Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Romans 13:8-10 + Matthew 8:23-27
The Holy Spirit puts special emphasis on the story you heard today in the Gospel, when Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this event. It was important. It was another great Epiphany of the Lord Jesus: Jesus has authority over the wind and the waves.
Does that strike you? I wonder. We’ve known Jesus through the Holy Scriptures for so long, we’ve come to expect it of Him, that He can speak a word to the roaring winds, and they listen. That He can talk to the waves of the sea, and they immediately obey. That’s awesome power—power His disciples had seen before, but still not quite on this scale. They had seen six jars of water changed into wine. They had seen people with illnesses made whole. They had seen demons forced to obey the authority of the Son of God (as we heard this morning in the Sunday School lesson). They had seen another kind of miracle at sea, the first miraculous catch of fish. Amazing, all of it. But there is something special about being able to stare up at the raging sky and tell it to shush, something about staring at the raw forces of nature and being able to tell them to behave. Not with magic or with a spell. But by the divine power that brought the earth into existence with a word, that set the sun and the moon and the planets in their places in the solar system, and that brought out the stars by name throughout all the galaxies of the universe. That’s power.
That’s who Jesus is. So, does it make any sense to be afraid of a storm, knowing that Jesus is the ruler of the wind and the waves, and knowing that Jesus is the one who initiated this voyage across the sea, as all three Gospels record? It was Jesus who got into the boat. It was Jesus who said, “Let’s cross over to the other side” of the lake.
Ah, but the disciples didn’t know yet, at the beginning of the voyage, that Jesus could actually calm the wind and the sea! Maybe not. But they should have. They had seen all those other miracles. They had heard all His preaching. He had already promised to give them everlasting life, and to make them His apostles to go out into the world and “catch men.” They had already confessed Him (privately) to be the Christ. They had left their livelihoods behind in order to follow Him. They had already put their faith in Him and were resting their eternal souls on Him as the Savior sent from God. Does it make any sense to think that a storm out at sea might just be able to undo all that Jesus had promised and all that He had already done? Could a storm stand in His way? Or could He simply allow them to perish at sea, after promising to make them workers in His kingdom?
No, their fear makes no sense. Fear never makes sense for the Christian.
Oh, it makes perfect sense for the non-Christian. If you don’t know who the true God is, if you’re living in rebellion against your Creator, if you’ve recreated a god in your own image who has no basis in reality, if you’re still wallowing in the filth of your sins, unclean, unclaimed, unwashed in the baptismal blood of Christ…then you must be afraid of literally everything. And if you’re not, you should be. Because our God is a consuming fire, as the writer to the Hebrews says. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
But the one who has heard and believed the Gospel that God loved the world so that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life, the one who has received Christ’s baptism, who confesses Him as Lord, who knows Him to be the great King who rules over the vast galaxies of the universe and also over the tiniest atoms that make up our bodies—why should a Christian ever panic? Why should we ever be afraid? If God is for us, as St. Paul writes, who can be against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, he says, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
But our Gospel today shows us the flaw that still plagues God’s children, the senseless fear of little children who normally trust their parents, but who, in a moment of crisis, in a moment of danger, suddenly stop trusting them. I would guess that all parents have seen it. We’ve seen it. In a moment of crisis, even Christians are sorely tempted to revert back to our default, spiritual fetal position, if you will—in which we believe that there is no God who can help, no God who can save. I’m on my own. I’m all by myself. Either I figure it all out myself, or all hope is lost. If God is there, He must not care. Or He must be sleeping.
And that’s just where we find Jesus during the storm at sea, while His disciples were panicking and terrified. He was asleep in the back of the boat.
How could He sleep through all that? Well, for one thing, He was actually tired! He had spent the day there by the sea, healing the people, teaching the people. It was exhausting. But more importantly, His own perfect trust in His Father’s providence allowed Him to sleep, because while He, the Son of God, had become a man and now needed sleep in this state of humiliation, God the Father is always awake. As the Psalm says, I will lift up my eyes to the hills—From whence comes my help? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. Or again, I will lie down in peace, and sleep. For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. And again, The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Jesus was not only the divine Author, but also the perfect human pray-er of those Psalms. He shows us what perfect faith, perfect trust looks like.
And then the Holy Spirit shows us what imperfect faith looks like in the disciples. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” It seems like they said it as a last resort, after all their efforts against the storm had failed to keep the boat safe. It should have been their first resort, and not with the fear of, “We are perishing!” But with the trust of the Psalmist, As for me, I will call upon God, and the LORD shall save me.
That wasn’t the faith the disciples demonstrated. But Jesus got up, spoke one word to the wind and another to the waves. And all was still. And for as important and as impressive as it was for the disciples to learn the almighty power of Jesus, the more important lesson was about to follow as Jesus spoke to them: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”
Why are you fearful? You shouldn’t be. But sometimes you are and all the time the devil wants to take advantage of the danger to drive you away from faith. You see, the real danger of any danger is not the danger itself. The real danger is that the danger will scare you out of trusting in the Lord Christ to help.
As today’s Gospel shows us, nothing is out of Christ’s control. Even now He rules over all things, though the time has not yet come for Him to make all things right. There are still lots of perils and dangers in this world, but there is no good reason for the Christian to fear. Christ has made you His friends and companions. He’ll help you face the danger. He’ll help you bear up under the burden. He may remove it entirely. Or, if not—because He has never promised in His Word to spare you from all grief in this sin-filled world—He’ll give you the wisdom and the courage and the strength you need in the hour of trial. He’ll forgive you your sins. He’ll be your loving God and Father, your truest Friend and Companion.
Remember what Jesus did that day on the Sea of Galilee with those fearful disciples of little faith. He saved them. He patiently taught them and slowly built up their faith, so that, eventually, they learned not to be so afraid.
Now, maybe next time you’re in danger, you won’t be quite as afraid. Now, maybe next time, you’ll remember not to panic, not to forget about God, not to turn to Him as a last resort, but to go to Him first, not in fear and terror, but in childlike trust. Amen.