Sailing in Rough Waters with Jesus

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
May 26, 2024
Mark 4:35-41

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, May 24, 2024

At the beginning of worship

Mark Twain had an acquaintance, a saintly woman, probably a Sunday School teacher, who was deathly ill. Nothing could be done. The doctors gave up. But Twain knew just what she needed. Standing over her bed, he shared his good news. She was greatly relieved. Twain confessed to having had a similar problem. “I beat it by giving up some of his bad habits,” he said. “Pretty soon, the starved illness left my body for more fertile ground. Just give up a few bad habits,” Twain assured the dying saint. 

“But I don’t have any bad habits,” the woman proclaimed. “None?” Twain asked. “None,” she assured him. “I don’t run around with men. I don’t smoke, drink, dip snuff, curse or even bite my nails. I’ve been a good woman, almost without fault.” A frown came over Twain’s face and he bowed his head and said, “I’m afraid the doctors are right, there’s no hope. You’re a sinking ship with no ballast to throw overboard.”  

I don’t recommend Mark Twain’s variation of fasting. I’m thankful we don’t have to try to please the Almighty by giving up stuff to win God’s favor.  That’s the theology of pagans and shamans. Instead, as Christians, we accept God’s grace and then, order our lives in such a manner that they praise God. Yes, we’re to give up sinful ways, but not to get God’s attention. We give up our sinfulness out of thanksgiving for what God has done.

Before reading the Scripture

We continue our journey through Mark’s gospel. In the last two sermons, we’ve seen how Mark broke away from his traditional structure of telling what Jesus did and provided examples of Jesus’ teaching.[1] Today, Mark returns to his narrative structure, as he tells a story found in also in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.[2]This passage is linked to the previous passages by a boat. Jesus taught the parables in a boat, now they set out across the Sea of Galilee.[3]

The calming of the sea is the first of three miracles Mark recalls in rapid succession. Following this miracle, we have the healing of a man possessed by demons and the raising of Jarius’ dead daughter. These stories were not haphazardly arranged. Mark reveals aspects of Jesus’ sovereignty—his power over creation, evil, and death.[4] In other words, through these three events, Mark makes a Christological statement, demonstrating that Jesus’ power is equal to God’s and implying, through examples, Jesus’ divinity.[5]  

READ MARK 4:35-41

It’s Memorial Day weekend and for many people that means the beginning of boating season… Isn’t this an ideal passage for today? 

You know, there is nothing more dangerous to the safety of a vessel on the water than having the crew panic during a chaos. When things get dicey, all hands need to be “on deck” and willing to carry out their assigned task to make sure the boat safely handles the trouble. 

Having grown up near the coast and spending a lot of time on the water, this is a favorite Bible stories. I appreciate both the fear of the disciples at the power of a storm and the comfort that comes from having someone like Jesus, who assumes control when danger lurks.

Let’s look at our text for the morning. Three problematic questions are raised in this passage. The first comes from when the disciples wake Jesus and ask: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing.” What kind of question is this? There’s some cynicism in the tone with which they ask it, as if they believe Jesus has the power to save them, but they are unsure he’s going to act.  

Did the disciples think Jesus would let them drown? Maybe…  It must have been a shock for them to find Jesus asleep. After all, they’d toiled to reef the sails and control the rudder. Their hearts raced as they batted down hatches and tightened knots. And then, soaking wet, they observe Jesus napping. While the disciples can’t appreciate this at the moment, Jesus’ sleep shows his trust in the Father to protect them.[6]

There’s a parallel between this story and Jonah. If you remember, Jonah booked passage on a ship heading away from God’s call. As the ship sails out into the sea, out beyond the horizon, it encounters a storm. The vessel fills with water. The sailors, taking Mark Twain’s advice, throw cargo overboard to lighten their load and keep their vessel afloat. Then the crew spots Jonah, like Jesus, fast asleep.       

Jonah tells the deckhands he’s disobeyed his God, the God of heaven, maker of the sea and the land. Jonah then suggests they cast him into the sea to appease God. But the sailors don’t want to do this; they continue trying to save their ship. After all, tossing passengers overboard would hurt their bookings. Who’d want to sail with such a crew? But the storm continues and soon these seasons sailors are at wits-end. So, they toss Jonah into the waters, and witness the power of God over the seas.[7]

In both stories, we see the power of God, the power of the Creator who calmed the ancient waters and separated land and sea. God’s power extends over all which is why Jesus can stand amidst the howling winds and command the sea to calm and the winds to cease. 

Now we now come to the second and third problematic questions, which I link together. Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” On a human level it’s obvious why they are afraid… We all would be afraid. It’s natural. After all, things are out of our control. We like to think we have a grip on life and don’t like to be in situations where the forces of nature, or the forces of other people, control over our ability to act and respond.

