When launched in the 1958, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest Great Lakes freighter. She was 729 feet long – the equivalent of two and a third football fields. She was able to carry a massive load of iron ore from the west to steel mills in the east as she plied the Great Lakes. The impressive ship was a favorite sight of those who lived in that region.
However, despite her size, a storm on Lake Superior proved to be too much for her. In November 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald encountered a storm with extreme winds and waves that were up to thirty five feet. In one of the last messages sent by the captain he said: “I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.” The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in the storm, and the entire crew of twenty nine men was lost. Their bodies were never recovered.
If the conditions turn against you, bodies of water can be a threat to any sized ship. That is true is you are in a massive freighter on Lake Superior. It is also true if you are in a small boat on the Sea of Galilee. In our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn about how the disciples of Jesus encountered a storm that threatened to sink their boat. They react in fear instead of faith. And Jesus demonstrates that he is the incarnate Son of God who has come to bring God’s reign to a fallen world.
The Gospels depict Jesus’ ministry as one in which he was constantly busy preaching and healing. Just before our text, Jesus has healed Peter’s mother in law from a fever. Then we are told, “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’”
Our Lord based his ministry at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, and frequently travelled on the water as he went from place to place. It was only natural. First, it was easier than walking. And second, he had among his disciples men who had been professional fishermen. They knew all about sailing and could take Jesus wherever he needed to go.
Our Gospel lesson begins with the words, “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.” Jesus and the disciples set out on the Sea of Galilee, and as they were traveling on the water two things happened. First, Jesus fell asleep in the boat. And second, a great storm arose on the sea.
Jesus was asleep in the boat. Our Lord was obviously tired from his work of ministry, and so he fell asleep. In fact, he was sleeping so soundly that he had not even been aroused by the storm that was now threatening the boat.
Jesus was tired and slept. In this simple fact we receive an important reminder about who Jesus is. During Christmas we celebrated the incarnation – the fact that the Son of God entered into our world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is God in the flesh – he is true God and true man. We tend to focus on the fact that Jesus is true God, because of course, that’s what makes him unique and our Savior.
But it is equally important to realize that Jesus is truly human in all ways that we are, apart from sin. The Son of God took on a human nature in the incarnation in order to redeem and restore our humanity to what God intended it to be. Our Lord Jesus lived as one of us in the world, and he knows every human experience – not just because he is the omniscient Son of God – but also because he lived them as one of us in this world.
Our text tells us that a great storm arose, one that was causing the boat to be swamped by the waves. The disciples – even those who had spent their lives on the Sea of Galilee – were fearful. So they went to Jesus and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.”
Now on the one hand, this seems like it was the appropriate thing to do. The disciples faced danger, and so they went to Jesus. But our Lord’s response soon tells us that this was not the act of faith. Instead, it was one that was driven by fear. He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” In the midst of the storm that appeared to threaten the sinking of the ship, Jesus asked, “Why are you afraid?” Now from a worldly perspective the answer was obvious: There as a great storm and the boat was being swamped by the waves! But Jesus question points to a deeper truth. Jesus was in the boat with them and so there was no need for fear.
And that leads next to Jesus’ assessment of the disciples: they were of little faith. Their action of waking Jesus in the midst of the storm showed that they did not fully trust and believe in him. But note also that our Lord says that they are of little faith. This was still faith in Jesus. Even if it was not yet would it could be – what it should be – their waking the Lord and calling out to him for help did show faith.
Like the disciples, we are people who at times do fear. We do have doubts. We do fail at those moments when we should speak and act in ways that are produced by faith in Jesus Christ. We need to confess these for what they are – a lack of faith. They are sin – the old Adam at work in us.
But at the same time, if we are willing to confess them as sin, then that is the voice of faith. Admittedly, these failures demonstrate little faith. It is a faith that needs to grow and mature – and we’ll talk more about that later – but it is still faith.
After Jesus described the disciples as of little faith, he then demonstrated why he should be the object of great faith. Matthew tells us, “Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” Our Lord rebuked the winds and the sea – he ordered them to cease. Next week we will celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. After Jesus and the disciples had come back down from the mountain where this had taken place, he encountered a man who son was possessed by a demon. There too we hear the same word: “And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.”
Both of these actions – rebuking the winds and sea, and rebuking the demon – show us who Jesus Christ is and what he has come to do. He is the Son of God in the flesh. And he has come to bring God’s reign – his saving action to reverse all that Satan and sin have caused in this world.
Jesus and the disciples encounter a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Rather than calm, they are met by disorder. Rather than something that is good, they are met by something that is not good. In the storm we see what the apostle Paul describes in the epistle lesson today: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
The Fall and the entrance of sin have warped and twisted not only us, but creation itself. The Son of God entered into our world in order to reverse all that Satan and sin have caused. He came to renew us and creation itself. He came to make things very good once again. We see this when Jesus performs miracles of healing. We see it when he casts out demons. And we see it in our text when Jesus rebukes the storm and brings calm to the Sea of Galilee.
After Jesus had stilled the storm, we hear in our text, “And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’” We know the answer. He is the Lord. He is the Son of God. He is the Creator of the cosmos.
In our text, Jesus displays this incredible power. And yet the means by which the Lord carried out his mission to bring God’s reign culminated in an action which is the opposite of power in every possible way. The Son of God became man in order to defeat sin and death by suffering and dying on the cross. He came to be the sacrifice for sin in our place. He came to receive God’s judgment against sin that we deserve. The Son of God became man, without ceasing to be God, in order to die.
That death redeemed us from sin – it freed us from the damnation we deserve. And on third day, God carried out his act of new creation when he raised Jesus from the dead. He began the resurrection of the Last Day when He raised Jesus with a body that can never die again. Because this has happened to Jesus, the risen and exalted Lord will return on the Last Day to do it to us as well. And his saving actin will not be limited to us. It will include the renewal of creation itself that has been damaged by sin.
Jesus Christ is the Lord who died on the cross to give us forgiveness. He rose from the dead to defeat death and give us the guarantee of resurrection and eternal life. These are the reasons that we can have great faith in Christ. This great faith holds on to Jesus no matter what is happening.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus stills the storm and rescues the disciples from danger. But before doing that, his response to them was, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Jesus’ point was that since the Lord was with them, there was no need to fear. The same thing is true for us, no matter what the outcome may be.
The Edmund Fitzgerald sank. The most famous ship sinking in history, the Titanic, was not caused by the waves of a storm but instead by ice, as more than fifteen hundred people died. No doubt in these and in the thousands of other ship sinkings that have resulted in death, many who have died have believed in Jesus Christ.
Our Gospel lesson does not teach us that Jesus is going to deliver us from every storm of life. Until Christ returns it is a fallen world, and we are sinners who will die. Some of these experiences and deaths will be tragedies that leave us numb.
What our text teaches us is the need for faith in Jesus Christ – a strong and mature faith. There is no need for fear because Jesus Christ, the risen and exalted Lord is with you no matter what happens. You live a life that Paul described as being “in Christ.” You live a life that has been linked to the Lord because you have received Christ’s Spirit in baptism. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death, and so you will share in his resurrection. The risen Lord said, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We do not want to be people of little faith. We need to be people of mature and strong faith. In seeking this goal we need to be involved actively in reading and studying God’s Word, for it is through the word that Christ’s Spirit causes us to grow in faith. We need to be taking God’s Word into ourselves as we learn it by heart. When was the last time that you memorized a Bible verse – that you took it into your mind and made it part of you? That Word of God is there for the Spirit to use as we encounter different circumstances.
And of course, we need to live a life that is rooted in weekly attendance at the Divine Service. We need to be hearing God’s word preached and receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament. This regular pattern of being in God’s house gives us spiritual nourishment that we need if we are to be strong in faith.
Yet there is another side to this as well. The old Adam in us fights against the things I have just mentioned. He his content to keep us with as little faith as possible. And so God at times allows things in our lives that force us to turn towards him. Like the coach who must push his players so that they improve, God also uses time of difficulty and challenge to cause us to grow and mature in faith.
In our Gospel lesson, the disciples found themselves in circumstances that did just this. Jesus describes them as “O you of little faith,” but this was just one experience that was part the process by which they came to understand who Jesus was. They did not achieve a full understanding until after Jesus rose from the dead. And then? They were willing to suffer and die in order to tell others about Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. Because we know the same Lord, we are able to trust and believe in him and his care, as he sustains us in faith through his Means of Grace.
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