On October 9, I had the privilege of preaching at King’s Cross Church in Ashburn, Virginia. KCC has been joining my church, McLean Presbyterian Church, in our Fall series through the Gospel of Mark. This week we covered the famous account of Jesus calming the storm. Below is a manuscript of the message I preached. At the end of the manuscript is an extended application I didn’t have time to include in my sermon. You can also watch a recording of the sermon by clicking the picture above! Visit King’s Cross’s website here!
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)
Good morning church, it’s great to be with you today. My name is Patrick Quinn, I’m one of the pastoral interns with our Capital Pres family. We’re continuing in our series on the Gospel of Mark, and today, we’ve got an all time classic story: Jesus calming the sea. I grew up going to Young Life, a ministry for middle and high school students, and I volunteer led with Young Life for about six years. This was one of our go-to passages when talking about Jesus, so I’ve heard no less than 20 messages just on this passage. It’s amazing how every time I read this passage, some new detail sticks out to me I’ve never seen before. If you’ve also heard this passage a hundred times, be on the lookout for new details.
One of the things which might help us see some new details is to understand just how terrifying the sea can be. I watched a documentary earlier this week on humanity’s fear of the depths and came across this story. In 1873 off the coast of Newfoundland, a fisherman named Theophilus Picot found something attached to his row boat. He tried smacking it with his oar, and the obscure mass under the water shook the whole boat and threw its arms around both sides of the hull. In a panic, Pico picked up a hatchet and started hacking away at one of the tentacles. The beast eventually swam off, leaving a trail of ink reportedly more than three hundred feet long behind it.
You can imagine how furiously Picot rowed back to shore, and what lay at the bottom of his small row boat was the first definitive evidence of a sea monster the world had ever seen: a 19-foot-long tentacle belonging to a giant squid. Before that day in 1873, the giant squid swam within the sea of myth—mere fables, sailor stories, tall tales which served the same purpose as ghost stories: to scare those who heard them, or possibly to communicate the horror of the places in which they were said to dwell. And if any place has been unanimously categorized as horrifying, the sea would fit the bill.
Across all human civilizations, the sea has always been seen as a chaotic force, an uncontrollable and unpredictable power itself full of uncontrollable and unpredictable beasts. The Greeks had Scylla & Charybdis in Homer, the Vikings had their Kraken. Today we hear stories of the Loch Ness monster or Godzilla rising up out of the ocean, and we even have real sea monsters, like the giant squid or the extinct megalodon, or the blue whale (which I am personally terrified of; no living thing should be that big). It shouldn’t be surprising then that the Old Testament has its own stories of sea monsters, including the massive fish which swallows Jonah and the beasts called Leviathan and Rahab, coiling evil sea dragons described throughout Hebrew poetry.
These were stories that Jesus’ disciples would have been born and raised on, and probably joked amongst themselves when they launched out to sea on their fishing expeditions (“What will we drag up today?”). But no matter how scary the disciples’ prospect of catching sea monsters was, nothing was scarier than the sea itself. If you’ve never seen the Sea of Galilee in person or in pictures, it’s essentially a 10 mile wide cereal bowl, a broad lake 3.5 miles from shore at its center with mountains forming a rim around the whole thing. Dangerous weather systems can drop into the basin of this large bowl in a matter of minutes, throwing what is normally a peaceful lake into a roaring, foaming sea with waves as high as 10 feet.
The sea is terrifying—uncontrollable and unpredictable.
This is why Hebrew poetry so commonly uses the sea as a literary device to describe the chaos we experience in all of life. Consider Jonah’s poem in Jonah 2. The prophet’s not just writing about literally plummeting to the bottom of the ocean, he’s reflecting on his rebellion against God and the chaos his whole life had been thrown into because of it. We still think about the chaos of life in this way. When we want to describe how overwhelmed we are amidst the chaos of life, we say things like “I’m drowning at work right now” or “I’m swamped with school work” or “I’m just trying to keep my head above water.”What do all those sayings communicate? The chaos of life is like the vast, uncontrollable, unpredictable, stormy sea.
And just like the storm on the Sea of Galilee, sometimes the storms in our life come out of nowhere. One day we’re perfectly fine, and the next day the waves are crashing down on us. A car accident, a break up, an unexpected diagnosis, the sudden loss of a loved one—you name it, storms come in all varieties, and they quickly remind us how chaotic life is and how fragile the ship we’re sailing in is.
Here’s the crazy thing our passage today shows us: Jesus conquers both. Jesus can calm all the chaos of our lives just as he calms the sea. Coming to our text, we see three questions: Don’t you care if we drown? Why are you so afraid? Who then is this? We’ll work through each of these questions, but first, let’s pray.
