by Everett Vander Horst
Black Saturday refers to a few different occasions throughout history. But in some third world communities around the globe, where a somewhat eclectic form of Roman Catholicism is prominent, it’s the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. On Black Saturday, many people refuse to leave their homes. Because it is the one day of the year, they believe, when Jesus is dead.
The reason they don’t leave their homes is that it’s just too risky. There are those who believe that anyone who dies on Black Saturday goes immediately to hell, for if Jesus is dead, He cannot save sinners. So these people stay at home, not daring to venture out into the street, or ride a bicycle or a bus. Many even stay in bed, having placed provisions for the day beside them the night before. Anything can happen, and they believe it just isn’t worth risking their eternity.
Of course, such a practice sounds very bizarre to many of us who follow Christ. We know that Jesus is raised, and is victorious. He does not die again and again, every year, on Good Friday. Christ only needed to be raised from the dead once to continually save all believers from sin. Staying in bed all day is a kind of playing it safe that is not only completely unnecessary, it’s somewhat sad. Such misguided Christians are missing out on far more than just one Saturday per year. They are missing out on the security of knowing that their eternity with Jesus is secure. They are missing out on the comfort that comes of deep assurance of His ongoing and undying watch over us. And so they miss out on the fullness of the joy that is ours in Christ!
But there may be a way in which many of us who would consider ourselves devoted Christians are missing out. We may not hole ourselves up on Easter Saturday, but many Christians are missing out on joy and the fullness of life that Jesus Christ won for us, here and now, by playing it safe with their faith.
As you consider your life, do you wonder if perhaps you may be playing it safe in your life of faith? Are you missing out on the great adventure of a fuller life in Christ, avoiding opportunities to bring a smile to the face of God, burying your talent?
We are called to follow Jesus-to teach what He taught, to go where He went and so to become more and more like Him. But just what ought that look like today?
In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus leads His disciples into dangerous waters. The disciples travel with him across the Sea of Galilee, and they witness nature undone. They are traveling to the other side-that alone would to be an adventure, given that they were leaving the safe shores of their native Galilee to land on foreign, Gentile soil. But even before they arrive, a storm comes. It comes suddenly, without warning.
Now, that’s saying something. Keep in mind, a good number of these disciples are experienced fishermen. They have spent both long days and long nights on that very water. Because they couldn’t rely on Doppler radar or weather reports on the radio, they had to know how to read the sky and predict the weather on their own. So they carefully observed the conditions, and knew to look for a cold front that could not only affect their success in fishing, but also cause a life-threatening storm.
But Matthew tells us that this storm took them by surprise. How? A clue is found in the word that is translated ‘storm’ in our English versions. Matthew used the Greek word ‘seismos.’ From that word we get the word ‘seismic.’ Matthew suggests that an earthquake struck the region, and that the waves which came so suddenly upon their boat were really tidal waves, not caused by the weather. That would explain the lack of warning that caught the more experienced fishermen-disciples by surprise. Matthew is telling us that, that day on the Sea of Galilee, they encountered something deeply unsettling, something with nature that was not quite right. And it frightened them.
So the disciples rouse Jesus. They are in a panic. Their words tumble out in a staccato, one after the other: Lord! Save! Dying! They have to cry out loud, because Jesus is sleeping. That’s right, Jesus is asleep in the midst of a dangerous, unnatural storm at sea! Here, of course, we see his humanity on display. The God who never slumbers nor sleeps is apparently quite asleep! But there is also something more, which I’ll return to later: Jesus is completely at peace.
By the way, isn’t this a great illustration of what prayer sometimes feels like? In dangerous, even desperate times, it can feel like we are trying to waken a sleeping Lord?
The disciples do receive an answer to their prayers. Jesus awakes. He rebukes them, for their small faith. He rebukes the wind and the waves. And the sea is calmed-completely. The disciples are filled with awe, and a question on the edges of their minds finds its way to their whispering lips: Who is this? And partially as a way of answering, Matthew goes on to tell us about their visit to the other side of the sea. From here on, the focus is completely on Jesus-there is no mention at all of the disciples on the other side. Instead, it’s all about how Jesus freed those who were possessed by demonic forces.
