I’ve been on a boat on the Sea of Galilee and it’s not a place one would want to get caught in a storm. We hear Sea of Galilee and at least in my mind I think of a sea, a big open one but the Sea of Galilee is also known as Kinneret, Lake Tiberias or Lake Gennesaret. It is the largest freshwater lake in Israel. It is sourced by the Jordan River. It’s 7 or 8 miles wide and about 13 miles long. When you’re in the middle you can see both shores, where you’ve come from and where you are going. Many of the stories we have about Jesus happen in and around the Sea of Galilee. And this story finds us with Jesus and the disciples on a boat crossing to the other side. Jesus said they should go and so they went. He’d been teaching in the area near the seaside and the crowds had become so large that he had to get into a boat in order to be seen and heard. He stayed in the boat while the crowds were on the land and he taught from there. At some point, though, after he’d told many parables and I’m sure the crowds were confused…intrigued but confused, he told the disciples it was time to go. They were going across to the other side. I suppose they knew where they were going but Jesus wasn’t very specific. I do know that they were leaving a place they knew very well and were heading toward unfamiliar territory. We can take this both literally and figuratively. I doubt anyone knew exactly what Jesus was up to but they seemed to trust him enough to get into the boat and not ask any questions. I tend to ask a bunch of questions particularly when I’m not sure where we’re headed, Jesus and I. I don’t always get answers to my questions but I ask them all the same.
Jesus has a habit of telling us to go on across into something unknown, doesn’t he? He tells us to move forward. He tells us to head down a path. He tells us to trust him even when we can’t see the end of the road. I’m sure the idea of heading across the lake wasn’t a frightening prospect in and of itself. The disciples didn’t seem too worried until the storm came. It’s not a very large body of water so being somewhere out in the middle in the midst of a great windstorm would be frightening, indeed. What are the options, in that case? Keep moving forward? Go back? Wait for the storm to pass? Can you think of a time you were caught in a storm? Friday night Keenan and I left our house to go out to dinner. It wasn’t raining very much when we left the house and everything seemed fine. While we were driving, though, the rain got heavier and heavier and the wind picked up. I suppose we could have turned around and gone home. Or we could sit in the car and wait it out. We eventually decided to make a run for it and even though we had a rain jacket and an umbrella between us we still got soaked. If we’d held out a little longer, the storm would have passed but we didn’t know that in the moment.
When the storm came up on the Sea of Galilee that day, it’s clear in the reading that the disciples and those on the boat thought they were going to die. The wind was wild, the storm was mighty, the boat was swamped and they were caught somewhere in the middle. Continuing on or going back probably didn’t even cross their minds. In the midst of going from one place to the next, they were just caught in the storm. And Jesus was asleep. He was asleep which I’m certain raised the level of anxiety for those in the boat exponentially. How could anyone sleep through this? And didn’t he care about their lives?
There’s a hymn that we sometimes sing #720, it’s one of my husband’s favorites. The first line says this, “Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea; day by day his sweet voice soundeth saying, ‘Christian, follow me.’ Do you recall the last time Jesus asked you to go and you knew not where? When he asked you to leave a place that was comfortable to you, a place you knew well? It happens often, I think. We’re asked to step out in faith, to set sail across the sea into something unknown. It may be a transition in life: a new job, a lost job, retirement, stepping into a new role, the loss of a loved one, each an unknown territory. It may be a call to ministry in a way that is new to you: peacemaking or reconciliation or advocacy, teaching or preaching, each an unknown territory. It may be a call to change your mind about something, to listen and learn, to consider and to discern, each an unknown territory. It may be a call to sit down with someone different form yourself or with someone with whom you disagree, to hear their story, to come to a new understanding, each an unknown territory. It may be a call to speak out or speak up, to stand with or for, each an unknown territory.