Don’t you care if we drown?
The first question is shouted by the disciples at Jesus, who is somehow asleep on the ship. Now apparently, the disciples do not see this as an appropriate course of action given their current circumstances. To them, it doesn’t matter why Jesus is sleeping through the storm or how he sleeps through it. All that matters is that he isn’t helping them handle it.
Before we rag on the disciples too much, let’s put ourselves in their sandals. They’re professional fishermen who know about storms on the sea, and this storm is a killer. They’re sailing with a guy who’s proved he can work miracles, but even if he hadn’t healed the sick, he’s still a man capable of picking up a bucket and bailing water. And he can’t even be bothered to get up from his cushion while the waves swamp the deck? Jesus, don’t you care at all? Of all the people, why aren’t you doing anything?
I know for many of us, we don’t have to put ourselves in their position because we’re already in the middle of our own storms, and maybe you’ve been asking him the same question “Don’t you care?” Let me just take a minute to recognize: it’s okay if you’re asking that hard question of Jesus today. The Bible allows that question, God invites that question—we see it all over the place in Scripture. We can look at Isaiah 51:9-11, one of those passages with the sea monster Rahab:
Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?
In other words, the prophet is asking, “God you delivered our ancestors from Egypt, you’re capable of helping us! Are you going to help us here, now?” Are you asking God to wake up? Mark is inviting us to ask this question with the disciples. This is how a relationship with Jesus works, we’re welcome to bring our hard questions and our life’s storms to him—even when we ask in bad faith.
Look, to be frank, at this point they don’t care if Jesus is a nobody rabbi or Moses himself, they just want him to get off his cushion and start bailing water: do something! They’re asking Jesus to help them fix it their own way, but in his mercy, Jesus decides to fix it his way.
Jesus wakes up, rebukes the wind and says to the waves “Peace, be still”…and they are. Okay, so a couple of things to unpack here. First, let’s look at this wording carefully. It says that Jesus “awoke,” that’s it. We’re not told that Jesus, “arose” only that he woke up. Jesus doesn’t even need to rise to his feet. Next, it says that Jesus “rebuked” and “said to” the wind and waves. It doesn’t say he “shouted” at them, there’s a different word for that Mark could have used. Jesus isn’t “going to battle” with the sea, it’s not like Gandalf opposing the Balrog or David confronting Goliath. Jesus wakes up from his nap and tells the raging stormy sea to be quiet as if it were his iPhone alarm going off…and it works.
And one last observation here: Jesus doesn’t call upon any higher authority or say “In the name of the Lord, Be still!” He just…says it…and it works! This is not an option that was available for the disciples; none of them even considered the option of telling the sea to calm down because humans can’t do that. But this one can. The boat stopped rocking, but the disciples’ heads have only just started to spin. And Jesus leans in on this moment, he doesn’t let it go to waste.
Why are you so afraid?
I don’t want to smooth this over too much, Jesus is asking a hard question: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” This is a pressing question, it pushes past actions and looks to motives. We’re allowed to ask hard questions of Jesus, but that also means that Jesus is allowed to ask us a few hard questions in return. But note: this isn’t to shame the disciples, it’s to show them who he is.
Look at the first question he asks: Why are you so afraid? While the storm was raging, the disciples were wondering, “How can Jesus sleep? Doesn’t he see the storm?” Jesus responds by saying, “Don’t you see me?” In their fear, they forgot at least three things. They forgot Jesus’ words. He had said they were going to go to the other side. That’s all they got. Jesus didn’t say the journey would be fun and quick and easy, but he did say they would make it to the other side. They forgot Jesus’ power. This was someone who taught with authority, even over demons. Spiritual forces of chaos had to obey his word. Why wouldn’t natural forces follow suit?
Most importantly, they forgot Jesus’ love. They assumed Jesus didn’t care because he led them into a storm and was doing nothing to help them get out of it. They had no idea how rich the blessing was they’d receive because of that storm: seeing exactly who Jesus is. Now, note: Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to stop being afraid because the storm isn’t that dangerous and the sea isn’t that scary—they really were on the brink of drowning.
The same is true for us—Jesus isn’t trivializing our storms. When Jesus enters into the chaos of your life, he doesn’t just tell you to get over yourself. He tells you to look at him in it, because the storms in your life are the very ways Jesus shows you who he is. First, by showing you the way you try to handle the storm by your own strength. Second, by letting you see the way your fear pulls your eyes away from the only One who can calm the sea. Third, by forcing you to come to Jesus—to refocus and ask for him to rescue you. And finally, by doing what only God can do: calming the wind, stilling the sea, bringing order to chaos.
