Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 38:4-18
Psalm 18:1-6 (7-16)
Romans 10:5-17
Matthew 14:22-33

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.

We laugh at the weathermen. I know that meteorologists are highly educated and that they have incredible computer programs that help them predict the weather. I know that they get it right more often than not. It is sometimes quite amazing to watch the model predictions of expected storms and see how close they came to the real thing.

I laugh when the try to give us a two week forecast, or even try to tell us on Monday what will be happening the next weekend. You can watch every local newscast and hear different expectations. One puts the chance of rain at 60% while the other does not expect rain at all. Their models all come together on Friday and they tend to predict similar weather. The science is getting better, but it is still not something we can predict with any real accuracy so far in advance.

You can see this most clearly when the weathermen display the computer models for hurricanes. They call it the spaghetti model because the picture of the many different possibilities looks like a plate of spaghetti. Early in the formation of the storm, the models have it going many different directions. There are a few that tend to be more accurate, but even those will change as time goes on. In the end, the models tend to tighten up only when the storm is close to land, and then they can make their landfall predictions. Unfortunately, some storms still surprise them and veer one way or another. Hurricane Rita was expected to make landfall around Corpus Christi, putting San Antonio directly in its path. The city prepared, and though we are well inland and the hurricane would be downgraded significantly, we still expected nasty weather, flooding and the other problems associated with a storm. It turned at the last minute and made landfall near Houston. We had nothing but sunny skies. This last minute turn proved devastating because the city could not evacuate fast enough. People were stuck on the highways for hours trying to escape.

We try, and the science is getting better. Storm chasers are learning something new with every tornado they encounter. I am sure it is a frustrating job because no matter how many times they get things right, we still laugh when the weathermen get it completely wrong. We joke that it is the best job to have in San Antonio because they are right nine months out of the year (sunny and hot.) The local weathermen have created all sorts of new ways of sharing the weather to make it more interesting, comparing temperatures in different ‘zones’ just to show that there is something to predict. There is one map which puts up the expected temperatures in different neighborhoods; last night’s predictions were anywhere from 96-99 degrees. Is 96 all that different than 99, really? It is all hot. And the reality is that it might be 99 in my front yard where it is sunny and 96 in my backyard where it is shady.

It is an important job, though. We need to know the weather. It is helpful to know what the weather might be in two weeks, especially if we are planning a vacation or a picnic. It is good to know if a hurricane might come our way so we can make sure that we have the supplies we need. Families who live on the coastlines where hurricanes can hit need to board up their windows or evacuate. Families who live in tornado alley need to make sure that they have a safe place to hide. Flood zones need to be prepared. We need to know if it will be extremely warm or cold so that we can dress appropriately.

Through it all, however, we have to remember that the weathermen are not God. They might get it right most of the time, but sometimes they fail. They can’t always predict the unpredictable.

I thought about the weathermen as I read today’s passage from Job. Of course, God wasn’t speaking to the scientists that try to predict how much rain will fall, but He is talking to us when we try to be in control. Sometimes we think we know better than God. Job certainly felt that way. He made his case before God, claiming that he did not deserve the suffering he experienced. We do the same; we cry, “Why me?” and then lay out all the reasons why we deserve better. We have been good. We have gone to church. We have done nice things for our neighbor. “Why did this happen to me?”

We never really know the answer, but sometimes we discover that we are blessed through the suffering. In this speech, God reminds Job that he can’t possibly know everything that God knows. We weren’t there when He created the world. We don’t know the measure or the line. Science may have come to understand a great deal about the way the world works, but no human being knows what God knows.

We suffer, not because God is making life difficult for us, but because we live in a perishable and imperfect world. No matter how good we are, we are not perfect. Sometimes the suffering is a consequence of our frail flesh. Through it all, however, we can continue to trust in God because He does know. We might be sick or going through a difficult situation. We make wrong decisions; we turn down the wrong path. Our mistakes are not always blatantly wrong; we aren’t evil because we make a mistake.

I was in Charleston, South Carolina during my trip the other week. I arrived early and spent time enjoying the sites, but on my way back to my hotel I decided to locate the venue for the conference. I knew where it was approximately, but I did not have exact directions. I found a part of the campus, but it did not make sense. I drove around the block and could not find a place to park or even a building that looked correct. I made a turn down one road and ended up at a dead end. I made another turn and found myself driving into the city. I went around the block several times, spent nearly an hour trying to find the place but never did. I went back to my hotel hoping I could find someone who had the answer.

I found my way, but I have to admit that there were some crazy, scary moments. I don’t like to be lost in a strange city. I’ve ended up in bad neighborhoods late at night because I have made a wrong turn. It is scary because I could possibly suffer at the hands of someone who wants to take advantage of my mistake. I could ask the question, “Why me?” but the reality is that I was in that situation because of my imperfection. Some suffering can be attributed to sin and the sins that we commit, but sometimes it is simply a reality of this imperfect world.