And these things may not seem scary at the outset. It may be smooth sailing for a time but then the storm comes as storms inevitably do. Things don’t go the way you’d planned. Somebody doesn’t understand what you’re doing. You come up against barriers or road blocks. The way is no longer clear. Storms are unpredictable but inevitable. We set out on life’s journey with Jesus at the helm. We’re ready to go and we trust that Jesus will be with us. And then the wind picks up a little, the rain drops begin to fall, before we know it we’re being tossed around in an unfamiliar sea. Panic sets in and we can’t figure out if it’s best to go back or move forward or wait it out. And where is Jesus? He’s asleep.
How do we handle the storms in our lives? How do you handle yours? I know how I handle mine and I can tell you that I don’t always handle them well. Panic is always an option. Tears are always an option. Lashing out at others is an option. Going back to the presumed safety of the past, going back to the way things were whether things were really better or not is an option. Hunkering down and powering through is an option. Riding out the storm is an option. Embracing the storm and all it may have to teach you is an option, too. So is trusting in God, having hope, learning, growing, moving forward in faith.
It’s interesting to me that when the storm came up on the lake that evening the disciples’ first assumptions are a) they’re dying and b) that Jesus doesn’t care. I’d set that firmly into the panic category. They didn’t ask him for help. They didn’t ask him to do anything. They didn’t hand him a bucket and say, “Here, help us with all this water we’re taking on.” They didn’t say, “Hey, you, Son of God, save us!” In that moment when the storm is raging and the boat is swamped, they can’t see their options. All they can see is the worst possible outcome. That’s what crisis does to us; it paralyzes us. We can’t ask for help. We can’t trust that the storm will pass and we will not be overtaken by it. We think that God doesn’t care. “Do you not care that we are perishing?,” the disciples said. That may be the worst feeling of all, the feeling that God doesn’t care. The feeling that our troubles and the storms we experience are of no consequence (don’t matter) to God. “Do you not care, Jesus? Do you not care that I’m grieving or that this is hard or that I don’t know what to do next or that I feel ill-equipped and unprepared? Do you not care that this is scary? This place in which I find myself, this unknown territory, this new thing, this transition, this boat? How can you sleep through this?” When we feel like everything is at stake, we fool ourselves into thinking that God doesn’t care, that God has abandoned us or that God hasn’t already saved us.
Psalm 121 tells us that the Lord is our helper. The Lord is our keeper. The One who helps us, the One who keeps us will not slumber, the psalmist says. The One who is with us in the boat will remain alert. The One who is with us has the power to calm the storm, to quiet the wind, and pacify the waves. With a word, Jesus can calm the storm. “Peace! Be still!” And the raging storm ceased. It seems to me that Jesus knew something the others did not. Jesus knew that God had them well in hand. Jesus knew that the storm could not overtake them. Jesus knew that they would make it safely to the other side. And Jesus knew that, if need be, he could halt the storm itself.
“Why are you afraid?,” Jesus asks. Good question. It seems that if we trust Jesus enough to get in the boat with him in the first place, we ought to trust him enough to get us to the other side. Why do we allow fear to take hold, to paralyze us? Why do we allow fear to prevent us from asking for help or waiting for help or moving forward? Even when the worst thing happens, Jesus is with us in the boat. That’s the fundamental promise. “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” As far as our imaginations can take us, Jesus will be with us beyond even there. The worst that we can imagine, Jesus will be with us beyond even there. In the depths of our doubt, our grief, our feelings of inadequacy, into the unknown, when we just don’t know what to do or where to go from here, Jesus will be with us. Jesus can and will calm the storms that rage all around us and the storms that rage deep inside of us. When Jesus asks us to go across to the other side, whatever that may mean, we jump into that boat and we go. A storm may come and we trust Jesus anyway. The boat may be swamped and we trust Jesus anyway. We may not know what comes next and we trust Jesus anyway. For Jesus is trustworthy, steadfast, and faithful. Jesus shows us that we can rest in God even in the midst of a storm. On Friday morning at the memorial service for Alan Kenton, we sang “Be Still My Soul.” I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Listen now to these words from the second verse:
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice, who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Rev. Alex Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2018