The God Who Sleeps

Sermon by Cory Brock on March 29

Matthew 8:23-27

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Well we’re going to look at another miracle that Jesus performs in Matthew chapter 8. Five short verses in 23-27. It’s a short story, it’s a great story, and it has an enormous point. And that is found by answering the question, really the question of all the gospels, the question at the center of all of Christianity. And it’s what the disciples ask in verse 27. They say, “What sort of a man is this?” And during the time that we’re living in of coronavirus, of isolation, of fear, it is important that we ask, “What sort of a man is this that the gospels is presenting to us?” And the answer of this passage is, “Look at the man who sleeps.” And so let’s pray and we’ll read this great story together. Let’s pray.

Speak O Lord, we ask, and build up the hearts of Your people. We want You, Lord, we plead with You that You would bring those who are far off, near tonight, and we pray this in Christ’s name, amen.

So this is God’s Word from Matthew chapter 8 verses 23 to 27:

“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. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’”

This is God’s holy Word. There are three characters in the story that we just read that speak to us, and we’ve got to spend a few minutes on each one of them to really see what Matthew is trying to communicate to all of us here in this passage. And the three characters are this. First, the sea that rages. Secondly, the man who sleeps. And finally, the little faith club, which is what it says literally. So in all of these three, all of these three characters, the three ways of looking at the passage, all of them are saying, “Look at the man, at the sleeper, at the center of it all.” 

The Sea that Rages 

And so first thing to look at is the sea that rages, briefly. And all I have in mind here is opening up a little bit of the context and getting into the minds of the people that were there in this moment for this miracle so that we can really understand what Matthew is trying to communicate. Jesus, at the beginning, in verse 23 He gets into the boat, the disciples follow Him, and we learn in Mark and Luke’s account that they are going to cross the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is the northern tip of the large geography that we know as Israel and it borders, Israel borders one side, the west side, of the Sea of Galilee. And the Sea of Galilee is thirteen miles top to bottom and eight miles as its width. And they are crossing at its width, eight miles, from Capernaum over to a region called the Decapolis. And it’s a big lake and on the other side of it you have a Greco-Roman city. On one side it’s Jewish territory, Samaritan territory, and on the other side is Greco-Roman territory. And that means, because of trade happening across the lake, all day long, every day, this is a melting pot of people that would have been there on both sides – Greeks, Romans, Jews, Samaritans, and many more people groups represented here that would have seen Jesus that day that would have been crossing the sea all day long and that would live on the other side of the sea. 

And Mark tells us in his account that it’s not just Jesus and His disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee but that many boats went with them. And a boat in the first century, an average fishing boat, could hold about ten to twelve people; they were about thirty feet long normally. And so the picture Mark is giving us that Matthew doesn’t include is that there are dozens, probably over 100 or more people, traveling in a fleet of boats across the Sea of Galilee with Jesus that day. And then the storm. The storm strikes, the sea roars, the fumes – it overwhelms. The waves crash down into the boat and literally in verse 25 the text says, “Lord, we’re perishing!” They literally say, “We are dead. Lord, we are dead!” 

And in all of this, just this context, there are two quick lessons to think about. Just like today, when human beings face the storm, when they are glaring at the face of death, when we are saying all collectively together, “We are dead! We are dying! We are suffering! We are under it! We have hit the crisis!” Greeks, Romans, Jews, Samaritans, the differences, the religions, the cultures, the languages are all set aside in that moment and we all together awaken to the unveiling of our universal vulnerability. Everyone in this moment, just like today, no matter what background they came from, no matter what language, what country they grew up in, they are universally realizing their mortality – that human beings cannot stand up in the face of the greatest enemy of this world, which is death.

The second thing that’s just like today here is that in the face of the storm, in the face of the pandemic, there’s also differences in the way people process this. And because there are Greeks, Romans, Jews, Samaritans, they’re all asking, “Why is this happening?” as the waves crash down upon them. They are all thinking, processing quickly through danger, narratives in their heart of why evil, this circumstance has come upon them. You know the Greeks and the Romans would have said, “These are the gods of the storm and sea, Neptune and Poseidon, and these are gods that are bickering. This is the capriciousness of the gods and they’re judging us.” There would have been stoics and epicureans and philosophers and academics crossing in these boats, more than likely, and they would have said, “This is fate. This is an impersonal fatalism. This is what we all should expect and so we need to be calm and use reason and sobriety and face what’s all coming to us – the natural movement of biology towards death.” 

