Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 8:23-27
Dear disciples in the boat with Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
On a nice, calm day, the disciples followed Jesus into the boat. If you would have asked them at that point if they trusted Jesus, they would have responded strongly in the affirmative. Of course they trusted Jesus. They had just witnessed Jesus healing the leper, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others. They were of good cheer and content, thinking that because Jesus was with them, they would have no trouble. They had no fear, apprehension, or uneasiness. Jesus, weary from preaching and teaching, laid down to sleep.
Then, the storm hit. A great storm with waves swamping the boat. The disciples were overcome with fear and fright. They were in a panic as the amount of water in the boat increased and increased, even as the howling winds and great waves tossed it back and forth, completely out of their control. Jesus remained sleeping, seemingly unaware of what was happening.
Jesus remained sleeping to bring the weak faith of the disciples to light. Faith is revealed to be true or false precisely through crosses and trials.
Saint Peter had boasted that he was ready even to die with Jesus, but when tribulation came, Peter fell away and denied Jesus three times. We, too, know how to talk big about the Gospel, cross, and patience, but when the cross is upon us, and we get hit by the storms of life, then it becomes clear how weak our faith is.
“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Jesus asks.
The winds and the sea obey Jesus. This of course means they obey Him not only when He rebukes the winds and the sea and tells them to be calm, but also when He tells them to rise up and storm. Jesus is the one who commanded the storm to start and to toss the boat and swamp it with water. The storm struck because of Jesus. So also our storms strike because of Jesus.
One way to end the storm is to throw Jesus out of the boat. That’s what the sailors did to Jonah. The Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land sent a great storm because Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. To quiet the storm, the sailors hurled Jonah, the one who was responsible for the storm, into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.
Throwing Jesus out of the boat to calm the storm is the easy way out of affliction. Scripture tells us, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (II Tim. 3:12) So, walk away from Jesus and your afflictions will end. The devil will stop harassing you at every corner. He will stop lying in wait for your thoughts, heart, soul, spirit, and conscience. The world will stop hating you, slandering you, and speaking evil of you. You will no longer have the constant battle with the desires, passions, lusts, anger and pride of your sinful flesh.
This is what many churches have done. They were beaten down by the social justice warriors of the world, so they caved to their every demand. Regardless of what Christ our Lord says on the matters, they wanted to avoid affliction, so they have fully embraced abortion, homosexuality, women pastors, and every other godless doctrine from Satan.
See, the world tolerates all the teaching and preaching of the heathen, the Muslims, and false Christians, but it cannot stand Christ’s teaching and preaching. As long as you preach what the itching ears of the world want to hear, everything will go smoothly for you. But when you begin to follow Christ, every calamity strikes. Then you invite against yourself the devil, the world, and all ungodly men. Then, because of Jesus, you face great storms and fierce winds, and suffer affliction.
But if you throw Christ out of the boat – out of your life – you throw out with Him all grace, salvation, and blessedness. You throw out eternal life.
Instead of throwing Jesus out of the boat, go in your anguish and distress to Him like the disciples did and say, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Be patient and commit your cares to God until He is roused from sleep by your calling and crying.
The truth is that God never sleeps. Sometimes it seems to us as if God is sleeping. Psalm 44 says, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Rise up; come to our help!” (vv. 23,26) Psalm 35 prays, “Awake and rouse yourself for my vindication, for my cause, my God and my Lord.” (v. 23)
As a man, Christ did sleep according to His human nature. According to His divine nature, He did not sleep, but was awake. As Psalm 121 says, “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (v. 4) Even sleeping, Jesus was not only aware of the storm, but commanding the storm. Even sleeping according to His human nature, Christ was awake according to His divine nature and keeping watch over His disciples in the boat.
Upon being roused by the disciples, Jesus did rebuke them for their little faith, but He calmed the storm. The storm and the calming of the storm were to strengthen the disciples’ faith; that they would trust that Christ alone is Lord of heaven and earth, who made the sea and the dry land; that they would trust that, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” (Ps. 34:19) Jesus desired them to know that they can find comfort and help in all dangers, be they physical or spiritual, by water or land, as long as they are with Him in the boat, that is, incorporated into Him by faith.
Even though He sometimes takes a long time, and it seems to us that He has fallen asleep, forgotten us, and will not hear us, we should not therefore despair, but cry out with the disciples, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Then we will quickly find verification of David’s words, “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” and “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him.” (Ps. 91:15)
What we should always remember is that our death is our victory. Then we will be in no more trouble. We will face no more storms or afflictions. Because of Jesus’ death for our sin, our sin has been paid for, and our death is precious in God’s sight. Through the storms of this life, Jesus also teaches us to pray for death – that sweet release from the evils of this life. Jesus’ death has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. The kingdom of heaven is thus open to you.
No troubles or afflictions can keep you out of heaven. Sin, death, and the devil cannot keep you out of heaven. Christ Jesus fulfilled God’s Law for you in thought, word, and deed, and He suffered and died for you, taking the full punishment of your sins on Himself. He has defeated all that would bar the gates of heaven to you, and He has promised to be with you until the end, through everything you must face.
With Jesus in the boat with us, the world must rage against us as it rages against Him. Let the world rage and storm. The winds and sea, and all things must obey Jesus. Trial and trouble will last no longer than Jesus wills. He is Lord over all, and He can change it all in a moment. To Him be worship, glory, and honour forever! Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
[This sermon borrows from Johann Spangenberg’s questions and answers on the Gospel reading.]