Sermon, The unexpected storm, Matthew 8

This message was written by Pastor Andy Cook on Saturday morning, March 12, 2011 in the wake of the Japan earthquake. Adapt this as needed in response to a disaster situation.

Scripture: Matthew 8

At 2:45 p.m. on Friday, local time, life was normal in Japan.

People were working. Students were in class. Shoppers were in grocery stores. Trains were running and passengers were loading airplanes. Banks were open, government officials were in meetings, and lovers were thinking of dinner dates later that night. Power plants were running smoothly, roads were in the right place, and dock workers were preparing goods to be loaded on cargo ships.

At 2:46, without warning, the earth began to shake.

When it comes to earthquakes and tsunamis, Japan is the most prepared country in the world. Immediately, power was cut off to all power plants. Warning signals blared across the land. Students dove under desks, just as they'd been trained to do. Buildings swayed, but did not fall, just as they'd been built to do. Government, military and law enforcement officials went into emergency mode, just as they'd all drilled to do.

But the earth kept shaking.

Eighty miles out, in the deep blue seascape of the Pacific Ocean, six miles above the massive movements of the earth's plates, salt water was being churned and tossed about with a force far stronger than any force ever created by man. The first waves slammed into the shoreline two hours later, 23 feet above the beaches that had been so calm just an hour earlier. Cars, ships, houses and chucks of roadway were swept along with the water, destroying everything in the path of the surge.

The aftershocks came, one after another, one dozen after another dozen, until more than 50 had been recorded.

By the time the first waves receded into the sea, preparing for yet another blast of water and houses and cars and explosions, hundreds of bodies were already among the litter. At sea, a ship loaded with 100 people was swept away. Tankers were flipped over in their harbors. A passenger train is missing. The whole thing. Missing. The waterfront of Sendai burns out of control, and firefighters can't reach the area. All roads are broken, or missing.

Inland, 30 miles from the coast, and 50 miles from the worst of the damage, a dam in one town breaks, immediately sending a torrent of water through residential neighborhoods. By the time the damage is surveyed, 1,800 homes have been destroyed in an area that should have felt safe from the danger of a tsunami. Landslides triggered by the earthquake quickly buried other communities, while people were still inside the buildings. As far south as Tokyo, ambulances lined up outside a school where a roof had collapsed on an unknown number of students, teachers, and parents who had gathered for graduation ceremonies. With the collapse of infrastructure, six million homes lost power, and millions of people were looking for food and fresh water within the day. Many of them resorted to walking on the broken highways, hoping to find a way to survive on higher ground.

And on the horizon loomed the worst news of all. There were critical, potentially devastating, problems developing at a nuclear power plant.

Warnings are issued for countries all around the Pacific rim, and Hawaii braces for the worst. The tsunami races across the surface of the ocean at more than 200 miles per hour, and visions of more destruction terrify coastal communities from Indonesia to New Zealand to the Americas.

Two hours and 14 minutes after the first tremor, officials announce that the death toll is expected to top 1,000. Even as they make the announcement, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake shakes central Japan, and skyscrapers in Tokyo sway as if they were drunk.

Such is the nature of an unexpected storm.

Last Wednesday night, on a piece of pavement on which all of us have traveled, two sisters were headed home after Ash Wednesday services at their church in Bonaire. In less time than it takes to describe what happened, a horrible accident took the life of an 11-year-old girl, and just a day later, her 17-year-old sister, who had been driving.

It had been a normal Wednesday. Work, school, lunch, the afternoon, and a quick meal at dinner. There was no warning - not the slightest amount of warning - for the parents that this particular day would soon be remembered as the worst day of their lives, bar none. There was no warning that they would soon be planning a double funeral service, staggering through casket selections, finding sleep impossible, and coming to grips with the unspeakable loss of two beautiful daughters.

Such is the nature of an unexpected storm.