But then there would have been the Jewish, the faithful, the believers, the followers, the ones who read the Old Testament and believed in the covenant God. And what they would have seen was the Old Testament playing out in front of their faces because in the Old Testament, whenever the people of God, the Jewish people, the Israelites would cross bodies of water, every single instance in the Old Testament was a trial of judgment before God. Any time somebody crossed a body of water, which is exactly what they are doing here, water in the Jewish mind, in the Old Testament, is both a symbol of life and a symbol of death. You can go under the waters and never come back up again and you can die. 

And so at the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis chapter 1, you have the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters and telling the waters of chaos, we’re told in Genesis 1:2, “Get in your place. Move over there. Make room for the dry land.” Genesis 9, God sends the rain waters of judgment down on upon the land and He lifts them back up again in Noah’s flood. In the exodus story, the metastory of the Hebrew mind, of the entire Old Testament, God pushes back the waters of the sea so that the people of God can go through the water trial of judgment and live. He provides a mediator. God saves them. And that’s why we have language in the Old Testament like Psalm 89 where the psalmist praises the God of the storm. “You still the majesty of the seas. When the waves rise, You calm them.” Every single Israelite knew that only God, only Yahweh, the true God of the Bible, could tell water, “Get in your place,” could tell the storm, “Get back. Get back. Be quiet. Get in your place!”

And look, we are modern people, we live in the 21st century for sure, but in the face of international crisis we essentially have the same story because humanity, human nature hasn’t changed. In the secular West, we live according to the stoic, the epicurean, the Greek philosophy of old, which essentially says we are living the natural path of life and we need to approach what’s coming biologically for us all, with reason and sobriety and calmness, and face it and know that there isn’t a tomorrow, there isn’t something coming after death. And in the world religions, this is the activity of the gods. This is the gods fighting. A pandemic, a crisis, a virus that’s covering the globe is a fight between the gods that’s spilling its wrath over upon the earth. This is one of the accounts of some of the world religions. The message of the Bible, then in the first century to the Greeks, Romans, Jews, Samaritans, and today to the people of the East and West and the people of the whole world in the face of pandemic and disaster and crisis and death is that there is one thing to do and it is look at the sleeper in this passage. 

The Man Who Sleeps 

So let’s do that for a moment. The man who sleeps, secondly. The text hones down on a man. Verse 24 we see this comedic, incredible line from Matthew. The boat is filling up with water, everybody is about to drown, but He was asleep. And Matthew wants us all to think of the Jonah story in this moment. You remember the Jonah story in the Old Testament? Jonah had boarded a ship and a storm was coming upon the ship and all the sailors come to him and say, “Wake up, you sleeper! Wake up, you sleeper, for we are perishing!” It’s the same exact language as appears here in Matthew. So Matthew is trying to subtly point us and say, “Is this man like Jonah? Who is this man? Is this man like Jonah?” Keep that in the back of your mind. His sleeping says everything to us right now both about then and now. 

And what it says to us is this. Why is He sleeping? Like Jonah was, Jesus in this passage is tired. He’s been teaching all day. He’s been going up and down mountains. He got into the boat to escape the crowds, to rest, and let me just say, the first thing to know tonight is that He is like you. He is tired here. If you are learning, like we are at our house right now, to do homeschool for the first time and to work simultaneously, you, I know, are tired. And Jesus was tired. In the 300s there was this great council, church council, the council of Nicaea, and really for a century after it people were battling about how to talk about Jesus and His natures – What’s the best language to use? What is the Gospels really teaching us? And what they came to is all right here in this moment of sleeping. He is asleep because He is fully human. And let me say to you, Jesus Christ, He knows. He knows what you’re facing. He knows what it is to be vulnerable. He knows what it is to die. He is completely human. 

But at the same time, the storm is raging and He’s sleeping! The boat is filling up with water and they’re saying, “We are dead men!” and He’s asleep. And it’s because in the midst of death, in the midst of death He’s going to stand up and say, “Be quiet, storm! Get back in your place!” You see, He can die, He’s a human being, and He can tell creation to be quiet! He is God! He’s fully God! He’s fully human and He’s fully God! Here is the man who feels your pain without your helplessness. He is the God of the storm. He is the God of the exodus. He is the God that the psalmists were talking about when they said, “You have taken the Israelites across the Red Sea, You have split the waters, You sent the flood waters down and You took them back up again.” It is His Spirit that was there in Genesis 1, hovering over the face of the deep and telling the waters to get back in their place. This is Him. And now, He is a man. He knows what it’s like to be like you. In Him, we find the greatest empathy. He knows. But here is the man who can feel your pain and not be succumb to your helplessness.

