The Sea of Galilee is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. It is 700 feet below sea level. It is about thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. It’s about 200 feet deep. That’s a pretty big lake. I guess that’s why they used to call it a sea. The historian Josephus used to refer to it as Genneserat. The gospel of John also referred to it as Lake Tiberius, after Caesar Tiberius.
Yam Kinneret, as it is known to Israelis, is the primary source of water for the nation and, as such, its outward flow to the Jordan River is carefully regulated by the government. The Degania dam was built in 1932 to control the water level and when the lake fills after good winter rainfalls, the Sea of Galilee is about one meter higher than it was in the time of Christ. This is apparent from the level of the harbors that have survived from the first century.
The Sea of Galilee is known for its violent storms, which can come up suddenly and be life-threatening for any on its waters. These tempests are caused by the situation of the lake in the Jordan Rift with steep hills on all sides. The cooler air masses from the surrounding mountains collide with the warm air in the lake’s basin. Winds sometimes funnel through the east-west-oriented valleys in the Galilean hill country and rush down the western hillsides of the lake. The most violent storms, however, are caused by the fierce winds which blow off the Golan Heights from the east. One such storm in March 1992 sent waves ten feet high crashing into downtown Tiberius and caused significant damage to the city.
I’ve never been out on the water much. I’ve only been sailing once. It was great. But other than a few tourist style harbor cruises, I’ve never been out on the water. For one thing, I’m not a very good swimmer. I can tread water, but that’s about it. Imagine how terrifying it would be to be out in a small boat far from land in the middle of a storm with ten foot waves. And then imagine that the storm has come on at night—and you have no light, other than the stars.
On that day, as evening drew on, Jesus said to his disciples:
"Let us cross to the other side." Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was.
And other boats were with him.
A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat,
so that it was already filling up.
Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.
They woke him and said to him,
"Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up,
rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Quiet! Be still!"
The wind ceased and there was great calm.
Then he asked them, "Why are you terrified?
Do you not yet have faith?"
They were filled with great awe and said to one another,
"Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey? (Mark, Chapter Four)
Now as a miracle story, this one rocks. I’m sure it was very convincing to your average first century gentile interested in this new Christian religion. Certainly only a deity would have power over the wind and rain, over the sea itself. It is interesting that Jesus himself was not a big fan of miracles. What was it he said to the scribes and Pharisees? “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” Time and again, Jesus refused to perform miracles. This story isn’t about the miracle. It is about faith.
Picture the story for a moment. Here are those twelve guys in a boat. Jesus is asleep at the helm. That is the seat in the stern. And out of nowhere, up comes a storm. And for a time, the disciples try to handle things on their own. But the storm seems to be too much for them and so they go and wake Jesus up. And they seem to sound a little pissed.
That sounds a lot like my life. Here I am, going about my life, trying my best to keep my head above water, and out of nowhere, a storm comes up. My dog gets sick. The car breaks down. My neighbor is being a jerk. There are more bills than money. Property values are plummeting and the state wants to cut my pension. A big part of me wants to look up at the sky and yell, “Hey! Can’t a guy catch a break here? What the hell?” I feel just like those guys. God seems to be asleep at the helm. Doesn’t S/He care that I’m suffering here?
And when Jesus asks them do they not have faith, he does so rhetorically. In Greek, this is a question asked expecting an affirmative response. It is literally, “have you not faith?” Remember, these guys had only just witnessed several miracles. It wasn’t that they were afraid that Jesus was unable to solve the problem. They were afraid that he didn’t care. When Jesus commands the wind and sea to be calm, he is as much talking to the disciples as he is to the waves.
We keep looking for God to be some kind of fixer who will enter into our lives and clean up all the messes we make. We seem to be looking for somebody to stop the wheel of karma, to allow only good things to happen. But when did you ever learn anything from the happy things that happen to you? We grow as a result of our trials and tribulations. I know I have had my share of trials and tribulations. And if there is one constant I can say I’ve learned from all of them in my sixty-three years, it’s that I’ve come through all of them. I have survived.
Really, in any crisis, what are the two options? Either you will survive, or you won’t. If you come through, then you’re fine. If you lose everything, you’ll get it back. The sun will still shine. The rain will still fall. You still have people who love you. The sweet breeze is still fresh on your face. And if you don’t come through, well, then it doesn’t matter, does it? It would only matter if death were final. And even if it were final, you wouldn’t be here to care that you didn’t make it through. So there isn’t any point in being afraid.
And if you’re old enough to read this, then you’ve come through your share of trials and tribulations also. So you know what I’m talking about. They weren’t fun, but you made it through. Some of them have been pretty close, too, I bet. I know some of mine have been. But God, or whatever you want to call that energy, wasn’t asleep at the helm. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen. In every single case, I know I’m better off now than I was when the crisis hit. It took time and patience to get through, but now, from this side of the crisis, I can see that.
So this isn’t really a miracle story. It’s a life lesson. Every day we face trouble. Every day we face our own storms. And although it may seem as though God is asleep at the helm, that we’re drifting aimlessly, we’re going to make it through just fine, better off than we were. We just need to be still, be calm. One of the teachings of Jesus was to let go of fear. It has been said that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. When the storms hit, be calm, and stay on course, or change course if you need to. One way or the other, you will make it to safe harbor.