Jesus’ questions here are often seen as a rebuke. God is a God who has power over nature, then God is to be feared, not nature.  Furthermore, if God is good and has power over nature, we should willing place our faith and trust and seek guidance from such a God for his love tempers our fear and calls us back to him. 

The sea frightened the Hebrew people. Israel wasn’t a maritime nation. They lived in a desert; they farmed and herded animals. What few fishermen there were, sailed on inland lakes and seas. However, like we see in this text, even lakes can be dangerous. 

Large bodies of water, in Scripture, are often portrayed as the reservoir of evil.  Think about it. What is one of God’s first tasks at creation? God tamed the chaos of the waters, separating water and land. The apocalyptic visions we have in Daniel and Revelation depict evil coming from where? From the sea![8]Symbolically, in scripture, the sea is the Devil’s Triangle. It’s frightening. These formerly nomadic people wanted to keep their feet on dry land; they don’t like venturing out into the ocean.

If we grasp this ancient Hebrew concept of the sea harboring evil, then we can understand the deeper meaning to Jesus’ actions. Jesus’ power over the sea is also an indication of his power over evil—not just over a bunch of demons, but the whole system of evil. When our lives seem to be chaotic, when wickedness seems to have control over us—then our friendship with Jesus is even more valuable because he calls us to believe and trust in his power and will keep us safe when evil confronts.  

Yet, we must admit, tragedy is a reality. Not all ships caught in a storm survive. Some sink; others miraculously endure. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why one event ends in triumph and another in disaster. The frailty of life should drive us to our knees in humility. We owe our lives and our continuing existence to God.  

The hope this passage offers has nothing to do with whether our prayers during times of peril are answered in the way we expect. The hope offered comes from the calming presence of our Savior. Even during the midst of a storm, Jesus remains by our side. 

Artists have portrayed ships on stormy seas with Christ at the helm as an interpretation for the church. The ship in a storm demonstrates the difficulty of our lives on this planet. But the reminder of Christ at the helm, having things under control, reassures us. 

We live in a world of uncertainty. But as Jesus reminded the disciples, a crisis is no time to panic. Instead, we must trust in God. As Paul reminds us, nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[9]

A sermon by Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of the early church, brought this text into the lives of his listeners. His words still ring true: 

When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind. When your anger is roused, you are being tossed by waves. So, when the winds blow and the wavs mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering… On hearing yourself insulted, you long to retaliate; but the joy of revenge brings with it another kind of misfortune—shipwreck. Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you… You have forgotten his presence. Rouse him…. Let him keep watch within you.[10]  

Although I joked about it earlier, Twain’s suggestion of throwing our bad habits overboard isn’t a bad idea. But if we desire smooth sailing, ridding ourselves of ballast is only a small part of the answer. We must turn the helm over to the one who calmed the seas. He can calm our hearts. Amen. 


[1] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/05/19/our-role-in-the-mysterious-growth-of-the-kingdom/ and https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/28/the-parable-of-the-sower/

[2] For my sermon on the Luke passage, see https://fromarockyhillside.com/2022/07/03/let-jesus-calm-our-hearts/

[3] Mark 4:1. See also Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 1998), 61.

[4] William Lane, The Gospel of Mark: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 173.

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 151-152.

[6] Edwards, 149. 

[7] Jonah 1. 

[8] Daniel 7:2-3 and Revelation 13:1f

[9] Romans 8:38-39

[10] Augustine, Sermons 63.1-3, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II: Mark (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998), 65. 

Sailing in fog with boat heeled over in wind
A foggy and windy day of Skidaway Island, Georgia

9 Replies to “Sailing in Rough Waters with Jesus”

  1. Another good sermon, Jeff! Jesus calming the waters had always been one of my favorite Bible stories, likely because I grew up by the water and had fishermen as relatives and ancestors. I really appreciated how you pulled everything together more clearly with parallels than I remember hearing it the past. I was reading about St. Augustine and Grace in David Brook’s “The Road to Character” last night. Your summary was more succinct! Brook’s book is really interesting ~ not a fast read for me, but lots to think about and reread. I hope you had a chance to relax on Memorial Day, although it is a solemn day when thinking about the sacrifices others have made for our freedom as Americans. Have a great week!

  2. I have to admit, I expected a different punchline from the Twain story…

    I’m reading The Prince and the Pauper right now – first time. Fascinating story – not quite sure how I feel about it yet.

  3. Thank you for sharing these each week. They give me a real life devotional that I enjoy early Sunday morning. And I learned a new word today. Christological. I actually read it as Christ is logical.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *