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Jesus is a sound sleeper

June 23, 2015

A sermon delivered June 21, 2015, at Central Presbyterian Church-Waxahachie by the Rev. Matt Curry.

Psalm 9:9-20
Mark 4:35-41

In 1988, my mother was away on a trip that she had been planning a long time, and I was home with my Dad. For some time he had been experiencing some health issues for which we had no answers.

He began to notice that when he got up from his recliner, he would careen to one side, and it seemed to be getting worse. I noticed he had trouble signing a check. His handwriting was shaky and tentative. My mother was still away when we received the news that my father was suffering from a brain tumor that in months would end his life.

That was a difficult day, of course, and it was followed by what I remember as a very dark, lonely night. I was wide awake. I had lots of questions running through my mind, and plenty of fears. Those thoughts tormented me for most of the night. But my father did not let his new reality overwhelm him – at least not to the point where it prevented him from resting. As I thought about what his news meant for the future, the unmistakable sound of his snoring traveled across the hallway from his room to mine.

I worried, while he slept.

In the years since, I have been accused by certain members of my own household of being a fairly sound sleeper myself. There have been times, for example, when I have awakened from a restful night, and the first words I have been asked are, “What about that storm last night? Did you hear that thunder? What about that lightning” and “the dogs were going crazy weren’t they?” And I will have to respond, “That what, and the what and what? Sorry, I was asleep, did not know anything about it! I missed it!”

And not everyone is entirely happy when I miss all the excitement – apparently, excitement is meant to be shared!

Of course, to be honest, though I am able to sleep through thunder and lightning, I have been less successful in sleeping through the storms of life. Worry holds me captive from rest on more than a few occasions, and frankly, it is not always over life and death matters. Sometimes it is related to a relationship, or when I was in seminary, it could relate to an important final exam. Sometimes I know that I am being kept awake by something that is really not worth losing sleep over, but as I think about that, I only lose more sleep. If you share this problem with me, know that at least we are in good company. Even the Apostle Paul lamented that I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

I am not the sound sleeper that my father was — and apparently, nobody can sleep like Jesus.

Jesus was very tired after a day of teaching parables: the parable of the sower; a lamp under a bushel basket; the parable of the growing seed; the parable of the mustard seed. He spoke the Word to the people through parables, as they were able to hear the Word. Privately he explains everything to the disciples, and that must have been exasperating, because they often just do not get it. We affirm that Jesus was 100 percent human, 100 percent God. In the fullness of his humanity, he must have been really tired when evening came – that was a lot of parables to explain, after all – and so he and the disciples finally decide to retire for the night, leaving the crowds behind. They head out in a boat to the other side of the water. But a great windstorm arises, according to our NRSV translation.

Other translations refer to a fierce gale of wind, or a violent windstorm. This must have been a very serious storm because, remember, there are people on this boat, experienced fishermen, who know what it is like to deal with bad weather on the sea. And they are concerned. Waves batter the boat and break over the boat, quickly filling it with water. As the disciples grapple with this grave situation, the one whom they follow is sleeping on a cushion in the back – nice and comfortable. The disciples are frightened, and certainly they must also be angry. And if they even had time to think, perhaps they are thinking something like this: We are trying to bail out this boat, perhaps we will survive if the waves don’t tear our vessel apart – and here is the so-called captain of our ship, at rest. And someone probably said: Wow, Jesus is really a sound sleeper. That man can sleep through anything!

Jesus is not stirred by the terror of the moment; not by the crashing waves; not by the storm all around them; not by the violent tossing and turning of the boat; and so finally they go and shake him awake! Do. You. Not. Care That. We. Are. Dying!

And I think they raise a pretty good question.

Why is Jesus sleeping when the storm is at its peak?

I have been hearing that question a lot lately. When an armed white racist walks into Bible study in a historic black church and kills nine people – in a church, at Bible study – is Jesus asleep?

Is God on vacation?

For others, this, along with the continuing epidemic of hatred and gun violence, is further proof that there is no benevolent, supernatural being overseeing the world. This is not a new concern. Check out the trials and tribulations of Job, or read Lamentations or the Psalms. The psalmist writes that my tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, Where is your God?

