Asleep in the Boat

June 20, 2021 homily on Mark 4:35-41 by Pastor Galen Zook

Some of you may not know this, but I have a unique talent for being able to fall asleep pretty much anytime and anywhere. 

Especially when I was in college and would sometimes stay up all night working on projects, I was known for falling asleep pretty much anytime I sat down. I fell asleep while studying in the library, while listening to lectures in class, and even on a crowded Baltimore City bus.

At one point, the church we used to attend decided to get rid of their pews and decided to replace them with comfortable chairs instead. I joked to my wife that I didn’t think they needed to get more comfortable chairs, because I could sleep just fine on the old hard pews during church!

But even I am not sure that I could sleep through a storm while on a boat at sea!

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples were crossing the sea at night, and “a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.” I imagine the disciples were working furiously to try to bail the water out of the boat, and they looked around, and said “where’s Jesus? Why isn’t he helping?” and then they found Jesus fast asleep in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a cushion.

No I have to confess to you that I don’t know Greek, but I happened to look up the Greek word for cushion. And so do you all want to learn some Greek this morning? Because this is a great word. Are you ready? The Greek word that’s used here is: Proskephalaion (pronounced “pros-kef-al’-ahee-on”). Isn’t that a fun word to say? It’s the only time this word is used in the New testament.

But anyway, there Jesus was, fast asleep on a proskephalaion. I imagine the disciples arguing amongst themselves as to whether they should wake him up, and if so, who should be the one to wake him up? Some probably argued that they should let him sleep because he must be worn out from teaching all day. Others said, no, we need him to wake up so he can help bail all this water out of the boat! And others said, well we want to at least give him some warning that we’re about to drown!

Finally, exasperated, one of the disciples (my guess is that it was probably Peter), said, “Wake up Jesus! Don’t you care that we’re about to drown?” It seemed like a fair question under the circumstances. To the disciples who were doing everything within their power to try to keep their ship from sinking while Jesus was fast asleep, it seemed like Jesus didn’t care about them.

Have you Still No Faith?

But I don’t think any of them in their wildest dreams could have imagined what happened next. Jesus woke up, commanded the winds and the waves to stop, and the sea became completely still. 

And then Jesus looked around at them, drenched to the bone with the water that had swamped their boat, and he asked them why they were afraid, saying, “have you still no faith?”

I have to wonder exactly what Jesus meant by that. Was he frustrated that they were afraid of the storm? or was he disappointed by their lack of faith in his care and concern for them? 

By this time, the disciples knew that Jesus had miraculous power. They’d already seen him heal people and cast out demons. And so perhaps it shouldn’t have been too much of a leap for them to believe that he could command the wind and the waves to be still.

But I have to think that perhaps Jesus was not so much upset at their surprise that he could command the sea to be still, but that he was disappointed that they thought he didn’t care about them. That they assumed that because he was asleep, that he didn’t care about them. Jesus had been providing for the disciples thus far. Why would he abandon them now? Why would he leave them to drown? Why would they think that he didn’t care about them?

Does God Care?

But of course this is something that many of us struggle with. Especially when we’re going through trials and tribulations, hardships and challenging circumstances, we may wonder, Does God see me? Does God care? Is God asleep? Has God forgotten about me, or abandoned me? Doesn’t Jesus care what I’m going through?

And these questions become intensified when we look around us, and we see injustice all around us – and perhaps we even experience this ourselves. We see people who are marginalized and mistreated. It breaks our heart when we see people being treated unfairly, and a righteous anger wells up inside us. 

Scripture reminds us time and time again that God is consistently on the side of the oppressed. In our reading from the Psalms this morning, we read that: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you” (Psalm 9:9-10)

And yet we so often see injustice happening, and it seems that God isn’t doing anything about it. And we wonder, God, are you sleeping? God, why aren’t you doing something?

But there are a few points that I want to draw out from this story, and from a few other Scriptures that might shed light on the questions that this text raises for us. 

  1. Although Jesus in his human nature experience weariness and tiredness, and needed to sleep, Scripture assures us that God never sleeps. 

In Psalm 121, we read the words:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

    where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

    the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—

    he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—

    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—

    he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

    both now and forevermore.

So we can rest assured that God is always awake, God is always alert, God is always working on our behalf. So we do not have to worry or fear – God is always looking out for us.

  1. Often God is at work, in ways we can’t see, or in ways we don’t expect. 

Helmar Heckel, an immigrant who sailed to the United States in the 1950’s describes it this way:

In December, 1958, I came to America from Germany on the USS Butner, a transport ship. After we left Bremerhafen we passed through the North Sea into the North Atlantic. Huge waves buffeted the ship, and every day seemed the same— water, water everywhere, to the north, the south, the east, and the west. All we could hear was the monotonous grinding of the ship’s engine.

Finally, five days later, the scene changed dramatically. There was water to the east and the south, but to the west stood the Statue of Liberty gleaming in the morning sun. We had come home.

Walking by faith is like this. Waves of opposition battle us, with no change in sight. In all directions there seems to be nothing, with the Lord seemingly asleep. Until a special day arrives, revealing that we have been moving according to plan.

I don’t know about you, but that resonates so much with my experience. It seems like nothing is happening, there’s nothing changing, and then all of a sudden I realize that God has been at work all along. Many of us look back and we see the footprints in the sand and we realize that God was there all along, carrying us when we thought we were all alone. Or we look back and realize that God has already provided for us and we didn’t realize. Or that God has already answered our prayers, perhaps in ways we didn’t expect or imagine. 

Sometimes we realize that God was using a particular circumstance to grow or stretch our faith. Now I’m not saying that God brings everything into our life simply to challenge us – as we talked about the other week, we don’t always know why bad things happen, but God can use even the worst of circumstances to grow and stretch and challenge us.

In this particular circumstance, the faith of the disciples was tremendously stretched during this situation. 

When Jesus “woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” …the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” (Mark 4:39). 

And Mark tells us that after the wind died down the disciples “were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41). 

For the disciples, their understanding of who Jesus was grew tremendously through this circumstance. They would never have grasped the enormity of Jesus’s power as well as his care and concern for them in the midst of a calm, placid sea. 

In the same way, God often uses the difficult times and challenging times that we go through to grow and stretch our faith, and to show us God’s love, and care and concern for us. 

3. And lastly, we learn here in this passage that although God sees and God cares about us, often God waits for us to cry out to God in prayer before God acts. Just as Jesus waited to calm the storm until the disciples took that risk and step of faith to wake him up, in the same way God is often waiting for someone to rise up, to lead God’s people to pray or act. 

Often this is referred to as “standing in the gap” – a phrase taken from Ezekiel 22:30, and we see this happening continually throughout Scriptures. God acted when Abraham, and Moses, and Elijah, and Ruth, and Esther cried out to God. God brought justice on behalf of God’s people when God’s people cry out to God, acknowledging our need and dependence on God. This is why we believe that prayer works! And prayer is not a last resort, when all else fails – God truly listens, God truly answers prayer, and so prayer should be the first, not the last thing we do. 

Often when we pray we’re realizing that God might be calling us to take action. God so often works through people. Sometimes God works miraculously. But no matter what, we are called to pray. That’s why John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said “prayer is where the action is.” 

And so let us not lose heart. God is never asleep. Jesus sees, Jesus cares, no matter what we’re going through, and so often Jesus is working behind the scenes, often in ways we least expect. And so let us bring our worries and fears, our needs and concerns before the Lord, knowing that God cares for us, that God willing and waiting to act, if only we will cry out to God.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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