Asleep in the Perils of Life

The lectionary’s Gospel reading for this morning was perfectly timed to match the topic for this issue of Whosoever. It was Mark 4:36-40, probably one of the most well-known and well-loved passages from the gospels, easily recognizable to most anyone who has spent more than a year or so attentively attending church. Just to remind you, here it is:

Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? How is it that you have no faith?”

What is the lesson of this passage? Many people take comfort in its reassuring message that when we are threatened by the storms of life, we can call on God and he will calm the winds and lead us safely to shore. As recorded here, the incident thus reminds us of the parables Jesus tells about how we must be persistent in asking God for help, for God will reward those who wait for an answer. And of course, we find comfort in the fact that our eternal lover, Jesus, is the same being who created the universe and all that is within it: the winds, the rains, and even us and our tiny boats.

But although these points are valid, they do not, I think correctly interpret the passage. No, for if the passage meant any of these things, why should Jesus have rebuked his followers? Jesus’ sharp response to them suggests that in spite of the danger, they should not have felt the need to ask for his help. He seems to imply that they should simply have let him sleep.

And here, I think, is the real lesson of this passage: instead of identifying with the disciples, who were afraid and cried out for help, we should instead identify with Jesus, for whom the rocking storm was no more than a water mattress. The real lesson is that we too should be able to sleep undisturbed through the storms of life.

Sleep is probably something many of us take for granted in our spiritual lives, but it does have an important role to play. For the time of sleep is the time when we are most vulnerable, when thieves break in and we cannot protect ourselves. Sleep is the time when we are most in the hands of our loving Savior. Consider these simple but powerful words from Psalm 3: “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the LORD sustained me.” When we lay down to sleep, we entrust our lives to God’s care; if we wake up, it is only due to God’s faithful sustenance. David, having lived many months in hiding for fear of his life, knew full well the danger of something as necessary to our health as sleep. For him, sleep was an act of faith in its fullest form.

Jesus, then, by being peacefully at rest in the midst of the storm, provides an example of what our lives should look like if we walk by faith. We are so at peace with God’s love for us that we can sleep through the most dangerous of situations. It is more than mere resignation, the attitude that we might as well sleep because there is nothing we can do about the situation. No, the proper attitude rests easy in the promises of God, that even though we walk through fire, we shall not get burned.

This is a revolutionary idea. For many of us, even those of us who have lived in church for years, this passage should force us to take a look at how often we lose ourselves in despair over our situations, and to see how little faith we actually have once we really need it. Employment problems, monetary difficulties, relationship worries — these all loom large and seem overwhelming, but are no more than temporary troubles over which the God who is Lord over all creation has full control. We need not worry, because as Jesus promises us, God knows every need and will gladly provide for us, if we only trust. Just as Jesus, trusting in God’s protection, used the rocking waves for his mattress, so should we be able to use the howling winds for our hammock.

This is not to say that we should sleep through everything. As this morning’s sermon pointed out, this passage is mirrored by the passage in Gethsemane, when Jesus cannot get the disciples to remain awake while he prays the most crucial prayer in history. That was a spiritual conflict, when vigilance was needed in spite of bodily weakness. But in the boat, there was no spiritual conflict; it was merely the waves of life tossing the disciples around. And yet this was enough to terrify them. Are we not like this all too often? We sleep when we should stay awake, but react in fear when should be able to sleep. We need to learn to see how our reactions in such circumstances reveal our faith or lack thereof. And more importantly, we need to be able to discern the difference between the natural storms of life and true spiritual conflict.

But this idea is not just revolutionary for us. It is also revolutionary in the eyes of the world, and will put us in open conflict with those around us. For the world is in the place of the apostles: it sees that it is in danger and cries out in despair, hoping that some god or gods will awaken and come to its rescue. And in this situation, it will look at us and wonder why we are not taking more action to help. Our sleep will make us look as if we do not care whether the world lives or dies. But of course this is not true at all. We have simply learned how to tell when our intercession really is needed.

Listen around at the growing hysteria of voices crying out that something needs to be done. You do not even have to leave your pews to hear them, for they are just as present in the church as outside it. Our pastors and teachers tell us that our security is threatened, both by forces from without (such as by those who seek to destroy our country as well as by those who simply refuse to help us), and from within (such as the decline of “American values” seen in the changing nature of our families, in the struggle for minorities’ rights and in the imported values coming from non-Western cultures such as Asians, Africans, Native Americans and even Hispanics). Every sermon, every Bible study, and every prayer meeting focuses on the supposed danger looming around us.

This is worldly chatter. Even though it comes from the church, it has no validity, for it is inspired by the same spirit of fear that rules the world at large, the same spirit of fear that Jesus defeated on the cross. These are merely the storms of change — they bring havoc, it is true, but we will survive them. We may even find solutions to some of these problems on our own. But they are not the true threats. For just as the waves in the boat were not a spiritual conflict, these storms are simply the movement of the winds of change across the face of our culture.

The true danger lies in the spiritual conflicts we do not even notice occurring around us every day: in our inhumanity to our neighbors and our disregard for God’s promises. These spiritual, and hence more destructive conflicts can be found in those attitudes that are shared by conservatives and liberals, by church-goers and unbelievers alike. They can be seen in the “survival of the fittest” mentality that underlies our businesses, our politics, and even our entertainment. And they can be seen in the ways we turn money, government, morality, and the individual into idols, trusting in the created rather than in the creator. They are the unspoken assumptions which no one questions.

These are the dangers that concern us as Christians, not the false problems of family values or multiculturalism or “freedom fries.” As citizens, we can take our stand for or against these “civic” problems, and that’s a good thing, even an important thing. But as Christians we can sleep through them, knowing that our culture will get past them and move on to other problems and that, on this level, “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” When we do this, however, the world (including many who are in the church and many in the GLBT community) will assume we have given up on it, that we no longer care that it is perishing. We will be accused of being indolent and obsolete and even “unchristian.” Yet, when it really is time for us to intercede on the world’s behalf, when we really are doing the work God has called us to do and are actively saving the world from perdition, then our efforts will go unnoticed, because then the world will be asleep.

This is the promise, and the price, of peace — that with God’s guidance we can discern which problems we can sleep through, and which problems demand our most ascetic attention. It is the peace that allows us, like our older brother Jesus, to sleep through the storms of our life. It is thus a peace that the world cannot understand, even as it is the peace that saves the world from its own bent towards destruction. It is the peace that comes from perfect faith, not as the world gives, but as Christ gives to us. Therefore let not our hearts be troubled, neither let them be fearful, but let us go forth in peace, to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.