Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Trusting God in the Midst of the Storm
There is nothing more out-of-human-control than a storm at sea; and there is nothing more helpless than a boat being tossed by the waves in a storm. It's a vivid picture of being completely subject to grave circumstances that are completely outside our control. It's a perfect illustration of being suddenly caught at the mercy of difficult circumstances - circumstances in which we are helpless to do anything but cry out to God.
I think of the time God brought a sudden storm down on the boat in which Jonah was traveling in; and the tough and experiences sailors who were with him in the storm became so terrified that they cried out to their gods. Eventually, at the word of Jonah, they threw him overboard; and when the storm suddenly ended, they "And the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and sacrificed victims to the Lord, and made vows." (Jonah 1:16). They were brought to the end of themselves - and eventually to their knees before God - by being caught in a storm at sea.
Or we read that the Roman soldiers and sailors who were transporting Paul to Rome were also caught in a storm at sea. They wouldn't listen to Paul's warnings about not venturing out; but by the time the storm had had its way with them, even the Roman centurion was taking orders from the apostle Paul! Paul prayed; and the lives of all two-hundred and seventy-six souls on board were spared. God had everyone's attention through the storm at sea.
This morning, we come to, what I think is one of the most famous of all "storm" stories in scriptures. All the usual elements for a great story are there: the sudden and unexpected storm; the boat helplessly being tossed; and the passengers who were terrified and who feared for their lives. But this time, Jesus - the Son of God in human flesh - was present in the boat; and His presence made all the difference.
This story teaches us that He is "Lord of the storm"; and shows us how we can trust Him to see us through the storms of life that we may encounter.
Our Gospel reading for this Sunday is this;
And when he entered into the boat, his disciples followed him: And behold a great tempest arose in the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves, but he was asleep. And they came to him, and awaked him, saying: Lord, save us, we perish. And Jesus saith to them: Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith? Then rising up he commanded the winds, and the sea, and there came a great calm. But the men wondered, saying: What manner of man is this, for the winds and the sea obey him? (Matthew 8:23-27).
What is the basic point this story is seeking to make. It is this The Son of Man who ordered the wind and the waves to cease - and who brought about a great calm in its place - is also none other than the Son of God, and who therefore had them under His sovereign control. He has authority over everything on this earth - including the most unpredictable and uncontrollable things, such as storms at sea.
And that basic point leads us to the practical importance of this morning's story. This same Jesus who exercised complete authority over that storm on the Sea of Galilee also has authority over the storms of life that strike us. He may, in His wisdom and love, allow us to experience them; but they are never outside of His control. With nothing more than a word, He is able to bring the storm to an end, and replace it with a great calm. And so, as long as He is with us in the midst of the storms of life, we will never have a reason to fear.
I'd like to bring out one specific principle in this passage of scripture that God through his written word teaches us concerning trusting our sovereign Lord during the storms of life.
EVEN WHEN WE FOLLOW JESUS FAITHFULLY, 'UNEXPECTED' STORMS WILL COME (vv. 23-24).
Matthew begins by telling us; "And when he entered into the boat, his disciples followed him:" (v. 23). That word "follow" connects these verses with verses (19-22) that just preceded it. In verses (19-22), we read two men had sought to follow Jesus; but they were made to stop first and count the cost of following.
One man had said, "Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou shalt go."; but Jesus let the man know that He didn't even have a place to lay His own head. The other man offered to follow; and asked to be excused first, saying, "Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father." But Jesus demanded that He himself should have an even greater priority in the man's life than his own father (vv. 21-22). Both men had to confront the difficult challenges that come with "following" Jesus.
To be a "disciple" of Jesus means to be a "follower" of Him.
It means to go where He says to go, do what He says to do, and believe as He says to believe. Not everyone, after they count the cost, is willing to accept the challenge of following Jesus. But the men who entered the boat with Jesus apparently did. When He got into the boat to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they "followed" Him. And that's what identified them as "disciples". Disciples "follow" Jesus wherever He goes!
But then, look what happened to these men who followed Jesus. The storm strikes! "a great tempest arose in the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves," (v. 24).
This is a very remarkable storm. The Greek word that Matthew uses to describe it (seismos) is one that means "a shaking" or "a quaking". It's the word that's ordinarily used to describe an earthquake. Saint Luke tells us that this was a product of a great wind that came down upon the lake (Luke 8:23). I would think that these experienced fishermen would ordinarily have been able to tell in advance that a windstorm was coming; but this one seems to have been unexpected. Think about what we're told: it seems to have come suddenly; it was described as "great"; and it was so threatening that we're told that "the boat was covered with waves". The men in the boat were certain that they were about to die; because they cried out to Jesus that they were "perishing".
