In the 15th and 16th centuries, a whole new frontier was opening up for medieval Europe. New ship-building technologies and some bold new claims about the earth being round had led some adventurers to explore out into the deep, uncharted waters of the sea.
And even though a few lucky sailors came across lands they never knew existed, many more died in the process because the ocean is a very dangerous place.
So much so, that medieval mapmakers would draw dragons and terrifying sea monsters at the edges of their maps, because what else would explain why so many ships failed to come home?
The sea was full of peril.
But this was not a new idea. In fact, the deadly and chaotic nature of the sea has been terrifying humans for thousands of years. And the authors of the Bible were no exception. Flip open its pages and you will see many, many references to the dangerous dark waters lying in wait beyond the shore.
The sea is one of the central literary metaphors in all of Scripture. And when we understand it, we’ll see how the biblical authors use the chaotic waters of the sea to make sense of the brokenness of our world, and where God is in the midst of it.
This is week 2 of our sermon series “threads,” where we are exploring literary images and ideas that weave through the entire Bible.
A quick recap. I mentioned last week that the Bible is not a book; it’s a library of scrolls.
Again, imagine a bunch of different shelves with scrolls written in different genres by different authors in very different times. And yet all of them telling a unified story that leads to Jesus. And all of them handed down to us by our spiritual ancestors, saying, “within these pages you will find the words of life.”
The goal for this series is to equip you. We want you to be able to study this library of scrolls on your own and get more and more out of it as you do.
To do that, we’re introducing you to six key literary threads that weave through it all. Artistic concepts that invite us into a conversation.
Last week we talked about the thread of the tree of life. Today we’re talking about the sea.
To understand the role that the sea plays in the biblical imagination, we have to start by talking about how ancient people understood the world. What was their cosmology, in other words?
Well, put simply, ancient people believed the earth was a flat disc covered by a dome and resting on pillars. You can kind of see it in this diagram here.
Below us was the underworld, where the dead went to dwell, and way above the sky dome were the heavens where the gods lived.
But here’s what I don’t want you to miss. They knew that the sea was the border of their world, because if you walk to where the land ends, there it is. There’s the ocean.
But they also believed that the terrifying waters of the sea were all around them. Deep under the earth and even over the sky. That’s why water sometimes seeped out of the ground or rained from the heavens.
Because in the ancient cosmology, our world was like a bubble surrounded on all sides by the dark waters of the sea.
And this was kind of terrifying. Because to the ancient mind the cosmos was not just some static scene. Everything was in tension.
At any moment, the sea could break its boundaries, flood into our world, and our calm, orderly reality would be filled with chaos.
Every culture back then had stories to explain this tension between order and chaos. And it showed up in their theology.
Lots of ancient civilizations had myths about the storm god and the sea god fighting one another.
For example, the Babylonian creation story is all about the god Marduk fighting against the chaotic seas personified - a terrifying sea monster goddess named Tiamat. The reason our world is ordered this way is because Marduk held the forces of chaos at bay.
I could go on and on, but you get it. In the ancient mind,
The chaotic waters of the sea were always threatening to undo the order of our world.
This worldview didn’t bring comfort, but it did bring clarity. Why is there so much death and violence and disease and pain in this life? Because chaos was always just a breath away.
A GOD OF ORDER
Now I tell you all that because the biblical authors were a part of that same ancient world. They shared the same basic cosmology. The sea was equally terrifying to them.
But when you look at how this thread of the sea weaves through the Bible it’s clear there is one major difference.
Throughout this library of scrolls there is no struggle between God and sea. Because our God is the Creator of all, and the sea does exactly what he commands. Let me show you what I mean.
At the very beginning of the Bible we see the Israelite creation story and it’s like a finger in the eye to the Babylonians. Here’s how the first scroll in our library begins.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
So the story begins with the sea covering everything. The Hebrew words for “formless and empty” here are
tohu wa-bohu - wild and waste, a formless void, chaos
There was only sea and with the sea came disorder.
