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Epiphany 4 2011 – Matthew 8:23-27

30. January 2011
Epiphany 4
Matthew 8:23-27
“Even the winds and sea obey him!”

Water. Water is necessary but dangerous. Think of it. The body is mostly made of water. Water provides cleansing and quenches thirst. Yet, if you’re stranded in the middle of the ocean, it won’t take long for you to tire of treading water. Eventually you’ll stop from exhaustion and be swallowed by the sea. Or if you are stuck in the middle of the desert under the scorching heat, it will not take long without water to dehydrate and be swallowed by sands. Too little and you die. Too much and you die. Thus water is both a great gift and a great curse.

Our spiritual fathers, the disciples of Jesus, desired the good from water. These astute fishermen entered the boat upon the water as a great place for quiet contemplation and rest. They prepared to rest after a long day in Christ’s ministry. Earlier in the day Christ had healed the leper and the Centurion’s servant. He continued teaching and healing throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Peter’s mother-in-law with a fever. Demons sent out. They were told to leave the dead to bury their dead. They were told that there would be no rest for even Jesus. Too many sick. Too many lepers. Too tired.

One of Peter’s fishing boats would do well to avoid the pressing crowd and get the much-needed shut-eye. The boat is the best place. Water is an escape. Water is calm. A peaceful cruise through the night is the ticket. “When Jesus got into the boat, his disciples followed him.” Rest and calm. Finally.

Water isn’t always calm. Sometimes its good but sometimes it kills. “And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea.” This is no ordinary storm but a seismos, an earthquake-induced tsunami. No wonder it was so sudden! This isn’t the casual storm of the fisherman but crazy, unannounced, and destructive. “The boat was being swamped by the waves.” Great waves crashed upon the boat, threatening to break it apart. This storm is like a horrible monster, seeking to destroy the boat. St. Matthew conveys this storm as a wicked beast, rising up from the deep, seeking destruction and death. A torment of water unleashed upon weak fishermen.

Water is to be feared. Well, maybe. “The boat was being was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.” Who’s sleeping? Jesus. It’s been a busy day, after all. He’s like a baby, sleeping through earthquake, tsunami, and panicked disciples. Not a care in the world, just like Rip Van Winkle after one to many drinks.

There is no excuse for the savior of the world to go down to the bottom of the sea, with his disciples sinking down after him. It would be a tragic end to the hopes of mankind. The greatest story ever told wouldn’t be so great. Just like the audience’s of James Cameron’s Titanic, people would keep coming back, hoping that this time the captain of the boat would wake up and smell the iceberg.

The impending doom seized the disciples. “And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’” Now there’s faith! They trust the Lord can save them from this storm. They believe he will rescue them from the beastly Seismos attacking them. Well, not quite. The disciples doubt the Lord will save them unless awake. True faith in the Lord is bigger than that. True faith isn’t motivated by doubt. Its not the panic run to Jesus of a little child. Faith is trust in the Lord despite appearances. Evidence may be lacking but the Word always is true. Even with waves, winds, and a rickety old boat, they ought have nothing to fear.

Our captain Jesus isn’t worried. His eyes may be shut but his divine omniscience sees the situation. Of course, being startled awake, Jesus is a bit grouchy. You just spend the whole day healing, casting out demons, and the like. Your head just hit the pillow, R.E.M. is about to kick in, and then your children/disciples harass you over something they darn well know you’ve got under control. Its just like when Mom’s nap is interrupted by the child asking “What’s for dinner?” The panicked child wonders if this might be the time when mom sleeps through dinner and forgets to provide for her children.

She might be a grouch but yet the good mother. She holds her instinctual tongue and gently rebukes the child. “Don’t worry, dinner will be ready.” And so [Jesus] said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Faith isn’t just about trusting the Lord when its obvious. They’d see the obvious miracles all day. It is as if Jesus wanted to say: How about a little trust that you’re okay, even when I’m sleeping? My flesh may be weak but my spirit is still willing. Do not doubt. I care for you even when all you hear is his loud snoring from the bow of the boat.

Think back, O ye of little faith. I safely delivered you from the waters of your mother’s womb. Think further back. I brought rain to the people after the drought-parched land when my servant Elijah prayed to me. I led your ancient fathers from exile in Egypt through the depths of the Red Sea, made dry. I led you through the desert for some forty years with water, even after your anxious father insisted upon striking the rock with his staff.