I suppose this is especially true when it comes to the weather. Can a family be blamed because their house is destroyed by a tornado? Are they experiencing the consequences of sin because they lose everything during a hurricane? Is it their fault that the temperature is too or too cold? We can’t even blame the weathermen for inconvenient weather, so we certainly can’t blame the victims. And we shouldn’t blame God.

Sadly, we do blame God when we experience unexpected suffering. We cry out, “Why me?” We lay down the reasons why He should have protected us or saved us or stopped the bad thing from happening. We don’t deserve it. This is actually true. We don’t deserve the good or the bad. Sometimes it happens. What we need to do is trust that God will help us through the good and the bad. Trust. It is all a matter of trust.

The disciples experienced an unexpected storm. Jesus sent them across the lake to the other side while He went to the mountain to pray. He was planning to catch up with them later. Unfortunately, the wind blew so hard that they could not make the boat go forward. It kept them in one place, a way off the shore.

Storms can be frightening. In this story, the disciples were familiar with the lake, with the boat and with storms, but it doesn’t make it any less frightening for them. They probably predicted that they had enough time to cross before the storm hit, but it came out of nowhere. They weren’t prepared. They were exposed to the elements. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to see a man walking toward them. There is no way a man could walk there, even in the best of weather. Who could be out there? Why would he be out there? They thought it must be a ghost, and I don’t blame them. Things like ghosts help us explain the unexplainable, and Jesus walking on water is one of those things. They were expecting to see Him on the other side, not to catch up with the boat on the lake. They were already frightened, and the image of a man in a place he shouldn’t be would just add to the fear.

In this story we see a wide range of emotion, especially from Peter. In just a few lines, Peter is terrified, uncertain, demanding, trusting, doubtful and then confident. He believed and then he didn’t believe and then he believed. He trusted and then he didn’t trust and then he trusted again. Isn’t that it is with us? We trust God with our whole hearts until something happens that makes us uncertain or doubtful. Like Job we cry out, “Why me?” and demand proof that God is really there. Like Peter we realize in the midst of faith that it is all so ridiculous. We take our eyes off God and realize that we can’t walk on water.

In the end, God has proven Himself in Jesus. He is truly the Son of God and He has ensured that we will be blessed in the end. It might seem like we should have that perfect life today; it might seem to us that the reality of the world should not interrupt our lives, but we aren’t in control. We can’t possibly know what God knows or see what God sees. We can trust that even in our bad times that God is near and that He will be faithful.

The storms of life will come, and no matter how good we are at predicting the weather, something will catch us off-guard. It is important to be prepared. In flesh we do so by having bottled water and non-perishable food, a radio to listen for news and fresh batteries. We can buy generators to provide electricity just in case and we make plans for evacuation when necessary.

The Psalm for today reminds us to be prepared in another way. Where do we get our strength? Who is our stronghold? In whom do we put our trust? Do we trust in the weathermen who get it wrong so often, or do we look to the God who created the whole world? It is good to be prepared for the storm, but what will we do when the storm strikes without notice? Will we be like Job, crying “Why me?” or will we look to our God and say, “You are my strength”?

It is good to be prepared for the inevitable storms. Even more so, it is good to be prepared for the storms of life, so that your faith will never waver. As the world tries to harm you and your enemies approach to attack, remember that the Lord God Almighty is your rock, your refuge. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ call out to God and by the power of His Holy Spirit you will know His love and grace. He will see you through.

We often face our suffering by demanding something from God. Job demanded an answer. Peter demanded proof. We demand healing or vengeance or salvation. Paul reminds us, however, that we can’t make God do what we want Him to do. We can’t go to heaven or hell to bring Him to us. We can’t make God do what we want Him to do. We can only trust that He has done what He has promised and that He will be faithful. See, it wasn’t man who demanded Jesus come, but God who sent Him and Jesus who obeyed. It wasn’t man who demanded Jesus be raised from the dead, but God who restored Him to life so that we can live with Him in eternity. We can’t do it; we can only trust that He can and that He did. It is in that trust that we find life and hope and peace, even in the midst of suffering.

Here’s the real joy of Paul’s words: God invites us to be a part of His work. Though we cannot go to get Jesus for ourselves, He is with us and near us in our hearts and in the Gospel, which is spoken into our lives. Paul says that when we believe His Word in our hearts and confess Him as Lord with our mouths we are saved. Of course, we often look at faith in extremes: it has to be fully God’s grace or fully our decision. But when we do this we lose the beauty of the relationship God has ordained between Himself and His people. We are given an active role in His Kingdom, even from the beginning of our relationship with Him. We join our hearts and minds with His by participating in His wonderful grace. It cannot happen without God, we can’t make it happen ourselves, for without Jesus none could be saved. By His grace we receive that which He has promised, confessing with our lives that His is indeed Lord of all.

When it comes to faith, I wonder about those who hold to extreme views, and yet by listening to discussions between people of different perspectives I have realized that there can be an understanding that falls in the middle, joining the good things of both extremes for the glory of God. Too many of the debates separate grace and confession when they belong together as one. Grace and faith reveals itself in word and action so that we can live in the assurance of God’s promises. We trust in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Through Him we have life and by His grace we are blessed.

He invites us into His work by giving us opportunities to tell others about Him. Those of us who know the Lord Jesus can’t imagine what life would be like without Him. We wonder at those people who are able to live day after day without some relationship with God. We can’t fathom the atheist who claims there is no God, especially when we see a perfect rose, a brightly colored rainbow or feel a cool breeze on a hot day. We see God’s hand in the coincidences that seem to occur at just the right moment in just the right place to answer our prayers. We see Him in our relationships, in our worship, in our lives as we walk forth in faith. So, we cannot understand how they do not see Him also.

Yet, even as we do not understand how they do not see Him, do we show them? Those who hear us speak about the Lord may not believe when they hear. They may not even believe a week, a month or years after they heard our words. However, once they know that God is there, it is hard to miss Him. Eventually they realize that coincidences are not coincidental, but rather that those moments are designed by the living, loving God of creation.

It isn’t easy to share the Word, to introduce people to Christ, especially if they look at our lives filled with suffering and refuse to believe in a God who would allow it to happen. It is no wonder that many refuse to see Him. That should never stop us from sharing Jesus with the world, however. We have been invited to be the mouths that confess God’s grace to the world. Our confession not only reminds us of the God who is near and who is trustworthy, but it offers that same grace to those who as yet do not believe.

Here’s a joke for today: An enthusiastic young Methodist minister was posted to a small town where there was both a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue. The Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi welcomed the young minister warmly and offered any assistance he might need in his new charge. Then they invited him to go fishing with them. As they were sitting in the boat about fifty yards from shore, the priest said he was thirsty. But they had left the cooler on the dock. The Rabbi said, “I’ll get it.” With that he stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the cooler. Later the rabbi hooked a large trout, but the net had been left on the dock also. So the priest stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the net. By this time the young minister was a little red in the face. Then the old priest said that he had left his knife on the dock and he couldn’t get the hook out of the fish’s mouth. The young minister stood up and said, “I’ll get it!” With that, he stepped out the right side of the boat and promptly sank to his eyebrows. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “Well Father, if we’re gonna’ help this boy, we should start by showing him where the steppin’ stones are.”

The emotions that night on the water were intense. Peter experienced fear, uncertainty, overconfidence, trust, doubt and confidence in a matter of minutes. He saw Jesus walking on water and he wanted to believe. He wanted to believe so much that he thought the only way he could do so was to prove to himself, and to the others including Jesus, that he had enough faith to walk on the water. He did well in the beginning because he kept his eyes on Jesus. Then suddenly he turned his attention to something else—the storm. His thoughts turned inward, to his safety and the ridiculous nature of what he was trying to do. He could not walk on water and by stepping out of the boat he was sure he would drown.

The joke is funny because the priest and the rabbi didn’t really walk on water. They knew about stepping stones that would take them to the dock safe and dry. The young minister did not know there were stones. He thought that the priest and the rabbi had so much more faith and he thought he had to prove that he was as faithful and holy as they. His purpose for going to the dock was not to serve the others but to prove his faith.

I suspect that none of us will ever walk on water. No matter how much we trust God we do not need to prove our faith by doing something impossible and amazing. However, Jesus calls us out of our boat all the time. He calls us out of our comfort zone into situations where we can serve others even though we are not entirely comfortable. He calls us to come to Him in ways that are beyond our ability so that we will learn to keep our eyes on Him for strength. The problems come when we turn our thoughts inward. We get into trouble when our motivation is self-centered, when we allow fear and envy to guide our steps. When Jesus calls us out of the boat saying “Come,” we will stand as long as we keep our eyes, and hearts, on Him.

We weren’t there when God laid the foundations of the earth and we will never be able to fully understand Him. But He is with us, near us, in our lives and our hearts and our mouths. He knows how to turn suffering into blessing. He calls us to trust in Him, to believe with our hearts and to confess with our mouths that He is Lord. It won’t be easy. We are no different than Job or Paul. We can rest in the knowledge that God knows that, too, and that He has given us the way of forgiveness. He will be there to pick us up whenever we fail because He has promised always to be near.

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