One of the great highlights of a trip to Israel is taking a boat across the Sea of Galilee, which is the location of many of the events of Jesus' ministry in the Gospels. It's a beautiful place and on a sunny day when the wind is calm the surface of the lake is like glass. The boat operators like to take you to the middle of the lake and then shut off the engines so that you can experience the silence.
Of course, those same boat operators will tell you that it isn't always this way. The signs on the western shore near the hotel in the town of Tiberias tell you not to park your car too close to the water, since the Sea of Galilee is known for some horrific storms. One storm in 1992, for example, caused ten-foot waves that crashed into the town, causing a lot of damage.
The boatmen say that the winds come from a deep valley to the west of the lake, which is called the Valley of the Doves or the Valley of the Winds. This valley contained the main trail from Nazareth to Galilee, and Jesus likely walked the 40 mile road many times. When the wind blows off the Mediterranean Sea to the west, especially in the winter, it can get funneled into this valley and becomes like an out-of-control freight train, turning the Galilean lake into a raging maelstrom.
Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus' day would have certainly known about these instant storms, which is why they spent most of their time keeping their boats closer to shore. Unlike the tour boat we take in the 21st century, the boats that Peter, James, and John used were a lot smaller and a lot more rickety. On the western shore of the Sea of Galilee there is a museum at Kibbutz Nof Ginnosar where you can see an actual first century boat that was excavated out of the mud several years ago. It's about 15 feet long and 6 feet wide and was clearly patched up many times--some 14 different kinds of wood were used in it--indicating the kind of boat that a poor first century fisherman might have tried to keep afloat.
As you look at that boat you can't help but think about this story that Mark relates to us. Jesus and his disciples, in a boat just like this, out in the middle of the lake on the way across, when the wind comes screaming out of the valley with no warning. The placid, beautiful lake becomes the place of chaos.
In fact, in much of Scripture the sea represents chaos, evil, and death. The Israelites weren't really a seafaring people, so the vast Mediterranean Sea to the west, and even the smaller seas like Galilee, represented the unknown, the dark deep, the place where the terrible sea monsters waited to devour. The sea was the place from which some people never returned--a place of fear and death. It was the place of chaos, evil, and death.
All we have to do is turn back to the first verses of Genesis to see that the sea represents chaos. When God created the heavens and the earth, "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2-3). Darkness, wind, deep--the image of a churning storm. And yet, in the midst of the stormy chaos, God begins to separate things out--he brings light to pierce the darkness, he separates the waters and the waters from the land. The creation story is how God begins to bring order out of chaos, which becomes a metaphor for the whole biblical story--the story of how God deals with evil.
It’s no coincidence that the first major story after creation is another boat story—Noah is a righteous man who obeys God, builds an ark, and prepares for God’s judgment on a world where the wickedness of humanity was so great that “every inclination of their hearts was only evil continually.” And then one of the most heart-breaking statements in Scripture, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). And so God removes the separation and allows the chaos of the waters to break loose in a horrific flood, reverting back to the watery void of Genesis 1. And yet, while the waters rage, God saves Noah and his family and the creatures of the earth on an ark tossed by stormy seas: God’s judgment, God’s grace, and God’s rescue come together on a boat.
Noah steps out of the ark and into a new creation washed clean by the flood—chaos is pushed back again. Indeed, this is how God is going to deal with evil going forward: not by unleashing the chaos, but by working toward a new creation. The story of the Bible is the story of how God does that through the story of Israel—a story that reaches its climax in Jesus.
It’s the story of God parting the waters of the Red Sea to save Israel from the evil of slavery in Egypt. It’s the story of Job railing at God in the midst of evil and suffering and God showing him the great sea monsters under his control – a sign that chaos doesn’t have the last word. It’s the story of Isaiah looking forward to a day when all can come to the waters and drink without fear. It’s the story of Jonah tossed into the raging sea but saved by the belly of a whale. It’s the story of Jesus, going through the waters of baptism and into the desert to do battle with the forces of evil. The story of Scripture is the story of how God brings his people through the waters of evil and into a new creation.
