The Gospel writer Mark tells a very short episode of a time when Jesus and the disciples got into a boat to go from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. On the way over, Jesus takes a nap, and while he is sleeping, a storm rolls over the sea and threatens to swamp the boat, killing them all. The disciples wake Jesus up—some people can literally sleep through a storm—and when he rebuked the storm, it went away, the sea calmed down, and everyone was safe.
And then Jesus rebuked the disciples because they were afraid and lacked faith.
Sometimes the message is in the miracle. This is not one of those times.
One of the curiosities of the gospels is that the miracles Jesus performs don’t produce faith. The produce astonishment, awe, even fear, but they don’t seem to result in life-changing faith. They are signs to those who have faith, but to those who don’t have faith, they seem to breed only hostility, resentment, and fear to those who don't have faith. As Abraham said about the brothers of the rich man in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, “They have the Law and the Prophets; if they won’t believe them, they won’t believe a man raised from the dead.”
This story has a miracle, but the message isn’t in the miracle. Which is probably a good thing, because while we all have to go through storms, we rarely get a miracle. No, the message isn’t in the miracle; we have to look elsewhere. Maybe the message is in the nap.
Throughout the Old Testament, sleep is also an important image. In fact, two passages seem to underlie this story. “If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden panic, or of the storm that strikes the wicked; for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.” (Proverbs 3:24-26). The gift of being able to sleep untroubled and peacefully is the sign that one can trust in God's power. The second is Psalm 44:23-26, when it appeared that God had lost interest in the people and they assumed that God had ceased to watch over them and was asleep: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”
These two Old Testament images powerfully overlap with Jesus' sleeping as the storm rages around the frightened disciples. Jesus is asleep, at peace in the care of the Father, as the boat is tossed about in the waves. His faith in God's power to keep him safe remains strong, unlike the panicked disciples. They have little faith. Their faith is so different from Jesus' untroubled faith that they mistake it for careless indifference. When they wake him, they don’t ask for deliverance, they rebuke him for not caring! "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
Here's where the true message of the story comes into play. Jesus knows that he won't always be physically right beside us, sitting in the next seat, ready with a miraculous cure. And so he asks, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
We're talking FAITH here, not miracles. Faith that Jesus loves us and is working for an ultimate good, even when waves beat around us and our boat is swamped. Faith that God has created the world and is in control of it, even when chaos seems to reign and evil seems to triumph. Faith that the Holy Spirit is giving us strength and inner peace, even when we're feeling exhausted and stressed and at the end of our ropes. Faith keeps us going in spite of the depressing, disappointing and demoralizing circumstances around us, and it enables us to face an uncertain future without fear.
We won’t always have a miracle, but we’ll always have Jesus. Trust in him, and you too will be able to sleep through the storm.