Asleep at the Wheel
Asleep at the Wheel
From the editor
Chances are, you've probably preached the story of Jesus calming the storm. The account is recorded in three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and similar stories appear in Mark 6:4752 and John 6:1621. The somewhat typical approach is to talk about the "storms of life." Contextually, though, the gospel writers seem like they're aiming for that and so much more. Koessler masterfully unearths the deeper issues in his sermon "Asleep at the Wheel." He does so by identifying the series of questions that drive the narrative, allowing those same questions to drive his sermon.
I have a friend who is an avid fisherman. He owns a boat that probably cost him as much as a small house. He loves being on the water so much that if his wife would let him, he would sell his house in town and live on his boat. This past summer when my wife Jane and I were on the lake with my friend, he told me that he likes it when the water is so rough that the waves tower over his boat and block out the sky. He says it's like sailing through a valley of water. I suspect it has the same appeal for him that a thrill ride in an amusement park holds for some of you.
Two questions mark our struggle with doubt.
In today's passage we read of a time that the disciples of Jesus had a similar experience. Only it wasn't quite as thrilling for them. Luke 8:22: "One day Jesus said to his disciples, 'Let's go over to the other side of the lake.' So they got into a boat and set out." And why shouldn't they? These disciples know all about sailing. They are professionals when it comes to handling a boat. I have no doubt that they looked at the sky before they set out and scanned the horizon for indicators of inclement weather. I suspect that all the signs pointed to smooth sailing. Then something unexpected happened: they found themselves fighting some of the toughest waters they had ever faced and wondering if they were going to make it out alive.
Verse 23 says, "As they sailed … a squall came down on the lake." A squall. That's a little word for a big wind. It dropped from the sky like a bird of prey, swooping down on their small craft with so much velocity they were helpless in the face of it. The storm must have howled like a demon as it tore through the rigging and churned the sea to a boil. This was the kind of storm that can snap a mast or cause a small craft like the one the disciples were in to keel over and sink in seconds.
Maybe this was what the sailors call a "white squall"—a microburst of wind but without the dark clouds that mark an ordinary storm. It's the kind of storm that struck the Pride of Baltimore, a 137-foot schooner weighing 121 tons, in May of 1986. She was sailing about 240 miles north of Puerto Rico when, as one eyewitness put it, a "tremendous whistling sound" roared through the rigging. It struck the ship with the force of a cannon, causing it to keel over and a 20-foot wall of water to come crashing over its starboard side. The Pride of Baltimore sank in a matter of minutes.
It was this kind of wind that fell on the disciples' little craft. Certainly, if the disciples had been able to see this storm looming on the horizon they would have tried to steer clear of it. But there was no warning. If they had been unable to get out of its path, they at least might have braced themselves and tried to sail through it to the best of their ability. That's what you do in times of trouble. You batten down the hatches. You adjust the sails. You do the best you can. But this wind? It was just too big.
I wonder how long they had been fighting the storm before someone asked, "Hey, where's Jesus?" To their surprise and dismay they realized that Jesus was right where they left him at the beginning of this voyage: fast asleep on a cushion in the stern of the ship. How do you suppose these disciples felt when they realized that? Do you suppose they crept up to him on tiptoe and shook him gently? Did they whisper in his ear the way your mother whispered in yours when she woke you as a child? I don't think so. I think they cried out, if only to be heard over the shrieking of the wind. More than that, they cried out in terror: "Master, Master, we're going to drown!"
There may also have been a note of impatience in what they had to say. I suspect their tone was a little like the captain of the ship the Old Testament prophet Jonah had boarded in the hope that it would carry him to Tarshish. As the sailors struggled on deck to keep the ship from going down, the captain found God's prophet down below, in a deep sleep. Jonah wasn't hiding; he was sleeping, as if he didn't have a care in the world and oblivious to all the trouble going on above him. According to Jonah 1:6, "The captain went to him and said, 'How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.'"
