A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on June 24, 2012.
Psalm 9:9-10; Psalm 131; Mark 4:35-41
How many of you slept well last night?
How many of you did not?
How many of you expect to sleep through this sermon because you are so tired?!
I saw a cartoon once that featured a pastor who was having trouble sleeping. He tried everything—sleeping pills, hot baths, reading instead of watching television—all the techniques experts recommend for better sleeping. Finally out of desperation he started listening to tapes of his sermons and soon he was sleeping like a baby!
In Psalm 121 God is described this way: he neither slumbers nor sleeps. But the Son of God, according to Mark 4, not only sleeps. He sleeps like a baby. To the best of my knowledge, our New Testament scripture for today is the only recorded instance of Jesus sleeping. Interestingly enough, he’s not sleeping through a boring sermon. He’s not even sleeping in a bed. Rather, he’s sleeping on a cushion in the stern of a boat during a ferocious storm at sea that caused even experienced fishermen to have nightmares.
The story of Jesus stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee follows some fast and furious action as recounted by Mark’s gospel. In rapid succession Jesus has been casting out demons, healing people with a host of diseases, preaching up a storm, appointing his twelve disciples, and teaching the multitudes through mind-stretching parables.
And over time it’s more than a body can take, even the body of the Son of God. Jesus in his humanity is absolutely exhausted, and when nightfall ends another frantic day he directs the disciples to push the boat he’d been using as his teaching platform away from the shore. “Let us go to the other side,” instructed Jesus. And with that order, the disciples proceed to sail the roughly 8 mile route that would take them to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Mark doesn’t tell us how long it took Jesus to fall asleep, but we get the impression it happened in a hurry. Before long, Jesus was in the stern (or rear) of the boat, asleep on a cushion. Any of us who’ve ever fallen asleep to the sound of ocean waves at the beach can understand how this happens.
What’s remarkable is that Jesus managed to sleep soundly as one of those all-to-common Sea of Galilee thunderstorms suddenly roared across the water out of nowhere. This storm must have been far worse than usual because even the seasoned fishermen among the newly called disciples were frightened for their lives.
Notice, by the way, that even though the Son of God is on the boat the storm doesn’t do an end run around the boat, as though the boat is supernaturally protected. The boat bearing God in the flesh gets hammered just like all the other boats at sea that night.
So, how does Jesus sleep like a baby in the midst of a killer storm? That’s precisely what the disciples want to know. Is it simple exhaustion? Or is there a deeper, more profound reason?
What’s interesting is that easily the most famous artistic depiction of this storm features Jesus just waking up from his nap. Today we are using as an artistic prop Rembrandt’s renowned painting titled The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Born in 1606, Rembrandt was the greatest of all the Dutch artists. Today he is considered the Shakespeare of painting. Rembrandt’s masterful use of light and dark, especially in his religious masterpieces, captures not only the drama of biblical events but the psychological and spiritual mood as well. Religious or biblical subjects comprise a third of Rembrandt’s works, and some of you may remember Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son that I used as a visual prop for a sermon some time ago.
Living in a seafaring nation like modern-day Holland, you might think Rembrandt would have painted many seascapes. But this is his only one. You can tell, however, that this man knows a thing or two about storms at sea. And for the next few moments, I want us to look together at this stormy scene through the eyes of Rembrandt, who created this masterpiece in 1633 when he was only 27 years old. (By the way, this painting was stolen in 1990 from an art gallery in Boston and has yet to be recovered.)
Notice that the towering mast of the ship, which resembles a cross, points to the two corners of the painting, creating a prominent diagonal. In effect, the mast divides the painting into two triangles. The left triangle is the stormiest of the two, but ironically also the brightest of the two. Likewise, the right, lower triangle is the darker of the two, but also the calmer. And the artistic critic, Juliet Benner, to whom I owe much of my analysis, encourages us to ponder obvious contrasts and contradictions.
Let’s take a more detailed look at the left triangle of the painting. The boat heaves on a massive wave, churning from gale-force winds. Rembrandt theatrically captures on his canvas the wind-whipped waves, foaming white and spewing spray in the yellow light (of the moon?). The boat is tossed about so much that some of the rigging seems to have snapped off and is flapping around high overhead.
The men on the foredeck struggle mightily to keep the boat from capsizing. The disciple working on the central mast is trying for all he is worth to reattach the violently torn and tattered mainsail that seems about to take off. An oar and grappling hook flail about as well, on the verge of being lost to the waves. You can almost hear the savage flapping of the sails and cloaks, the creaking of the masts and hull, and the howling whistle of the winds.
Staying true to the text, Rembrandt shows the waves rising over the front of the boat and beginning to fill it. The light on the left side of the painting, illuminating the clouds above, is an eerie yellow. But it also highlights the plight of the men on board as they grapple with the uncontrollable elements.
