Our text is today’s Gospel (Matthew 8:23–27): 23 And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 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. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (ESV)
The Lord rebukes the disciples, Why are you afraid, O you of little faith. The disciples are not wrong to wake Jesus. And they are certainly right to pray [Lord,] save us! and even to confess that they are perishing. But they have two problems.
First, it is pretty obvious that they are panicking. Their boat is being swamped by the waves. Jesus is sleeping through the storm! The disciples are afraid and they pray in the spirit of fear. Now, contrast the disciples with the centurion from last week’s Gospel, who prays with a bold faith: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. Our Lord Jesus marvels over the faith of this Gentile and says: Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith (Matthew 8:8, 10). The disciples could have prayed: “Lord, only say the word, and this storm will be calmed”. But they did not; instead, they panicked.
And then, their second problem is that they did not ask Jesus for enough. Their prayer—Save us, Lord; we are perishing—probably meant nothing more than “Lord, keep us from dying at this moment”. If that is the case, they most certainly did not ask Jesus for enough. These words have a deep theological significance. Save us means “Spare us from eternal damnation. Rescue us from our sins.” And perishing does not mean to simply die; it means to go to hell. This is the word that Jesus uses in John 3:16: Whoever believes in Jesus, God’s Son, does not perish but has eternal life. It would seem that in this storm the disciples are more concerned about not drowning than avoiding hell!
And what about you? In the storms of your life, do you panic, like the disciples? Do you pray in the spirit of fear and anxiety, thinking that perhaps God cannot or will not help you? Or have you given up praying entirely, thinking that God does not even care? If so, then remember what we confess every Sunday, that the Lord is good and that His mercy endures forever. The Lord loves you and He desires you to pray not in anxiety and fear but with great boldness and confidence, as dear children praying to their dear Father.
And if you do persist in praying, are you guilty of not asking God for enough? Do you ask God only for relief from your earthly suffering, as if freedom from suffering were your highest priority? If so, then remember that God’s highest priority for you is to deliver you from evil permanently and forever. Oh, at present, you are living in the valley of sorrow, but when your last hour comes, God desires to give you a blessed end and to graciously take you to Himself in heaven. And so, in your earthly sufferings, pray not merely for temporary relief but for permanent, eternal rest in Jesus.
It is only through God’s grace in Christ Jesus that we can pray at all. God helping us, we learn to pray aright. We learn not to pray in panic and not to pray just to escape suffering for the moment. And whether we actually say it or not, we learn to pray in the spirit of “God, Thy will be done!”. We pray “Our Father, Thy will be done!” because we do not know what is best. Sometimes, drowning in the sea of Galilee or dying of cancer is best. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord. Blessed are the saints who die in the Lord. That is not to say that we cannot or should not ask to be spared these things. We can and we should. We come as dear children to their dear father. We are bold and confident. We are never ashamed to pray. And so we pray not only that we be spared pain and sorrow but even that we be spared inconveniences or that we be given fun things. You can pray for something new that you want but don’t need or for your children to do well in life and for your grandchildren to receive good grades in school. We can also pray for big things: that people around the world would start honoring the sanctity of human life and rejecting abortion and euthanasia, for the conversion of the Muslim nations, and for an end to hunger and bullying and lying politicians.
But what we are not free to do is to insist on our way. We do not give God ultimatums: “If you love me God, prove it by curing my cancer.” And, by God’s grace, we do not panic. We trust in God even when we are suffering terrible circumstances, even when we are dying, or we are losing our loved ones, or are about to drown in the Sea of Galilee; we trust and we do not panic. At least, the new man in us does not panic. As Luther says in the Catechism, in Baptism the Old Adam in us dies daily that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. The new man in us prays in confidence, but the Old Adam panics. And so, when we do panic, like the disciples, we sin. We fail to trust God. That is why the disciples got rebuked.
The disciples get rebuked by our Lord because they panic and because they do not ask for enough. And when we pray like the disciples in the storm, our Lord gives us the same rebuke: Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?. But it is a good thing to be so rebuked by our Lord Jesus. For you see, in their panic and despite their weakness, the disciples still have faith—small as it may be—and they still do pray. They look to Jesus for help. They seek to wake Him, to rouse Him. And so, in our weak faith—our faith that panics so easily and that fails to ask for enough—, by God’s grace, we still have a smoldering wick of faith that knows where to go, a faith still prays and seeks salvation in Jesus’ Name.
