Sermon: “The Sleep of the Just or Asleep at the Wheel: What it is to be a Christian Today” (Mark 4: 35-41)

jesus in the storm

I want to begin this morning by talking about sleep.

I don’t know about your family, but in mine, we are divided more or less evenly between the night owls and the early birds.

My mother tells me that as a baby I was an early bird, but for most of my life, I have been a night owl.

The night is when the magic happens.  It was the same way for my grandmother.

Starting around 8 o’clock, I usually get my second wind, and that wind seems to blow full on until at least eleven, often twelve, and sometimes even later.

The house quiets down, and I’m sitting in my chair with my lamp and my glass of water, reading about something totally different.

That’s when I have my epiphanies, and also when I do my laundry.

Liz is not that way. Neither are my parents.

There are times when we visit them that the four of us are sitting there, talking pleasantly and the clock strikes nine, and I’m in the middle of a story…just getting warmed up — and I look around, and their eyes are like those signs you used to see in stores: “Thank You — Please Come Again.”

They’re done.

On the other hand, the next morning, when I get up and go downstairs–not late, mind you–7:30, 8:00am at the latest–they’re all down there, chattering away, and they’ve also gone out to the bakery, and read most of the newspaper, Liz has been grading, the girls are finishing a movie, my mom has done the whole garden thing, and everyone has already gone for a swim and showered and dressed and played with the dogs.

It’s like they’ve had a whole day already, and Kathie Lee and Hoda haven’t even come on yet.

That’s how it is if you’re an early bird.

You get up after that good night’s sleep and you’re ready to hit the ground running.


Well, the Gospel doesn’t have much to say about night owls versus early birds, exactly.

If you think about it, most people in Biblical times would have been early birds, anyway–needing the light, but also the relative cool of the morning.

Staying up and then sleeping in would have been something that was only possible for people who had people, and there were not many who lived like that.

But the Gospels do talk about sleep.  And when they do, it is important to understand that they’re speaking, not just symbolically.

Actually, they’re speaking morally.

If you think about it, this morning’s reading is probably only the second most famous story about sleep in the Gospels.

The number one story about sleep is the one just before Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Knowing what is about to drop, Jesus goes to the garden to pray, and asks his disciples to come with him.

He tells them that he’s going to be alone for a bit, but asks them to watch and wait in another part of the garden.

But when he comes back, they have fallen asleep.

And the point, of course, is that the disciples are just early birds…people who just didn’t have it in them to rally for poor Jesus when the moment came.

Or maybe a better way to put it is that they were people who didn’t have it in them…but when we say that, it’s not sleep patterns that we’re really talking about.

We’re speaking morally.  What we’re really talking about is character.

In our day, when we say that someone is “asleep at the wheel,” we’re not talking about their actual driving.

We’re saying that they’re not engaged; they’re not paying attention; they’re not doing the driving the rest of us are counting on them to do.

When the disciples fall asleep in the garden and Jesus says, “Could you not stay awake one hour?” that’s what he’s talking about, too.

“Stay awake, all of you,” he says, “and pray that you may be spared the test” (Mark 14: 37-38).

It isn’t that they’ve hurt his feelings…that they haven’t been “there for him.”  It’s that they’re not engaged.

They’re not doing the kind of driving that Jesus was counting on them to do.


Our Gospel reading this morning presents a very different kind of sleep.

It’s interesting: you could almost misread it, and say that it’s another story about someone not “being there” for someone else…in this case, it’s actually Jesus who is not there for the disciples…he’s literally asleep at the tiller…the story even says that he’s sort of called dibs on the captain’s cushion and is laid out there, snoozing.

And when the storm comes up, he goes right on sleeping, which we can probably all agree would have been hard to handle.

Imagine if you were a disciple sitting there, with the storm getting worse, with the waves getting higher, and the boat heeling over, and the wind whipping through the rigging and making it sing.

A lot of these guys were fishermen.   They knew these waters.

And yet, to Mark tell it, there they all are, glumly thinking about the last time they’d seen “The Poseidon Adventure” …waiting for the big one.

Think about that.

You can understand how it would have hit a point where somebody finally said, “Oh for God’s sake, wake him up.”

They need him to be engaged.  To be paying attention.  To be doing the leading that everyone was counting on him to do.

But then he gets up.

Mark tells us that Jesus rebukes the wind, and a dead calm comes over everything.

Then Jesus turns around and the rebuking continues, because since he’s up now, he goes ahead and rebukes them, too.

“Why are you afraid?” he asks.  “Have you still no faith?”

And again, the point here is a moral one.

Because it turns out that Jesus’ sleep has not been the sleep of inattention or dereliction of duty — like that sleeping in the Garden we talked about that would become so infamous later on.

Jesus’ sleep is about what it looks like when we come at last to rest in God.

Jesus’ sleep is showing us not what it is to be immobilized, but to be so deeply at peace…so deeply relaxed…so deeply confident in the presence of God, and the power of God, and the truth of God that even in a hurricane, you’re o.k.

Jesus is asleep in that boat because he knows that storms are real, and storms are hard, but that God is good.

He knows that in life and in death, God will see us through.

He knows that there’s more to living than just physical life or chasing comfort or safety for safety’s sake.

For Jesus, if that’s all you’re doing, you’re halfway drowned already.

And so he’s not afraid, and he sleeps in that boat because he has no fear.


I try to remember that when I get afraid…when I am sailing along in my little boat and the storms seem to come up out of nowhere.

I’ve been trying to remember it especially this week, when the news has been so full of images I have found it so hard to see, and hard realities I would prefer not having to know.

It’s hard to know what to think when the truth itself is so contested, and when good people find it almost impossible to talk outside their safest and most familiar circles.

Those are walls we’ve built already– walls that have cost us nothing and which, at the same time, have cost us everything.

There are some divides that it will be harder to cross now on any terms.

Sometimes it can even get to that point where I’m asking: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

“Do you not care that this is how it’s become?”

“Do you not care that your children are so divided, and so far apart that they root for each other’s downfall?”

Each time, I say that, though, Jesus has been right there with me, right before me, asking: “Could you not stay awake one hour?”

“Max, where have you been?”

“What have you done?”

“How much of this work of loving and reconciling, listening and leading have you taken on?”

Where have we been, we Christians?

The promise is that, in God…in the promise of God, and the power of God, and the truth of God, we will be formed into people who can rise to this moment.

God promises that in following Jesus, we can rise to this and to any other moment — as indeed, Christians have risen to every moment for so very long now.

That makes me convinced that God got it right when he divided the world up between early birds and night owls.

It’s not about division.  It’s not about our differences.

It’s about the idea is that somewhere out there, somebody is always supposed to be up.  Somebody is always supposed to be awake.  Somebody is always supposed to be at the tiller, making sure that we all get there safely.

As Christians, we are called to be those people: people who are up and doing the hard work of watching and learning, forgiving and healing, testifying and witnessing, which is how Christ teaches us to keep the boat on course.  No matter what the time.  No matter what the weather.

It may be awhile before we’re strong enough, and grounded enough, and truly hopeful enough to be fast asleep the way that Jesus was, while the winds rage around us.

Building and maintaining community have never been harder than they are now, or more important than they are now.

It’s a challenge for all of us.

But today we remember what the disciples saw with wonder: that even the wind and sea obey him.

Whether or not we will obey him remains to be seen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s