You see, that place too, like a sea that boils up from below, is no place for nice, upstanding religious people to be. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, this is foreign territory. It is the other side-not Israel, not the promised land of God. Matthew tells us it is the region of the Gadarenes. It is Gentile territory. This is confirmed when we hear about the large herd of pigs. You see, there are not too many Jewish pig farmers. That’s because the Jews were instructed avoid eating certain animals, ones designated ‘unclean.’ And pigs were right at the top of the unclean list.
Here also Jesus encounters two demon possessed men. They are living in a cemetery, among the tombs; a mysterious place, in many minds the realm of evil. These men were so deranged in their behavior, so violent that people were not able to pass by that way. And that was probably a more significant problem than we might first think. It didn’t merely mean that whenever they needed to bury a dead relative, they had to use the far side of the cemetery. In Greco-Roman city planning of that time, cemeteries were located on the main road into town, on either side of the street. This area of large family tombs and monuments was called the ‘necropolis’-the city of the dead. So if these two men were attacking passersby, it meant the main entrance into the city was inaccessible. And now these dangerous two men come out, looking for Jesus-it is they who approach Him. Again, the disciples find they have followed Jesus into dangerous space.
These two men have their cries met with silence. They scream out to Jesus, “What do you want with us? Have You come to torture us?” But there is no answer. Jesus does not respond. He feels no compulsion to answer to demons, despite their threatening power. Frustrated at His silence, the demons inside them resort to begging.
Then Jesus finally speaks-go! Just one word, a simple command. That’s important. There’s no elaborate ceremony performed to impress the onlookers. No weird mystery language spoken; there are no magical incantations. It’s just a word from Jesus-go!
Of course, the demons go, as we know, and so do the pigs. They go over the cliffs and into the sea, to their deaths. And because Matthew puts so much emphasis on Jesus here, on what power He wields, what He as done, we have to find out from other gospel writers, from Mark and Luke, that yes, the two men are alright. They have been healed.
But the local response to Jesus is fear. The citizens of the nearby city are not excited and grateful that these men have been healed, or even that the threat of a beating on way to town has been taken away. There is no welcome, no celebration. Instead, Jesus is begged to leave. Again, the words Matthew uses are important. He describes their voiced request that Jesus in the same way he told us about the crying out of the demons.
It’s because these citizens have suffered a significant economic loss. From the other gospels, we learn that the herd numbered around 2,000 pigs. They feel they can’t afford to have Jesus around. It has been pointed out that this would not be the last time that people meet Jesus and turn their backs on him, preferring their pigs. They are afraid-they see Jesus as a dangerous magician. What else might he do? They beg him, ‘Please, just go.’
In contrast, Jesus is fearless. He had no fear of the storm, and no fear of the demon possessed men. Why? Why could he sleep on the boat and keep walking towards the two demon possessed men? Because he had a divine confidence, that comes from power, that was rooted in his relationship to his Father.
And unlike Jesus, the disciples were terrified-they were more like the Gentile citizens of a foreign land than the extraordinary rabbi they professed to follow. And herein lies the lesson for following in faith. Remember the disciples’ cry: “Save us!” It is essential to following. If you are lost and sinking, if you are afraid for your future then join the many in the gospels and the millions since who have come to Jesus, crying out, “Save us!” That cry is the first step on the road of discipleship.
But what about once you’ve started out on that journey, what are the rules of that road? We need to know that there are two ways to follow: where we go, and what we do. Think of it as illustrated in the two children’s games: Follow the Leader, and Simons Says.
In Follow the Leader, a long line of kids follows after the leader as he travels along-they go around a tree when he does, they jump over a stream when he does, they walk on top of a bench when he does. They go where he goes. But there’s also the following of Simon says. In that game, kids follow what the leader does by touching their nose, rubbing their belly or hopping on one foot when he does.
As disciples, like in the Bible reading, we can be good at follow the leader, but not Simon says. We may go where Jesus goes, but not act as he acts. We follow, but often lag behind, because of fear. We see ourselves in what the disciples do, and what they don’t do. Really, seeing the 12 huddled in fear in the boat on the sea, it is like seeing Christians exposed, warts and all. We know that often, when in danger, we are like everyone else: weak, fearful cowardly. In troubled times, believers need help no less than unbelievers.
