On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he 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 awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
(Mark 4:35-41 ESV)
The first time I ever flew on a plane I was 27. I was travelling to Pittsburgh, and it was the quickest and cheapest way to get there. Even though I had never flown before, the idea of flying did not cause much anxiety. I try to be very analytical, and so even though it was something very unfamiliar to me, I knew it was also just about the safest way to travel. So I got on the plane, stowed my baggage in the overhead, and sat down. Then came the realization: I am on this plane, and I have lost all control over the situation. There is no getting off. I am not the one flying it. This plane is either going to land, or it is going to crash, and I am powerless over which one of those is going to happen. It is times like that when you become really thankful that they don’t let just anyone fly a plane.
Like me going to Pittsburgh, the disciples boarded a fishing boat one day, focused on the easiest way to get from point A to point B. A fishing boat like theirs would have had low sides, and would have been particularly susceptible to being swamped in a storm with high winds. Yet the disciples probably did not think about what might happen. As Christians, we do the same thing. We aren’t going to Pittsburgh, and we aren’t crossing the Sea of Galilee. Our desired destination is heaven, and getting in the boat with Jesus is the only way to get there. At that point, when we make that decision, we don’t often reflect on what the passage will be like. We do not ask what type of vessel we will be traveling. We do not wonder if the waters will be rough. We do not ponder the challenges we will face in life that will threaten to sink the ship in which we travel.
Then comes the storm. This is the time when we begin to question whether it was wise to get in the boat to start with. The winds howl, the waves crash, and not only is the boat in danger of being swamped, but the person we followed into the boat seems to have vanished. When the storm hits the disciples’ boat as it crosses the Sea of Galilee, Jesus’s apathy is noted. Could there be anything more apathetic than sleeping? Jesus’s nonchalance begs the question from the disciples: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The scene is all too familiar to us. We know the disciples do not ask the question out of irreverence. We know because we have asked the question ourselves, when God seemed to be absent or asleep. We asked it in those times when like the prophets of Baal, we cried out and raved to a God who did not seem to be listening. We wonder if God cares at all that we are perishing.
This is where the work of Rembrandt helps me to see this passage through a new lens. Around 1633 Rembrandt painted The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which is pictured above. I love the tension within this work of art. We see the disciples split, one group working as hard as they can to keep the boat afloat, while the others surround Jesus asking why he does not seem to care that they’re all about to die. I love the juxtaposition of the storm-ravaged ship in the center, with the calm blue skies off to the left. Though the image is a single moment in time, Rembrandt has found a way to bring the future hope of calm seas forward into the present. While it is easy to frame all of life’s storms with the question, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” another possibility is to view storms as opportunities to ask, “Who then is this?” After all, storms are a reality in life. They come whether we are followers of Jesus or not. I doubt if the disciples’ boat was the only one on the Sea of Galilee that day. But the disciples’ boat was the one that had Jesus in it. It is because of the storm that the disciples learned that God had not removed storms from their life but had entered the storm with them. As Jesus awoke and brought the storm to heel with a mere word, I wonder if the words of Scripture entered their minds:
O Lord God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
(Psalm 89:8-9 ESV)
In hindsight, did they see that day as a blessing or a curse? I would like to think that their experience caused them to view storms differently. There would be more storms to come, especially if they clung to their faith in Jesus. However, storms were no longer a trial that threatened to bring the end. They were trials that opened their eyes to the reality of God, and the bright future that awaited them. When I look at Rembrandt’s painting, my eyes cannot help but be drawn to the left, to the light. Maybe life would be better if, when in the midst of storms, my eyes stayed fixed on the light ahead, the light that Jesus has promised to bring us to if we simply trust in him.
Header image: Rembrandt. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. 1633. Graphic retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.
Justin Simmons has served as minister for the Glenmora Church of Christ in central Louisiana since 2011. Previously he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, MA), and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (MDiv). He is blessed to call Melissa his wife, and has three wonderful step-children. He enjoys reading about history and practical theology, listening to Gregorian chants, and passionately following Braves baseball and Gamecock sports.