“In the beginning 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 1:1-2
Have you ever seen a really old map before?
They are mostly inaccurate documents because they were made long before even the simplest of mapping technology existed. For a very long time, maps of bodies of water were even drawn with sea monsters in them.
This seems like a funny thing to put on a map. But there’s actually a reason for it.
Throughout human history, people were terrified of the ocean. Without the technology to go for a dive with an oxygen tank or send a robot with a camera down into the depths, there was absolutely no way for them to know what was below the surface of the murky waters of the sea. For most human beings who lived up until the world of the ocean was revealed by technology, the ocean represented chaos and death.
The Ancient Jews, like Jesus and his disciples, actually believed that people went to a place called She’ol (שְׁאוֹל) when they died. She’ol was the depths of the ocean, the unknown, a watery grave, darkness, separation from the world.
I remember the first time I ever really spent extended time sailing on a boat in the ocean. I was probably twelve or so, and my whole family was going on a summer cruise to Alaska.
We ooh-ed and ah-ed over the size of the boat as we were boarding it. It was massive! If you’ve ever seen a cruise ship, you know that feeling of insignificance when you come up next to it and realize how small you are. They are huge, powerful pieces of machinery.
I couldn’t help but think about the way this big boat resembled Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that ended up killing more than 1,500 people when it sank. This was probably not the best thought to have before boarding a large cruise ship, but that’s what immediately came into my mind standing in the shadow of this huge boat. Almost 100 years after the Titanic sank, though, there I was, and I imagined that it would pretty much take an act of God to bring this ship down. It was unthinkably large. An iceberg like the one that brought down the Titanic would probably barely make a dent. I wasn’t concerned at all.
The first few days of the cruise were smooth sailing, and we were having an amazing time. We sailed from Vancouver, Canada, and we finally made it away from the land and into the Bering Strait. As it happens and as most people who enjoy boating and sailing know, the land actually keeps the water relatively calm. However, when moving away from land and sailing into the deep and isolated areas of the ocean, the ungrounded waters can get pretty crazy, even when the weather is perfect.
I remember feeling the boat rock for the first time while my brother and I were playing ping pong. We initially loved it, thinking it was a fluke. We imagined what kind of wave it must have been to rock that massive boat.
Then, it kept going.
We stopped playing ping pong once the ball kept dropping off the table as the boat shifted. As we walked along the edge of the boat back to our room, we could see the waves starting to pick up speed and intensity, despite the clear sky above.
During dinner, my eyes were glued to the window. At this point, it was impossible to walk in a straight line on the ship, which was constantly being shaken by the waves. Drinks were spilled, food was dropped, and waiters came only when absolutely necessary to avoid falling over completely.
After dinner, we all went out on the deck of the ship.
It was then that I lost my cool. Looking out over the rough waters, my searching eyes could no longer find any sort of horizon. The waves were pounding the side of the ship so hard we couldn’t hear each other speak at all. With all of my two days of boating experience, I was certain we were going to sink, and the thought of drowning in the freezing water like terrified me.
We went back inside, and went to a watch a movie. Well, as it turns out, I also get sea sick pretty easily. Not only was I terrified, but I also felt terrible and basically ruined everyone’s night. I took some Dramamine and tried to sleep, sure that we were going to sink as I did so.
The next morning, though, we had made it through the strait and were sailing smoothly along the coast of northern Alaska. When we went back out on the deck, the waters were glassy and smooth. It was like the chaos of the previous night was just a bad dream, or a figment of my imagination. I, of course, was super embarrassed that I had panicked so much.
The worst part is that the whole time we were sailing in totally perfect weather. There was no storm, and even if there had been, my initial assessment of the cruise ship was correct: it would take some pretty impressive, even unnatural, forces to bring that boat down. A patch of rough seas had nothing on it, and I felt really stupid.
Since then, I’ve been on smaller boats, and my terror always comes flooding back. I am hesitant to step foot on any boat since then. I hated feeling so helpless, so unable to fix the problem. I hated feeling like I was going to be thrown into the sea by the force of the waves. I hated the thought of drowning. I hated the chaos that surrounded the boat and seemed to threaten our lives.
This is a pretty common fear. Drowning is a terrifying way to die. Even though it is said that the few moments before dying from drowning are very peaceful, I imagine that the many moments before the last ones are absolutely miserable.
It is this same fear of drowning that the disciples experienced just after they had begun following Jesus.
The story about how Jesus first recruited his disciples is honestly pretty ridiculous. Mostly, he just walked up to them, asked them to follow him, and told them they would fish for people together.
