The Fourth Watch

Be still, and know that I am God! – Psalm 46:10

Today, as I try to write this article, which is hours later than usual, I find myself distracted, trying to stay calm and focused, yet hour by hour we have changes and announcements about social distancing and closed restaurants, churches, and any kind of gatherings with more than 10 people. I’ve watched the stock market take a deep dive and I’ve heard the president, and those working on combatting the COVID-19 virus, giving updates. I’ve seen the numbers of people who have tested positive go up every day and, even worse, the number of deaths. And I am trying to stay positive in the midst of this storm.

So today I’ve thought about the storms in the bible and how Jesus hushed the winds and calmed the waves. In Matthew 14, Jesus had spent a long day preaching to a great multitude of people and when they were hungry, miraculously stretched a few loaves of bread and fishes out to feed 5,000 people. That was a big day’s work!

After that, Jesus sent his disciples out in the boat to go on ahead of him across the lake and he escaped up into the mountains to rest and pray. But this is what Matthew says happened:

Now when evening came, Jesus was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” – Matthew 14:23-27

I am intrigued that this, and a number of other powerful stories in the Scriptures, happen in “the fourth watch.” In that day the fourth watch (according to Roman time) was considered the time between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. It is a time when people encounter the power of God, the call of God, a time for watchfulness and prayer.

Jacob wrestled with God by the River Jabbok in the fourth watch of the night. – Genesis 32:22-31

It was deep in the night when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the divided waters of the Red Sea. – Exodus 14:25-26

Jesus was resurrected from the dead and the stone at the mouth of the tomb was rolled away. It was just at daybreak when the women discovered that the tomb was empty. – Matthew 28:10

In the fourth watch of the night, fearful, sometimes terrifying things happen. Storms seem overpowering. We are overcome with anxiety and confusion. We feel alone and cry out, “Lord! Where are you?”

Yet it is in that fourth watch, the very early hours of the morning, just before dawn, that we often encounter the powerful, amazing, saving act of God. The disciples were so afraid in that boat, being tossed and turned every way. They had no control over their situation and believed they would sink at any moment. But Jesus came to them, walking on the turbulent waves, inviting Peter to step out of the boat and do the same. Peter did great too until he took his eyes off of the Lord. And then he began to sink. Of course, Jesus took his hand and pulled him up and set him safely in the boat. Jesus also got in the boat and calmed the storm. And the disciples were amazed and convinced that he was the Son of God.

Jesus is the Christ, the one who is trustworthy to keep them (and us) safe in the storms that come. That, of course, was only one storm that would be coming in the lives of Jesus' followers.

Do you sometimes wake up in the night – during the fourth watch – and can’t go back to sleep, worrying about your situation? In the midst of the storm we all are in right now, what is your greatest fear? What is the storm that is tossing you the most? Is it fear of getting sick; fear of death? Is it anxiety over your savings as you helplessly watch the stock market plunge day after day? Is it exhaustion as you take care of others, as a healthcare worker? Is it just the uncertainty of it all? Perhaps it’s just depression at being isolated from other people.

God doesn’t keep the storms from coming but God will come to you; will lift you up out of the agitating waves and can give you calm in the center of your being. It seems that in the fourth watch – the darkest hours of life – powerful things happen. Prayer happens, the call to faith happens.

This too will pass. May we be faithful and open to the calming of our souls in this fourth hour of our lives. In those wee hours of the fourth watch of the night, may we take deep breaths and hear that sweet, quiet voice of the Spirit whisper to our spirits: Be still, and know that I am God!

Peace be still.


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