And so tonight, if you are searching for hope and contentment and fearlessness, it is possible if you would turn and look at the sleeper. Remember back to Jonah. Matthew’s wanting us to keep Jonah in the back of our minds. What did Jonah say to the sailors? “Throw me in and you can all be saved.” And they had to throw Jonah into the water, into the deep, deep, deep, deep, all the way down to Sheol. Jonah had to go to the place of the dead to save the sailors. This man, this sleeper stands up and He doesn’t dive into the water, He doesn’t go down into Sheol. He stands up and looks at nature and says, “Be quiet!” He is Jonah but He’s something way more than Jonah. But you might say to that, “How could He really know then? If this man is God and can sleep through the storm, how can He know what it’s like to truly be me, to really face the vulnerability of death, of virus? What if I get this disease? How could He know what that’s like? How could He meet me there?”

Oh boy. You know, Jonah, he had to jump in the waters of judgment. He had to get off that boat to save the sailors. Jesus Christ chose to jump into the waters of ultimate judgment. He chose. He who was not helpless chose to become helpless. He chose to jump into the waters of the ultimate storm in the cross, in the wrath and the judgment of the living God for you, for me. In the garden of Gethsemane, He was afraid so that you don’t have to be now. He knows what it’s like to face the ultimate death that we could never have faced. He knows. 

So there are some direct applications tonight. Look, many of you watching are lonely, and I’ve talked to some of you about it this week. In the three verses before we read in verse 23, He says to the people, “The Son of Man has no home. Foxes have holes, birds have nests; I have nowhere to lay My head.” Jesus Christ was so lonely in His life. He knows what that’s like right now. And some of you are facing economic uncertainty like never before right now, many, many people. And He was homeless and He was poor and He knows. And here is hope. The power in this moment in 2020 during a pandemic to overcome fear – whether it’s disease, disaster or death – here is the man who feels your pain without your helplessness. 

The Little Faith Club 

Now finally, what do you do with this? And to know the answer to that we have to look at the third character here. Literally, Matthew, when Jesus turns to the disciples and says in the ESV here, “Oh you of little faith,” a very literal translation is, “You little faith gang” or “You little faith club.” That’s literally the word that Jesus uses here – “You little faith club.” We have to look at the little faith club briefly. In Mark, they say to Jesus, “We are perishing,” literally, “We are dead. Do You not care?” And so let me just say three brief things as we wrap up of what to do with this.

The first is that question that the little faith club asks of Jesus, “Do You not care?” That shows up in the book of Mark. This is the question that every single sufferer asks in this world. “We are dying down here! Do You care?” And this has been a crazy week and a strange week so maybe you missed it, but Wednesday, this past Wednesday, March 25, was a great day. It was International Tolkien Day. And because of that, I saw batted all across social media one of the famous quotes from The Fellowship of the Ring that’s apropos to our current moment. Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened.” And Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us.” And Tolkien captures in that moment the human response to this moment we’re in – “Why do You not care? What are You doing in the face of suffering and death and international suffering?” And Gandalf says, “I don’t know, exactly, but what will I do with the time?” 

And let me say that I’m not going to give much on the problem of evil right now. We don’t have time. This is not the final word in any way, shape or form. There’s a lot that’s out there that can be helpful. But when we come to the gospels, when we come to a passage like this, this passage says, “When you see evil and suffering and death in your face, look at this Man.” That’s the simple answer that we’re being given here. The answer of Christianity is not a philosophy but a person. Look at this Man. And let me say, if He is like the gospels claim He is, if He is the God of the storm, the God over all disease, the God over death, the God who can crush it all, if this Man really is that powerful, if He’s really so big to do what this book says He can do, then He can have reasons for our suffering in this life that we don’t understand. He can be that big. God can say to us when we say, “Do You not care, Lord?” He can say, “You cannot see all the things I’m doing. You are too small. You are part of the little faith gang and I love you. And look at the Man that I sent. Look at the Man in the face of evil.” 