It’s no accident, then, that Mark preserves this story of Jesus and his disciples on a boat being tossed by an unexpected and violent storm. The chaos rages once again, the rickety boats are being swamped by the ten foot waves and are starting to sink. Fear, panic, and desperation come over these fishermen who have never experienced this type of chaos before.
And Mark tells that in the midst of all the chaos of the storm, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat—napping quietly on a cushion. The disciples, meanwhile, are in a panic. Jesus apparently doesn’t see the chaos, the evil that surrounds them, and so they are furious. “Wake up!” they yell over the howling wind. “Don’t you see that we’re dying here? Don’t you care?”
Jesus wakes up, maybe looks at them for a long moment with one eye open. He doesn’t answer their question. Instead he stands and addresses the wind and the waves. Mark says that he “rebuked” the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Interestingly, these are the same words that Jesus uses to cast out demons—he rebukes them and tells them to be quiet. It’s no coincidence that the next scene in Mark is Jesus casting out a demon on the other side of the lake. Mark and the other gospel writers make it clear: Jesus has command over the wind and waves, command over chaos, command over evil.
Now we, along with Mark’s first readers, might expect Jesus to give them an explanation of how he had the power and authority to still the storm. We might expect a presentation outlining Jesus’ humanity and divinity. We might even expect Jesus to smile and go back to sleep, leaving the disciples to wonder about what they had just seen.
But rather than riff on this display of power, Jesus instead turns and asks them a question: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Mark doesn’t tell us, but I wonder if the disciples were thinking something like, “Well, duh, of course we’re afraid! There’s the storm and the almost dying and then this incredible display of power…who wouldn’t be afraid?” I don’t know about you, but I certainly would!
In their fear, however, the disciples had forgotten one important fact: Jesus was in the boat with them. They woke Jesus up so that he could share in their panic. Jesus, on the other hand, wants them to share in his faith, his power, his ability to deal with the evil. “Always remember, I’m in the boat with you,” Jesus says in effect, “and I’ve got this.”
The storms hit us, too, often with great fury. We began this series by talking about a devastating wave—the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755—an incredible event that shook the foundations of the post-Enlightenment world and caused both great thinkers and common people to begin thinking about evil as a logical problem to be solved. Where is God in the midst of the storm? Where is God when the typhoon of devastating illness hits? Where is God when the lightning strike of a loved one’s death leaves us in shock? Where is God when the waves of death, destruction, and doubt threaten to sink us?
Where is God? In the boat, with us, and there he invites us to turn from fear to faith. What kind of faith? The kind of faith that Jesus himself had.
The Gospel of Mark is built around three predictions Jesus makes about his own death—the storm of conflict and opposition that is building throughout his ministry will culminate in one giant wave of evil and death that will break over him on the cross. Jesus knows where his life is leading and yet the Gospels tell us that he continued be calm in the midst of that gathering storm—calm because of the faith that he, the human Jesus, had in God. In fact, Jesus’ whole life was an act of faith.
Read the Gospels carefully and you’ll see this: Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan. As Joe said last week in his excellent sermon on the cross, it was Jesus’ faith in God’s mission and God’s way that allowed him to refuse Satan’s offer to be the Messiah the people wanted. It’s easy for us to think that Jesus’ temptations were merely symbolic—that they were a show put on for our benefit because Jesus wasn’t really tempted. He’s God, after all. But that’s not how the Scriptures read—the human Jesus was “tempted in every way like we are” (Hebrews 4:15). He had to face fear, hunger, danger, and death—just like us—and had to do so with faith all through his ministry. He maintained faith when his disciples were clueless, he maintained faith when the crowds left him and the religious leaders threatened him, he maintained faith when his cousin John the Baptist was killed and when his friend Lazarus died. He maintained faith in the Garden of Gethsemane when death loomed above him behind the city walls, praying for God to do it another way but having the faith to go through the agony anyway. The one who stilled the wind and waves will allow them to crash over himself because he has faith in the purposes of God.
