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The Authentic Jesus: Nap Taker
Matthew 8:18 - 8:27
March 19, 2023
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
In Matthew 8:23-27 we find Jesus asleep on a boat in the midst of a terrible storm. The disciples, filled with fear, cry out to him and marvel at his power to calm the storm. On the boat, in the chaos, we meet The Authentic Jesus, the nap taker, at home in the chaos and willing to be awakened by even the feeblest cries of faith.
View Sermon Transcript
We are continuing our series, which we began in January called The Authentic Jesus. We've been taking another look at Jesus—who he is, what he does, what he did, and why it should matter to any of us. We've spent some time looking at different aspects of Jesus' character, his claims about himself, and the community that he formed during his earthly ministry. We've looked at him as an authoritative teacher, a community builder, a party thrower, a claim maker, a storyteller. All of these paint a picture of who Jesus was and what he was all about.
This morning, I want us to look at another aspect of Jesus: Jesus as the nap taker. By that very theologically, I mean, as Jesus is the one who takes naps, the one who sleeps. Jesus wasn't known for taking naps. It doesn't seem to be an intricate part of his ministry or even his daily habits, but there was this time, when Jesus finally got some shut eye. He caught a little nap. When he did, everything fell apart. Not unlike when parents of young children finally catch that moment when they can finally have that well deserved nap, those few moments just to close their eyes only to do so and be awakened with hysterics and screaming from children when something terrible has happened.
I want to look at this account from Matthew's Gospel. It's also in Mark’s. I would suggest that seeing Jesus as a nap taker is vitally important to understanding who Jesus is and the world that we live in and who we are as those either following Jesus or are at least interested or simply curious about who he is and what he's going to do.
In this passage, we find Jesus asleep on a boat in a storm. Throughout the centuries, some have found this tidbit that Jesus is a nap taker somewhat irrelevant. Jesus was both divine and human. He was both fully God and fully man, so, of course, at some point, he had to sleep. He got tired. He eventually woke up and took care of what he was supposed to do. Others, however, have found this detail deeply troubling. Why would Jesus sleep? He's claiming to be divine. He's claiming to be God. He's claiming to be the Lord. Psalm 121 tells us that the Lord “neither slumber nor sleeps,” and here he is asleep, the Lord in a storm. Far from irrelevant, and really far from being troubling, this text ought to offer us some consolation and some comfort. Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, the fact that Jesus on this day at this moment was asleep, takes us to the very heart of who Jesus was and what he claimed to do. In other words, if you want to see The Authentic Jesus, then you need to see him as a nap taker. I'm going to be using the word nap and referring to sleep a lot throughout the sermon. You might be inclined to take a nap, to sleep. I would ask that you refrain from that, and I encourage you to resist that urge until later this afternoon. We will move through this passage swiftly. Let’s turn to Matthew 8:18-27,
18Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
23And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26And 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. 27And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true, and it's given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we come to you this morning in deep need of your presence and in deep need of your power, grace, and mercy in our lives. I pray that you would stir our hearts, that we would be attentive to your word, that we would be able to make sense of this account of you asleep when the disciples most desperately needed you. May we be in awe of your power. God, we can only do that by the power of your Spirit, so make it so this morning. We pray in Christ's name, Amen.
I want to explore with you three aspects of this passage as we look at this account of Jesus asleep: the storms we face, the Savior we find, and the questions we need.