Illustrations are best put in threes, so here's what we'll do. To the horrible images of the storm's aftermath in Japan, and for a family in our community, just add the worst day of your life. Maybe it was the day a beloved parent died. It has been that kind of week for one of our families this week. Maybe it was the day a doctor announced that the next years of your life would be the most painful of your life. Could have been the day you fell off the financial tightrope, and found there was no safety net. Could have been the day of the discovery, the arrest, the divorce, the lawsuit, the attack ...

You fill in the blank. If you've lived long enough, you've seen such a day. It's the nature of unexpected storms. The only thing we know about them for certain ... is that they are, indeed, a certainty.

The unexpected storm is a part of the life experience.

The images are so raw, so fresh, I thought I'd deviate from my planned message this morning, and just deal with the subject we're all considering, anyway.

During the ministry of Jesus, there were lots of unexpected moments. Some of those unexpected moments were very difficult. And just as it was in Japan for thousands of people on Friday, there came a day for the disciples when they found themselves fighting for their lives from a storm that caught them completely unprepared.

Matthew, who lived through the storm, tells us what happened.

Matthew 8

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!"

He replied, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

The men were amazed and asked, "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!"

The phrase that strikes me is ... "without warning."

It was a normal day. Normal ministry. Normal meals. Normal conversation. And without warning, it was all at risk. It became imperative not to complete the task at hand ... it became imperative just to stay alive. That's all. Just stay alive.

While we're all thinking about this very unpleasant fact of life, I thought it would be a good idea to just deal with it. The storms are coming. To be prepared is better than getting caught by surprise.

The situation in Japan is indeed tragic and stunning in scope. But because the little island nation is aware of its precarious position on the edge of the Pacific rim, because scientists and marine explorers have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan, the country has the best warning system of any nation along the explosive Pacific Rim. Its building codes take the certainty of earthquake and tsunami into the planning factor. There is such an awareness of tsunami possibility, even their word for the raging surge of water has become a part of the world's vocabulary. There aren't many such words ... karaoke, origami, and anime come to mind ... but tsunami works for all of us. We understand the image. We know the danger. And it was Japan that understood it better than the rest of us. That's why we know their word for the runaway waves.

If it had not been for the level of preparation that preceded Friday's earthquake and tsunami, the death toll would have been exponentially higher. Just six years, three months ago, another earthquake - only a little larger than the one that just struck Japan - triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people. More than 127 million people live in Japan, a nation that is roughly the size and shape of California. California, by the way, has 37 million people. So picture California with three times the population, and that's Japan. They're just packed in there. If the death toll in Japan is indeed only in the neighborhood of 1,000, it will be a testimony to the incredible preparation and readiness for the unexpected storm.

The two girls that were in that horrible accident on Wednesday ... many of our people knew them as students, or as softball players ... were on their way home from Ash Wednesday services at their church. While I don't know this family personally, one thing is immediately apparent. They, too, were preparing for the unexpected storms of life. They, too, knew that it was important to be ready, at a moment's notice, to come face to face with the God who created us. That's the kind of thing such a family would do - making a place of worship, a community of worship a regular part of life. That's what you've done, perhaps. You've come here because that's what you always do on Sunday. That's where you belong. Instinctively, you know that this is an important part of life. And that ultimately, your faith relationship with Jesus Christ is the most important part of life.

The storms are coming.

If the disciples didn't get a free pass out of storms, then the rest of us who follow Jesus shouldn't expect life to be much different.

Let's put it this way. I would think that if a person gave up everything to follow Jesus, Jesus would make sure they never had to face anything difficult. Like any good employer would try to do, Jesus would make sure that his workers had a stress-free environment in which they could perform their tasks to maximum benefit. Certainly if Jesus told his disciples to do something, they would not be hampered by difficulty and pain ... wouldn't they?

Not at all. Jesus tells the disciples to get into the boat that would take them all across the lake - what we know as the "Sea" of Galilee. It's really not all that big of a lake. Today, people even swim across it for exercise. Nevertheless, it's a big body of water, maybe three miles by seven miles, and if you get out in the middle of the water, lots of bad things can happen.

