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When Jesus Sleeps

Children sing of it at Christmas - 'the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay' - and the synoptic gospels tell of it 'the grown up Lord Jesus asleep in a boat' and this morning I found myself recalling a sermon I heard in a small church in Manchester almost six years ago that explored this theme.

In childhood we learned to sing 'with Jesus in the vessel you can smile at the storm' but of course adult life shows you it isn't always like that - certainly it wasn't for the little church where the sermon was preached, and although now that storm is long past and they did indeed weather it, there was a lot of pain and struggle on the way.

The Markan accounts are often noted for their 'zap, pow' pace and brevity, but every now and then an adjective or detail slips in that nuances the whole thing - whether it is people sitting on green grass (6:39) or Jesus sleeping on a cushion (4:38) as the boat risks being swamped in the storm.  I have no idea what a first century cushion was like, but the implication seems clear enough - Jesus is comfortable and relaxed, sparked out after his preaching and teaching whilst the disciples presumably are awake and sitting in the boat, maybe even sailing it.  They see the storm brewing (not something that unusual on Lake Genessaret), they get cold and wet and frightened and 'grown up Lord Jesus'?  'Just z's he makes!'  So they have to wake him up - incensed that he is blissfully slumbering while they fear death by drowning (the worst conceivable fate).

The preacher who spoke on this passage reminded her congregation that though it seems Jesus is indeed in the land of nod, he is present in the boat, in the storms they face.  But just maybe, she noted, he needs to be shaken awake!  Not because he doesn't care, but because we need to be real, to admit and express our fears of drowning.

Life for churches, individuals and whole nations is incredibly stormy at the moment - and maybe this story, with a Jesus who is present but seems as much use as a chocolate teapot in his somnulent state has resonance.  Maybe we need to rouse him (or at least our perception of him) risking the accusation of 'little faith' (though he also says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains) and hear him 'shush' the wind and waves, or at least 'shush' the inner storms of our hearts and minds.


Desist! Be aware of I AM God - I WILL BE, exalted among all the nations, in the whole of creation (Psalm 46:10, my paraphrase)


  • Thank you. This is a wonderful meditation for me on Ash Wednesday. My church went through troubles about 10 years ago, and it does feel at times that Jesus is asleep. We all came through it, and are stronger. But you learn things about your church family that maybe you didn't want to know, and are hard to forgive, impossible to forget.

    A Lutheran Church Lady in Washington State, USA

  • Catriona - have you seen the wonderful lego version on Youtube? I used it a few weeks back during a family service. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2N8aJOArbc

    And we sang the song - although we're a little bit more up to date and sing 'with Jesus in the boat...' rather than 'with Christ in the vessel...'

  • One preacher I heard suggested an incarnational intepretation, that Jesus was a land lubber and sleeping to avoid sea-sickness!

    I'll leave you to work out the exegetical and theological implications of that suggestion.

    Quite often we do seem to be left to get on with it - and expected to as well! (cf Jesus' exasperated cry on being asked to sort some crisis out "How much longer must I be with you?")

    "Just to the end of the age, teacher, then maybe we'll have got the hang of it."

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