The Storms We Face
The problem with this passage, and the issue many have with Jesus' actions here, isn't the fact that he took a nap or that he was even asleep. It's the context and the time in which he decides to sleep. It seems like every few months, there is another story, another thinkpiece, another article, a new study has come out on the power of sleep, and specifically on the power of nap taking. In these thinkpieces, there is all sorts of scientific evidence about sleeping/nap taking, but inevitably, in any of these articles, there are also the influential people throughout history who took naps as a matter of practice. In that list, always at the top is Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. There is even a book solely dedicated to Winston Churchill and his nap taking—I kid you not. Granted, they were probably only getting two to four hours of sleep at night. They had a lot on their minds and a lot going on in their lives, so, perhaps, napping was in fact the priority for them. It needed to be. In all the research and in all the endless articles on napping and the importance of sleep, there is an assumed logic that goes with all of this. It's this: you need to create the right environment in order to sleep or to get the optimum sleep or to take a nap, in order to get the rest you need. You must create the right context, time location, atmosphere in order to make the right kind of sleep happen. There needs to be some level of tranquility, then it's the right time to find sleep. Even Churchill, while carrying all the stress and pressure of World War II and all that was going on, wasn't taking naps in the chaos of the front lines. He was removed from that. Even though he was having to make decisions, he was a comfortable distance from the chaos in order to take his daily nap.
This is what makes this account of Jesus asleep so bizarre and troubling, at least on the surface. Of all the times when Jesus could have caught a nap, of all the places he could have caught some shut eye, or caught up on lost sleep, in a boat in a terrible storm is not the place to do it. And yet there he is sleeping. It's absolutely the worst time for him to do so. This account of Jesus talking to his disciples before they get into the boat, verses 18 to 22, those verses are worthy of their own sermon, but I just want you to see that leading up to this text we're going to take a close look at, that everyone, the disciples, the scribes, other followers all have their own expectations for what following Jesus would have meant.
At this point in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has already gained quite a following. He has exhibited great power. He has taught with great authority. He has healed many who are sick. At this point, people want to follow Jesus. In fact, Jesus is trying to get away from the crowds. That is why they get in the boat. That is why they're trying to cross the Sea of Galilee. It would appear at least by inference that sleep is on Jesus' mind because when the scribe in verse 19 says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus is weary, looking for respite, looking for rest without a home in this world.
Matthew has us asking these questions leading up to them getting in the boat: Where will the Son of Man lay his head when he is tired? When is he going to be able to rest? Clearly the disciples and the crowds are eager to follow Jesus. Whatever he's doing, he's got some authority and power and many want in on it. They want to follow him. Matthew makes it a point to tell us that the disciples are following Jesus into the boat, onto the sea, and ultimately, into the storm.
You can imagine that the disciples on this boat with Jesus really should have nothing to fear. There are two good reasons for that. One is that many of them are fishermen. They know the Sea of Galilee. This is their home territory. They are completely at home with nothing to fear to get on a boat and go out into the Sea of Galilee. Even if a storm would come up, they've been through storms before. They should have complete confidence in their ability to navigate this storm. The other reason they should not fear and have complete confidence once again is because Jesus is with them. They've promised to follow him wherever he goes. They put their faith and their hope in him. They've seen him with great power. They've seen him heal. They've seen him do all these things. Of course, as Jesus is with them, they have nothing to be concerned about. Crossing the Sea of Galilee is not something that they need to think twice about.
Listen again to Matthew 8:24, “And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.” Here's the problem we face with Jesus asleep in the storm. He is the one who brought them on this boat. He is the one that brought them out onto the waters. They've trusted him. They are following him, eager to serve, eager to proclaim his name and do whatever he asks of them. Now they're about to die, and Jesus is sound asleep. Actually, Matthew quite literally tells us—he uses a very specific word—Jesus is not sound asleep, Jesus is dead asleep. They have to go find him, and now they have to go wake him up.
I think some of the most troubling words in all the gospels are here at the end of verse 24, these four short words: “but he was asleep.” What is he doing? How can he sleep at a time like this? He's completely checked out when the disciples need him the most. I wonder if you've ever experienced anything like this: there you are doing the best you can, trying faithfully to follow Jesus, and then a storm, something in your life as you reeling in the time you need him most, it appears at least that he's not there. You're praying. You're crying out. You're asking for others to intercede on your behalf. You're searching for him. You're in the middle of the storm. But where is he? But also, why would he have brought you into this storm in the first place? Why are you having to go through this?