And we wonder why Rembrandt doesn’t show Jesus, the Light of the World, on the lighted side of the picture? What does it mean that Jesus is pictured in the swirling darkness of this storm? Is it possible that Rembrandt, who would eventually have his share of stormy nights, experienced the presence of God in the midst of his own darkness?
As we shift to the right, shadowed side of the painting we find Jesus being shaken awake by one of the disciples. Others look intently at Jesus as they await his reaction to their desperate situation. One sits with tiller in hand and tries to steady the boat.
Even though most art critics ignore them, I wonder about other figures on the dark side of this painting. Like the baldheaded man who seems to be bowing at the feet of Jesus. Maybe you noticed that as the disciples shake Jesus awake they call him “Teacher,” a nice- enough title that tellingly ignores the divine power of Jesus to perform miracles. But Rembrandt seems to think one of the disciples is already praying to Jesus as though he were God, with power a plenty to save them from the storm.
Then there’s the fellow clothed in red leaning over the side of the boat with one hand upon his brow. It’s hard to know exactly what he’s doing. But I think all of us who’ve ever gotten sea sick can take comfort from this guy.
Then there’s the fellow sitting with his back to us at the border between the darkness and the light. He’s the only person on the boat that seems not to be moving, not to be doing anything. Is it because he’s paralyzed with fear, convinced he’s going to die? Or because he’s too depressed to lift a finger? Or too disgusted with Jesus for sleeping at the wheel while his disciples go to their death? We simply don’t know.
Speaking of characters, if you count the number of bodies in the boat you are surprised to find 14 men. And you know that can’t be correct because one Jesus plus twelve disciples equals 13 men. So who is the 14th? Virtually all art critics agree that Rembrandt not only paints his name on the rudder (very difficult to see!), but his likeness into the picture. And most agree he is the man clothed in blue with one hand holding a rope, the other hand holding down his cap, and his face looking directly at us, the viewer.
Evidently, Rembrandt so identifies with this scene that he paints himself in the boat.
Which leads to the question—can you find yourself in this scene? Where are you in the boat? And what exactly are you doing?
In spite of the darkness, the faces of the men in this right triangle are lit by the same eerie light shining on the left side. On this side of the gigantic wave, it is relatively calm. Compared to the turbulence in the front of the boat, it is quiet here. The panic that seems so obvious and public on the left side of the boat seems more internalized and private on the right side. We sense not so much fear as anger, anger that Jesus does not care enough about his disciples wake up and help them stabilize the boat.
It’s interesting, by the way, that the disciples don’t ask Jesus to save them from the storm. They just complain that he’s sleeping instead of helping them reattach the sail, or bail out the water, or hold tight the rudder. They’re just looking for human help, not divine deliverance.
Meanwhile, the contrast between the panicky disciples and the peaceful
Jesus couldn’t be more pronounced. That Jesus is able to sleep in the storm says more, far more than that Jesus is simply worn out. In order to sleep that soundly in the midst of the storm, Jesus would have to know he sleeps safe and secure from all alarms in the arms of God.
Jesus knows first-hand that The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble, and the Lord will not forsake his own. Like a weaned baby with his mother, Jesus has calmed and quieted his soul in the presence of his Father, and sleeps he knowing his Lord will watch over him forevermore.
But that’s not all. Jesus possesses the power of God himself!
Too bad we can’t see Rembrandt’s rendition of what happens next. How would Rembrandt have portrayed the Lord of the wind and the sea rebuking the wind, and saying to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” How would he have pictured the wind and water returning to a dead calm?
Notice, by the way, that the story lacks a fairy-tale ending. Yes, the disciples are miraculously saved. But Jesus proceeds to rebuke his disciples as sternly as he rebuked the wind, asking why they were so full of fear rather of faith.
Then, says the NRSV, the disciples were filled with great awe. But the more accurate translation of the Greek says the disciples feared with great fear. Now, they were even more terrified of Jesus than they were the deadly storm. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
And they haven’t seen the half of it yet. Because, as Rembrandt’s painting suggests, these men will finally be delivered at the foot of the cross when the same Jesus who could still a storm will voluntarily die on a cross, for their sins and your sins and mine. And I don’t know of anything more mind-blowing than the notion that the same God who stilled the wind and calmed the seas willingly died for you and for me, that love impelled our mighty God to become helpless for our sake.
There’s one other take on this passage we need to hear. Many think Mark included this story of Jesus in his gospel so the church of his day could draw courage from it. See, the church of Mark’s day had been called to the “other side” of the world to reach the Gentiles and that would require a new way of doing church. Meanwhile, the church of Mark’s day was being buffeted by the gale force winds of persecution and even execution. It was not an easy time to be the church, and the future seemed darker than a midnight storm at sea.
Does that sound even remotely familiar to anybody today?
I don’t know about you, but I wonder from time to time where the boats of my life and my church are going. Truthfully, I don’t always know.
Here’s what I do know. Jesus is in the boat with me. Jesus is in the boat with us. If and when I can get my mind and heart around those two facts, then I too can sleep like a baby.