I don't know if the disciples thought about the captain's question as they made their way to the stern and shook Jesus awake, but they certainly shared his spirit. There is a shrillness to their cry. There is a note of chiding. "Master, how can you sleep at a time like this?" they seem to say. "Don't you see that we are all about to die? Don't you care?" Can you blame them? The storm is raging. This ship is going down. But Jesus … well, he's a different story. He doesn't leap to his feet with a gasp. He doesn't demand to know why they didn't wake him sooner. He gets up and speaks, not just to the wind and waters, but also to his disciples. The effect upon the storm is immediate. Jesus rebukes the wind and it grows quiet. He speaks and the churning waters settle themselves, like a spent child who has exhausted himself after a fit of anger. But a different kind of storm is just beginning to brew in the disciples' hearts. "Where is your faith?" Jesus asks them. They reply with a question of their own: "Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him."
I can't help being struck by the counterpoint reflected in these two questions. First there is the question posed by Jesus. "Where is your faith?" he asks his disciples. Something inside me wants to answer back, What do you mean, "Where is my faith?" How can you ask such a question, Jesus? The ship was sinking! What did you expect them to do? Walk on water? They haven't learned that trick yet! By the way, Jesus, where were you as the storm was raging? Asleep. What would have happened if the disciples hadn't called on you for help? Where would you be? What would have happened to the rest of your ministry?
But any challenge I might offer dies on my lips when I hear the question asked by the disciples. "Who is this?" they say. "He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him." What do you disciples mean, "Who is this?" Why are you so surprised? If you didn't think Jesus could do anything about the winds and the water, why did you wake him?
What makes these two questions most disturbing is the way they chart the secret landscape of our spiritual lives. Like an explorer who discovers a secret country and then plots it on a map, these two questions mark the boundaries of our struggle with doubt.
At one pole is the question of Jesus: "Where is your faith?"
"Where is your faith?" Jesus asks his disciples. This is not an easy question to understand, let alone answer.
What can Jesus mean by it? Is he just being grumpy? Is he irritated with the disciples for disturbing his nap? That seems doubtful. It certainly doesn't match the picture of Jesus we have elsewhere in the gospels. Jesus was often interrupted. He frequently put his own concerns aside to meet the needs of others. The gospel writers never portray him as someone who was impatient or selfish or petulant.
So perhaps Jesus felt the disciples were overreacting. We all know people like that. We all know those who are convinced that every cloud is a thunderhead and every wind a hurricane. There are no small problems for these people. Every personal setback is a tragedy, every tiny problem a disaster. They weary themselves with worrying and exhaust us about things that have little chance of happening. We suspect that they weary the heavens as well with their prayers. But this does not seem to be the case here. Verse 23 says the boat was "being swamped." The waves were crashing over the side. Verse 24 says the waters were "raging." This little ship really was in trouble.
Then perhaps Jesus is chiding them for their lack of confidence. Maybe when Jesus asks this question he really means, "Where is your faith in yourselves?" Do you suppose he is chiding them for coming to him instead of taking action? We know people like that too. There are some people who spiritualize everything. No matter what the problem, their solution is always the same: Let's pray about it. Don't misunderstand me. Prayer is good. No doubt, we could pray more than we do. But there are some situations where the most spiritual thing you can do is to take sensible action.
A number of years ago my wife Jane worked with a woman named Barb. Barb had taught at a boarding school in Canada. One night she and another teacher happened to be talking when they noticed that one of the school's buildings was on fire. Barb started to run to the scene to put the fire out, but her friend tried to stop her. "Barb, I think we should pray first," the other teacher said. "You can pray if you want to," Barb replied, "but I'm going to see if I can help."
Maybe Jesus was simply trying to urge these disciples to take action. Don't stand there crying about the wind and the waves; do what you can to help! Tend to the sails! Man the oars! Start bailing! Maybe Jesus was trying to say to them, "Do all you can do first, before you come crying to me!" But that doesn't really seem to fit Jesus' question, does it? The problem here is one of faith, not effort. Besides, let's remember who we are talking about here. These are not recreational boaters. They are fishermen. They've spent their careers on the water. They've been in heavy weather before. There is no exaggeration here. Verse 23 says, "They were in great danger."
So what is the rebuke implied in Jesus' question? What does he mean when he asks, "Where is your faith?" I think Jesus is partly responding to their implied criticism that he had been asleep at the wheel.
