Sunday, August 7, 2005

Twelfth Sunday of Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.

I do not get much time alone, especially during summer vacations. They are both at the age when they'd rather ignore Mom and stay hidden away in their rooms or in front of the television, but I'm not really alone. Just as I think I can get some work done, they come looking for attention or food or to complain about the other one. Just as I think it is going to be quiet for awhile, I get interrupted.

It is my job, as mom, to stop whatever I'm doing to ensure the safety of my kids and to meet their physical needs. I do so as best I can and it is a joy and a pleasure to take care of them. I'm not complaining. However, there are times I would really love to be alone, really alone. I wish I had a place I could go where no one can interrupt me or demand something of me.

In last week's Gospel lesson, we saw Jesus trying to find a quiet place to mourn, a place where He could spend time alone with His Father to listen and to pray about what is next to come. Herod's reaction to Jesus' ministry puts Jesus in an awkward position. Herod was afraid because he thought Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Any followers were dangerous because they saw John, and now Jesus, as having come from God. Herod's murder of John could lead to a public revolt, a Roman response to rebellion. Politically it was a difficult time.

It was not time for confrontation with the powerful entities in Jerusalem. Jesus still had much ministry to accomplish not only to the Jews in the region, but also to the Gentiles. Death would come soon enough, there was no reason why Jesus should provoke those who could, and would, send Him to the cross.

Today's Gospel lesson opens immediately following the feeding of the five thousand. Though we don't hear in Matthew's version about the reaction of the crowd to this miracle, we know from John that they were prepared to make Him king. With full stomachs and the passion of what Jesus was doing and saying, it was likely that the five thousand were on the verge of getting out of control.

Jesus turns to the disciples and sends them away. He put them in a boat and told them to go to the other side of the lake. It seems odd that He would send them away. They could help hold off the crowds or take care of them while He went to the mountain. Instead of sending them away, Jesus could have gotten into the boat and gone to the other side of the lake with them. What might the disciples have thought about abandoning Jesus? How would Jesus get to them later and how would He find them?

A boat like the one the disciples may have used was found during a drought on the Sea of Galilee. It would have held a dozen or so people with room for oarsmen and a helmsman. It might have also used a sail. In all likelihood the disciples would have been using the oars because of the storm on the sea. Even still, it was difficult rowing because they were only three and a half miles from shore when Jesus appeared at the boat. Mark tells us that Jesus could see them from the shore straining against the wind.

We don't know how long they were struggling with the boat, but it might have been hours. It would have taken some time for five thousand or more people to disperse and then Jesus went to the mountain to pray. Jesus often spent hours at a time on His knees with His Father. He still had not had time to mourn the death of His friend and cousin John. He needed direction for the struggles He would face in the coming weeks and months. Matthew tells us that Jesus appeared walking on the water during the fourth watch, between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m.

They didn't get very far without Jesus, the force of the winds kept them from moving forward. Despite this, they were definitely far enough from the shore that they never would have expected to see someone walking toward the boat. They certainly did not expect to see Jesus. As a matter of fact, when He appeared to them, they thought He was a ghost. It is an understandable mistake. The Sea of Galilee was known for these sudden storms and many ships had been lost over the years. I'm sure the disciples were familiar with plenty of ghost stories, especially the fishermen.

They were in a state of highly energized emotion. They were afraid, not only of the storm that raged around them on the sea, but also the winds that were raging around Jesus and His ministry. They were probably very tired and concerned about Jesus. They were excited because they just saw the most miraculous then occur – five thousand people fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish. No wonder they did not recognize Jesus.

He called out to them, "Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid." Another translation says, "Take courage!" He doesn't identify Himself, He literally says, "I am." They needed the comfort of God's presence in the midst of their troubles, all of their troubles. The things Jesus was accomplishing was far more than they could ever have expected. He was healing the sick and sharing the kingdom of God, but He was not the first to have done so. Others were able to perform miraculous signs, and others had claimed to be the Messiah. The people had followed others and thought that those others were the ones sent by God to deliver them from the oppression of the Romans. They were not looking for spiritual direction, but for a very earthly answer to their problems.

Jesus was refreshed by His time alone with God and He walked out to the boat with the disciples. In the midst of the tempest, they were afraid, not only of the wind and waves but also of their Lord. He called out, "I am." Peter recognized Jesus, but he was still unsure about how it could be Jesus so he said, "Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the waters." Peter needed the faith that comes from the Word of God. It took courage and strength to step out of that boat, but he never could have done it without faith in Jesus.

"If it is you, bid me to come." How often do we ask the same question of God? We see the world around us, and it is like a tempest. The winds are blowing in every direction and we can't move forward. We are afraid, confused, excited and unsure. We think we hear God's voice calling to us or see God's work in our world, but we doubt. We doubt because we also see the evil in the world, in our neighbors and in our own hearts. We feel alone. We feel scared. We feel burnt out. We feel like there is no way we can do anything that will make a difference. We feel like it is all a waste of our time.

