Your God Sleeps
There are puzzles in this text. What does it mean that the disciples took Jesus along "just as He was?" What happened to all the other boats? How come Jesus rebukes the wind and waves as if they were personal beings? But none of these are as amazing as the fact that Jesus sleeps. Doesn't that amaze you? Your God sleeps?
Actually, it's more than amazing; it's terrifying. The gods of mythology sleep. A god of Hinduism, Vishnu sleeps. There's a famous statue of him doing so called, "The sleeping god." False gods, gods who are no gods sleep. Remember the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal? Elijah ridiculed Baal when his prophets couldn't get him to answer. 1 Kings 18 says, "At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."
False gods sleep. The true God doesn't. The Old Testament says so. Psalm 121:4 says, "Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." So what gives with Jesus being asleep in a pitching boat in a storm? Remember who else did this? Jonah. No hero of the faith at the time, he was running from God's call to go to Nineveh. Then God cast a mighty storm upon the sea, much like the one in our text, and where was Jonah? Jonah 1 reports, "He had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep." And then much as the disciples did to Jesus, the captain of the ship "came and said to him, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish."
Did you catch that? The pagan sea captain implies what the Christian disciples in our text say. "Perhaps your god will care enough to save us," implies the pagan sea captain. The Christian disciples say, "Don't you care if we drown?" But can you blame them really? Their God was asleep.
Isn't that how we feel sometimes? With Psalm 44 we say, "Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!" Hard times come, problems arise, health deteriorates, and of course we pray, but the winds blow louder and the waves get bigger. The little boat of our life begins to fill up. As ever bigger waves break over the railing we think, "Where's God? Doesn't He know what I'm going through? Doesn't He care?" We pray, we beg, we bargain, we despair. As we are increasingly tempted to believe our God sleeps, sleep is chased from us. God may not be up late worrying over us, eating the bread of sorrow, but we sure are.
"So," some of you sticklers for details are thinking, "Does God sleep or not? You heard the passage that says God neither slumbers nor sleeps, yet here we have a text where Jesus, God in flesh and blood, is sound asleep. So which is it? Does God sleep or not?" Yes, God in Christ did sleep, but far from being terrifying it's comforting!
Jesus sound asleep proves how completely human the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, is. We read the parable last week of the man sowing who slept not knowing how the seed grew. In sleep, we're dead to the world. We don't know what's going on around us. In Jesus, the one, eternal, true God knows what that's like. He knows the phenomenon of sleep which scientist still don't understand. He knows what it means to be sleepy, to have that sense of falling asleep so much so that you jerk yourself awake. And Jesus knows in His flesh and blood what you do in yours, sleep is eerily close to death. Psalm 13 speaks of sleeping the sleep of death. The Greeks considered sleep and death so close that in their mythology the god of sleep was the twin brother of the god of death. In heaven there's not only no death but no need for sleep either because there's no night there.
There is a night here. And Jesus knows what it's like to come to that night exhausted, weak, worn down and out. He knows how mothers feel after a long day of running after kids; he knows what dads feel after a long day at work. He knows what you mean when you say you're dead tired. He knows how you feel when you're not able to keep your eyes open because the day has taken everything out of you.
Even in perfect Eden, Adam and Eve got tired from working the garden. That's a good feeling. The Book of Ecclesiastes says the sleep of a working man is sweet. The bitterness of our sleep comes from sin, and wonder of wonders, comfort of comforts, Jesus the Perfect Man who is God in flesh and blood knows the bitterness that comes from our sinfulness. Though without His own sins and without our inherited sinfulness, Jesus suffered the bitterness of both. Jesus is exhausted at day's end from carrying our sins, sorrows, and sicknesses. Day in and day out He labored under this load.