Harry Emmerson Fosdick, the famous pulpiteer of the last century, began one of his sermons with a striking quote from Thomas Carlyle: "God sits in heaven and does nothing." "We might shrink from such brusque expression," Fosdick said, "but many of us have a religion of which that is pretty much the truth." Well, Fosdick was a theological liberal, we are tempted to think. What else can you expect? Theological liberals don't believe in miracles. How can they expect God to intervene in their lives? But the irony is that Fosdick was trying to make the opposite point. The title of Fosdick's sermon was "Having a Faith that Really Works," and his point was that Carlyle had it all wrong. Fosdick criticized what he calls "the intellectual absurdity of believing in God and not expecting marvelous results." "To say on Sunday, 'I believe in God the Father Almighty,' and then on Monday not look for extraordinary events to occur," Fosdick said, "does not make sense, for whatever else God is, he is spiritual power waiting to be released through our lives into the world. Of course marvelous things ought to happen."
I don't know which I find more disorienting: the fact that Harry Emerson Fosdick—this old Modernist, this old-school theological liberal—sounds like a biblical conservative on this point, or the fact that Carlyle sounds more like me—at least in the secret place of my heart. "God sits in heaven and does nothing," Carlyle complains. I find myself saying, "Amen—I know what you mean!" Haven't you ever come to the point in your Christian faith when God seems to be asleep at the wheel? I know we've all had moments when God seemed more distant than at other times. We've all had spiritual dry spells, and we have learned to weather them. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about those times when it feels like God has taken a vacation. I'm talking about those times when we pray and the heavens seem like brass. I'm talking about those times when God seems to sit on his throne and do nothing. You say, "Well, that's what happens to backsliders and nominal Christians. That kind of thing doesn't happen to people with strong convictions—people who attend church regularly, read their Bible, and pray on a daily basis." Don't be too sure about that.
I am reminded of the words C. S. Lewis recorded in his journal after his wife died:
When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him, so happy you are tempted to feel his claims upon you as interruptions, if you remember yourself and turn to him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it seems—welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
When that happens, we try to do what these disciples did. "Master, Master, we're going to drown!" we cry. This is precisely the tenor of much of our praying. It is not the cry of conviction or even a confession of need but a desperate attempt to attract God's attention. Jesus says that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, he is there in the midst. But we treat prayer like a petition. We are convinced that if we obtain enough signatures, God will be compelled to act. We are convinced that our prayers have a better chance of being heard if there are more of us praying. Or we think we will have a better chance of being heard if we pray longer or louder or more passionately than anyone else.
Yet Lewis warns us that the opposite might actually happen: "The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this."
As Lewis reflects on this paradox, he articulates the root question implied in the disciples' cry to the Savior: "What can this mean? Why is he so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?" Lewis does not answer the question he poses. Neither does Jesus. Instead, Jesus counters with a question of his own: "Where is your faith?" Frankly, this seems hard to me—even harsh—and entirely out of character with what I expect from Jesus. Until I hear Jesus' question in concert with the one posed by the disciples.
At the other pole is the question of the disciples: "Who is this man?"
If Jesus' question exposes my doubt, it is this question of the disciples that diagnoses it for me. Jesus' question may be hard to understand, but it is this question of the disciples that is even harder to accept. That's because it points to something in my heart that I would really rather ignore. It shows me that despite all my Bible reading, all my assertions about faith, and all my prayers, I am not entirely convinced that God will do what I have asked him to do. In verse 25, Jesus asks his disciples, "Where is your faith?" In fear and amazement they ask one another, "Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him."
It is easy for us to smirk at their amazement After all, we know what Jesus is capable of. We've read the gospels. We know what Jesus will do for them. What we are not entirely convinced of is that Jesus will do the same for us—and rightly so! Our own experience has shown us that the story doesn't always end this way. Jesus does not always speak to the wind and the waves and quiet them for us. If we fail to recognize this, we may misinterpret our circumstances. In some cases it's the mistake of thinking that easy sailing is a mark of God's favor, and trouble is a sign of his displeasure. If we are healthy, if things are going well with the kids, if the job is going great and traffic on the expressway has been a breeze, we may conclude that God is pleased with us. But let the skies darken and the seas begin to rise and before you know it we are experiencing a crisis of faith.