The lake is in a bowl, of sorts. It sits about 200 feet below sea level, and it's surrounded by cliffs and small mountains. There are times when the desert winds kick up and hit that little depression with a fury. The wind dives down, twists around, and the forces of nature become very, very forceful. The lake has its own special weather. I've seen fog descend upon the lake, but not on the land around it ... and I've seen that fog stay in place for days ... so thick that you can't see the lake if you're standing in the water. We've gone to bed with good weather forecast for the next day, but awoken to furious wind kicking up waves so high that no boater would go out on the water. But travel up to one of the surrounding hills, and you might very well find a beautiful day.

You just never know what's going to hit you if you take off across the Sea of Galilee. And the disciples got caught by a furious storm, despite the fact that Jesus was in the boat with them.

The storms are coming. To you. To me.

No one gets a free pass from funerals, disease or tragedy. You don't get to bypass disappointment just because you were faithful in following Jesus. There's no guarantee of good times, if you'll just be a good disciple.

The storms are coming.

At some point in life, it would be a good idea if you came to grips with one of the most basic truths of life. Death is a part of life. Death happens. It's as certain as birth, and a lot more certain than taxes. I find far too many Christians acting as if they somehow believed they would never die. I find far too many Christians stunned by their approaching demise, shocked that an aging loved one might be taken from them, just speechless by the reality that if you live long enough, you're going to have to go to some funerals that hurt.

And you're going to die, too. The Bible says, "It is appointed once for every person to die, and then the judgment." The local census bureau reports that one out of one people in our community die. One out of one! And they keep voting this community to be the best place in Georgia to raise a family? Where one out of one people die?

Do something as a result of this message. Leave some instructions to your loved ones about your wishes, upon your death. If you've not done a will, there's no excuse not to do that. Just no excuse. It's a big step of maturity to make sure you've planned for the day when you're not around. Add this: Write some arrangements for your own funeral service. Let your family know that you've written down some thoughts, and where they can find them, when the day comes. Find the documents that will give them peace of mind when it comes to medical care in the event that you can't express your own desires in that moment.

If you've not done those things, quit procrastinating. Stop pretending that somehow, some way, things will be taken care of, or that there's no reason to be in a hurry. There is a reason to be in a hurry. Know what that reason is?

The storms are coming. The storms are coming.

Do something else, too. Talk to the people you love about these issues. You talk about everything else. Use this message, this day, this week, as an excuse. But broach the subject, get it out in the open, and talk about it. People use the illustration of "the elephant in the room." Death makes for a really, really big elephant. If you'll talk about it, you'll find that elephants are easily led outside of the room, and to a place where everyone is a lot more comfortable.

The storms are coming.

Jesus is in control.

I read a lot of the stories, and watched a lot of video, of what happened in Japan on Friday. Many of us have friends who live in Japan, or have family in Japan, and therefore, our interest was really peaked in what is happening there. One of our families has an exchange student from Japan living with them right now. She is often with us in our services. Her family is safe, by the way.

One thing I noticed, in all the eye-witness reports, is that people felt completely out of control. The first earthquake rumbled on for several minutes. Maybe 10 minutes. And people found themselves unable to stand, unable to lean on anything for support, unable to hold the cameras steady, just completely out of control. There was nothing they could hold on to for support.

When life gives you a big enough crisis, you need something that isn't moving. That isn't shaking. That isn't capable of letting you down.

Jesus is that "something." Jesus is the one you want to know, when life starts getting hit by one storm after another.

In the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was obviously in control. He was also sleeping in the midst of the storm. Can you imagine sleeping through the earthquake in Japan on Friday? Or sleeping through the tsunami? It wouldn't have happened. Whoever was asleep when all of that happened, the storm woke them up. No one sleeps through this kind of thing.

Jesus was asleep.

When the disciples woke him, he's hit with wind, rain, and panic. Not his panic ... but the panic of his men. So Jesus stops the storm.

It just stops.

And when he finally speaks, he asks them a most unusual question. "Where is your faith? Why are you so afraid?"

