As much as I like going to the beach, the Jews of Jesus’ day were not to fond of the ocean. Part of the reason for this could’ve been that in some of their ancient stories the ocean was were all the powers of evil lived. The deeps of the surf were the battle ground in which God took on the Leviathan (cf. Is. 27:1; Job 3:8), a massive sea serpent that the old writers imagined as the embodiment of the nameless, faceless, unexplainable chaos of creation. The ocean represented the primordial anarchy of the universe.
The ocean also represented something more tangibly sinister in Israel’s legends: Gentile kingdom superpowers that had subjugated and oppressed the people of God for ages…from Egypt to Assyria, to Babylon, to Persia, to Rome. The book of Daniel records a well-known story of Daniel (a Jewish exile in Babylon) and a nightmare that he had of the ocean. In his dream, four beasts arise out of the ocean and wage war against the earth and against each other. Just when it seems as if the beasts are going to devour the world in fire, Daniel sees something else in the middle of the flames…a mysterious figure whom he simply describes as a “son of man” who emerges on the clouds of heaven. This Son of Man is given authority over the beasts…the wicked kingdoms devouring the flesh of humanity are subjugated to his everlasting dominion.
Large crowds had began to follow Jesus. They’d heard the incredible words he had spoken on the hillside outside of Capernaum. They’d witnessed people get healed by the words of his mouth. At one point the story, because the crowds are getting be so great, Jesus gives orders to “cross to the other side of the lake” (Mt. 8:18). Matthew is subtly evoking Israel’s past in which she was led literally across oceans (Ex. 14:29) from slavery to freedom, & from life to death. At this command, a teacher of the law approaches Jesus and makes a bold claim: “teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ response is startling on multiple levels: “foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Almost out of nowhere, Jesus claims the title from Daniel’s nightmare for himself, and in the same breath also claims to those that want to follow him across the ocean must realize that this great Ruler given authority over everything that breathes and all the powers and armies of the world is…are you ready for it?…homeless.
So this homeless man and his disciples get into a boat to cross over the Lake of Galilee to the other side. While on the lake, suddenly a ferocious storm descends upon them. Waves are crashing over the side of the boat and Jesus is … sleeping! His disciples frantically wake him saying “Lord save us! We’re going to drown!” Jesus yawns, stands up and says “you of little faith, why are you so afraid?” And then Jesus speaks to the storm to be calm, and the storm obeys him.
Everyone is amazed and they ask the question that provides the central drama of the story of Matthew: “what kind of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” What kind of man is this, who calls himself the Son of Man, the Ruler of all, who treads on oceans, who like sleeps peacefully amidst the terrifying pressure of the oppression of Gentile superpowers, who orders multitudes to cross over oceans with him?
A curious connection with the prophet Jonah echoes underneath this storyline. Jonah ran from God’s command to go to the Gentile city of Ninevah to call its people to repentance. Jonah did not want Ninevah to experience God’s forgiveness: after all, they were Assyrian. This was the capital city of the empire that had brought immense suffering on his people. And now God was calling him to go and preach in it? Jonah did not want these people to repent; he wanted judgment! God sends a storm on Jonah’s boat, and Jonah is below the deck, fast asleep. Because of Jonah’s disobedience he is thrown overboard and according to the legend is swallowed by a great sea monster.
Unlike Jonah, Jesus is traveling towards Gentile territory, into the lands of Israel’s enemies … into a great storm much larger than the small squall this band of travelers face upon the lake. Later Jesus will warn his opponents that the “Sign of Jonah” will be intertwined with his own fate…that the Son of Man will enter into the heart of the earth for three days. Jesus crosses over the lake to the other side and continues to perform deeds of power with words of his mouth. As they travel his mission becomes increasingly clearer to his disciples, and we begin to think that perhaps Jonah will get the judgment upon Israel’s enemies that he once longed for after all. An ominous darkness creeps over the horizon of the narrative in the skies to the south and distant rumblings of the storm of Jonah can be heard once again…