And after hearing their cries, we know what Jesus’ first response was: rebuke! He’s not impressed, not impressed at all. Rebuking his followers is the very first thing he does upon awakening, even before he got up! “He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves.” He almost seems like a grumpy dad, awakened in the night by a child at the bedside who wants a drink of water. “Really? Honey, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning!” But then he gets up and fills a glass.
Perhaps the disciples were surprised at Christ’s hard words to them. What were they supposed to do, sink? Well, if being a disciple means doing what Jesus did, maybe they should have also been sleeping! Bible scholar Frederick Bruner writes, “Sometimes Jesus is more impressed by confident sleeping than by fearful praying.”
So here in these verses we find a word about faith. Faith and courage are closely related. Faith is more than assent, deciding you agree. Faith is courage. The disciples show great courage throughout the New Testament book, Acts. Again and again in that early history of the church, we see followers of Jesus Christ bravely speaking of Jesus to hostile crowds, or telling of His love and grace while in prison. This courage is directly related to their faith. Amazing, even dangerous deeds are accomplished because they are greatly changed. And the reverse is also true-a lack of faith is a form of cowardice.
Let me tell you about James. When I first met James, I was intimidated. He was a young African American man whom I met through a mutual friend. I was intimidated by his way of dressing, which reminded me of urban gang members. And he had a history of violence that had sent him to serve a few years in prison. I was not very interested in getting to know him better. Really, I was afraid, afraid for my safety, but also for my comfort, and my comfortable life.
But God, by His Spirit, continued to prod me and direct me, to get to know James. The Spirit led, and I followed, even after James again took up violence and was once again incarcerated. It was in following Jesus into a situation that I found scary, that I found the blessing of knowing I was doing the ministry he was calling me to do. James is now a friend of mine. I visited him through the months of his stay in jail. And now that he is out, he and I continue our conversations together over coffee, as he seeks to put his life back together as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus often leads us to scary places, where we can only put our trust in Him. That’s true when it comes to meeting the poor, the lonely, and the disenfranchised where they are at. But it is also true when we open ourselves up to addressing the spiritual needs of the lost friend, co-worker, neighbor or family member, crossing an invisible line from talk about the weather and the game on TV last night into a spiritual conversation, or a call to living by a harder standard. That too can be scary to us. But living the way God calls us to live has its own built in rewards.
An example of this is Sam Chapman, founder of Empower Public Relations in Chicago, Illinois. He has banned gossip in his office. Two years before, Chapman left a larger company where office backbiting was epidemic and damaged both careers and morale. Now he calls the shots, and one of his primary rules is that if you have something to say to or about a colleague, you must say it to their face.
The penalty for breaking this rule is stiff. “If you’re committed to gossip,” Chapman says, “you get fired.”
While censoring water cooler conversation was difficult at first, most Empower employees appreciate the environment honesty creates. If they must vent, they do so elsewhere. “If I still have some unresolved issues at the end of the day,” says Empower executive Jayne Spottswood, “I save the drama for my mama.”
Living out your faith with courage may also lead you to a more personal spiritual conversation. It may be that your brother or sister needs a firm rebuke of their drinking, a rebuke grounded in your faith. It may be that one of the guys on your team is ready for an invitation to join you at church this weekend. It may be that acquaintance in the midst of divorce is in need of hearing the good news of the God who forgives all sin, including adultery.
Jesus loves us too much to sit and watch us miss out, by playing it safe with our faith. You see, Jesus had a 1st, and a 2nd response to His disciples cries for help. It’s true, he was unimpressed with their lack of faith. But here’s how Frederick Bruner puts it:
“…the major point is that even when our faith is excessively fearful, cowardly, weak and worthy of rebuke, Jesus hears our cry, gets up, rebukes wind and sea, and creates great calm. He takes us as we come; and if we come with hardly any faith at all, He cannot pretend that He is flattered, but He does go immediately to work. What matters really in the final analysis is that Jesus helps us however we come to Him, even with little faith.”
Jesus meets us where we are. Let us do the same for others. Let us follow where He leads us, into unfamiliar, sometimes even scary territory, trusting that He knows, not only what’s best for us, but what’s best for His kingdom.
Let’s pray together.