Jesus in the Storm

The day began as Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to be alone.  Later, in the afternoon sun, He ascends atop a mountain to pray.  Again, Jesus seeks solitude, far from both crowds and followers.  Earlier, our Lord told His disciples to take to the water in a boat—but this time, He lets them go ahead by themselves. 

On a previous boat journey, Jesus traveled with them as they crossed the Sea of Galilee.  Tired, He slept is its hold, but not now.  Isolated on a high mountain, He is far away, praying.  By all appearances, one might think Jesus is testing His followers, all the more because of His absence.

So calm and serene is Christ as He prays.  Such a stark contrast compared to His seafaring students.  The word Matthew relies on to recount the fate of their boat, “beaten by the waves,” means “harassed” and “tortured.” 

So, an eerie atmosphere befalls us, dripping into our minds.  The light fades as dusk descends, and the boat is miles from land.  The words depicting the surface of the lake now multiply, “waves,” “sea,” and “waters.”  The last battering our eardrums twice, connected to a violent storm in the darkness of night. 

Amid the blast and bluster, screams begin to break from the background.  The water unleashes its waves, torturing the vessel.  The passengers are its mere hostages.  To torture?  Such an odd verb, which a person uses to convey someone, or something is causing this.  For an unrelenting downpour to taunt and trouble another, means the water and wind bend and move with purpose, to frighten, distress, and torment. 

So, this isn’t a random blowing of the wind or some gusty gale getting someone wet.  No, Matthew wants us to realize an evil force is behind this twisting torrent.  Worse, as though drowning isn’t bad enough, they now spot an apparition, a ghost. 

An unknown form advances from the churning chaos.  Perhaps, this is some elemental darkness approaching to swallow them.  How else can these water-tossed passengers explain its undisturbed composure, who advances, unbothered by the thrashing waves?  No one walks on water, so they’re not expecting Jesus to be doing this.

A terror floods over them, as powers heave and swell to pursue the vulnerable disciples.  Unrestrained panic arises like helpless children abandoned to annihilation.  In the Greek, they cry, “ekraxan,” which cries of the Kraken, the ocean creature of Greek mythology.  With them, we too can recoil under the sound of their crushing fear.

The text exploits the depths of the disciples’ terror by allowing us to identify what they don’t—Jesus is coming.  To walk over something denotes dominion over it.  The Old Testament shows us that Jesus does something only God can do, treading upon the water’s windswept surges and walking in the recesses of the deep.  So, their flesh-born Lord comes to liberate His own from all enslaving powers, whether Satan, this world, or their internal confusion and madness.

The real “phantasms” are the frightened disciples.  Until this moment, they assume their foreboding and the lake’s breaking and billowing can deluge and drown anything God might do.  So, into their howls of distress comes Christ’s distinct call of courage: “Be of bold heart, I Am, so do not be afraid.”  In a burning bush, God revealed Himself to Moses, communicating His name as “I Am.”  For those with Scripture-filled ears, Jesus’ declaration is nothing less than a claim to divinity.

Think through this, Jesus waited until the early morning to come to them.  The stormy outburst began the previous evening, some ten to twelve hours earlier!  So, why did Jesus wait so long before approaching them? 

No doubt, these disciples needed to exhaust every other possibility and maneuver of hope.  Only when convinced of their inability, do they turn elsewhere.  The drowning man needs a lifeguard, not the swimmer.  Only real sinners need a real Savior.  No one can save himself, but only those who realize this reality, desire Jesus.

Only suffering Job, who lost his hope in everything but God, not his self-righteous and conceited friends, received and welcomed the Lord’s words. 

So, who shut the sea behind its boundaries when bursting forth from the womb?  For, I broke the sea’s power with my decree when I fixed its limits and fastened the bar of its door.  “Only this far, you may come,” I said, “but no farther.  Here your proud waves must stop.”  [Job 38:8-11]

Now, a primal battle ensues between competing forces.  For His disciples as their prey, the sinister impulses instigating this storming crash and thunder clash against Jesus.  So, into its raging windswept heart, Jesus goes forth, to contend against the dark and threatening powers.  Across the heaving sea, at the peak of its strength, He strides in conquest over those demonic forces.  By such, Jesus turns their evil toward a better end, so much so, He creates faith within His followers.