And so Jesus leans in even further with one more question: “Where is your faith?” To answer that question, it might be helpful to keep reading and see the answer to the disciples’ question: Who then is this?
Who then is this?
At this point in Mark, the people are starting to gather that Jesus is the messiah—he’s the one who’s destined to save Israel. But the disciples are still working out exactly what that means. They assumed the messiah would wage war against Rome and lead Israel to national independence. But so far, he hasn’t recruited an army; he’s got a crowd of lepers, paralytics, tax collectors, and fishermen. He’s also doing odd things like healing people and forgiving sins. But here, now on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples row back to shore like Theophilus Picot, with definitive evidence of something spectacular: a man who controls the sea.
As they rowed, I’m sure all those old Hebrew stories and poems came flooding into their imagination. Who is the hero of Israel who slayed Rahab in Isaiah 51:9-11? Who is the master of creation who views Leviathan as his pet, his plaything, in Job 41? Who is the deliverer who appointed the fish for Jonah and who split the Red Sea so Israel could leave Egypt? Who is the voice who gave the sea its limits in the first act of creation? Who is the Lord over all chaos, the one who controls the uncontrollable and guides the unpredictable? It’s the Lord. It’s God. It’s always only Adonai.
And now that Person is with them in their boat, lying down on a cushion…And they’re terrified, because even though they see Jesus as God, they’re missing the fact that he’s their God.
You might have had this experience in your own walk with Jesus. You’re in the middle of the sea in a storm, you go through periods of fear and doubt, and suddenly God breaks into the scene to show you his incredible power. And when you remember who Jesus is, you feel this new dread wash over you—“I just doubted the God of the universe. Is this forgivable? Can I come back from this?”
Friends, see how this story puts these fears to rest. Look at the disciples. They now trust his word: they’re going to make it to the other side. They now see his power, and he is way more powerful than the sea. But they don’t yet understand just how radical and deep his love is for them. Tim Keller wrote a book on Mark’s Gospel titled King’s Cross, in it he writes this:
“Jesus had infinitely more power [than the storm], so [the disciples] had even less control over him. But there’s a huge difference. A storm doesn’t love you. Nature is going to wear you down, destroy you…Nature is indifferent to you, but Jesus is filled with an untamable love for you. If the disciples had really known that Jesus loved them, if they had really understood that he is both powerful and loving, they would not have been scared.” (Keller, King’s Cross, 54)
Jesus just saved their lives from a storm, and they’re terrified of him? Why on earth would they be afraid? Of course he loves them. Of course he’ll forgive them. We’re only in the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel; Jesus is just getting started showing his disciples how much he’ll forgive them. We’ll see this perfect marriage of power and love build and grow and culminate until Jesus bears every storm upon himself, Jesus faces the chaos of sin and dies, and in death, defeats every last reason you and I could ever have to be afraid. And at last, Jesus defeats even death itself—he makes it to the other side, too.
Church, you have nothing to fear. Jesus loves you. He’s not leaving you, especially when you’re afraid. He’s still in the boat with you, whether he lets the storm continue or he calms it. That’s who this is.
What about my storm?
One last question might still be lingering in your mind: if Jesus is so great and so loving, why hasn’t he calmed my storm yet? Why am I still battling this illness? Why are my parents still fighting? Why am I still single? Why am I still miserable in my marriage? Why am I still struggling with this sin?
As much as I wish I could answer all these questions, the truth is, we don’t always know why God lets certain storms go on for so long. But I do know this: We are just as forgetful as the disciples. We’re prone to forget God’s word, and Jesus elsewhere promises us we will face storms (John 16:33). We’re prone to forget his power – the whole world is upheld by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). And we’re prone to forget his love – He doesn’t leave us in our storms. Instead, he promises us that a) he will be with us through them (Matt 28:20), and b) ultimately, we’ll make it to the other side (Romans 8:28-39).
And I want to be clear on what it means to “make it to the other side.” That doesn’t mean that every storm you weather in this life will be resolved the way you want it to. The disciples just wanted help bailing water, but Jesus had something better in mind. Consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. They hoped that God would keep them from Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, but he doesn’t; instead, he enters into the furnace with them. Or an even better example, consider Stephen in Acts 7. He was stoned for saying he beheld Jesus in heaven, and as he fell asleep in death, he woke up once again beholding Jesus in heaven.
Sometimes in life, but ultimately in death, Jesus brings us through to the other side. You might think, Stephen’s story sounds more like a counter-example—look at him! He died! Brutally! That doesn’t sound like deliverance. But in Christ, there is no greater deliverance. Heaven is not a consolation prize, it’s not compensation for the suffering you experience in this life. Heaven is our greatest hope—It is the perfect fulfillment of all God’s promises, eternal peace and endless calm before the face of Christ.