If some stranger came up to me and told me to leave everything I own and everyone I know to come and follow him around so that I could “fish for people” with him, I would absolutely not listen, and I might call the authorites, concerned that someone actually used the words “fish for people.”
But, for whatever reason, this rag tag group of fisherman decided to follow Jesus. Along the way they picked up a tax collector, and a religious fanatic, too. Altogether, they were a pretty strange bunch: a carpenter, some fisherman, a tax collector, and a Zealot.
Most of the disciples, then, were used to sailing. They would have weathered storms before; they would know what it would take to sink a boat.
We come upon the disciples, unsurprisingly, in a boat. You’ve probably heard this one before, or at least some version of it. It happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after he had retreated into the wilderness. After his forty days alone in the desert, he had just begun preaching and teaching and healing in the countryside around the Sea of Galilee. People had started to follow Jesus and his disciples around, and as often happened, he decided to cross the Sea in a boat to travel to the other side, in part to escape the crowd and also in part teach and preach on the other side too.
When evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:35-41
“Who is this?” That’s a very good question, disciples.
So these fishermen follow this stranger, listen to him preach and teach, watch him perform miracles, and then travel with him across the sea. At this point, they probably felt like they had a good handle on Jesus. They knew him now. They knew what he liked to eat, and how fast he walked, and what his laugh sounded like. They knew he got sleepy when they sailed for awhile, and they knew he was something special.
They found themselves stuck on a very small boat in the middle of a very large storm.
Listen, I was on a cruise ship. They were on a boat that was maybe the size of my living room. I can’t imagine how crazy it must have been, crammed into a tiny fishing boat like that, certain that a violent storm was going to kill them all.
And, to make matters worse, as these experienced fishermen freaked out, Jesus was sleeping.
The disciples woke him up and yelled at him. “Don’t you care that we are all going die?” They asked. “How can you be sleeping right now?” A valid question, to be sure.
So when the sea threatened to overtake their ship, the disciples rightfully panicked. Not only were they fishermen who knew what it would take to sink their small boat, they were also people who were terrified of the chaos of the water. They didn’t know what was beneath the surface of the threatening waves, and it terrified them to think they might be thrown into the water and drowned.
They were terrified and Jesus was asleep. You can understand now why this was so ridiculous. Here, the chaos of death was about to overtake them, and Jesus was napping.
So, when he stood up, rebuked the wind and the waves, said “Peace! Be still,” and the storm stopped as if it had never happened, the disciples were rightly amazed (and maybe even afraid).
See, while the Ancient Jews believed water was full of chaos and death, they also believed that God had control over water. In the very beginning, in Genesis 1, it says that God created the earth out of a formless void, out of a deep, chaotic body of water. So, they believed, when God created the earth, God put the chaotic waters in their places and dominated them. The world was created out of the chaos of water, and God gave order to the world. It was God who calmed the waves.
When Jesus stood up, spoke a word, calmed the storm, and sat down, the disciples asked, “Who is this man?” And perhaps they started to wonder if he was even a man at all.
They had already seen his miracles; they had already heard his message. But now they saw his authority and his power. Who is this man who naps in the face of certain death, who says three words and ends a storm, who heals the sick and gives sight to the blind and raises the dead? Who is the man who calls out the religious authorities in public and turns over tables in the temple? Who is this man?
That is the question, isn’t it.
From our perspective, their question seems a little obvious. Duh. He’s the Son of God. He’s Jesus, God Incarnate.
But remember that the disciples don’t have the benefit of the rest of the story. They don’t know about the cross, the resurrection, the church, the Holy Spirit, and everything else that has happened in our world since then. They don’t know about the way God has worked for the salvation of humanity like we do. They don’t know Jesus like we do.
See, this man who calms the storm is Jesus. This is who Jesus is. This is what Jesus does. In the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus speaks calm and peace. When it feels like we are about to sink in the waves of the messes we have made, Jesus extends his hand, and everything is still. When we have done our worst, when we have disobeyed God in all the ways we could think of, and when what we deserve is the chaos of death, Jesus brings power and new life.
Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?
He is Yahweh, the one who spoke the world into existence from out of the the waters of chaos. He is the Lord, the one who delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt between the parted waters of the Red Sea. He is the Deliverer, the one who lead the people to the land of promise through the waters of the Jordan River. He is Immanuel, the one born in the waters of Mary’s womb. He is the Son, the one newly christened with the waters of baptism, with whom God is well pleased. He is the Creator, the one who says “Peace, be still,” and makes the waters calm. And He is God, who will one day wipe the waters of tears from our eyes when all things will be made new.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'” – Revelation 21:3-5
Grace and peace,