Pastor Jim Melvin
And when Jesus 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
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Recently I have felt moments of panic when I wanted to cry out, “Jesus, wake up! We’re dying here.” In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic it feels like I’m living a dream–more like a nightmare, and Jesus or my faith in him is nowhere to be found. My heart starts pounding. I guess that’s how Jesus must have felt when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We can be forgiven those moments of panic and lapses in faith. It’s allowed. These are scary times in so many ways. God seems silent and distant. Sometimes we need to cry out. Those of us who rely on physical church for comfort are literally cut off from our community of faith and sharing Christ’s presence in the bread and wine of communion. And many are cut off from the physical presence of those they love. Many are cut off from jobs and a source of income. God understands our panic attacks.
Jesus’ disciples suffered just such a panic attack in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. They were in a life-threatening situation on an unpredictable body of water known for producing waves that would easily swamp the type of small fishing boat in which they were sailing. I can picture Jesus waking up to their cries, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and saying, “What’s the deal? What are you afraid of?” and then adding accusingly in the words of the King James Version of the Bible, “O ye of little faith!”
Over the years I’ve heard and preached many sermons on this passage. Usually the “O ye of little faith!” is described as Jesus giving the disciples a good scolding. Maybe he was scolding them. Maybe not. Maybe he was just crabby because they woke him from a good nap. Whether he was scolding them or not, one thing is certain; he calmed the storm and saved them. Like I said, even Jesus would later experience a crisis of faith on the cross; and God saved him.
One of the first things that I take away from this story is the message that we are not alone in our moment of panic. Panic is a normal and necessary human reaction. When we perceive a threat to our lives or our welfare, our bodies’ endocrine systems give us a healthy shot of hormones that give us extra strength and spur us to action. And when we don’t know how to act to save ourselves, we cry for help. At least I haven’t woken up screaming yet.
When I cry out in a panic, it doesn’t take me long to come to my senses and settle down. The thing that can settle me down the quickest is the knowledge that I am not alone. None of us is truly alone. Most of us have family and friends to rely on. Those of us who are of working age have our work families. In a less intimate sense, we have the company of people who come into our homes through television and media. In America we have a citizenry bound together in a society where we look out for each other. We’re beginning to see that more and more. From what I have seen, we are being united by crisis, not divided. And we have the company of people around the world who are sharing our hardships and our hopes. We are not alone. We have billions of people with us in the boat.
A word of caution here. Those of us who do have a sense of community and companionship need to be on the lookout for those who are truly isolated and lonely. I think first of all of the residents of nursing homes and the mentally ill living on the streets. I think of older people sitting home alone and scared. It is our responsibility to find ways to be with them. With all the social media platforms, we can and are getting creative. We have the resources to keep everybody connected if we have the will. It’s a win/win. When we are there for them, they are there for us.
For people of faith, we have another constant companion. You may know him as Jesus. In the Bible he is named Immanuel which means “God with us.” He never leaves us by ourselves. The risen Christ never leaves our side. Through faith and the Holy Spirit, you can always experience his presence. If you haven’t experienced Christ in your life, think of it this way. The Apostle Paul, speaking to a community of faith that he had just formed, looked out at them and said, “YOU are the body of Christ.” I take the you to mean the church, but I also take it to mean all of the caring communities of which we are apart. Christ is in the midst of all loving communities.
Also, Christ is in you. Martin Luther said that each of us are to be “little Christ’s” for each other. When someone looks at you and sees God’s love embodied in you, YOU are a little Christ. And a little Christ goes a long way. People are craving that presence. Yesterday I called a young woman just to check in with her and chat. She said, “I’ve been having a rough day. I feel a little better just to have somebody to talk to.” Sometimes that’s all it takes.
The next thing that I take away from this story is that the disciples’ cries for help are heard. Jesus wakes up. Now, this kind of contradicts Psalm 121 where it says, “Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Jesus, who is Immanuel, God on earth for us, was asleep on the job or asleep at the tiller to use nautical language.
Don’t let this throw you. Throughout the Bible, Jesus often surprises us with his humanity. Although he was the most compassionate person to ever walk this earth, he had his moments. He can be impatient and harsh like the time the Canaanite woman suffering with a demon takes a shot at him for denying her healing because she was not a Jew. She says, “Even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus essentially says, “You got me.” And he heals her.
I appreciate the humanity of Jesus. Because he was a human being, I can relate to him. He truly suffered. He experienced the full range of emotions that you and I do, including fear and panic. I need somebody on my level to struggle right alongside me. When we’re scared and hurting, it doesn’t help to be with someone who seems to have it all figured out and assumes that you should too. When Jesus says “ye of little faith” he is speaking the truth. Our faith is weak. That’s why we need him. In part of his explanation of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther says, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” We can’t even have faith in Christ on our own. We need Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to come to him.
So, go ahead, cry out from your own place of suffering, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” You will discover that he hasn’t.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far from the story of Jesus calming the storm. First, it’s natural and ok to call out in our time of need. Second, we are not alone in this perilous time. Third, God hears our cries. But now comes the most important part. In the story, Jesus calms the storm and rescues them from danger.
Do you see where I’m going here? Through the assurance that we are not alone, and the promise that God listens, the storm is calmed. We are still in a small boat in a vast and changeable sea, but now we have our wits about us. Storms happen. And storms pass. And we sail on until the next one hits. Then we do it all over again. Each time we repeat this pattern, our faith is reinforced. God has been present for us in the past. God will be here for us in the future.
I think this image can help us deal with the uncertainty in our lives right now. It’s a time for us to turn to our faith and to one another for comfort and support. Then we will be calm enough to do our part to get this leaky boat to shore. Your part may be carrying on with your work to provide essential services and to keep our economy afloat. Your part may be home schooling your kids. Your part may be getting groceries for your elderly neighbor. Your part may simply be staying put at home so that you not only protect yourself, but so you don’t put a burden on the healthcare system to care for you.
In the long days ahead, we will all have time to turn to scripture. I’ll be sharing more with you in future devotions and sermons. For now, hear the storm calming words of Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will 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.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
Personally, I’m going to keep reading those words over and over until they are etched on my heart. You can too. “He who keeps Israel, will neither slumber nor sleep.” We are Israel. God has been awakened by our cries. Speaking of Israel, I received a call yesterday from my friend Johnny in Jerusalem. Johnny has been our guide on many tours to the Holy Land. He reported that his family is fine, quarantined at home like many of us. Johnny says that he prays for us. Let us pray for him and for the holiest city in the world from where our help first came.
Have faith. You are not alone. God’s blessings and peace to you. Amen.