Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
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.
The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
-Matthew 8:23-27 (NIV)
Last Sunday, our church food pantry was open. That’s normal, but we had some unusual guidelines in place, intended to keep people from being too close together and potentially transmitting the coronavirus. It was nothing extreme, nothing that authorities haven’t been suggesting for a couple of weeks now. But it was different from our usual way of doing things, and one of our clients wasn’t having it.
“You’re being paranoid,” she said.
Were we? I don’t think so. If we were being paranoid we probably wouldn’t have been there.
Context is everything, right? If not for the social distancing guidelines we’re trying to follow during the coronavirus pandemic, not letting all of our clients into the building at one time, keeping six feet of distance from each other, and cleaning every table between each client would definitely be seen as paranoid. Given what’s happening, though, I think of the precautions we’re taking as reasonable. And I tend to view attitudes like our clients’ as dangerously negligent.
Given the context of Matthew 8, it’s kind of hard to understand why Jesus asks his disciples why they’re afraid. It seems pretty obvious; they’re afraid because they’re caught in a terrible storm. They’re afraid because they’re in danger of being swamped and drowned. They have every reason to be afraid.
People have said to me, “I’m not going to let this virus make me live in fear.” That’s great, but inevitably it seems to me that the people who say that the loudest are responding most fearfully to it. Hoarding supplies is a symptom of fear, a selfishness that disregards the well-being of others to serve our own interests. I wonder if the cavalier attitude toward social distancing some of us are showing isn’t at least partially a fear response of the whistling-past-the-graveyard variety. The mismanagement of this crisis by leaders in many countries comes from a fear of what this virus might do to the economy, to jobs — and thus to their re-election chances.
The fact is, we’re all afraid, to one degree or another, of one thing or another.
I’m not afraid that my health is going to be affected, not really. (Though that might change the first time I cough!) But I do worry a little about my parents, my in-laws, the older members of my church. I’m a little fearful about mine and my wife’s IRAs! I’m a little afraid that my son, who’s graduating from college in a couple of months, will face an uncertain job market.
Your fears may not be mine, but I bet you have them. I think we need to acknowledge that. Given a storm, our responses aren’t that different from the disciples in that boat. We’re a little afraid. Fear, of course, can be a positive thing. It can keep us safe. It teaches us to avoid unreasonable danger and make good decisions. Fear is a warning light, an instinct that helps us to survive.
As a guiding principle for life, though, fear is terrible.
I’m wondering if that isn’t why Jesus asks his disciples why they’re afraid — not because fear is an overreaction, but because it’s a terrible thing to build your life on. Let fear set the alarms off. Listen and pay attention when the bells ring and lights flash. Make the changes you can make, protect yourself as you can when fear tells you that you should.
Once you’ve listened to fear, though, and let it tell you where you’re being stupid or careless or just uninformed, then fear has done its part.
Notice where Jesus is when the disciples come to him panicked. He isn’t wrestling with the sails or pulling at the oars or bailing water. Jesus is sleeping. A couple of things you should notice about that. One, he’s asleep. Why? My deep theological take on that is that he was tired. He wasn’t somehow above human beings. He had laid down in that boat and dozed off. This would have been a small fishing boat. The rain, the wind, the tossing of the boat, and the activity of the disciples wasn’t enough to wake him. He was exhausted because he was a human being who was not exempt from the physical limitations that go with humanity. That also means that if that storm had swamped the boat, Jesus would have been in danger of drowning too. The seawater in his lungs would have killed him just like it would have killed the disciples.
But here’s what else to notice: he’s asleep! In a storm! Matthew uses a word for the storm, seismos, that he uses in other places in this gospel to describe an earthquake. (We use it in words like seismograph today.) It wasn’t just that it was raining hard and windy. The sea was whipped up. Waves were tossing the boat around. And yet Jesus was asleep. I think it’s because he trusted his Father, sure. He believed that whatever his limitations, God didn’t have them. What he couldn’t control, God could. He believed that God was faithful, and that he could rest secure in that faithfulness.
He also trusted his disciples. They were his friends. He loved them, and they him. Some of them were the experts on boating, and he was resting, too, in their competence and ability.
Of course, when they reached the end of their ability, he was more than willing to step in. “Why are you afraid?” he asked, because he wanted them to know that God had the power to save them.
When I was 3 or 4, I went to spend a weekend with my grandparents. Apparently, when it was bedtime, I got scared. I started crying for mom and dad, for home. So, without much argument, my grandfather picked me up, put me in the car, and took me home.
Home, at the time, being near Atlanta. Two and a half hours away.
Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with me crying, but I choose to believe that my grandfather took me home that night because he loved me and would do pretty much anything for me.
Here’s the basic thing that we should be remembering as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic: our God loves us and will do anything for us. That includes sending his Son to save us. The wind and the waves obey him, and we can come to him with our fears at this scary moment in our lives too. When we come to him with those fears, and take refuge in his love and power, maybe we’ll find that we’ll sleep a little better too.