Being caught in a storm at sea is no laughing matter. I speak from bitter experience. When I was doing my Church Army Training, more years ago than I am prepared to admit to, I spent, as one of my placements, six weeks working with the chaplaincy team at H.M.S. Collingwood. H.M.S. Collingwood is a training ship – the biggest in the navy – and as such is not a ship at all but a land base.
While I was there I had the opportunity to join the chaplain on H.M.S. Antrim, a guided missile destroyer, and spend two days at sea while the ship went out for gunnery practice. What an opportunity – and it should have been a wonderful experience.
However, shortly after we left Portsmouth harbour it started. The ship hit gale force winds. As we left harbour the chaplain took me round the ship on a guided tour. As we went round the ship started to go up and down more and more. I hasten to add that – if you discount the Isle of Wight Ferry – this was my first ever trip to sea. I distinctly remember the unnnerving feeling as your feet literally left the deck as the ship went down, only to find yourself pressed into the floor as it came up again. Some of you will know that Navy ships fly a flag at the front of the ship in port, and someone has the job of bringing it in once the ship has left port. It so happened that as we reached the very front of the ship inside, a doorway opened and the poor sailor who had been given this task shot in propelled by the winds. The sky outside was black – it was mid-morning but it looked like mid-night.
As it happened it was so rough that in the end I was despatched to the medical bay for an injection to ease my nausea and for a lie down. I shall never forget the experience. It was so rough that the exercise was cut short and the ship returned to shore the next day. I have every sympathy with the disciples who panicked and wanted Jesus to sit up and do something.
The storm in which Jesus and the disciples were caught sounds as though it was really bad – far, far worse than normal. Storms on the Sea of Galilee were common. This large inland lake is about 600 feet – that’s 180 metres for those of you who, unlike me, think in metric – below sea level and is surrounded by hills and narrow ravines. The water traps heat during the day. Warm air rises, cools and falls, and sometimes is funnelled by the ravines into violent gales that sweep down without warning.
The Gospel accounts suggest there was something unusual about this one particular gale. Peter, Andrew, James, John – they were fishermen, they had been in storms before and they knew how to handle the boat. Perhaps that’s why Jesus was asleep. He trusted himself to them, allowing them to use their skills to serve him, just as he trusts us to use our skills to serve him in everyday life. But this time, they were terrified. It was certainly a storm far worse than those they usually experienced – hence the panic.
It seems that they felt this storm had malevolent intent – and perhaps it was indeed a desperate attempt by Satan to destroy Jesus.
For when Jesus woke up, he spoke to the storm in words that he had previously used to deliver people from evil spirits. Satan’s attacks can come without warning through what we might regard as natural causes. Again, the words used by the Gospel writers suggest more than meets our eye at first. It wasn’t just that the storm abated, but as the writer of the gospel puts it “Jesus rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm”.
It sounds as if the calm that Jesus restored was the placid millpond they had first sailed onto. But the sea doesn’t behave like that. Even after a short storm, the swell continues for some time; water doesn’t go flat at once. But it seems that this did. So what amazed the disciples was the authority of Jesus over the storm. It’s no wonder that, as Luke says, “they were afraid and amazed and said ‘Who is this?’”
They knew that in the story of creation, God spoke and the world was made: chaos gave way to order. The disciples saw with their own eyes what words could never have convinced them of: that Jesus was also the creator of the world. He was God, in human form. No one else could tell the natural world what to do. Jesus turned a human emergency into a divine teaching aid – which he often did in his miracles. Yet it was too great a truth to sink in. The disciples were awestruck, but also bewildered. Only later would they see the full significance and learn to worship Jesus as Lord of all.
At one level, this story reminds us that Jesus can still the storms of life that we and others face. If he seems asleep, perhaps that’s because he’s allowing us to use the gifts and skills he’s given us, so that we grow in faith. Or perhaps it’s because we, like the disciples, haven’t called on him until the very last moment. Maybe they should have woken him sooner.
Too often we delay before we turn to Jesus, or we don’t turn to him at all. There is a well-known saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Well, for the Christian “when the going gets tough, Jesus gets going” – if we remember to turn to him in prayer. It makes sense to bring the storms of life to Jesus when they first blow up, not wait until we reach panic level before we pray.
But the most important part of this story of Jesus stilling a storm is something that is often overlooked. This story is often interpreted as showing us that if we have faith in Jesus he will still the storms we experience in everyday life. And, of course, he can do that – and sometimes does. But to interpret this story in that way is to completely overlook Jesus’ words to the disciples.
For this is a learning point for them. After in their fear they have woken Jesus up in the middle of the storm, and after he has still the wind and calmed the waves, Jesus says to them, ‘Where is your faith?’
His point is that they had no need to wake him up. They were never in danger because Jesus was with them. They may have been in a dreadful storm, but they had no need to fear because of the presence of Jesus. ‘Where is your faith,’ he says to them, ‘I was always with you even in the midst of the storm.’ They wanted the storm to end so they could be safe – of course they did – but they had lacked the faith to understand that Jesus was keeping them safe even in the midst of apparently great danger. Jesus wasn’t sleeping in the back of the boat because he didn’t care, but because he knew they had no need to be fearful.
And that is good news for us too – in the middle of the darkest and most dreadful storms that we may experience in life, Jesus is with us. Jesus is caring for us, looking after us – even at those times when it seems as though he has gone to sleep and is ignoring the reality of what is going on. And if we can have faith in him, faith in his presence, then he can help us weather the storm. He may not take the storms away – Jesus doesn’t simply make life a haven a peace and calm for his followers – but we can know his peace within the storms.