In Matthew 8:26, we read, “And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.”
To understand this passage, we must first remember that Jesus got into a boat, fell asleep, a storm hit, the disciples (literally “the men”) panicked, and they woke Jesus. Those are helpful clues and I have heard many good sermons based on this passage that add much more. However, I have always felt that something was missing – and that left me uneasy.
After Jesus’ great miracle, the men wondered – and I still wonder – at one who controls the wind and the waves. Consequently our attention is averted from Jesus’ question: “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” It is that question that is the center of this passage, for Jesus is the center of this story. Yet, I, like the men in the boat, am easily distracted from Jesus’ question by the miraculous nature of Jesus’ action. It was only when I recognized that I was averting my attention from its center that I began to understand this story more deeply and to identify the source of my uneasiness.
What seems clear to me now is that Jesus’ question suggested that all would have been fine whether or not he had awoken and whether or not he had calmed the storm. Jesus was totally comfortable in his own skin and totally comfortable in his role as the Son of his Father. That made him totally comfortable, as well, with the storm, and totally comfortable with the possibility of sinking.
His attitude was rooted in belief and absolute trust in The Father and complete submission to His Will. Moreover, Jesus acted on his belief in God by falling asleep at the bottom of the boat. That is the definition of faith: belief put into action, trust becoming trustworthiness, and submission revealed as freedom. It is Jesus’ sleep in the bottom of the boat that I need to emulate, rather than his calming of the storm.
I sometimes relate a story from my youth where my faith in God became evident. A knife wielding thief was surprised by and threatened a missionary before running off into the woods. Nearby guards decided to organize a search for the thief and we boarding school high schoolers were called to help. On the way to the rendez-vous point I realized that I had no weapon in case of an encounter and ran back to my room to grab a bat. Then, realizing that the thief would have headed away from population, I ran the opposite direction from the others and jogged along a path that circled around the area where the thief had fled. As I jogged along alone in the dark, it occurred to me that, if I were to encounter this frightened thief, my immature body would be no match for a larger opponent yielding a knife. Many people would have felt fear at that point, but I felt only confidence – not in my ability to overcome, but in being right where my Heavenly Father wanted me.
This story is full of silliness, of course. Why try to search out a frightened thief in a wood bordering on open grassland when the chances of success were almost zero? What was the sense of calling in a bunch of unarmed high schoolers to help with the search? What was I thinking when I took off on my own, far away from any others who could be called in to help? Like Jesus’ calming of the storm, the silliness of my story can easily distract us from the central message. What actually happened to me that night is that I explicitly experienced complete reliance on and submission to God. In other words, I experienced the type of faith that Jesus modeled by sleeping through the storm in the bottom of the boat.
Finding Rest in 2020
This type of absolute faith has been essential to our survival in the COVID era. Those who trust God fully have been able to sleep through this storm as well. Those who have relied, instead, on their own strength and insight have occasionally thrived but often find themselves, like the men in the boat, fearful and upset by our apparent lack of control.
In contrast to much of 2020, Christmas has been a traditional time of trust and trustworthiness, of submission and freedom, of faith put into action. There are some not so fortunate, but those who truly believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, Emmanuel, will recognize his trustworthiness, will submit to the consequences of that belief, and will respond in faith by relaxing confidently in the Father’s arms.
At Christmas, we are called to bear witness to God become flesh. If God is so for us, who can be against us?
Go, then, and sleep without fear, confident and comfortable in God’s plan for each one of us.