Together in the Boat

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We live along the Maine coast, and so I imagine that many of you have had the opportunity to go out on a boat at some point in your life, whether to sail or explore and enjoy the beautiful waters.  Maybe some of you have been out on a lake or the ocean when a storm came up, seemingly out of nowhere.  It’s a scary thing to be out on a boat and feel vulnerable.  The Marine forecast is very important for those who make their living on the sea.  In life, we don’t always have warning when a storm comes up in our own lives.  Out of nowhere, something knocks us off our feet and perhaps we feel alone out at sea with the waves and the wind whipping around us.  Sometimes, we just hold on for dear life and sometimes, we pray hard that we can just get through it.  I’m sure the disciples in our story this morning felt much the same way, except…Jesus was with them in the boat but he fell asleep.  And so, like us, they feared that they would be on their own to face the dangers which loomed.  Let us pray, O God of wind and rain, of sun and calm, open us this morning to your presence and remind us of when you have shown up in the storms of our lives.  May we trust that you are always with us.  Amen.

Rev. Glenn McDonald shared the following in a reflection he wrote, entitled Stilling the Storm. “In 1986, the receding waters of the Sea of Galilee revealed an archaeological treasure. A pair of brothers, poking around the edges of the lake during a prolonged drought, discovered the mud-encrusted remains of an ancient wooden fishing boat.  Archaeologists hurriedly excavated the find before exposure to air caused further damage.  The boat was 27 feet long, a little less than eight feet wide, and could have held up to 15 people.  It had a shallow draft and a flat bottom – perfect for casting nets near the shore.  It was made of 10 different kinds of wood.

 Most significantly, carbon dating revealed it had been built sometime between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50 – a span that corresponds to the time of Jesus.

Journalists immediately called it the Jesus Boat, although there is no way it could ever authoritatively be linked to his ministry.  Nevertheless, the humble craft – now on display in a Galilean museum – is like a window into the New Testament.  Such boats are mentioned at least 50 times in the four Gospels.  Visitors now have a way of picturing what it might have been like to crowd into one of those homemade fishing vessels.”

            This morning, we hear the story about an eventful voyage Jesus shared with some of his disciples on their fishing boat.  It clearly left a deep impression on them. 

            The Sea of Galilee isn’t an especially large lake.  It measures 13 miles north to south and 8 miles at its widest, east to west; however it is unique in that it lies almost 700 feet below sea level.  Only the Dead Sea – some 104 miles to the south, at the other end of the Jordan River – sits lower, at 1,300 feet below sea level.

We know that four of the disciples – Peter, Andrew, James and John – made their living catching fish.  Like all who have shared that difficult profession, they would have been very aware of the weather on the Sea of Galilee.  The lake is surrounded by dormant volcanoes so that when storms come up, they bring violent winds and high, choppy waves.  Local legends suggested there might be a portal to hell at the bottom of the lake, allowing unfriendly spirits to rise to the surface from time to time. We can imagine that the fishermen always brought with them some level of fear as they headed out six  days a week  to cast their nets..  Much like those who have fished off the coast of Maine or the Canadian provinces, they knew the risks, had heard the stories and had experienced firsthand how unforgiving the weather could be.

            Those fears must have really increased when Jesus says, “Let’s go to the other side.”  Glenn McDonald writes that most of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life take place on the northwest side of the lake, the area around Capernaum, which was heavily populated by faithful Jews.  The “other side” was a coded expression for the southeast shore, which was known as the Decapolis or Ten Towns.  This region was thoroughly pagan.  The southeastern side of the lake was not where these fishermen would choose to go.

Dr. Jim Martin, a Bible scholar and archaeologist, points out that while these areas weren’t that far away in terms of actual miles, the Decapolis was, in the popular imagination, something like the dark side of the moon.  Jesus’ suggestion to head toward the “other side” would have been something completely unexpected and unwelcomed by his friends.

            Jesus apparently has no  concerns about their destination.  He falls sound asleep on a pillow in the stern of their small, crowded boat.  But when a “furious squall” suddenly descends, the disciples become deeply concerned.  A shallow draft is no help at all if waves are crashing over the sides of the boat.  It’s possible that most of them don’t know how to swim.   “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  This is the age-old question.  Our greatest need is not, “Lord are you really there?” so much as, “Lord, do you actually care about what we’re going through right now?”

The Rev. Gary Inrig, makes an important observation.  This whole trip was Jesus’ idea.  Without so much as a warning, storms of all kinds will come crashing into our lives – even when we are doing exactly what God has asked us to do.  But it’s often in those particular storms – the ones that happen in the very places where God has asked us to go – that we learn that we really need God.

            For a few moments, the disciples must be wondering what is going on and why isn’t Jesus alarmed. They’re in a serious crisis.  But he’s not directing things.  He’s sleeping.  What kind of leadership is this?  Doesn’t he care?  What Jesus does next elevates their reassessments to a whole new level.

            Jesus, upon waking stills the wind and the waves with a his words.  Various English translations include, “Quiet! Be still! Settle down!”  The winds cease.  The waves flatten.  The great storm is followed by a great calm.  And that’s when the disciples are gripped by more fear.

 So far this night they have been afraid of the storm, of capsizing, and of what might await them on the other side.  Now they are afraid of Jesus.  “Who is this?” they ask (Mark 4:31).  The King James Version translates it, “What manner of man is this?”  In other words, what category of human being does Jesus fit into?  They thought they really knew him but they had no sense of what he was capable of and they fear that he may not be the person they believed they knew well.  The disciples have never been with someone who talks back to the elements or could command a storm to cease.  Clearly this is yet another memorable experience with this man they call Rabbi.  Like so much that he teaches them, it’s at the far reaches of their imagination to make sense of it all. That night on the boat, they experience a sense of awe that the Bible calls the fear of the Lord.  And this isn’t the last time that the Sea of Galilee is the scene for a memorable experience with Jesus.

I imagine that most of us have been gripped by fear at some point in our lives.  Perhaps the fear overcomes us in such a way that we can’t really think, let alone pray for God to be with us.  And then, some days we wake up and life has calmed, a deep sense of peace overrides that fear or worry. I trust that is the grace of God.  We’re not alone in the boat.  Sometimes it’s the support of someone in our life who reminds us that we are not alone and sometimes it’s the quiet voice of God stilling the storms within and without.  And sometimes we just have to hang on until the storm passes which it will.  Maybe, just maybe, when we’re in the midst of the storm, we might remember this passage and imagine Jesus awake beside us and helping to quiet that storm.