Here's one of the things that I think is going on in this passage. Jesus has not hidden the fact that he is preparing the disciples to face all sorts of storms. They'll have to face many of these storms without Jesus or at least without his physical presence. There is this political storm that is brewing. Herod is the king and he will do whatever he can to stop any other kings and stop any other kingdoms from competing against his kingdom. There is the religious storm that is brewing. The religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, want nothing to do with Jesus. They view him as a threat. They right now are currently, as Jesus is out on this boat in the storm, plotting a much greater storm. They want to kill him. There's the cosmic storm that is brewing as Jesus is more and more facing and confronting forces of evil and death as he brings life and healing to those who so desperately need it. Jesus, at every turn, at every moment with his disciples, with every parable, every healing, warns on some level that there's a coming storm. There's a storm on the horizon. In many ways the disciples' time with Jesus is preparation for these coming storms. Not just that on the sea, but in their world and with the powers that be. Oftentimes as happens here, where we might expect Jesus to shelter his disciples, maybe offer a little bit of protection, maybe see what we see, that the disciples are not ready to face the storms out on their own. We would expect Jesus to offer some sort of protection, but he doesn't do that. He doesn't protect them from the storms. In fact, he sends them into the storms, and then he sleeps.
I think this is one of the great challenges of Christianity. This is one of the great challenges of following Jesus. We don't want storms. We do our best to avoid them, hoping and praying that God will give us clear skies and wind at our backs. Despite the inevitability of storms we see in the life of Jesus, the storms that are so prevalent in the life of the disciples, the storms we've seen throughout history and certainly throughout the history in the life of the church. What we seek and long for are calm waters, at least I do. There is that old Irish saying, perhaps appropriate just a few days after St. Patrick's Day, that you find. It's oftentimes cross stitched and framed in someone's bathroom. “May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields.” That's what I want. That's what in many ways we all want. That's what we long for. We carry with us this combination of our own competence, like the disciples have, like they can figure out the storm. They can figure out why from the boat. They've been here before. We carry around the sense of this own competence, but also this hope that Jesus is with us. We hope that that's enough to keep us out of the storms, to keep us from having to deal with these storms. We more than anyone else in any other place in the world can get closest to creating those conditions on our own. More than any other time in history, we can protect ourselves and insulate ourselves from whatever storms that we might have to face. As modern people we are conditioned to expect and desire a life that is actually free from these kinds of storms.
But this passage, as do so many others in the Scriptures, tells us a different story. That to follow Jesus means that we actually follow Jesus into the storms. The reality of sin, that leads to deep divisions among people, countries, and political powers ensures that chaos abounds, the brokenness in our hearts, in our own homes, and in our neighbor's homes create the perfect storm of chaos, meaning the storms are always brewing. But the reality of these storms for the disciples, I think, is ultimately really not the problem. It's the fact that Jesus is asleep. He brought them into the storm, and now they have no plan to get out. I think the same is true for so many of us. “Fine, I'll take storms. I can face some level of chaos. I get it. I understand it. But don’t leave me here without a plan. Don't leave me here without any sort of comfort, at any sort of clarity in my life as I face the storms.” In other words, if Jesus is going to lead us into stormy waters in the chaos of the world, at least he could stay awake. At least he could stay awake for the storms and show up and rescue us rather than sleep through our prayers and cries and sleep through our desperation.
The Savior We Find
This is what is so beautiful about this story and why it's so important to understand Jesus asleep in a storm. Because what the disciples find is that Jesus is far from aloof. He is far from being distant and far from being powerless. In fact, he is ready. He is willing, and he is certainly able to conquer this storm. That's the Savior, that the disciples find as they go looking for him in the midst of the storm. That's what I want to look at next: the Savior we find.