We are no different than Elijah. Look at what happened to him. He had accomplished a most miraculous thing – he'd made water burn. He challenged the prophets of Baal to call on the names of their gods to see if they could burn the flesh of a bull. Four hundred and fifty prophets tried and could not bring fire upon the sacrifice. Elijah set up his altar, laid the sacrifice upon it, soaked it with water until it filled a trench around the altar. When Elijah called upon the Lord God Almighty, He answered with a mighty sign, burning the sacrifice, the wood and even the stones and the soil. When the people praised God for this miraculous sign, Elijah ordered the slaughter of the prophets of Baal.

In doing so, he made the wife of the king mad. Jezebel vowed to destroy Elijah. He was alone; the other prophets of God had already been killed and there were few left in Israel who worshipped the LORD. Now he was the target of a dangerous woman. So, he ran. He ran away into the desert and asked the Lord to let him die. The angels of the Lord ministered to his physical needs and sent him on a journey to Mt. Horeb.

Why did Elijah pray to die? Was he afraid? Was he depressed? Was he totally drained? Was he full of self pity? Was he having a faith crisis? Did he feel alone and unsupported? Have you ever had a time when you felt any or all of those things? I think we have probably identified with at least one of these emotions at some point in our faith journey. We are afraid to step out into the tempest. We are depressed when things do not seem to be going our way. We are totally drained when it seems like we are doing everything. We are full of self pity, often. We even have faith crisis, when we wonder if what we are doing is really of God and for God. We think we are alone and unsupported.

Do you think the disciples felt that way? Probably. Jesus sent them away in the boat without a definite plan for tomorrow. They were facing an incredible storm on the sea as well as on the land. The same is true of Elijah. He was alone, as far as he could tell. What good would it do to keep trying? He'd rather be dead by the hand of the God he loved than to suffer under the wickedness of Jezebel.

God would not let him die. Instead, He invited Elijah into the presence of the LORD. At the mountain, a powerful wind, earthquake and fire shook the mountain, but God was not in them. Then Elijah heard a gentle whisper. He put the hood of his cloak over his face and went to the mouth of the cave. There he met God, voiced his complaint and waited to hear God's answer.

The Lord did not punish Elijah for being afraid or depressed or drained or full of self pity or in a faith crisis. He also did not let Elijah wallow in these emotions. He assured Elijah of His presence and sent him back into the tempest and promised him he would not be alone. Elijah went to complete the work God had ordained for His life, uplifted and encouraged by the knowledge of the presence of God.

Peter recognized Jesus on the water and wanted to step out in faith, but he needed the assurance that he was not alone. "If it is you, Lord, call me." Elijah may not have realized it, but he needed the same sort of assurance. When they stopped to listen for the voice of God, which is often little more than a whisper, they were lifted up in their faith to go and serve the Lord.

The storms we face are quite different than that of Peter and Elijah. The Church is this modern world faces a great many difficulties. The world wants to mold believers to fit into their expectations. Believers disagree about what it means to be a Christian. We even fight about the color of the carpets in our naves. Churches are being sued, Christians are persecuted. Some churches have physical limitations, not enough space to do what they would like to do. Others do not know where they will find the money to pay the rent. Yet others can't come to a consensus as to what their mission is in this world. We are afraid, depressed, drained, and full of self pity. I am sure there is someone reading these words in the midst of a faith crisis, or who belongs to a church in the midst of a faith crisis. We think we are alone.

Paul reminds us in today's Epistle lesson that the word is near to us. It is in our mouths and in our hearts. The word is the word of faith that has been proclaimed to us. "…if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." He adds, "For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame."

We know the rest of the story found in today's Gospel lesson. Peter jumps out of the boat and begins walking on the water toward Jesus. Then, for whatever reason, he flounders and sinks. I wonder what he was feeling at that moment. Shame, perhaps? He made a big deal about his faith in front of the disciples and to Jesus, "If it is you, call me." Then he was distracted – by the waves, the wind, the other disciples, his own ego, the ridiculousness of what he was doing – and he sank. But, in the depths of his troubles, he knew who to call. "Lord, save me." Jesus reached out His hand and lifted Peter out of the sea.

We need to know the one on whom we can call. Elijah learned that God is not found in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. Perhaps he even learned that the "big show" is not necessary to demonstrate the Lord's power. He learned that God speaks with a still, small voice, and yet that gentle whisper is louder than the worst storm we face. We need only know to whom we can call. "Lord, save me."

Paul reminds us, however, of what it is we are called to do in this world. "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent? even as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things!" We would never have known the name of the Lord if we had not heard of Him from someone in our past. That someone stepped out of the boat or walked off the mountain into the tempest to share God's word with us. There are millions in the world, perhaps even our next door neighbor or someone living in our own home, who has still not heard the word that brings salvation. Jesus is calling us out of the boat into the tempest so that they might hear, believe and be saved.

We are going to have moments like Elijah and Peter, whether we are at the beginning of our ministry or at the end, when we feel like the task ahead of us is impossible. We are going to be afraid, depressed, drained, and full of self pity. We are going to have those crises of faith. We will feel alone and unsupported. Yet, when we get to the very point in our life of faith when all we want is to die, in that lonely place we will hear God. Christ will come and say, "Do not be afraid, I am." He is present. He is powerful. He is able to catch us, lift us and send us on our way to share the good news with the world. Thanks be to God.

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