What? It seems to me that drowning at sea is a great time to be afraid! It seems to be that capsizing in stormy waters is a wonderful time to be a little uncertain about the future.

But Jesus says, "Where is your faith? Why are you afraid?"

Maybe the storm doesn't come in the form of an earthquake. Maybe you're at home, finally alone, and you're dealing, one-on-one with the cancer that's been discovered in your body.

Listen to Jesus: "Where is your faith? Why are you afraid?"

You lose a job, maybe: "Where is your faith? Why are you afraid?"

The marriage is on the rocks. The engagement is broken. "Where is your faith? Why are you afraid?"

Perhaps you're even aware that your family has made plans to shift your medical to hospice care. To comfort care. To know that the doctors have run out of options. It's often the case, by the way, no matter how sick a patient is. When that day comes - and it will come for a great number of people in this room - Jesus has a pair of questions for people on both sides of the hospital bed: "Where is your faith? Why are you afraid?"

You see, Jesus is in control.

Watching everything Jesus did, John came to a point where he said, "All things were made through him." Paul thought about the life of Jesus for years, and finally wrote this sentence: "He was before all things, and in him all things hold together."

And when Jesus said to the storm: "Be still!" ... the storm ... simply ... obeyed.

Got a storm in your life? Know that Jesus is in control. Whether or not the earth is shaking or life as you know it is changing rapidly, Jesus is in control. Period.

The key, of course, is getting in the boat with the one who is in control!

The disciples survived their storm at sea only because Jesus was in the boat. They tried all their skills at surviving, and it just wasn't enough. But because Jesus was in the boat, they survived quite nicely. They learned something in the process. What did they learn? Of all the things they did not understand on that day, they certainly understood this: Jesus was in control!

Trust Jesus enough to actually obey him.

Funny thing about this story in Matthew 8. For the disciples, the unexpected storm had to be one of the most unforgettable experiences of their lives. But that encounter, that story, is immediately followed by another encounter, another story. For the boat lands, Mathew tells us, on the shoreline of the Gadarene region. That's the eastern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

This was really, really uncomfortable. The Gadarene region was off limits for good Jewish boys. This is the land where the prodigals would come, when they really lost all sensibility. You could have anything you wanted there, from pork to wild orgies. Or maybe pork and wild orgies, all at once.

Maybe you know the story. Jesus got out of the boat, encounters a demonic man, heals him, sends the demons into a herd of pigs, watches the pigs race to their deaths in the waters of the Galilee, and then starts meeting townspeople. And the people of the town ask Jesus to leave!

So he gets in the boat, and he and the disciples head back for the safety of Capernaum. They went home.

I'm not the first person to notice something here. We don't have any indication, in any of the gospels, that the disciples ever even got out of the boat. Maybe they did. Maybe they pulled the boat up on the shoreline and just kind of hung close. They just stood around, wondering what they were supposed to do next.

Fear factor? They were in the wrong place. They were spooked by a demoniac. In time, they saw their fears of demons were well founded. Yes, the crazy man didn't appear to be crazy anymore, but nevertheless, there were lots of things to be concerned about here. So they just hang close to the boat, keep their mouths shut, and wait for the first command to get back in the boat and get home where things are normal.

I can almost hear the questions on the way home: "Where is your faith? Why are you afraid?"

If Jesus is in control in the midst of the unexpected storm, wouldn't he be in control in other times, as well? Why didn't one of them approach the demon-possessed man. Jesus had his back! Why weren't they engaging the towns people with the message that their rabbi was incredible, that they should listen to him, that they should not worry about the pigs they just lost ... they were coming face to face with the very incarnation of God! Don't worry! It's Jesus! He's in control!

Why didn't they do any of that?

I think they just weren't ready. They weren't mature enough, we like to say, to get that far out there, on a limb of faith, and trust that Jesus would take care of them.

Know what? Give this same group a few more months, and a few more life experiences, and then the most unexpected storm of all when it came to the death of this man who could stop a storm in its tracks - and you'll find this same group of men changing the world.