The second thing of three is this. What to do with this story? They have weak faith. That’s what Jesus tells them, the disciples. They are the little faith club. And He says to them, they come to Him and they say, “What are You doing? Are You going to help us?” and He says, “Your faith is so small and your faith is so weak!” And then He turns and says, “Be quiet, death. Get back!” He tells the storm to go away. And look, if the Greco-Romans had come to their gods and said, “What are you doing? Are you going to do anything about this?” and they would have said to them, “Your faith is so weak. I’m not going to do anything for you. You don’t believe enough. You haven’t sacrificed enough. You haven’t offered enough. You haven’t given enough. You haven’t done enough good works. You haven’t done it and so I’m not giving it.” Did you get what’s happening here? Jesus says, “You have little, weak faith. Death, be quiet! I’m going to save you.” And look, they had weak faith and they came to Him. 

And the point is that in the face of pandemic, suffering, death, disaster, disease, the loss of the precious in your life, your faith might struggle and get weaker at times, and Jesus acts anyway. And here’s the lesson. It is not the quality of your faith that saves you. It is the object of your faith. He came because we all are, at best, part of the little faith gang. And faith is not what saves us. Jesus Christ saves us. We receive Him by faith but your salvation, right now, if you get the virus – whatever it might be in your life – your salvation is secure, not in the strength of your believe but because He is strong, precisely at the point where you are weak. The master of the storm went into the ultimate storm of the cross for you because you could never have enough faith. It is not the quality of your faith. It is the object. Look at the sleeper. Look at the Man.

And then finally, thirdly, at the same time, as we wrap up, we have to also be careful and think precisely because Jesus Christ did not come to be useful. If you look at the whole chapter, which we won’t do right now, but let me just list for you the miracles He performs in chapter 8. He heals the leper. “Be clean, leper.” He heals a man who’s paralyzed. He tells him to get up and walk. He casts out demons twice. He heals a deathly fever, like the coronavirus is, and He is the God over disease, disaster, demons and death in every single instance. And that means Matthew is painting a picture of coming life in the kingdom of God that is not yet. That’s what the miracles are doing here. They’re saying this is what the kingdom of God is going to look like where the God over disease, disaster, death, demons and storms says, “Get out of here!” Where tears are wiped away; where it’s all no more. That’s the kingdom to come. His miracles are prophecies of what He is coming back to do for all of us.

What sort of Man is this? He’s the Man who came to bring the kingdom! But, and, at the same time, we have to be careful because we might be tempted to say reading this, “If I have a little faith, if I have just a weak faith, He will stop the storm in my life right now. He will prevent me from getting the virus. He will put away my cancer. He will bring her back. He will bring him back.” And let me say, He might, and He might not, and one day He will. And it’s important that we all at this time remember that likely, unless Christ comes again, we will walk – as David Felker said last week – through the shadow of death in order to get to life. And that means that Jesus came here not primarily to be useful during hard times but to be your hope for the coming kingdom of God.

John Piper, in his famous prison sermon that he preached in 2009 in Louisiana to the prisoners at Angola, he preached to death row inmates, to 800 prisoners who were sentenced for life. And he said to them, his main point, “Jesus Christ is here now, has come already, not first to give you bread – to get you out of this jail, perhaps – but to be the Bread.” He came to be everything. To be your hope, to be the apple of your eye, to be the desire of your heart. And so He says here in the face of the storm, “Even if you succumb to the waters that are overwhelming, do not be afraid.” This is a Romans 8 command – “For in all things,” I too, me even, and you with weak faith – “will be more than conquerors in Christ Jesus” even if it’s sword, famine, virus, cancer, whatever it will be. And so our first prayer in the pandemic has got to be, “Lord Jesus, make me desire You right now above all else because if what I find most precious in life cannot die – because He already did and He defeated it – then my hope will never die. And then pray, “Lord, deliver me from this. And He might, and one day, He will.”

And so the question Jesus is asking all of us in the midst of this international crisis, I think, is, “Am I your treasure? Am I your hope? And I the apple of your eye? Am I the desire of your heart?” If you come to Him, even with weak faith, then do not be afraid. “Whoever comes to Me, I will not cast out,” He says. Let’s pray.

Lord, we ask for, even weak faith, we ask the Holy Spirit to come now and bring those who are far off near that we might hope in the kingdom that is to come. Lift up our hearts, Lord, we ask, in Jesus’ name, amen.

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