Or think of Jonah, the one of little faith, the doubter cast into the sea. His weakness of faith brought a great storm upon them. The tempest would destroy them. Rightful trust came in this moment of panic. I, the Lord gave Jonah charge to Ninevah, and he disobeyed. He deserved far more than a silly storm. I was merciful and he rose to the challenge. There the great fish would preserve him from the water until he could again preach to the heathen.

Or think even bigger, O ye of little faith! Think of Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, and the animals in pairs of unclean and seven of the clean. Think how they did not need to fear the rising flood waters but merely trust. Think how they entered into my protection, not knowing rain. They trusted in faith my command despite appearances, despite the ridicule of the nations, despite the absurdity of the suggestion of an ark of that magnitude. “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”

They need not be afraid of the storms. The Lord almighty never tires of caring for his children. His watchful eye was upon those disciples. Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. Water that was once scary is now made safe. The storm is sent back to its dungeon deep at the chastisement of the creator. Jesus manifests, reveals, epiphanies himself not just as the savior but as the Word of creation.

His voice separated the waters from the waters to make the heavens. His voice caused the waters to draw together and dry land appear. His voice called forth the saving waters of the flood which preserved Noah, his family, and the animals from the wicked perversity of the world. His voice saved Israel and drowned hard-hearted Pharoah in the sea. His voice rebuked the waves, saving those mariners from Jonah’s disobedience. His voice sent water to the drought-laden land near Carmel. His voice knit you together in your mother’s watery womb and delivered you safely.

And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” Do not marvel at the voice of your Lord. He is manifest in the flesh as the voice of creation. He is revealed as the preserving hand that even the winds and sea obey. He has promised to care for you, so why are you so surprised?

Its weak faith that doubts our Lord. Weak faith looks about for evidence and seeing none assumes our Savior sleeps. greater faith is this: to trust his word and live free and clear of doubt. He is not sleeping but is vigilant. He watches over you, caring for your every need of body and soul. Even when you feel afraid, trust that his eye sees your need and grants it according to his will.

“What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” I’ll tell you. He is the author and perfecter of your faith. He is the voice that spoke upon the unformed genetic material with the wonderful breath of life you now enjoy. He is the preserving voice of the angel of Lord, leading his people in pit of exile, through the desert wastes, onto the height of his holy hill. He is the one whom the women followed in grief to the place of the skull, to watch the him give his life as a ransom for many. He is the one who went into the belly of the earth for three days. He is the one who the earthly grave could not hold and spit him out. He is the one whose voice is heeded by the earth, just like the sea.

He is the one still speaking, even now. We follow his voice into a different boat, the ark of the holy Christian church. We too are assaulted by the winds of change and the waves of false doctrine, just like the tempest of Jonah and the disciples. The earthquake of a financial crisis has caused a great tempest to roar up against this and most Christian congregations. Great monsters of sickness and death crash upon our fragile wooden bow.

Many doubt the Lord’s providential care and its not hard to understand why. We are quite like those disciples, of whom our Lord says, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” The ship is tossed to and fro, with these great foes seeking to destroy us. We struggle vainly against our mortal enemies, growing sea sick and weary of the journey. It is as St. Paul said, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We wait with all creation for relief from the storms of this present life.

Sometimes we’d like to think that the boat of the Christian church will be like a three-hour cruise. Yet, it is often more like Gilligan’s fateful trip. We step into this boat behind our Lord and the storms soon follow. Our mortal enemies wage warfare upon this fragile ship as we seek to escape through clutches. Our Lord is with us. We need not be afraid. He has equipped us for the storm even when it seems he is sleeping.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s letter to Timothy: “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this [, the good faith and conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, … whom I have handed over to Satan that they may not learn to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:18-20).

This boat has nothing to fear. Its trust is in the faith handed over in the book of prophecy, the Holy Scriptures. Her confidence is the Lord and His Word entrusted to her. By faith and obedience, she is preserved from the storms of heresy and secularism. By trust and forgiveness, she is given a clear conscience, prepared to die without fear or regret. Those who once dwelled in the shadow of death, now pass through saving waters of baptism into the protection of Christ’s holy ark. Despite the unsafe water surrounding her and the spoilt food in the world, Christ feeds her with precious food of the eternal sacrifice found only in her hull. Even if the great Serpent himself rises up from the deep to destroy this holy vessel, the warfare is already ended and his death march over. The horrible beast is toothless and powerless to destroy her. He cannot prevail and the ship will be preserved. “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” Jesus is our Lord, our captain, and our preserver.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana