Fourth Sunday of Pentecost
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Our help is in the name of Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.
I don't usually talk about politics, and I'm not really going to do so today, except to say that it has already begun. The presidential election, which will not happen for seventeen months, has already begun as candidates have announced their intention to run for office. They have to begin early to get their name out and to start raising the funds necessary to run a campaign that will give them a chance. It is a horrible process that lasts entirely too long. That might be to the advantage of those who can persevere through it all because by the end the voters are so tired, confused and frustrated by it all, they don't give their vote the kind of attention it needs. All too many times we discover truths after it is too late because we did not care enough when it mattered.
I suppose one of the advantages of a lengthy campaign season is that it is impossible to keep up a facade for so long a period of time. There are currently more than a dozen candidates who have committed to this campaign, although I suspect that some will not even last to the primaries early next year, they will begin dropping out when they see that they do not have the support necessary to take them all the way.
One hopeful has gotten a lot of attention lately because he seems to have no filter. He says what he says without much thought, and he is equally loved and hated for this characteristic. Those who love him say that at least he is real: you know what he's thinking. Those who hate him are bothered by his bluntness and arrogance: they don't want to know what he's thinking. Too many of us would rather see the facade and ignore the reality, but honesty and integrity matter.
I think there are many Christians who are terribly bothered by Paul for this very reason. He doesn't wear a facade; he says what he's thinking. He is often accused of being too blunt and arrogant. He will tell the reader what's going on in his life if it helps the reader to learn the lesson that he intends. His claims seem like boasts, even if the claim is something bad that happened to him. He has suffered more than others. He has more to offer. He has the right message. Read enough of Paul and you might just wonder if he was the right man to be given the role of apostle.
But God doesn't make mistakes. Paul was exactly the man He needed because He knew Paul's heart. Paul's words ring harshly on our ears sometimes, but perhaps he is saying exactly what we need to hear. We need to know that there is a cost to discipleship, that it isn't an easy path to walk. We need to know that we will suffer for our faith. We need to be encouraged to follow his example to be all that God is calling us to be. We have to realize we are sinners in need of a Savior and that the Savior has called us to a roller coaster life that will have highs and lows, joys and pains, lessons to learn and to teach. God does not want us to be people who wear masks or facades, but rather people that are willing to speak what our hearts know is true. Honesty and integrity matter, and while we may not always like the man Paul, we can trust that Paul is honest and that his ministry had integrity.
I suppose we might say that Paul had no filter. Oh, I'm sure he was very thoughtful about his words, but even more so he was guided by the Holy Spirit. The very things that bother us most about Paul might just be the very lessons that we need to hear most. They might just be the very things that God wants to change in our lives. Are we complaining about our suffering? Then we need to know that suffer produces perseverance, etc. Are we having trouble forgiving our neighbor? Then we need to know that forgiveness is the only way to peace. We don't like Paul sometimes because Paul says exactly what we don't want to hear. He doesn't whitewash the truth; he encourages us with the truth because he has learned that the truth will set us free.
In today's second lesson, Paul says, "And working together with him we entreat also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain..." During his entire ministry for Christ he faced difficulty from the Jews, from the Gentiles and from all sorts of authorities. He has a long list of sufferings to his credit. He spent time in prison. He was hungry, cold and tired. He was shipwrecked, beaten and rejected. He knew what it was like to be on the edge of death. He endured many things for Christ and for those who would come to know Him through his ministry. Through his hardships, Paul remained true to God, for with every hardship he suffered he can list an even greater virtue in which he is called to live. “…in pureness, in knowledge, in long suffering, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left…” Whether the circumstances were good or bad, Paul was there to share the kingdom of God with the church and the world. He faced it all with rejoicing because God could, and would bring salvation to someone, somewhere at some time. Paul got it; he knew the Lord and did not live in worry or fear.
I'm not sure many of us like this idea. Too many Christians flock to preachers that tell them God wants them to be happy and rich and successful. We don't want to know about the suffering that comes with faith. We want to live in the rose garden. Paul lived in a rose garden, not because his life was perfect but because he trusted God. Our peace does not come from an easy life; our peace comes from faith.