So our Creator God decides to bring order out of the chaos. How does he do it? Does he get his spear? Does he go to war like Marduk? No.
Then God said, “Let there be a space between the waters, to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth.” And that is what happened.
A few verses later…
Then God said, “Let the waters beneath the sky flow together into one place, so dry ground may appear.” And that is what happened. God called the dry ground “land” and the waters “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
First of all, you can see that this is describing that ancient cosmology I talked about before. That bubble of order and creation surrounded by the chaos waters all around.
But the big twist here is that all this order was not wrestled out of chaos by a titanic struggle. God simply spoke and it happened.
To the biblical authors, our Creator God is not one among equals like Marduk. He’s one of a kind.
So that’s the first aspect of this biblical thread we need to understand.
Our God is the master of chaos.
And you see this idea picked up all throughout the Bible.
For example, Psalm 104 says
You placed the world on its foundation
so it would never be moved.
You clothed the earth with floods of water,
water that covered even the mountains.
At your command, the water fled;
at the sound of your thunder, it hurried away.
Mountains rose and valleys sank
to the levels you decreed.
Then you set a firm boundary for the seas,
so they would never again cover the earth.
In other words, everyone might feel terrified by the chaotic waters threatening to pour into our world at any moment, but we have nothing to fear. Because the sea of chaos obeys our God’s command.
This idea also shows up when you read about “Leviathan” in the Bible. Leviathan was sort of the chaotic seas personified - a terrifying sea monster kind of like Tiamat.
In the book of Job, God makes it clear that Leviathan is not exactly a threat to him.
Can you catch Leviathan with a hook
or put a noose around its jaw?...
(In other words, “because I can…”)
Will it beg you for mercy
or implore you for pity?...
If you lay a hand on it,
you will certainly remember the battle that follows.
You won’t try that again!
God has complete mastery over Leviathan. In Psalm 104, the author goes even farther. He describes God creating Leviathan as something like a sea puppy to play with.
The point again is this. The sea and its Leviathan are not a threat to God. Our God is the master of chaos.
That’s a foundational truth to understand when we are trying to answer the questions, “Why is our world so broken?” and “What is God doing about it?”
Because the chaos of our lives is not just some existential or mythological concept. It’s real. It’s the human condition. We face death and pain and violence and injustice all the time - our world is chaotic. So what is our God of order doing about it?
Well here is where things get really interesting. Because like I said last week, the biblical threads we’re talking about in this series are dynamic. And throughout this whole library of scrolls, the authors use the image of the sea to invite us into a developing conversation.
So let’s take a look at how this thread of the sea develops through the Bible.
Early on in the Genesis story humanity has corrupted God’s good creation with evil and injustice. We made chaos out of order. So how does God deal with it? He undoes creation.
He releases his hold and lets the terrifying waters flood back into our little bubble. He only spares one righteous man, Noah, his family, and two of every creature in an ark - a mini bubble of order on the chaotic sea.
But then, what does he do? He gives them a rainbow as a sign that,
Never again will floodwaters kill all living creatures; never again will a flood destroy the earth.
Now, we could talk for a long time about the theology of the Genesis flood. If you’re a skeptic like me, the whole story raises all kinds of questions. (If that’s you, come talk to me! I’ve been thinking about this a lot.)
But for now, remember the ancient cosmology? The existential threat of the chaos waters flooding in? This promise is a way of saying that God’s very good creation is here to stay. The sea of chaos will never win the day.
Again, we’re being invited into a conversation. “Alright, if God is not going to just sweep away the brokenness and evil of our world like that, how will he deal with it?”
Well, the narrative goes on. God chooses a people, the Israelites, and promises to bring order and life and abundance into the world through them. Ah, but the sea puts up a fight.
If you skip ahead in the story you find the Israelites in slavery to the Egyptians (who are basically the forces of chaos personified - Leviathan made real).
God releases his people from their bondage, and as the Israelites are fleeing Pharaoh’s army they come up against the Red Sea. They’re caught between Leviathan and the sea. So what does God do?
He does what he always does. He speaks, and the sea obeys. The waters split and the people walk across on dry land.
At the blast of your breath,
the waters piled up!
The surging waters stood straight like a wall;
in the heart of the sea the deep waters became hard.
“The enemy boasted, ‘I will chase them
and catch up with them…”
But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
in the mighty waters.
In this case, God’s returned chaos to chaos and His order won the day.
But of course, it doesn’t take long in the story for the Israelites to become forces of chaos themselves, just like the Egyptians. Almost immediately they ignore God’s commands and allow injustice and violence and sin to corrupt their own community.
So, does God allow the floodwaters of chaos to wipe them all out? No. He said he wouldn’t do that again. So what does he do? He steps into the story himself.
This man, this rabbi, this healer named Jesus… But is he really just a man?
Then Jesus got into the boat and started across the lake with his disciples. Suddenly, a fierce storm struck the lake, with waves breaking into the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
Jesus responded, “Why are you afraid? You have so little faith!” Then he got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm.
The disciples were amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked. “Even the winds and waves obey him!”
This story is a great example of why understanding these biblical threads is so important. If you’re not thinking about the world of the text - how this story connects with the rest of the Bible - then it’s just a story about how Jesus has superpowers or something.
But connect this story with the thread of the sea, and suddenly it’s clear: Jesus speaks and the waves obey… Our Creator God is among us!
Now we see God’s plan for dealing with chaos revealed. He’s not just holding back the waves. He’s stepping into the story as one of us, healing our broken creation from the inside.
And his new kingdom, of life and hope and justice and love, will conquer the forces of chaos once and for all. In fact, at the end of our Bible that’s exactly what the author of Revelation picks up on.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone…. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
In this vision of the New Creation, there is no more sea. Chaos is defeated forever. And with it, death and mourning and pain.
Our God is the master of chaos, and because he stepped into our story, Jesus Christ will defeat chaos for good.
So that is the biblical thread of the sea. There is so, so much more we could talk about. Like enemy nations ‘roaring’ the waves, or God battling the sea in Habakkuk 3 or Psalm 74.
We’re not getting into all of that, but I am giving Psalm 74 to you as this week’s “Take Home Passage.” I want you to read Psalm 74 on your own with all of what we just talked about in mind, because the author wrestles with this theme of chaos in a really dark time in his life.
Essentially, “God you used to be the master of chaos, so why aren’t you acting like it now? How long are you going to wait to bring order and justice into my life?” It’s provocative. Read Psalm 74 sometime this week.
For now, though, I want to end by making this very personal. Because I know I just dumped a bunch of stuff about cosmology and sea monsters and it may not feel particularly practical to you right now.
But what I want you to hear is that in this grand narrative struggle of the Bible - between order and chaos - between a world created, a world corrupted, and a world redeemed - we have not yet reached the end of the story.
Yes, when Jesus came he changed everything for us, but we are still living in the “not yet.” The world of Psalm 74. Yes, we know where our story is going. As Christ-followers we can have confidence in our destiny in New Creation. But our world is still being transformed.
Which means you and I still have to wrestle just like the biblical authors with the reality of our world’s chaos. With your life’s brokenness.
I can’t answer for you why God doesn’t just snap his fingers and make all the chaos of your life go away. But what I can do is invite you again into the story.
I’m going to read one more passage of scripture that I think might come into some new focus based on our conversation today.
Before I do, though, I want you to think about the chaos you’re facing right now. Whatever it is. Brokenness, grief, anxiety, pain, fear, disease, addiction… Close your eyes, take a second, and ask yourself, what is your chaotic sea?
[pause] Now place yourself in this story as I read.
Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone.
Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!”
But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”
Then Peter called to him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.”
“Yes, come,” Jesus said.
So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.
Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?”
When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped him. “You really are the Son of God!” they exclaimed.