Jesus told some of his critics the only sign he would give them was “the sign of Jonah.” Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish. Jesus would be three days in his grave before rising again.
Matthew 12: 38. Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”
39. He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
This was not the only time Jesus imitated Jonah. There was also this moment, minutes before Jonah was tossed over to that fish.
Jonah 1: 4. Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
5. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
Two of the Gospels take note of the parallel where Jesus also falls asleep in a boat in the midst of a storm.
Matthew 8: 23. Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him.
24. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.
25. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
26. He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
Mark 4: 35. That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”
36. Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.
37. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.
38. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39. He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
In Matthew’s account, this moment follows a description of Jesus trying to call several new followers. He is turned down with several excuses. Perhaps it was the weariness and frustration of these rejections that made Jesus tired.
In Mark’s account, the boat ride follows an episode of teaching the crowds with a series of parables about sowers and small seeds that take time to sprout into useful harvests. Jesus could have been worn out from that long speaking effort.
Both Matthew and Mark follow the stormy sea episode with the one of Jesus delivering the man with a legion of demons, sending those into the herd of pigs that races down into the recently calmed waters of the lake.
But lets go back into that ferocious storm over the dark waters. The fishermen among the disciples — all of them in fact — are frightened for their lives. At the moment, it seems like those who declined to follow Jesus have made the smart choice. The boat is going to sink and the Teacher himself is snoring away, oblivious to the danger. It doesn’t look like any of them will live long enough to see any of the seed of his teaching blossom, much less bear fruit of any use to them. I don’t wonder that the panicked disciples would think Jesus must not care about what was happening.
It has been one of those weeks for me. It started when I read a devotional where the writer admitted that, although God might close one season of blessing in order to bring us a better one, “Sometimes it takes a while to see it.“
I wrote a blog about it. As soon as I had posted the blog, I got email from a friend reporting he had lost a new job he started only a couple months ago. He was trying to stay calm and not worry about providing for his wife and children.
Another friend, who had planned a business trip to Washington D.C. with his wife, instead had to drop her off at the hospital before rushing to catch his flight. Fortunately they had already arranged for a babysitter who was able to care for the children while mom spent those several unexpected days in a hospital bed recovering from the medical emergency.
The next email I opened was from retired friends in poor health. The husband, a retired pastor, had needed a new prescription filled. On his wife’s way back from the pharmacy their old car broke down. The medication she picked up needed to be refrigerated. So she walked home, put it in the refrigerator, then walked back to the car to wait for the tow truck.
The following day we heard from a newly married couple in Texas. Their house had burned down.
By the end of the week, I was getting out of bed in the morning more slowly myself. I was not excited to be facing another slow day, shuffling around the house. As I wobbled to the bathroom sink, Melanie, sitting at her office desk computer, called out the latest news. The wife of another pastor friend of ours had had a stroke.
Since a stroke hit me two and a half years ago, my mouth and voice are quite hampered. There are moments when I’ve wondered if it isn’t a kind of blessing that it has become so difficult for me to speak. It takes such an effort, sometimes I decide not to bother. This was one of those moments. What was there to say anyway? “Don’t you care? How can you be sleeping at a time like this?”
Melanie and I often, as we pray before meals, run out of words and instead knock on the table top with our knuckles. It’s part of the O.B.K. we’ve proposed after reading Jesus’ instructions to keep knocking at the door until he answers. Do we have to keep knocking because we need to wake you up, Lord? I’m disturbed by what I see and I can’t do anything to fix it. I’m struggling not to lose my mind with the other disciples in the boat, while the waves wash over the sides. How is it you can sleep?
Of course, I’m being tempted to commit the same mistake those disciples made. The one Adam and Eve made. Look! How could what we see this instant be understood in any other way? It’s just the same common sense that has gotten us this far. How could it be wrong now?
And I run the risk of hearing the Lord say what the disciples heard him say when they yelled at him to wake up. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Those are not warm, comforting words to hear at any time. Maybe I should just let him sleep.
Or did you want an honest answer? “I’m afraid because it looks like trouble has looked like before and I didn’t like it then. If I were acting on faith, I would have to pay attention and remember what you have promised me, Lord. And what you have promised me is something I can’t see yet. And I’m in the habit of going by what I can see, and approve, and understand. So I’m afraid.”
Once the disciples woke him up, Jesus calmed the storm. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say why. Did he need to stop the storm for his own comfort? So he could finish his nap undisturbed? Or did he do it as a kindness to his disciples frayed nerves? “You guys want a smooth ride? Oh, for crying out loud. But you’re already doing that….”
When they got to where Jesus had intended to go all along, they were all mind-boggled already and then they saw more. Jesus sent a fleet of demons to the depths, right where the disciples had been afraid they were headed an hour earlier. And Jesus finally managed to find someone who was interested in following him. Jesus knows how to keep looking until he finds them. And he stays calm, knocking on doors, no matter what.
I heard a story about Martin Luther. I don’t know who reported it. Luther woke up in the middle of the night, aware that someone was in the room. Luther sat up in the bed and peered into the shadows. He saw Satan standing by the bed, scowling at him angrily.
“Oh,” said Luther. “It’s only you.” And he plopped back on his pillow and went back to sleep.
A sign well-learned from the Lord. May I learn it more thoroughly, Lord.