Peace, Be Still! A Short Sermon from the Sea of Galilee
Mark 4:35-41It was only a week ago, though it seems much longer, that I awoke on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We were about to start Day 5 of our Holy Land tour, and already we had seen so much that the mind could not take it all in. After landing in Tel Aviv, we paid a quick visit to Joppa where Jonah took a boat to Tarshish in a failed attempt to run away from the Lord. The next morning we visited the amazing Roman ruins of Caesarea by the Sea where Paul was held in jail and then tried before King Agrippa (Acts 26). From there we drove to the top of Mt. Carmel where the prophet Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal in one of the most dramatic encounters in the Old Testament (1 Kings 18). We stood on the plaza of the monastery overlooking the broad plain of the Jezreel Valley and envisioned it as the scene of the last great battle of history—Armageddon. Then it was on to visit Megiddo, a crucial crossroads fortress that had been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that the ruins themselves form a mountain with layers of civilization going back thousands of years. Late on that day we stopped in Nazareth, a crowded, bustling Arab city that has the honor of being the boyhood home of Jesus.
Our guide pointed out Mt. Gilboa where Saul and his sons died in battle with the Philistines (1 Samuel 31), Mt. Tabor where Deborah and Barak defeated Sisera (Judges 4) and the mountain in between where Gideon defeated the Midianites (Judges 7-8). The next day we visited the “Jesus Boat,” an actual first-century fishing boat that might have been used by Jesus and his disciples. Then we went to the Church of Beatitudes, a lovely Catholic church overlooking the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. No one knows if this is the mountainside where Jesus actually gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but as with so many other sites in the Holy Land, if this isn’t the exact spot, we know we’re “in the neighborhood.” Then we traveled north and east into the Golan Heights, a much-fought over region both in Bible times and today. We eventually arrived at Caesarea Philippi, which in Jesus’ day was something of a resort area built around a steam flowing from an imposing rock cliff. Originally it was a center for the worship of the Greek god Pan. For Christians it holds huge significance for it was here, in this remote location, that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then “But you–who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-19) When Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” he was the first apostle to openly profess his faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God from heaven. Peter and his bold confession became the rock upon which Christ continues to build his church today. Peter spoke for himself and for all the apostles, and he stands in the place of every believing Christian who unashamedly professes Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. “It all started right here,” I told the group. “Without Peter’s courage, and the courage of others who followed his example, there would have been no Christian church.
As we left the area, it began to rain and continued to rain on and off for the next several hours as our day wrapped up with a baptism service in the Jordan River.
Seagulls on the Sea of Galilee
And now it was Sunday morning in Tiberius, which was a Roman city in Jesus’ day but is now predominantly Jewish. When I looked out the window, I could see dark clouds rolling across the mountains that line the western shore. It looked like bad weather was one the way. But storm or no storm, no tour would be complete without a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee so bundling up to keep warm and dry, we walked to the nearby dock. As the rain began to fall, we clambered onto the rocking boat, grabbing hold of whatever we could find to keep from falling over. Once we were all safely aboard, the captain gave the signal and the boat slowly left its mooring. The skies were slate-gray, with gusts of wind and light rain pelting the boat. Within moments of leaving, the captain ordered the American flag raised and played “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the intercom. We all stood at attention and watched with pride as our flag was raised. Then our guide took pita bread, broke it, and held the fragments out over the side so that the seagulls would fly by and take it out of his hand. Mark tried it and so did I. It was unnerving to see a large bird come flying right at you, snatching the bread from your fingers.
After passing the kibbutz where we saw the “Jesus Boat” the day before, our guide pointed to a valley called the Arbel. Two thousand years ago there was a road through this valley that led from Nazareth to Capernaum. No doubt Jesus walked that road many times. Because it is lined on both sides by steep mountains, the Arbel is sometimes called the wind tunnel. Any storm coming from the west would blow through that valley and hit the Sea of Galilee with enormous force. Thus the lake (that’s really what the Sea of Galilee is, a large lake) might be peaceful and then a storm would suddenly arise, with driving rain and gale-force winds. Any boat on the Sea of Galilee would be in peril when that happened. The many boats at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee bear testimony to the power of a raging storm in the middle of the night, when a boat is tossed helplessly by the wind and the waves and there is no one who can rescue you and nothing you can do to save yourself.
A One-Point Sermon
The rain continued to fall intermittently as the wind picked up and then slacked off. We had a brief service on the boat, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “How Great Thou Art.” Then I spoke briefly from Mark 4:35-41. I told them that I had a one-point sermon from this familiar story.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 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?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”As I read the text, an amazing thing happened that we all noticed. When I read “And a great windstorm arose,” the wind began to pick up and the waves rocked the boat. When I read, “And the wind ceased,” just like that, at that very moment, the wind died down, as if the Father in heaven said, “This is how it happened, just like that, just that quickly, two thousand years ago.”
Whose Idea Was It?
This is what I shared with our group on the Sea of the Galilee. The key to understanding this story lies in one important question. If you know the answer to this question, then you know what this story is about. If you don’t know the answer, or if you skip over it, the meaning of this story will be lost to you.
Whose idea was it to get in the boat in the first place?
Go back and read the text. The answer is very plain. When evening came, at the end of a long day of ministry, after Jesus and his disciples had spent hours ministering to the needs of people, after giving and giving and giving of themselves for the needs of others, it was Jesus himself who said, “Let us go across to the other side.” No doubt his disciples were glad to hear that word because they were very tired. Mark 4:1-2 says that such a large crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach that he had to get in a boat and teach them while they pressed to the edge of the water. It had been like that everywhere they went. Crowds came to hear the Master. Sick people came to be healed. The confused came to find hope. On and on they came, day after day, wanting to hear Jesus, desperately wanting to be near him. Helping hurting people, if you really care about them at all, will cost you everything you have. Serving others takes a toll on the spirit. Who among us has not gone to bed at night so weary from phone calls and meetings and a day spent solving difficult problems and trying to untangle the problems of others that we wanted nothing more than a good night’s rest? When you have given all that you have, rest is what you need. And I do not doubt that the disciples were glad to hear that they were going to go to the other side of the lake. Several of them were fishermen who knew the Sea of Galilee intimately. And that night the skies promised smooth sailing from the west to the east. They had made that journey themselves many times in their fishing boats and they looked forward to a few hours of rest.
It all started very well. As the boat left the western shore, the lake was so calm that Jesus decided to go to sleep in the stern, resting on a cushion. Suddenly a great storm arose, the wind rushing down across the mountains and through the Arbel, whipping up the waves and causing them to come crashing into the boat. As the water entered, the disciples furiously tried to bail it out but the water rushed in faster than they could bail it out. The little fishing boat bobbed like a cork as wave after wave crashed into it. Nothing could be more terrifying than to be on a boat in the blackness of night as it takes on water and slowly begins to sink.
“Lord, Don’t You Care?”
Finally, the disciples woke Jesus up, asking him a question that to us may seem impertinent, but it is one we have all asked in moments of desperation: “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my child is sick?
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my marriage is falling apart?
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my friends have deserted me?
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I have no money?
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I feel so alone?
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I want to give up?
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my husband has died?
Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I lost my job?
We have all asked that question in a million ways a million times. We never question the Lord’s compassion when things are going well. But God’s compassion is not measured by our circumstances nor is his kindness limited to our understanding. God cares just as much when the tempest is raging as when the seas are calm and the sun is shining. His mercy is not limited to the sunlight nor this mercy to the stillness of the waves.
When he awoke, Jesus spoke three words: “Peace, be still!” Eugene Peterson offers this colorful paraphrase: “Awake now, he told the wind to pipe down and said to the sea, ‘Quiet! Settle down!’ The wind ran out of breath; the sea became smooth as glass.” And just like that the storm ended. I find it encouraging that the text says Jesus rebuked the storm—not the terrified disciples. To them he simply said, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” Implicit in those words is a lesson we all need to learn. The disciples were afraid because they were men who were used to being in control of life. They knew how to handle hard situations. There wasn’t a weakling among them. And yet, when put in a life-threatening situation beyond their control, their faith turned to fear. Instead of putting them down, Jesus simply says, “Have you still no faith?” The answer is yes and no. The had faith in Jesus. They truly believed in him. But their faith, though real, was not yet full-grown. And how do you get the faith that enables you to survive the storms of life? The only answer I know is to get in the boat with Jesus and ride with him wherever he wants to go.
Where there are no storms, there is no danger.
Where there is no danger, there is no fear.
Where there is no fear, there is no testing.
Where there is no testing, there is no learning.
Where there is no learning, there is no growing.
Where there is no growing, there is no faith.
Here is the shorthand version:
Where there are no storms, there is no faith.
No storms, no faith.
Few storms, a little faith.
Many storms, much faith.
So it is for all of us who follow Jesus. There are no shortcuts along the pathway of spiritual growth.
The storms of life are not a detour.
They are not a mistake.
They are not a trick or a trap.
They are not sent to cause to destroy you.
Your storms are sent by God to cause you to reach the end of yourself so that you will cry out to the Lord in utter desperation, “Don’t you care that I am perishing?” And in that moment—not before it, but in it, when the water seems about to engulf you and all that is dear to you is lost—in that moment, the Lord rises and says, “Peace, be still!”
So that you will not miss the point, let me repeat it one more time. Who told them to get in the boat in the first place? The answer is Jesus. It was his idea all along. Did he know about the storm in advance? Of course he did. And he told them to get in the boat anyway. Did he warn them in advance? No, because that would have ruined the lesson they needed to learn.
All of us have moments—most of us have many of them—when we feel utterly alone and forgotten by God. When life tumbles in around us, even after we have tried to serve God to be the best of our ability, there are moments when we feel that God has left us completely.
There is no avoiding those moments of utter despair.
Sometimes we bring them on ourselves by the choices we make.
Sometimes they come because we have done what the Lord told us to do.
Sometimes the storms of life seem to come out of nowhere.
The Choice We Must Make
In those moments we have a choice to make.
Either we choose to believe that the Lord sent the storm to us for his own purposes or we choose to believe that the Lord has abandoned us and left us to our own devices.
I do not believe we can manipulate God into avoiding the storms or somehow making them suddenly disappear. If anything, this story is meant to teach us exactly the opposite. Sometimes our path takes us into the storm. Sometimes we see the clouds gathering and know it is coming. More often the winds suddenly rise up and our life, which had been so well-planned, suddenly turns upside down and we begin to sink beneath the waves.
Jesus is the Lord of the wind and the waves.
When we calls us, we get into the boat.
When he sleeps, we toil on.
When the storm comes, we cry out to him.
When he awakes, he calms the storm.
When the storm is over, our faith is stronger.
Are you in a storm at this very moment? You are not there by accident but by your Father’s design. He does not intend to hurt you even though you feel like screaming because your pain is so great. You are not alone though it feels that way now. You may have lost everything, but you have not lost the Lord. He is still with you though you cannot see him or sense his presence.
The Master of the sea is by your side. When the time has come, he will say, “Peace, be still,” and the storm will run out of breath and the sea will become like glass. Eventually the day will break and the sun will shine again. And when you look back, you will see that you faith has grown stronger by the storm you passed through.
What a Christ we serve!
Even the winds and waves obey him!
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