The Lord Is with You in the Boat.
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:23-27
In Christ Jesus, who is near us and with us and even resides inside us by His never-ending grace, dear fellow redeemed:
With the extreme cold we experienced last week, we have many modern blessings to be thankful for. We are thankful for furnaces which keep our homes at a nice, constant temperature and for the fuel and electricity that run them. We are thankful for phone and internet service which keep us connected to others. We are thankful for cars that get us from point A to point B in dangerous conditions. We are thankful for indoor plumbing.
The situation was quite different for the immigrants who settled the countryside, building grass huts and log cabins. Their indoor heat came from the fireplace which sent more heat up the chimney than into the room. If there was an emergency, there was no easy way to contact anyone. To get anywhere, they had to take off on foot or by horse. There was NO indoor plumbing.
The disciples likewise had few options when a great storm troubled the sea. They could not call for help or send a distress signal. They had no motor to get them quickly to land. They were captive to the violent rise and fall of the waves which threatened to sink the boat.
If you have gone boating in the past, I hope you have been spared an experience like this. Of course we don’t have to find trouble on the sea—there is enough of it on land! Some of you have lost property or goods due to flooding, drought, or other severe weather. You were helpless to stop it and could only hope that it would pass quickly.
Others have faced trouble besides disasters in nature. For some, it may be health problems. You have long dealt with a chronic condition or a weakness in your body. Or you were surprised to be diagnosed with a serious infection or disease. Others have financial difficulties. You made some poor purchasing or investment decisions. You borrowed more than you could pay back. You did not receive what was promised you. Others have dealt with personal attacks, betrayal, loss of loved ones, severe temptations, and gnawing guilt.
In any of these situations, you may feel like those disciples did in the boat. You are thrown this way and that, and you wonder how you will survive the storm. You hang on for dear life, and you pray. And while all the trouble is going on, you wonder why God is taking so long to help. Doesn’t He see you suffering? Doesn’t He know your worries and fears? Where is He?!?
When life is sailing along smoothly, it is easy to think that God is present. You believe that He smiles upon you and guards you from all evil and misfortune. If you like the “footprints in the sand” picture, these are the times that you cheerfully walk side-by-side with the Lord.
The danger of these times is that we can become so comfortable with our prosperity, health, and happiness that we think our success is due at least in part to our own abilities and efforts. Imagining that we walk side-by-side with God in those good times gives us entirely too much credit. The reality is that every good thing we have and experience is from God. He does not walk beside us as an equal. He carries us and provides for us like a mother cares for her infant child.
But like young children, we are prone to throwing fits when life does not go our way. We want God’s attention now! We want Him to end the pain or fix the problem. We blame Him when relief does not come when we want it. His seeming absence or inaction makes our troubles seem even greater than they are. We think to ourselves that if the Lord has the power to help, why doesn’t He?
The devil really has a heyday at times like these. He is eager to help you see God as an enemy. He wants you to think that the waves of your trials will flood the boat and cast you into deeper affliction. The devil is a master at turning molehills into mountains. He does this with disputes between Christians or disagreements within a family. He wants you to imagine that the sins of your past are like chains you can never escape from. He wants you to see God as an angry judge instead of a merciful Savior.
But if the Lord is with you in the good times, why shouldn’t He be with you in the bad? Is He so ready to leave you? In today’s text, there is no indication that the weather was threatening when Jesus and His disciples got into the boat. It may have even been a sunny day with a gentle breeze helping the boat along. Perhaps the disciples talked about what ideal conditions these were. Jesus did not express any concern about the weather. He was tired from the demands of the crowds and laid down on a cushion in the stern (Mar. 4:38).
But then clouds began to drift in, dark clouds. The wind picked up. The boat bobbed and tilted. Waves began to wash over the sides and soon drenched the seasoned sailors. Where was Jesus when all this was happening? He was still in the boat. He hadn’t gone anywhere. But He was asleep. The disciples cried out to Him: “Wake up, Lord! Save us! We are perishing! Don’t you care? Help us!”
Jesus’ response was twofold, and the disciples did not expect either one: First, He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” and then He rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm.
Why did Jesus ask if the disciples were afraid? Who wouldn’t be afraid in those circumstances? This was a test. It was about the same as asking the disciples: “Who am I? What do you know about Me? Do you think I would let harm come to you?” They, like we, needed to be reminded of these things.
We need to be reminded that since God created us, He is not going to ignore us; since He redeemed us, He is not going to condemn us; and since He called us to be His own by faith, He is not going to forget about us. Do we follow some teacher who died and was buried long ago, and who still lies buried? No! We are disciples of the living Lord, the Lord of heaven and earth!
So then “why are you afraid?” Why are you afraid of failure and hardship and loss? Why are you afraid of God’s abandonment and anger and condemnation? Why are you afraid that the waves of all that is painful and bad will swamp your boat? It is because you have “little faith.” This is true of all of us. We think we are alone in the boat and it is about to go under.
But the Lord is with you. The boat is not yours, it is His. That you are in the boat at all is a testament to His grace. By nature you were drowning in your sins, but by baptism Jesus pulled you out of the swirling waters and into the boat with Him. More than that, Jesus joined you to Himself at your baptism. He made you a member of His own holy body. At your baptism, He made a commitment to you that He would never abandon you, never let you drown in the difficulties of life.
But baptism does not mean all troubles have ended. Prior to conversion, the sinner is in bad shape, but he is not really aware of it. He is floundering in sin, but he doesn’t understand his dire situation. When a sinner is converted, he joins Jesus in the boat and only then realizes how bad things are around him. He sees the storms of godlessness raging all around him and the rocks of unbelief where Satan would destroy his soul.
But as long as he stays in the boat with Jesus by faith, He is safe. Faith connects him to Jesus, and Jesus is not afraid of any danger. No eternal harm can come to the one who trusts in Jesus. This picture of the Lord’s boat is the reason why the seating area in churches is called the “nave.” This is related to the word “naval” and comes from the Latin word for ship (navis).
When Christians enter the nave, they come where Jesus is. He is present through Word and Sacraments to drive away fear and strengthen faith. As His people cry, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” in the divine service, He replies, “Peace! Be still!” (Mar. 4:39). He delivers peace through the absolution and the preaching of the Gospel. Then He fills them with His own body and blood which cleanses them and renews their courage.
The nave of this church is where we pull our eyes away from the storms around us and inside us and look to Jesus. Who will condemn us since He gave Himself in our place to redeem us? What is there to fear since He is our Lord? What can harm us since He is here with us? He can stop all the raging of the winds and sea with just a Word.
“What sort of man is this?” asked the disciples. This is a man like no other. Jesus is the eternal God begotten of the Father, and He is the human son of Mary. God became Man to throw Himself into the raging waters to lift us to safety. He sacrificed His life, so we would be rescued. If He would do that for you, He will not forsake you in times of trouble. Though He may seem to be sleeping at times, He hears your cry and will not fail to help you.
Your fears may often overwhelm you, and you may display very “little faith.” But Jesus credits you with His perfect faith. He fills you with His perfect courage. No matter the conditions around you, no matter the storms that threaten you, you can rest peacefully and securely—because The Lord Is with You in the Boat.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” painting by Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695)