They went to communities where they were the only Jews in sight. And there they preached as if they were standing before friends.

They stood before rulers and authorities and told people with the power to kill them that it was they - unlearned men from Galilee - who had figured out what God was doing.

They suffered imprisonment and torture, and immediately began preaching the same message that had gotten them in trouble in the first place.

They moved to new communities - often because they were running for their lives - and immediately asked for a chance to speak in the local synagogue. They spoke there, of Jesus.

They were sentenced to death, and they rejoiced over their futures.

In other words, they got it. They came to a point where they didn't just say they were following Jesus. They actually were following. They were doing what he asked them to do. They weren't afraid anymore. They weren't afraid of the storms, their enemies, or their own shortcomings.

I say this to get to this point. There's a difference between accepting Jesus as an effort to keep your hide out of hell, and actually trusting Jesus enough to do what he asked you to do. Maybe it's the same process the disciples had to go through. Somewhere in their following Jesus, they had to drop the fear factor. They had to stop cowering near the boat, stop wishing that Jesus would just let them go home, and have enough faith to get out there and change the world.

I've seen enough funerals now to know how it works. And this is the simple truth. A funeral is a lousy time to get to know God.

If a person waits until a funeral to ask questions about God, God's going to come out looking like a cruel, unloving being whose only task is to take away the people we love the most.

You know what's really sad? I've actually seen a lot of people get pretty serious about God, about following Jesus, around a funeral. They say the right things. They even plan a funeral service that has lots of religious songs, kind of a religious theme. They cling to some thread of hope that their loved one had a relationship with Jesus, even if that's not true at all. And they make promises to themselves, to God, to me, to their family, that they'll start going to church.

After 20-plus years, I'm honestly not sure I can say that I've actually seen one of those individuals actually start attending church. Surely it's happened, but for the dozens and dozens of times I've heard the promises, I'm here to tell you ... by and large ... it just doesn't happen.

It's like being on a boat with Jesus, watching him stop a storm in its tracks, and then immediately being afraid of a naked man living in the tombs of the Gadarenes. It just doesn't add up.

If this is a man so much in control of things that he can stop a storm, then by golly, he's going to be able to take care of everything else that comes along, too. I mean, what is known about any life situation is that Jesus can handle it. Whatever it is. What is not known is how you and I will relate to that kind of truth.

You've got to get to the point where you trust him enough to obey him. To follow him anywhere. To learn how to hear his voice. And when you hear his voice, to act upon what he has to say.

Conclusion

Things look pretty bad in Japan right this minute. Workers are digging through landslides, looking for survivors. Parents are struggling to find food and water for children. The very coastline of Japan has been moved by eight feet, and thousands of acres of farmland have been ruined by the salt-water wash.

But you know what? This isn't the first storm Japan has lived through. One in 1995 killed 6,000 and injured more than 400,000. Another in 1923 killed 100,000 people. Small earthquakes are so common, being prepared for the earthquakes is common information to share with newcomers. It's the kind of a "welcome-to-the-neighborhood" that fits in nicely with a guide to the local parks and shops. Shopping, schools, parks ... and earthquakes.

The truth is, Japan will recover from this earthquake and tsunami. They have before, they will this time. If we live long enough, we'll probably see another one-two punch hit Japan.

It's very much an illustration of life. No matter how bad the unexpected storm, the unexpected crisis or grief point, you'll get through it. You move through it. It's painful, it's not what you had planned on dealing with today, but you'll get through it. Life keeps going. Survivors put the pieces back together, and rebuild.

They key to surviving life's storms - all the unexpected things that can toss us around like so many cars in the port of Sendai - is having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As surely as the disciples needed to be in the boat with Jesus, you've got to have a living, breathing, relevant relationship with Jesus. You have that, you'll be ok.

So the question today isn't about whether or not the next storm is coming. It is coming. No doubt about it. The real question is this: Are you ready?

Andy Cook is the pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in, Warner Robins, Georgia.