Jesus asked the disciples, "Why are ye fearful? have ye not yet faith?" They were on the sea in a small boat being tossed by the storm and the pounding waves. I understand their fear. I don't like to be out and about when the lightning flashes and the thunder clangs. On our way home from our vacation we watched storms gathering in the distance and often felt that we surely had to drive through them. At one point I was a bit concerned because the sky was black as night and we could see how heavy the rain was falling. I was sure we would be slammed with rain that made it impossible to see out the windshield and perhaps even some hail. I wondered if tornadoes were possible and had no way to check the radar. The road turned as we drove and we found that we went around the storm rather than through it. Fear was not going to help the situation; stopping would only mean that we would run into another storm along the way. While we did hit some rain along the way, it was brief and manageable. We arrived home safely and saw the silver lining: the rain cleaned ten days of travel off our car.
I don't mind thunderstorms, especially if I am safe at home, but they almost always wake me. The rest of my family generally sleeps through all but the worst, and sometimes even then. In the morning I will ask, "Did you hear the storm?" and they will say, "What storm?" I don't know how they do it. I'm not sure that I wake out of fear, but I have to admit that I'm often concerned. I turn on the TV and check the weather, especially if there was a chance for severe storms. If there is going to be a tornado, I want to know so that I can protect my family. I don't think their sleep means that they care less, but my mother's instinct always makes me worry. Perhaps they sleep well knowing that I will keep them safe.
That's what the disciples were missing in this story. They had God in their midst, the God who can stop the storm, but they were afraid. Jesus would not have allowed them to perish on that sea, but their faith was weak and they were afraid. Now, I don't usually cry out in fear to God to wake up and protect me from the thunderstorms, but I wonder how many times we are like those disciples when we face the other kinds of storms in our lives. Do we try to wake up God when we are in pain or suffering persecution? "God, wake up! Don't you see what is happening to me?"
Yes, He sees. He knows. He is there in the midst of it and even though it seems like He is sleeping, He is in control. Faith is believing that He is in control. How do we face our troubles? Do we live in fear and worry, or do we thank God knowing that He is with us in the midst of them?
The Gospel story is preceded by a discourse of parables about the kingdom of God. Jesus was sitting in the boat speaking to the crowd that had gathered to listen. The boat was His platform because there were so many people. He spoke about the kingdom in terms the people might understand: the growing seed and the mustard seed, the sower who cast seed that fell on the path, the rocky ground, in the weeds and the good soil. He said, "Is the lamp brought to be put under the bushel, or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand? For there is nothing hid, save that it should be manifested; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light." All these parables were given to lay a foundation of peace in the hearts of the disciples. In them we see that God is the Lord of everything and we need not worry.
The disciples were fishermen. They knew how to handle a boat. They had experienced rough seas. The Sea of Galilee is known for sudden squalls that seem to come out of nowhere. It would have been somewhat frightening to face such a force of nature, but not unheard of for men in that profession. They knew how to handle the water, the nets and their boat, to get into safe harbor.
What did they expect from Jesus? He was a carpenter and they were the experienced fishermen. He did not know how to handle a boat, even in calm waters. If He had not been with them, they would have gotten right to work to keep the boat afloat and steer it toward shore. Yet, because they had come to rely on Him for so much, they turned to Him in their fear. "Teacher, carest thou not that we perish?" Jesus trusted that his disciples would use their talents. He had no fear of the storm because He knew they could deal with it. "Why are ye fearful? have ye not yet faith?"
Isn't it funny that Jesus, the Lord, had more faith in fallible man than the disciples had in their God? Jesus did not come to do it all, to feed them or clothe them. He did not come to take care of all their problems or make their lives easy. He came to teach them how to trust God and go out in faith to do the work they were called to do.
We cry out in our pain and suffering, but we are answered by the question, "Why are ye fearful? Have ye not yet faith?" Have we not heard the lessons of Jesus' stories? Do we not know that God is in control?
Poor Job. Job was a righteous man who had fallen prey to the adversary. He lost everything; he lost his wealth, his health and his family. The book describes his lament and shows us how even the most righteous can find themselves in the midst of a storm of doubt and uncertainty while undergoing suffering. Job comes to the point of blaming God for his troubles, a response to the questions raised by his losses. “Where was God? How could the Almighty allow this to happen to me? Why?”
