Sleeping Jesus

Sermon preached at the Florida Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation

“And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?””

(Matthew 8:23–27 NRSV)

I don’t know about you, but I find myself going to certain words and images over and over again during particular seasons of life. When the church I served was growing and things were going well, I found myself drawn to agricultural language of planting and harvest. When the pandemic hit, there was the wilderness images as we fumbled through uncertain seasons. Now, I find myself using chaos language. Whether that is the chaotic waters of Genesis or the storms over the sea of Galilee, the images I find myself drawn to in my own prayers and conversations with others are drenched in confusion and dissonance.

Our Gospel text today is one of those images. The calming of the storm is one of those stories that is very familiar since it is found in three of the Gospels in almost identical forms. However, I want to draw your attention to Matthew’s version and in particular two differences in his telling of it. 

Jesus and the disciples are in a boat escaping the crowds of people clamoring for Jesus when a storm pops up and the boat is being overtaken. Now, we should remember that a third of these disciples knew their way around a boat. Simon, Andrew, James, and John all come from fishing families. They know what to do in this storm, and they know that with winds like this, it is all hands on deck. But…Jesus is sleeping. 

“Lord Save us! We are perishing!” They tell him in what I can imagine is an exasperated annoyance. Jesus, tired and grumpy, rebukes the disciples, however, Matthew is unique in that Jesus tells off the disciples BEFORE calming the storm. 

So the image Matthew gives us is that as Jesus, tells his disciples “Why are you all afraid?! You of little faith.”  There are winds are howling around him and the waves are crashing over the boat. He tells them to have faith in the midst of the storm, NOT after he has calmed it.

So what kind of faith is Jesus expecting the disciple’s to have in this scenario? Is he expecting them to not try to bail out the boat or brace it against the wind, but instead pull up a pillow next to him and sleep it off? I don’t think so. 

What Jesus is critiquing here is the disciple’s particular demand for Jesus to do something. This story falls in a long stream of healing miracles of Jesus. The disciples have seen Jesus heal people standing in front of him, he has healed people far in the distance, and the reason he is in the boat to begin with is because so many sick and demon possessed were begging for his attention that he needed some space. 

The disciples are VERY clear at this point that Jesus can do miracles, and so when they find themselves overwhelmed by a situation, they ask Jesus to save them. The problem is that they don’t need saving. Yes, the situation is bad, yes, they are very scared, but contrary to the disciple’s assertion, they are not perishing in the storm. They are just getting very, very, wet. 

How do I know that they did not need saving? Jesus is in the boat. Yes he is asleep, but he is still there. One of the consistent themes throughout Scripture is that when God’s people are in trouble, God does not sleep through it. God hears the cry of the enslaved Israelites and sends Moses. God hears the laments of the exiles from Babylon and brings them home.  Jesus came to earth because God knew the pain and isolation of humanity and chose to come and bring healing and salvation through Jesus. God does not sleep in when humanity is in need. 

As the disciples were frantically using all of their skill and efforts to keep the boat afloat, all they needed to do was listen for the faint snores of Jesus to know that things were going to be ok. 

When we put our trust in God, we give up control over the outcome and the process, and we commit that we will continue to work and follow God’s direction even if God acts or doesn’t act in the way we want. 

In Psalm 131 we have the beautiful image of a weaned child asleep on its mother’s chest. The psalmist notes that this is a weaned child. A weaned child does not expect that its mother is going to provide it with milk. This child can get food other places. While it is not completely independent, it is at least able to survive some on its own. And yet, this child still rests on its mother, not because of what she gives him, but because of who she is. 

The reality of faith is that we trust God, not because of what we expect to receive in return, but because of who God is. 

This brings me to the second unique part of Matthew’s story. After Jesus calms the storm the disciples are in awe. “Who is this man that the wind and seas obey him?!” 

Jesus calms the storm for the disciples, NOT because they need the storm calmed to survive, but because they need to be reminded that God in Jesus is more powerful than the storms. 

There are going to be seasons where it is smooth sailing and there are going to be seasons where the boat feels like it is sinking. There will be times where our task is to enjoy the ocean breeze and times where we will be bailing water because our lives depend on it. The good news this evening is that Jesus is with us on the boat. We may feel his presence next to us, encouraging as we work. We may hear him criticize our pride or presumptuousness. Or we may hear him asleep in the back resting for the work to come. However, wherever he is, Jesus is always with us. We do nothing to earn it. We do nothing to bring him aboard. He is just there because he loves us. So trust that with God, in Christ, on board, we can always rest secure. 

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