And here's perhaps the most remarkable thing about this storm: it came when they were in the process of following Jesus! They were doing the right thing. They were obeying the Son of God! And yet, this violent and life-threatening storm fell upon them anyway.
LEARN TO EXPECT, AS YOU FOLLOW JESUS, THAT STORMS WILL COME.
There's a great spiritual lesson for us in this passage for this time in your life. We shouldn't ever think that, just because we're following Jesus, we have a right not to expect to any storms in our life. Those storms may come - even though we are following Jesus very faithfully. Jesus could have prevented the storm from coming at all, if He had seen fit to do so. But His disciples were following Him; and He led them right into a storm!
Now why would Jesus do this? We need to keep in mind that Jesus has greater things in mind for His followers than they have for themselves. We have it in our mind that we 'ought' to have a comfortable ride with Him. But He knows that, as His followers in training, we need to get caught in some storms now and then - all so that we can learn some new truth about Him in an experiential way. He knows just the right time for us to enter into a storm; and He knows just what we need to learn from that storm in order to trust Him even more.
As the apostle James has taught us; My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (James 1:2-4).
David faced many difficulties and trials over a period of about 13 years through which he finally became a man of God and a successful king.
Years later, he wrote these words in the Psalms: "For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us by fire, as silver is tried. Thou hast brought us into a net, thou hast laid afflictions on our back: Thou hast set men over our heads. We have passed through fire and water, and thou hast brought us out into a refreshment, a wealthy place, a place of abundance" (Psalms 66:10-12)
Saul, on the other hand, grew up in a rich home, and went straight from that life of comfort to become a king. He never faced any trials or difficulties. So he never knew God and he was a failure as a king.
Solomon, who came after David, also never faced any trials or difficulties. He grew up in ease and comfort as a prince in the royal palace. He also became a failure as a king.
These examples teach us that:
It is only through trials and difficulties that we can know God and be effective and successful in our Christian lives.
This was what made Paul such a successful apostle as well (Read 2 Corinthians1:4-11; 11:23-33).
God has called you to follow him. But don't imagine that you are spiritually mature and ready to serve, just because you were called to follow. If you don't go through long periods of trial faithfully, you cannot be a spiritually mature Christian. You will only end up like Saul and Solomon, and destroy yourself finally. So God will have to first take you through long periods of trial and difficulties. He will allow others to misunderstand you and to be jealous of you. He will allow them to suppress you and to oppress you. If you humble yourself (like David did) and trust God, in all these circumstances, God will bring you forth one day, into a place of abundance and blessing.
He, who has ears to hear, let him hear.
So here's a first principle:
Learn to expect, as you follow Jesus, that storms will come.
They come for a very good purpose; so that we will learn and grow in our Christian life.
This brings us to a second principle:
THOUGH IT SEEMS AS IF THE LORD IS 'ASLEEP' DURING THE STORM, HE'S STILL PRESENT (v. 24).
Matthew makes Jesus stand out in stark contrast to all the panic that's going on around Him. Matthew writes, "But He was asleep." What a picture that paints!
How can Jesus sleep at a time like that? Well; for one very obvious reason, it was because He was tired! But for another, much more profound reason, it was because He wasn't in a panic over the circumstances - like we so often are. He was at perfect peace in the midst of the storm; because He knew that the storm was under His control at all times. He was in His Father's will; and He knew that no matter what else happened around Him, His Father's will would still be fulfilled in Him. He had no reason to be afraid - vividly illustrated by the fact that He was asleep in the midst of the storm. And so long as He was in the boat, the disciples had no reason to be afraid either.
Now; when you and I go through a storm, it may seem as if the Lord isn't aware of it. It may seem as if He was "asleep". But we can be sure that He isn't. He never sleeps on us; and if it appears that He does, it's only meant to test our faith in Him. As Psalm 121 says, "he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." (Psalm 121:3-4). When you are in the midst of the storm, just remember: Jesus is there too - in the midst of the storm with you. His apparent "silence" is to see if you will trust Him and have confidence in Him.
In fact, did you know that He offers us His own peace in the midst of that storm of life? He tells us, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." (John 14:27). He says, "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33).
We can be confident that Jesus - who experienced perfect peace in the midst of the storm - is always with us in the storms of life that we encounter. And He offers us His own perfect peace in our storm . . . if we will just accept it.
So, the storms will come; but Jesus is with us in them.
Are you being thrown about in the midst of a storm right now - circumstances that are frightening and outside of your control? Then learn the lessons from this story. Put these 2 principles into practice:
(1) Don't be surprised by the fact that, even when you follow Jesus faithfully, you still suddenly find yourself in the midst of a storm.
It's a part of His plan for your growth and development in Him.
(2) Be confident that, even if it seems like He's asleep, Jesus is still there in the storm with you.
He knows what is going on; and is able to do whatever is needed. -Fr Francis Dominic