Through Peter, we perceive a picture of all the disciples.  At first, he desires to be where his Lord is, forgetting the horrific nightmare of the preceding night.  Over the side, he leaps.  Atop those lurching waters, he walks toward Jesus, forsaking the last husk of material security.

Too soon, trouble sets in, the moment Peter takes his eyes off Jesus.  Distracted by the severity of the blowing rain, he stopped, no longer looking to Jesus.  With his attention away from the Lord, Peter must rely on his ability and power.  At once, he starts doing what Jesus commanded him not to do—to be frightened. 

Now, the panicked man regresses, back inside his boat, though still on swirling wave and sea.  After almost touching Jesus, he again screams in visceral fear as he sinks like a stone. 

Not the physical, but the internal distance is what matters.  The chasm between disciple and Master is not the destroying water, but Peter’s doubt.  Afraid, he gave more credence to the sway of wind to agitate the waves than to Jesus’ ability to sustain him above danger. 

So, Jesus responds with a linger of sadness, “Why did you doubt” or “Why are you of two minds?”  Though unseen, the mercy of Christ is still at work before Peter begins to drop below and screams for help.  On the water, being a “rock” is most disadvantageous, where he should plummet straight to the bottom.

Well, Jesus snatches Peter from death, showing He is the uncontested Lord of creation.  Toward the end of the passage, our translation tells us, “The wind ceased.”  Did the rainstorm stop?  Yes, but Matthew wrote the winds “grew weary.”  

So, again, we are to recognize this isn’t some random event.  The malice beneath the engulfing threat can no longer assail Jesus as He invades its heart to do battle.  Not only is He mightier, but His endurance is beyond anything they can throw His way.

Extrapolate what this means.  First, Jesus saved His disciples’ lives, not by rescuing them from afar, but from the heart of this windstorm.  Don’t we expect a solution to come from somewhere other than the problem afflicting us?  Not always so, for Jesus comes to rescue them from inside the disturbance of the storm.  Only from their encircling death, does Jesus deliver His disciples from their watery tomb. 

Is this a repeating pattern?  Yes, at the cross!  Only in death’s darkened gloom, at its fearful epicenter, will Jesus save us.  Like Jesus became one with the blustering wind, so will He do so with death.  Oh, His disciples didn’t want to find Jesus in the place of their fear, but only in such darkness did He save them.  So, too, for us, from our fear of grave and death, on His cross.

Soon, an onslaught of evil, with sinful humanity in tow, will converge on Christ to kill Him.  Here, the conflict over creation’s elements prepares us for another struggle.  Soon, the war of all wars will come, battling for the cosmos on the crucifying cross. 

Over wind and wave, Jesus proved Himself as master over the elemental forces of our world.  Though this in no way diminished the real horror His disciples experienced.  In like manner, Jesus will prove His mastery over sin and Satan.  Nevertheless, His power over things demonic will not diminish the horror He will experience in His death. 

The evil forces behind the killing storm, which bedeviled and disheartened His disciples, will do the same with Jesus.  Only this time, the violence they inflame will be from the highest of God’s creatures, once made in His image.  No matter, Jesus still goes to die in His way and time. 

Remember, Jesus didn’t deliver His disciples outside of the attacking storm.  No, only within its heaving and swelling, did their Lord deliver them away from its suffocating depths.  Only by entering death will He free us from death.  Such is how God works—through things, whether storm or death or Word and Sacrament, not apart from them.

So, how did everything end?  “Those in the boat worshiped him.”  After Jesus pulled them from the abyss, they experience the communion of life, peace, and joy.  Baptized by those waters, their battered boat now becomes their Church. 

No longer down into the water but down before their Savior, they bow, “You are the Son of God.”  No more do their tongues shriek with discordant cries, but the harmonious sounds of worship.  Born from the peace of Jesus triumphing over their death, they respond with prayer, prayer, and thanksgiving.  So also with us.  Amen.