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“For Those In Peril On The Sea”
St. Matthew 8.23-27; Jonah 1
03 February 2018
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
O Christ, whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy Word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep
And calm amid its rage didst sleep:
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea. (Navy Hymn, LSB #717, stanza 2*, public domain)
The sea is a dangerous place. Navy ships going down in battle at sea have taken many men to the bottom of the sea with them. The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor is supposed to be a very moving place to visit. The Titanic was the ultimate example of danger at sea, and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in 1975 comes close to that.
But God has taught us this in His Word as well. The great flood ought to teach and instill this into the human conscience. According to His strict judgment God condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, yet according to His great mercy He preserved believing Noah and his family, eight souls in all.
God drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the depths of the Red Sea, yet led His people Israel in safety through the water on dry ground, and in the fresh air we should add.
The Psalms and the Prophets speak of the sea as a rebellious, chaotic, and massive force, yet, the Lord is mightier than the sea, owns it, and has fixed the limits of it. The image of the roaring sea often represents the enemies of God’s people – and stilling the sea is depicted as the Lord putting a check on the devil or upon the raging of man. (see Ps. 65, 89, 93, 95, 96; Job 26, 38; Is. 57)
Then we come to the prophet Jonah. Jonah was to go to Ninevah, in Assyria, to preach against the evil of the gentiles there and call them to repentance. This meant that Jonah would travel nearly 500 miles by foot, across the Arabian Desert, east and north of Israel into modern Iraq. Then he would preach against the evil of the unbelieving Assyrians who were already a threat to Israel and would roughly a century later cart the northern tribes off into exile.
Jonah does the opposite of walking eastward into the desert. He gets on a boat to sail the Mediterranean Sea to the west instead, as if he can run away from God or as if God will lose track of him. The boat was heading to Tarshish – scholars say this is either in modern Turkey, or it was maybe a far west Phoenician colony in Spain near the Rock of Gibraltar with a similar name. Either way, Jonah purposefully does the exact opposite of what God calls him to do.
So God stirs up the sea and rocks the boat, stopping it and threatening to sink it and doom all aboard. Jonah, sleeping through the storm in the hold of the boat, is found out – he has put the entire boat at peril. Jonah volunteers to be thrown into the sea to his death, to bear the judgment of God on his terms. This was saying something – Jonah would rather die than fulfill God’s call to go to Ninevah.
But God sends the fish to swallow Jonah and he stays “buried” at sea for three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Jonah sings, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried… for you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, I am driven from your sight…” (Jonah 2.1-4) But Jonah was saved by God, spit up onto the dry ground, resurrected from the deadly tomb of the sea. On to Ninevah he finally went.
I dare say here that I do not like churches and other organizations having fish fries named after Jonah. “Jonah Fish Fry” say the signs. I imagine Jonah was no fan of seafood after he was seafood for a time. Jonah was no hero, and the fish was a sign of God’s judgment, Jonah was dead to this world for three days. Not something to celebrate or sell. This is sort of like Noah’s Ark being turned into children’s toys and paintings. The flood was judgment against wickedness and evil in the world. The Ark was no cute children’s zoo – it was the place where God saved eight people from judgment, those with whom He restarted our human race.
God shows mercy and grace to Jonah. Even so, Jonah continues to hope for Assyria’s destruction, and Jonah becomes angry at Ninevah’s eventual repentance brought about by his preaching. Jonah resents God showing the same mercy to Assyria as he himself had been shown in the sea.
Some 750 years later, on a much smaller yet no less dangerous Sea of Galilee, another man is sleeping through a storm in the bottom of a different boat. Jesus had been tirelessly preaching repentance and the coming of His Kingdom to His own people, healing their sick and casting out demons with His Word. Unlike Jonah, Jesus was not shirking His calling. He was human. He needed a break. He rested from His labors while they sailed to the other side of the sea.
But the disciples, experienced fishermen of the Sea of Galilee, lose their nerve in the rough seas. Their boat is about to be swamped by the wind and waves, death is looming, the sea is awaiting its victims – and Jesus sleeps. What then is our hope, ask the disciples – does Jesus not care we are going to drown? They take Jesus’ sleeping as weakness, as not caring.
The disciples do not understand: Jesus sleeps. And at the same time, He rules the world. They cower at the prospect of drowning when the Lord who set the limits of the sea and the entire creation is right there in the boat with them.
But their sinful flesh is yours and mine and Jonah’s, and comes down from the first Adam. The flesh that doesn’t trust in the Lord with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind. The flesh that stands stubborn with Jonah, that would rather handle and solve problems and dilemmas put before us on our own terms and preferences and timing, and even at times, like Jonah, would rather die apart from God and His mercy and grace than submit to His will for us.
So when the waves of evil and the winds of danger and despair come crashing upon us, will we give in like Jonah and just run away from God and His mercy? Or like the disciples, will we count God to be sleeping, silent at the ship’s rudder, unable or unwilling to help us? Do we not often deserve the rebuke of Jesus: “Why are you being cowardly, O you of little faith?” Why do you fear the present and the future like cowards, Jesus asks, even when I am present in your lives, in my ark, the Church?
At Jesus’ word, the storm goes away. At Jesus’ word, the fish saves Jonah and takes him back to dry ground and back to the road to Ninevah. At Jesus’ word, the sick are healed, the demons leave. At Jesus’ word on the cross, “It is finished.” And so it is. For our Lord bore our infirmities, sicknesses, weaknesses, heartaches, troubles, diseases; He bore our broken relationships, our hard and stubborn hearts, our lack of faith, our fears and worries and sorrows, our sin and shame. He took those all and nailed them to His cross, rebuking them, scorning their shame, and defeating them. At His Word, they are finished, gone forever, nevermore can they defeat us.
This same Jesus has made the water He created to be now at His Word a life-giving water, full of grace. He has sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood, a lavish washing away of sin. Now, in Jesus, water is only deadly to the old Adam, the old Jonah. In the font, Jesus drowns the old sinful man with His holy precious blood, and brings forth the new man in each of us alive to live under Him in His Kingdom.
O hear us, Lord Jesus, when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea. He does. He saves you through the preaching of His Gospel, unites with you in His holy supper to strengthen you for the stormy road ahead in this valley of the shadow of death. He has saved you into the ark of His church, brought you safely through the Red Sea on dry ground away from every enemy in Baptism’s waters. He assures you that over each high and stormy gale, He will not leave you, He will not forsake you. In His time, on His great day, the winds and the waves of the sea of this life will pass, and there will come about the great calm and safe harbor of blessed paradise.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +