Who is this guy? (Second Advent)

Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” 1633

Generation after generation, the people of Israel awaited the coming of their Messiah. As present-day Christians, we sometimes take the title “Messiah” to be little more than another name for Jesus. But this misses the rich background of the word: to Jews, it pointed to a divinely appointed and anointed king.

Especially in the days after returning from Babylonian exile, it pointed to the hope that God would send his people a king, someone from the royal line of David, to give them back the land that was meant to be their inheritance. In the time of Jesus, that meant freeing Israel from the domination of the Roman Empire.

The disciples repeatedly saw the power of Jesus on display. The miracles Jesus performed were signs of who he was, vindicating his claim to be sent by the Father. Peter even openly declared Jesus to be the Messiah (e.g., Matt 16:16). But throughout the gospels, it’s clear that they had not quite grasped the fullness of what that declaration meant. They had their own ideas of what the Messiah could or should do, and were constantly surprised at what Jesus actually did. No matter how many times Jesus tried to tell them of the coming crucifixion and resurrection, it didn’t seem to put a dent in their messianic expectations of triumph and glory.

And sometimes, they were downright dumbfounded by what they saw.

Here, I’m thinking of the story of the Jesus and the disciples out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. A sudden storm swept down upon them, whipping up the waves; the boat began taking on water, and the disciples feared for their lives.

But through it all, Jesus was taking a nap.

The disciples, desperate, woke him up:

They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:24-25, NRSV)

Imagine the scene. The boat is pitching madly; the wind and waves are roaring all around them. The disciples have to shout above the din, and probably would have shouted anyway in their panic: “Wake up, wake up! We’re dying over here!” In Mark’s version, they add, “Don’t you care?” (Mark 4:38). So Jesus gets up, rebukes the storm, and all is calm. Who knows: maybe he even went back to sleep.

The disciples? Luke says that they were “afraid and amazed.” They weren’t celebrating their rescue. They weren’t exchanging high fives. They were still learning who Jesus was, and the enormity of the truth was more than they could handle.

. . .

This is the scene that came to mind as I read Psalm 65. It is a song of praise to God, sung in the temple. It celebrates the power of God to deliver and save his people, and does so in cosmic terms: God is “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas” (vs. 5b). The psalmist thinks of God as being girded about with power, the kind of strength needed to establish the mountains on their foundations (vs. 6a).

And the same strength is that which calms the seas: “You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” (vs. 7). A similar thought is expressed in Psalm 89:9: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” The verb that is translated as “silence” or “still” is the same in both cases; the root of the word suggests that this is done by speaking loudly to someone, or in this case, something.

I don’t know how well the disciples knew the Psalms. But they came from the heritage of a people who had long struggled against the idolatrous practices of surrounding nations, struggled to maintain their belief that there was one and only one God, a belief that had to be jealously protected. Their sacred scriptures would have told them that only God had the power to calm the raging seas, to speak to the wind and waves in a way that they had no choice but to obey.

Only God.

And then, Jesus. The guy who, just a minute ago, was sleeping in the back of the boat.

Whether the disciples could quote Psalm 65 or 89, they had to know that only God had the power to do what Jesus did. “Who then is this?” they asked each other. I imagine their wording was a little less polite than that; they said whatever fishermen say to each other when they’re overcome with astonishment. “Who the heck is this guy?” is probably closer to it, as they tried to make sense of what had just happened.

After all, it’s one thing to expect a powerful human king who would reestablish David’s rule.

But it’s another to expect the coming of someone who could do what God alone could do.