I took one of my children with me for a week of hunting. With me, there was lots of work, no excuses and little sympathy for any difficulty. The child did everything I asked, was on the best behavior, never complained, never whined. We weren't home for an hour when virtually for no reason the child burst into tears. That's what just a week of trying your hardest, watching your every move, always performing to standard will do to sinners like us. It exhausts mentally, spiritually, physically. Jesus lived under the holy Law of God a whole life time. In our flesh and blood, under our guilt and shame, Jesus kept all of God's Laws. His life was a constant better, ought, have to, must. No wonder Jesus was wore out!
Jesus asleep in the stern of the boat shows you just how difficult that was for Him. We do Jesus and ourselves a disservice when we think of Jesus' service under the Law as easy for Him because, after all, He is God in flesh and blood. True, but it was Him for us. He didn't use His divine powers to fulfill the Law anymore than He used them to defeat the devil. His keeping of the Law wouldn't have been in our place if He had.
Maybe that's why you view the Law as something that still needs doing or else. Maybe that's why it hangs constantly over your head. Jesus was too much God to keep the Law for you. Wrong. Jesus being sound asleep proves that He kept the Law in your place. At the end of each day, an exhausted Jesus offered up His perfect life in your place and God the Father examined it and said, "My law is done, completed, fulfilled, finished." To which we are to say in full faith, "Amen."
But the sleeping Jesus proves more than He fulfilled the Commandments for us in a general way. It proves He fulfilled the chief one in particular, the one that we think we have no problem keeping yet break always: the First Commandment. Jesus being asleep proves He had no other gods. It proves He feared, loved, and trusted God above all things. Proverbs 3 says that for the righteous, "When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet."
Jesus was righteous. He slept so soundly because He feared God more than a storm at sea. He loved what God willed even if that meant death. He trusted in God more than He did the seaworthiness of the boat. The Bible tells us specifically that the righteous are not to fear what the wicked fear; they aren't to be afraid of sudden destruction coming upon them; they aren't to think that unless they are constantly vigilant something will happen to them or the ones they love. Such thinking proves we're not righteous and leads to sleeplessness. Jesus was righteous. He didn't think that way and so He slept peacefully.
Sometimes when we toss and turn in the howling seas of life it's because we don't fear, love and trust in God above all things. And even in the moments we do, like Peter in another storm at sea, all it takes is for a bigger than usual wave, a stronger than usual wind to sink us in utter unbelief. But not Jesus. He lays His body, His soul, His life, the future, the past down in sleep trusting that His Father will keep that which He commends to Him.
But don't think that the answer is to do what Jesus did. You will fail. The answer is in what Jesus did here. Jesus as true God has the power to rebuke wind and wave. We can do neither. Structures that men build to block the wind are blown over. Seawalls men build to stop the waves are breached and broken by those very waves. But Jesus having power to rebuke wind and wave is still small comfort. God always has had the power to control wind and wave. The comfort in this text is that as true Man Jesus has the power and the right to do that for us men and for our salvation.
He won this right by keeping the Law perfectly in our place as a man, and by suffering and dying to pay for our not keeping the Law. Even when the disciples came to Jesus in their sinfulness, questioning His love and care for them, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown," Jesus answered their prayer. Though they were cowardly, though they still had no faith in Him despite what they had seen Him do and heard Him promise, He still saved them from the wind and waves, from the demons and their sinfulness that was about to swamp them.
Do you think Jesus will do less for you? Do you think He doesn't know or care about the waves and wind that rock the boat of your life? Do you think you have forfeited the right to call upon Him in your day of trouble because you haven't believed hard enough, good enough, or long enough? Think again.
Judy Collins sings about Jesus only being able to be seen by drowning men. Drowning men and women, see that the God who shared their sleep and sleeplessness is close enough and loves them enough to use all of His power to bring them safe into the haven of heaven. He might command the winds that batter your boat to be quiet and He might order the waves that swamp your boat to be still. But even if the wind and waves of this life drown you, He will raise you. Your death will be no more than a sleep from which you can easily be awakened by the God who slept. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (20060709) Mark 4: 35-41