Elihu was a fourth counselor who arrived on the scene after Job and his friends spent all day discussing Job's troubles and he warned Job that God Almighty would come to talk. "Hear, oh, hear the noise of his voice, And the sound that goeth out of his mouth. He sendeth it forth under the whole heaven, And his lightening unto the ends of the earth." He reminded the friends of the magnificent work of God in the storm, how He brings the rain, snow, wind and ice. "Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out: He is excellent in power; And in justice and plenteous righteousness he will not afflict. Men do therefore fear him: He regardeth not any that are wise of heart."
Then God appeared. "Then Jehovah answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel By words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; For I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me." We don't know God's mind; we don't know His plans. God asked Job, "Where wast thou when I...?" Job was not there in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. We only not that which He has revealed to us, and though Job was close to God, he can't speak for Him. God's ways are truly higher than our ways, His thoughts higher than ours. We can only walk in faith, trusting that God is in control and doing that which He has gifted and called us to do.
That's what Jesus wanted from the disciples that night on the sea. He wanted them to trust God, even when God seems to be missing from the situation. See, God does not call us to do anything He hasn't equipped us to do. Jesus suggested that they cross the lake, perhaps even knowing that the storm would come. Even if He did not foresee the weather, He knew they were capable to handle whatever would come. Then He went to rest, leaving that work to those more qualified.
We visited five National Parks and one Utah State Park. The scenes were often the same but at the same time they were very different. Each park had mountains of sandstone, but in one they were a deep red, in another there were streaks of white and blue and purple. In one park we stood far off from the mountains, seeing them from a distance. At some we stood on the cliff looking down into the canyon. At others we stood at the base of the cliffs craning our heads to see the top.
Cliffs have long fascinated people. When we stand at the top and look down, we are awed by the thought that one slip of the foot could bring our death as we plummet to the bottom. When we stand at the bottom, we long to climb to the top just to see what is beyond our view. Cliffside adventures can be dangerous.
I have always been a bit adventurous, willing to go out on the ledge for the perfect picture, but I have to admit that there were more than a few moments when I was not sure on my feet. At one park I felt light headed as we walked along the cliff, thankful for the railing that kept me safe. At another I carefully sat on the edge so that Bruce could take the perfect adventure photo; I felt a little shaky as I did so. I really wanted to look over the edge of those cliffs even if there was no safety rail, but I did so with more caution than I would have used half a lifetime ago. Things weren't much easier at the bottom of the cliffs as I nearly got a headache staring up so long and I tripped over more than one rock and tree root.
There is a story about a man who slipped and fell off a cliff while hiking on a mountaintop. On his way down he grabbed a branch. He was twenty feet from the top and a long way from the bottom. He feared for his life and cried for help. "A booming voice spoke up, 'I am here, and I will save you if you believe in me.' 'I believe, I believe,' yelled back the man. 'If you believe me, let go of the branch and then I will save you.'" The man's fear of death was so great he yelled, "Is there anyone else who can help?" What he didn't know is that he was just feet from a shelf; if he let go he would land and it would be easier to save him. We don’t always believe the voice. It takes faith to let go and trust that our Lord will save us.
Today's psalm is a song of praise that the Lord delivered Israel from her enemies. God never left His people while they hung perilously on spiritual cliffside after spiritual cliffside. It is easy to praise God after we have been saved, but throughout the course of Israel's history, the nation constantly went looking to others for help. They turned to the strength, power and might of other nations, unwilling to be obedient to God's words. "Is there anyone else," they asked, ignoring the truth that God is greater than even the greatest nation.
We aren't much different than the Israelites or the disciples. When we cry for help the voice of God asks, "Do you believe?" All too often we cry back, "Is there anyone else?" Yet in hindsight we sing this hymn of praise knowing that our help is in the name of the Lord, the Creator God who is in control. We will continue to face new adventures looking down from the top of a cliff in awe of the potential danger or gazing up to the top of a cliff pondering what lies beyond. As we do, let us learn the lesson of faith that Jesus taught the disciples and do what He has called us to do. The world might see us as we often see Paul, without filters and speaking without considering the risks, but we need have no fear because God is with us and He has given us everything we need to accomplish His work in the world. We need not wear a facade, but need only trust that God's Holy Spirit will guide us and fill us with His grace for His glory.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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