One of the surest signs that you're a real New Yorker is when you can fall asleep on the subway when all the craziness is going on in your subway car. When you know when your stop is coming up, I've seen my kids do this at times, and I have such great pride because I realized I'm raising real New Yorkers. They sort of doze off right before their stop and all sorts of nuttiness and craziness is going on on the subway train. One writer Kristen Radtke described this in an article for The New Yorker a few years ago. She says this,
“On the subway, you can often tell who lives in New York and who doesn’t by how casually they sit and with what degree of paranoia they clutch their belongings. Subway nappers are clearly at home: their commute is worn so deeply into them that, typically, their bodies jerk awake before they miss their stops; they seem to sense, somewhere within their half-sleep, when they should start readying themselves to exit the train. There is no romance or performance to these everyday moments, but there is a very real intimacy. In a place as daunting and enormous as New York, it is striking, and even a little comforting, that a city can be within a body this way.”
Her point is that you get to know a place so well that the city, the commute, it just sort of becomes part of you, so that you're not bothered by all the craziness and the chaos that's around you. I think that's what's going on when Jesus is asleep on this boat in a storm. He's not overwhelmed by the storm. He's not overwhelmed by the chaos or the danger. He's completely at home in the raging seas and in any storm because, in fact, he's completely at home in our world. This is the authentic Jesus you need. This is the kind of Savior you want. One who when the storm comes, can sleep without any problems, not because he doesn't care about you, but because the storm is not going to undo him or overwhelm him. If it's not going to overwhelm him, then it's not going to overwhelm his disciples.
In fact, the storm, as terrible as it is, is nothing compared to the storm that Jesus will face later on—his trial, his crucifixion, and ultimately, his death, which we will remember in just a few weeks during Holy Week—is a far greater storm. Matthew wants us to keep this in mind, which is why he tells us that Jesus isn't just asleep, but that he's “dead asleep.” The fact remains that at this moment, as the storm rages, the disciples think that they're going to die. It is little comfort to them that Jesus is not overwhelmed. A little action from Jesus would be nice, a little intervention, which is why they cry out to him. So the disciples cry out and we see something else vitally important to who Jesus is. Notice the disciples in their fear, they cry out. Most of the translations smooth out the disciple’s words into a sentence and makes it more readable for us. Here in our translation, it says, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” But really, Matthew records just four words. And they're just blasts of words. They're staccato: “save” “Lord” “we die.” That's what the disciples say. That's all they can muster. That's the extent of their cry and their request.
Jesus chastises them for their lack of faith and for their fear, but then he rises. Then he arose. Jesus went from being dead asleep to rising. Matthew is giving us a clue of that bigger storm that Jesus will face and that he ultimately will conquer in his death and in his resurrection. What I want you to see is that he awakens. Jesus woke up and he calmed the storms. What did it take to awaken him? This is really important. What did it take for him to wake up? It's not great faith. It wasn't a theological formulation put in just the right way so that Jesus approves of it so that he'll wake up. It's not great courage. The disciples don't go collect themselves, pull themselves together, and say, “Calm down. Let's go get Jesus. Make sure everybody's calm before we go approach him.” That's not what they do at all. No, they can barely say anything. They come to him in fear, certain only of one thing and that is that they're going to die. But they still go to him. They go to Jesus, and they cry out to him. That's what wakes him. That's what moves him to action.
They shouldn't have feared not because they were competent or experienced. They shouldn't fear because Jesus was with them. But they did. They shouldn't have panicked, not because they had been in these storms before and that they could figure it out. They shouldn't have panicked because the Lord of all storms that conquers all of chaos was with them. But they did. They did panic. They were fearful. And still, Jesus responded. This is the other important thing that we need to see about Jesus, even the tiniest amount of faith, even the weakest amount of faith, even the faith the size of a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, even that kind of faith can awaken this Lord. Jesus is so full of grace and mercy, so kind and compassionate, so eager and willing to save us and rescue us that even a cry of “Lord, save me,” even that awakens him.
