“With Christ in the Vessel I smile at the Storm”
In the name of the Triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen!
The great Anglican hymn writer and priest John Newton is best known for the beloved hymn Amazing Grace. The story goes that he wrote the hymn at sea just after God had delivered his vessel from a terrifying deluge. Captain Newton, commanding a ship full of African slaves as “cargo”, repented of his involvement in the atrocities of slavery and then became a priest. He became the pastor of William Wilberforce who led the charge to abolish slavery in England. As a seafaring man John Newton was familiar with storms—real storms—grab your bucket and start bailing kinds of storms. Another of his popular hymns began this way:
The disciples weren’t smiling so much in our gospel lesson. Jesus was the one who decided to cross the sea at night. Fisherman familiar with the Sea of Galilee would have thought twice about that. Warm and below sea level it is surrounded by mountainous regions. The cold air from the mountains would blow down into the warm sea air creating powerful winds and rain. This would often occur in the evening and night time. Sailors were also a bit superstitious about the sea. All ancient cultures saw the sea as the most unmanageable part of the creation and in many ways it is. Even with modern meteorological instrumentation the seas and the storms that arise still surprise us and catch us off guard. In the ancient world the sea became a picture of Death itself—swirling and churning with Leviathan and Behemoth—what could a carpenter know about the sea? Perhaps the fisherman among the disciples thought to overrule Him, but thought better given all the displays of His authority recently.
So, they followed Jesus onto the boat Matthew says. Matthew is clear, that Jesus puts them on the boat. It’s His choice and from our informed perspective we know He knew about the coming storm. That’s something to consider. Christ could have prevented the storm and averted the danger altogether. He could have spared the disciples all the anxiety and grief. Yet, He did not do so. Again from our informed perspective we know that Jesus loved His disciples. It’s strange to say it, but He loved them enough that He gave them this experience of salvation. Think of how different the Gospels would be if Christ had shielded the disciples from every possible threat or failure. What if Christ had prevented Peter from denying him or Thomas from doubting or James and John from boasting? The gospels would be very different books. How prideful and self-righteous would the disciples have become if Jesus sheltered them from failure!
Instead the disciples recorded for us their failures. This is the first time we see the disciples in action in Matthew’s gospel. You’d think they would have highlighted one of their successes. What we get is an ugly scene. Jesus asks them why they are so afraid, but a better translation of the Greek is that He asks them why they are cowardly. They’re not just afraid like anyone would be at such a great storm, but they’re cowards at that. They lacked confidence and trust. They had no wit about them and no one was leading. If there was anything they could do to save themselves, whether right or wrong, they would have done it.
We should be glad they passed this story on though. The disciples included these stories in their preaching and teaching to show that worthiness is not found in our merits or strength of faith, but in Christ’s amazing grace. It’s only Christ who saves and the disciples need saving just as much as the leper or the centurion that we heard about last week. They had seen others as recipients of Christ’s mercy, but because nothing is a better teacher than personal experience Christ saw to it that they should feel His mercies.
Indeed, they felt and saw His mercy in most powerful and awesome way. There He is sleeping on the stern (or back of the boat for us landlubbers) seemingly unaware and unmoved by the waves that splashed Him tossing their tiny vessel around. Then when He awakes He is not bothered one bit by the scene He meets. The disciples cry to Him, “Lord, save us!” What’s astonishing is the simplicity of what Jesus says to the storm. There’s no incantation, no wand, or waving of the hands. He’s not like Gandalf facing a Balrog slamming down his magic staff yelling, “You shall not pass!” There’s no epic Hollywood standoff going on here. Jesus just rebukes the storm like you would speak to a disobedient child. In Mark’s gospel He says a single word in the Greek, “Be still!” And at the moment of His rebuke Matthew says “there was a great calm.” What Matthew’s getting at that it wasn’t a subtle change as the wind and waves calmed down. In that moment there was great calm and they were sitting on the sea like nothing had ever happened.
Now, there’s something theological Matthew is getting at too. All ancient cultures believed the sea to be impossible to manage or control and rightfully so. Though the disciples had seen Jesus cleanse a leper, heal a servant from afar, and restore Peter’s mother-in-law to health they still doubted the extent of Jesus’ power. No man can control the seas. Only God can do that, but Jesus did it. By doing this Jesus is saying, “I am not one who is calling on power, I am power. Anyone who has any power on earth is getting it on loan from me.” This is the creator controlling the creation. It was because of things like this that St. John would later write about Jesus saying, “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” Still at this point the disciples wondered at who He was for they knew only God could order the sea to calm like a master orders his dog to sit.
There’s something even deeper going on here though. Interestingly Matthew and Mark both use the same kind of language in the account of Jonah from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. There are some important parallels between these stories. Both have storms, both have men scared to death, both Jonah and Jesus were sleeping, and both calm the storm, but for very different reasons. Jonah was thrown into the storm to appease God’s wrath because of his sin. We don’t see Jesus doing that or do we?
Later in Matthew 12 Jesus refers to Jonah as a proof that He would rise from the dead after three days. What He was saying was the He was the greater Jonah. On the cross Jesus would be thrown into the greatest storm mankind will ever hear of, but it was a spiritual storm. Jonah was thrown into the storm for his own sins; Jesus faced the storm of God’s judgment for all sin because none of us could survive it. His death and resurrection verify that He is trustworthy and He is loving. He won’t fail you. Your Baptism into His death and resurrection is His personal promise to you. You’re safe in His death. You’re safe in His resurrection.
It’s important to note that the same cowardly disciples would become the same men who would face persecution, torture, beheading, and crucifixion for the sake of the news that Jesus is both God and man, both Lord and Savior. There many failures taught them that because Christ is in the vessel they could smile at the storm. We too can have our cowardly moments. When it feels like the boat is about to capsize. When the doctor says, “I’m sorry there’s no more I can do.” When the winds blow the economy one way or another and we wonder how we’re going to manage. It’s moments like these we can flounder. That’s not to mention if God calls us to face violence and persecution for the sake of the gospel and there’s always the hour of death where even the most stalwart can begin to despair. That’s why I’m glad we have these accounts, aren’t you? The disciples are usually men of “little faith” in the gospels, so it leaves a lot of room for “little faith” ones in the boat. Even cowards and little faiths get saved. This account shows us that it’s not the strength of faith that matters, but instead the power of the Savior that faith trusts.
These stories keep us in our place and keep us from ever becoming too prideful. We are weak. Yet they also call us to a finer more confident faith. A faith that trusts the Lord’s salvation and is courageous enough to call on Christ in all times of trouble. No matter what storms may come we have the assurance that nothing that tries to overtake us can ultimately end us for Christ has saved us and will raise us in the great calm of the New Heavens and New Earth. Knowing and trusting Christ this story can lead us to pray where we began with John Newton’s words:
Be gone, unbelief,
My Savior is near,
And for my relief
Will surely appear;
By prayer let me wrestle,
And He will perform:
With Christ in the vessel
I smile at the storm.
In Jesus’ name, amen!