I'm reminded of a friend of mine some years ago who came to me for counsel. His washing machine and dryer had both broken down the same week. "I'm just wondering what God is trying to tell me," he said. "He's telling you to buy a new washer and dryer," I said. My friend looked at his circumstances and wondered if God was trying to tell him something. He wanted to know if they were an indication that he had taken a wrong turn somewhere in his efforts to follow Christ.
Many of us share his uncertainty. We set out on a course. Maybe we change jobs or enter into a relationship. Perhaps we embark on some new avenue of ministry. We step out in faith, and before you know it, we are struggling. The winds and waves of ordinary life seem to be working against us. Unexpected problems arise, making the journey more difficult than we had imagined, and we don't seem to be able to make any headway. When our obedience to Christ takes us into a storm of trouble and we don't know how to find our way out, it's easy to lose confidence. Especially if we thought we were being guided by God. "If God really was guiding me," we think, "things should be going more smoothly than this."
I think the more common error is not to draw such conclusions about ourselves but about others. We are more inclined to look with envy at the blessings others receive and wonder why God cares so much for them but seems to have so little regard for us. Does it ever seem to you that God plays favorites?
In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton writes: "Given the vast inequalities we are daily confronted with, the most notable feature of envy may be that we manage not to envy everyone. We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like."
I think de Botton is right. I don't really envy Donald Trump's empire and his millions. I don't see the things he has as being realistic aspirations in my life. No, it's my neighbor's slightly larger house or my colleague's promotion that sets me off. It's that they seem to be able to lose weight easier, or their daughter made the squad and mine didn't. It's the perception, accurate or not, that though we are equals, the course I travel is just a bit bumpier than theirs.
In fact, my perception could very well be accurate. In his book Spiritual Depression, Martyn Lloyd Jones writes: "God permits storms. He permits difficulties. He permits the winds to blow and the billows to roll, and everything may seem to be going wrong and we ourselves to be in jeopardy." God's guidance in our lives does not always steer us away from the storm. Sometimes he sends us into it. That's the time to remember it's not you who charts the course but Christ.
But it's not the heavy weather on the horizon of our lives that bothers us the most. It's God's apparent impassivity that sends us over the edge. It is the silence of God that causes us to stumble. We are troubled by the perception, as Lewis puts it, that the lights are out and the house is empty. We are haunted by the fear that we are still on the course that God initially charted for us, but Jesus is asleep at the wheel. In the midst of that painful silence we are compelled to redefine our concept of prayer.
"The meaning of prayer," Oswald Chambers writes, "is that we get hold of God, not the answer. … We look for visions from heaven, for earthquakes and thunders of God's power (the fact that we are dejected proves that we do), and we never dream that all the time God is in the commonplace things and people around us."
How, then, should we interpret Jesus' slumber in the midst of the storm? Surely not as a sign of his absence or a mark of his disinterest. While his slumber did bear witness to the reality of Christ's humanity, it was more than a concession to the weakness of his incarnation. The slumber of Christ was a reflection of his peace.
Henry Drummond said, "Christ's life outwardly was one of the most troubled lives that was ever lived: tempest and tumult, tumult and tempest, the waves breaking over it all the time. But the inner life was a sea of glass. The great calm was always there." Christ's ability to sleep in the midst of the storm helps us see a new dimension to the "peace of God." We usually think of the peace of God primarily as something we experience. We think of a peace that we receive—the peace that passes all understanding. But our experience of peace must ultimately have its origin in God's own peace. God is not anxious. God is not afraid. God is certain of the future. The wind and waves that are so troubling to us cannot reach him. Though he may be removed from them, he is not unmoved by them.
This, then, is the answer to Christ's question, "Where is your faith?" Our faith is not in the wind. Not in the waves. Not in the sails. Not in the ship. Not in our charts and maps. Not in our skill as sailors. Our faith is in the one who "commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him." Our faith is in the God who became flesh and dwelt among us. Our faith is in the one who died on the cross and rose again. Our faith is in Christ.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize".
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.