Revelation 21:1 says “the sea was no more.” God has promised to do away with all chaos, with every storm in your life. Whether in life or in death, if you are in Christ, you have nothing to fear: he’s promised to calm the sea, he’s powerful enough to do it, and he’s proven he loves you.
* * *
What are the different ways you respond to storms in your life? I’m sure there’s a lot of ways, but I’ve been thinking about three as I’ve reflected on this passage.
First: Jumping ship and swimming back to shore. This is the person who says “Good luck to everyone else, this is your problem; I’m gonna look out for #1.” Maybe it’s disdain for those around you or a pride that you can make it to shore all by yourself. It could look like this: This whole being a husband and a dad thing is too hard, so I’m gonna totally disconnect from my family and just do me. Or maybe this: Life is really hard right now—work is hard, family is hard, school is hard, friendships are hard, my health is bad—but I’m not gonna ask a soul for help, because it’s just me and God; God will get me through this, I can make it without anyone else knowing how hard life is.
It’s self-evident why this is not a good strategy. In your wake you’ll leave behind a trail of broken hearts and jaded friends and family. And more likely than not, you’ll end up nowhere close to shore, still stuck in the storm with no help and all alone.
Second: Furiously bailing water. This is the one the disciples go with. This is the person who says, “I’m going to do everything I can to stop this ship from sinking.” At face value, this seems like a better strategy than jumping ship. You’re at least doing something to help the situation—you’re doing the right thing, you’ve apparently found a solution which matches the problem. “There’s too much water in the boat, so I’m going to get the water out of the boat.”
What does this look like in your life? Maybe this: I’m falling behind on my quota for work, so I’m going to work 70+ hours a week until I get back on top of it. Or this: My parents are fighting, so I’m going to be the all-star student and athlete to make them stop. Or this: My teenage child is getting into destructive behavior, so I’m going to execute every form of punishment and put up every possible restriction I can think of.
While it’s good for us to find solutions which match problems in our life and it’s good to take action, sometimes we miss the bigger picture. No amount of bailing water would have stopped the disciple’s boat from sinking—their pales weren’t going to stop the wind or contain all the waves. Some problems in life can be fixed with hard work, but nothing we do can calm the sea.
Third (and let me give you a little window into my own heart): Analyzing the storm. This person says, “If I can just understand what’s going on here, there has to be a solution!” Imagine if Peter had woken Jesus from His slumber on the boat and given an extensive situation report of the storm, detailing the weather system and the quality of the boat and the capability of the disciples manning the ship and the rate at which water was being baled compared to the rate at which water was swamping the boat, all while the boat is coming closer and closer to capsizing.
That’s me. What does this look like for you? Maybe this: I’ve got this diagnosis and it doesn’t look good, so I’m going to read every medical journal and pharmaceutical study to know exactly what’s going on and then once I’m the leading expert in my own sickness I’ll figure this all out. Or this: I’ve got this nasty sin habit and I can’t seem to kick it, so if I can just listen to enough sermons and attend enough retreats and commit myself to enough accountability groups, it’ll all make sense and I’ll be able to stop.
Friends, it is wise to know what might cause storms in your life so that you can avoid them when you see the signs. But the reality is, no amount of explaining your situation can save you when you’re in the middle of a storm.
Whether you’re the person who jumps ship, the one who furiously bails water, or the one who studies the storm, all three of these people are headed toward the exact same fate: you’re gonna drown. And notice how all three of these strategies can happen within proximity to Jesus. “It’s just me and God!” Or “Lord, I’m gonna bail all this water out for you!” Or “God, here’s exactly what’s going on!” Your prayer life might be thriving through all this, too: “God, help me swim to shore!” Or “God, help me bail all this water out!” Or “God, help me understand why this is happening!”
But there’s a big difference between being in proximity of Jesus and coming to Jesus. Try to apply this to your prayer life. Think consciously as you pray, “What am I asking for here? Am I trying to make it on my own? Am I trying to fix this my own way? Am I trying to think my way out of this problem?” Ask that of yourself when you pray for others, too. Are you praying that God lets them make it on their own, or are you asking God to clear the storm from their lives? Are you praying for them to be independent or for them to receive faith? And take time to process, are you merely within proximity of Jesus or are you coming to him?
Regardless of the foolish ways we try to calm the sea, Jesus is merciful enough to meet us where we are, calm the sea for us, and stay in the boat with us. He is our God. He is worthy of our worship.