And so, with faith, he hangs on a cross. In the midst of pain he cries out those desperate first lines of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s the same cry of the disciples in the boat. “Don’t you see I’m dying? Do you not care?” And yet, even at the end, Jesus knew how the Psalm ends, “For he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him… before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him” (Psalm 22:24, 29). Even as he dies, he puts his faith in God, praying the prayer that every Jewish boy and girl prays before going to sleep, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” It is a prayer of faith, trust, and hope when there seems to be no reason for it.
This is not an easy faith that Jesus demonstrates and teaches to his disciples. It is a robust faith—faith grounded in the promises of God, faith that doesn’t run from pain and hardship, faith that confronts death with hope. Such faith doesn’t come easy—it can’t be contained in a greeting card or contained in platitudes from preachers—it’s faith that is cultivated over a lifetime of trusting God. Jesus rested in the boat because he had that kind of faith. We can ride the storms, too, because we know that he is in the boat with us.
This is the kind of faith that defeats evil, for evil cannot overcome it. Jesus faced the wave of evil crashing over the cross and broke it—his cross rebukes it, his resurrection stills it and ultimately casts it out. And it is our faith in Jesus’ that leads us to imagine a new creation, where the promise is that the storms will one day be no more.
At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we see a vision of the new creation made possible by Jesus’ faithfulness on the cross and the triumph of his resurrection as the completion of God’s plan. In chapter 21 we read about the new heavens and the new earth “coming down” and casting aside all the storms of evil from the old creation, making all things new. But what’s most interesting to me is that as John sees this vision, he notices that in this new creation “the sea [is] more” (Revelation 21:1). Immediately some people will protest, “But I like the sea, I like the beach.” Well, keep in mind that Revelation is an apocalyptic vision that, like our dreams, uses a lot of symbolism. The point here is that the sea, which is a symbol of chaos and evil throughout the Bible, is no more. There’s no place for evil in the new creation—no place for tears, no place for mourning or crying or pain (21:4).
What will be there? Hear the good news: “See, the home of God is among mortals,” says a loud voice. “He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3). In the new creation, the sea and all the tempestuous evil will be gone—but the God revealed in Jesus will be with us—Jesus will still be in the boat!
Many of us in this room are facing storms right now—maybe even to point that we feel like we’re about to go under. We’re afraid, and rightly so. But can we put our faith in the one who himself lived and died by faith? We see the wind and the waves—can we focus our eyes on Jesus, the one whom the wind and the waves ultimately obey? When the ship is tossed, we can only think of our doom—can we instead imagine the calm and hope of a new creation?
Faith doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer. Jesus himself suffered and died while holding on to faith. Faith does mean, however, that we can trust him for our future—a future made possible by his faith in God’s new creation, made possible by an empty tomb and the defeat of death. Our baptism in water reminds us of this—what was once the sign of death, is now the sign of life!
After a few minutes of silence on the water, the boatman on the Sea of Galilee today invite all the passengers to sing a hymn. One of the hymns we sing that feels so appropriate on that occasion is Horatio Spafford’s famous hymn, “It is Well With My Soul.”
Spafford wrote this hymn after some serious storms in his own life. He and his wife lost a child at the age of 4 in 1871, just before the great Chicago fire that ruined Spafford financially. After recovering somewhat, the great economic downturn of 1873 hit hard, just about the time he and his wife and four daughters had planned to travel to Europe by steam ship. In a late change of plans, he sent his family ahead while he stayed behind to work out a business issue.
While crossing the Atlantic, the ship carrying Spafford’s wife and daughters collided with another ship and sank rapidly. All four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife, Anna, survived and sent him a heartbreaking telegram that only said, “Saved alone.” Shortly after this, Spafford traveled by ship to meet his wife in Europe and while passing the site where his children perished, he penned these famous words:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Later, the Spaffords had three more children and eventually went by ship to Israel, where they founded a mission to save the poor. Out of the storm, faith in Christ carried them to peace, hope, and work for God’s kingdom.
The storms will come. But may we look to the one who is still, and always, in the boat with us--forever. And knowing that, may it be well with your soul.