The question for us is, why would you not cry out to him? Why would you not bring the smallest of all storms? The most seemingly insignificant storm, still a storm to you, why would you not bring that to him? And the largest of all storms, why wouldn't you bring your biggest fears, the biggest storms you have going on in your life and in this world, why would you not bring them to him even when you're tired and doubting, and unsure and weak, and frail and frightened? It takes nothing to awaken him. “Lord, help me. Lord, save me. Lord, be near to me. Lord, Abide in Me. Lord, draw close to me.” It's all there. Start with that. That's all it takes to awaken him. Those are the storms we face, the Savior we find, one who is completely at home and one who is able to awaken and who will awaken with the simplest of cries.
The Questions We Need
Lastly, the questions we need. This passage leaves us with two questions—one question that Jesus asked the disciples and one question the disciples asked themselves. I think this helps us make some applications for us as we conclude. The first question is asked by Jesus to the disciples: “Why are you so afraid?” I mean, it's kind of obvious. They thought they were going to die. That's why they were scared. But Jesus point to the disciples when he asks them that and then chastises them as to say that they have nothing to fear because he's with them. I think this question is always an important question for us to be asking ourselves: “Why are we so afraid?” Maybe the question behind that is: “What is it that you fear?”
These are important questions to ask because fear drives so much of what we do, how we act, how we perceive ourselves and our world, and how we think of our neighbors. Fear drives our anxiety. It fuels our hatred. It only leads to greater impatience for ourselves and for the world. Fear drives us away from our faith and dependence upon God who loves us and drives us towards our proclivity for self-protection and self-preservation. It's all driven by fear. Fear keeps us from loving God. Fear is what keeps us from loving our neighbors. Fear keeps us at home rather than moving out into the world to love it and to serve it.
There are plenty of things to fear in our world, in our country, in our city. There are plenty of things to fear about our future. We're invited to fear something every day. It's the new cycle each and every hour, whether it's the fragility of the markets, the future of this planet, the geopolitical tensions and wars that are always looming, not to mention, facing our own mortality when we dare think about it. There's much to fear and it's now the normal way people get our attention and hold our attention by cultivating our fear of our world and our lives.
Jesus' questions should always be before us. “Why are you so afraid?“ Because the truth is we have nothing to fear. Jesus was dead asleep, and he arose. He calmed the storm. Jesus in his death and resurrection has calmed the storm of death such that our greatest fears have been conquered and overcome. What is it you fear? My encouragement to you this morning is to bring it to Jesus. He is not overwhelmed by your storms. He is not undone by your lack of faith and by the size of your fears. He has promised to conquer them on your behalf.
The last question is asked by the disciples who are in the boat: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” They're marveling at Jesus. They're standing in awe of his power. It's in this moment that they realize this one, the one who just calmed the sea is unlike any other. No one else has this kind of power. No one else has this kind of authority. No one else can conquer the raging storms of the world like this one. This too is how we overcome our deepest fears. This is how you endure your greatest storms. This is how we offer ourselves for the sake of the world in courage and in hope and in love, by marveling at this one, by marveling at this Lord, by marveling at this one. “What sort of man is this?” He is the Lord of all creation. He was dead asleep, and he arose. He rises with the simplest of faith, with the weakest of faith. “Lord, save me, Lord, rescue me.” Anything will awaken this Lord because he loves us. He has come to rescue us and to renew this world. That is his promise to us, that he hears us and that he rescues us. This is the promise, this is the hope that we carry with us each and every day, each and every moment in our lives, so may God give us the hope and the courage and the love to take our greatest fears to this one, this Lord of the storm and cry out to him.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are the Lord of this storm. You're the Lord of all the storms. We thank you that in your grace and in your mercy because of your love for us, any cry out to you awakens you. We thank you that you are not distant, that you are not aloof to our trials, to our hardships, to our fears, and to our pain, but you are at home in our world. You have come as you did on that Sea of Galilee, you have come to calm the storms, to overcome them. God, I pray that you would give us eyes to see and ears to hear the ways in which you're doing that already in our lives, so that we would follow after you and marvel at what you have done and what you have promised to do. We pray this all in Jesus' mighty name. Amen.