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Instead of answering their question, Jesus responds by demonstrating his command and control over the elements. The wind ceases at his word and the conditions become overwhelmingly calm. And now he has two questions for them:

Why are you afraid?

And …

Do you still have no faith?

And it does not say in the text, but I wonder if he then went back to the stern of the boat, found his cushion and continued with his nap – because Jesus was apparently very good at sleeping soundly.

The disciples, however, are still restless. Even now, at this point in their journey together with Jesus, they wonder just exactly who this is whom they have followed. They are filled with a great awe, this translation says. Literally, the original text says they are filled with a great fear – even now, after Jesus calmed the storm, or perhaps BECAUSE he calmed the storm. They have a glimmer of understanding when it comes to this matter of faith but it is not a fully resolved matter for them. Jesus’ power over the wind and sea leads to more questions. And ultimately, the Gospel of Mark repeatedly directs those questions to us: Why are we afraid? Do we have faith? Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Sometimes Jesus falls sound asleep. And maybe that is so his followers will learn to rely upon their faith that God is in control, even in the height of the most disastrous storms. Jesus’ ability to rest in the midst of trouble is not abandonment. He never leaves them in the boat to fend for themselves. You know, I guess he could have said I have had it with you guys, got out, and walked his way across the water over to the other side. But he does not do that. He stays with them. His restful sleep in the back of the boat is not due to his lack of concern, as the disciples initially suggest, rather, it is a sign of his complete and obedient faith in God. It is not only faith in Jesus that saves – but the faith of Jesus by which God has claimed us. It is a faith that stands in stark contrast to the worry of fishermen tossed around on a boat or a seminary student who tosses and turns in bed all night.

God vindicated the faith of Jesus by raising him from the dead, and it is in the very midst of the harsh realities of our world that we are called to consider who he is to us.

Fred Rogers, the children’s television personality and Presbyterian minister, said that when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news, his mother would say to him, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. And so, Mr. Rogers would say, even in the midst of disaster, he remembered his mother’s words and was comforted by realizing there are many caring people.

When my father was diagnosed with his brain tumor, it felt for a time as if God had abandoned us – but I don’t think my Dad ever felt that way. If he did, he never expressed it. I came to see Jesus in my father’s ability to do the best he could with the news he had been given, and to hand the rest over to his Lord, even to the extent that he could sleep soundly at night. Not only that. I saw that Christ was present in the people who came from the church to our home to kneel with my Dad and me and pray. Those same people stood with our family in the difficult days that followed.

Yesterday at Joshua Chapel AME Church here in Waxahachie, clergy and parishioners from churches throughout the city joined our sisters and brothers to share our love and concern for them, as well as for Charleston, S.C., and for our nation. Some of you were there, too, and your presence in that prayer service made a difference.

On the day of the tragic shooting, many understandably asked, “Where is God?” If you watched the arraignment of the young man arrested for this crime, then you heard families of the victims say words like I love you, I forgive you, I encourage you to repent and give your life over to Jesus and be saved. Only God could do something like this.

Where is God? From across our nation and in our own city, the answer has begun to be heard: God is in the helpers, in those who are praying and responding, in those who are mourning with those who mourn and in those who are standing up to say they will do whatever it takes to make our society a better place for all of God’s children.

We live in difficult times – times that call for taking a stand and making a difference. Make no mistake about it: It takes faith. When gunmen are entering churches and killing worshippers and shooting pastors, we each have decisions to make – questions we must answer for ourselves. To choose fear is to align ourselves with powers and principalities that are the rulers of darkness in this world.

But we are Children of the Light, already claimed through the obedient and complete faith of Jesus. If he is asleep, it may be only so that we will wake up and do his will in the world.

Why are we afraid?

Do we still have no faith?

Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Let us pray:

Gracious God, in the midst of a chaotic, broken and sinful world, sometimes it seems as if you have abandoned us. Help us to remember the faith of your son, which claims us, and the commitment of the prophets to justice, reconciliation and peace. Give us the strength and the audacity to stand with Christ and to share his love, even when waves are swamping the boat. In the name of the One whose trust in the sovereignty of God produces restful sleep – even on the tumultuous sea – AMEN.

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