And so, thank God when the Lord rebukes you for having little faith, for that means you still have faith. Thank God that you are weak, for then you are strong in Jesus. The Lord will not let you become dependent on your faith or your strength or good works. He will purify you with a holy chastisement and will not let you ride out the storm in false confidence. He will keep you dependent on Him.
And what if your conscience is plagued by guilt and regret, by doubt and fear? What if you are weary? Thank God for that as well. For it is faith, a living and vibrant faith, that stirs up your heart. Faith causes you to feel sorrow and shame. The pain is proof that your faith is alive. Pray that you never lose that feeling until God relieves you of it on the last day. Pray that you are never comfortable in your sins, that you never think you can handle life’s storms on your own.
The Book of Proverbs contains this marvelous insight: Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy (27:6). Now, your enemy, the devil, loves to smother you with kisses, with flattering thoughts of your own self-importance. But Jesus, your faithful Friend, will often wound you with His rebukes and His call to repent of your sins. The wounds which Jesus inflicts upon you—these rebukes—sting and hurt like crazy. But remember this: that these are the faithful rebukes of a Friend whose love for you is steadfast and everlasting. And so, do not become discouraged when Jesus rebukes you for your little faith. Rather, be willing to be rebuked by your Lord again and again. Suffer His insults. Be broken by His Law that convicts you of your sin and unbelief. For in this way He empties you of yourself in order to fill you with His love. He breaks you in order to mend you. He brings you down in order to raise you up. He kills you in order to revive you. For His sake we are killed all day long. We are counted as sheep for the slaughter. And remember this: that His thoughts are not our thoughts. If we stop feeling the Law condemning us, then we lose the Gospel that sets us free from our sins. First comes the rebuke, then comes the calming of the storm. First comes the cross, then comes the glory of everlasting life.
There are times in your life when you pray with the confidence of the centurion: “Lord, only say the word, and your servant will be healed!”. But at times you also pray with the panic and fear experienced by the disciples in the storm. In your weakness, though, learn to do what the disciples did. In your storms, in your weakness, go to Jesus. Yes, go to Jesus even when you think He is sleeping. Do not hesitate to say to Jesus “wake up!”, for such a prayer is found even in the Psalms. In Psalm 3, we pray: Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! (3:7). But even as you are telling Jesus to wake up, remember this Word of the Lord from Psalm 121: [the LORD] who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps [you] will neither slumber nor sleep (vv. 3-4). Even when you are panicking over life’s troubles and when you are more concerned about your earthly well-being than your eternal life, the Lord is ever with you, to save you.
The Lord is with you to exhort you to trust in Him and to not panic. But not only does He rebuke you; He also shows you how to live in the Spirit. For the grace of God in Christ rules over and acts on behalf of those with faith, even a weak, struggling faith. Christ answered the disciples’ prayer. He saved them not only from the waves but also from eternal death. They did not perish—either in the sea of Galilee or in Hell.
And thanks be to God—the same is true for you and me. The crosses that we bear and the suffering we endure teach us to pray in confidence and not to panic, and to pray not just for the little things of this life but also for what we need the most: to be rescued from this world’s evil and to be brought safely home to our Father in heaven forever!
Are we of little faith, O Lord? Indeed, O Lord, we are. We are unworthy in every way. But You have made a promise. You are our God. Your Name is upon us. Save us, O Lord. Be our God, our Saviour. Deliver us from these presents evils and from the Evil One. Count us in that rag-tag, fearful group on Lake Galilee. Let us be your failing disciples that you might show Your grace in us. We have no boast, no claim upon Your mercy. But we have Your Word and Promise. That is enough. You have calmed the stormy sea of sin with Your sacrifice on the cross. And being slain for us sinners, You were buried, going like Jonah into the belly of the earth and then coming forth again on the third day. You are our risen Saviour, victorious over sin, death, and the devil. And so, rebuke us if You must, send the waves over the sides of the boat, make us desperate and full of fear. But teach us to pray. And then, O Lord, give us peace according to Your Word. Give us the faith we lack. Give us Your Holy Spirit and bring us home. Remember, O Lord, Your Word and Promises even while we wait for the Resurrection to come and the consummation of all our hope. Save us, O Lord. Save us. Amen.