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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 20, 2017

 Lord of the Storm

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33

            If you have never been to Israel, you have missed out on seeing the Sea of Galilee, one of earth’s truly beautiful places.  Nestled between the Golan Heights and the hills of Galilee where Jesus often traveled, it is a body of water eleven miles long and four miles wide.  The Gospels tell us no less than six storm accounts set on the Sea of Galilee.

            This is the first thing we need to say about this awesome account in Matthew: Storms come into our lives.  Even when we are living the life God calls us to live, even when we are doing God’s will, darkness and storms are sure to come.  The notion that faith in God will somehow save or protect you from life’s storms, or from deep darkness, could not be further from the truth.

            Why are these disciples caught, in a storm in the darkest watch of the night?  They are there because Jesus told them to be!  Matthew tells us, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side.”  The fact that they are obedient to Jesus does not mean that they will be spared adversity.

            Our nation is facing storms again in the wake of last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, and the shockwaves caused by it across the nation.  Hatred, wherever we encounter it, is ugly and frightening.  The Gospel always calls us to love, to love even our enemies, even those who despise us.  “Return no one evil for evil,” we are taught.  “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good!”  But when storms like this rage, we are shaken and frightened.

            In the Bible, the sea, with its unfathomable depths and unpredictable storms, was a symbol of all that threatens life.  It is a metaphor for chaos and the destructive power of evil in the Old Testament.  Swiss theologian Karl Barth said, “Water,” from creation on, “is the principle which, in abundance and power is absolutely opposed to God’s creation.  It is representative of all the evil powers which oppress and resist the salvation intended for the people of Israel.”  And God does not shield us from ever encountering the power and fury of the sea.  Indeed, sometimes God calls us right into the darkness and fierceness of the storm.

            Remember Robert Browning Hamilton’s poem?  It was one of my father’s favorites:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,

She chatted all the way,

But left me none the wiser,

For all she had to say.

 

I walked a mile with Sorrow,

And ne’er a word said she,

But, oh, the things I learned from her,

When sorrow walked with me!

            In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks writes, “When most people think about the future, they dream up ways they might live happier lives.  But notice this phenomenon.  When people remember the crucial events that formed them, they don’t usually talk about happiness.  It is usually the ordeals that seem most significant.  Most people shoot for happiness, but feel formed through suffering.”

            Wisdom, humility, perseverance, patience, resilience and strength never come to us by way of ease or pleasure.  They came from the slap of setback and the storms of suffering.  We grow deeper and stronger and wiser only in the storms of life, only in the pits of despair through which we all must pass.

            A second lesson this powerful story holds is that when the storms of life do come, it is common for us to react with a mixture of faith and doubt, wisdom and folly.  The disciples were afraid in that boat, caught in a storm in the darkest watch of the night.  And when Jesus finally appeared, not at all as they expected, walking on the sea, they were terrified.  They thought it was a ghost!  They finally recognize Jesus by His Word: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”

            Peter responds with faith, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  “Come,” Jesus says.  (Jesus is always bidding is to “Come”!)  So Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking upon the sea.  But then he noticed the strong winds, and he begins to sink.  Peter here is a symbol of our discipleship.  Dale Bruner says, “Peter is a symbol for believers – they, like us, are full of faith and unfaith, of feats and failures.”

            We are a mixture, all of us, of faith and fear, of success and failure.  We are just like Peter – we take a few steps out in faith, then we sink again in our fears.  We brave the storm, then we are overcome by it.  We rise up, and we fall back again.  It is the way of faith.  The great thing about Peter is that he got out of the boat.  The great thing about Jesus is that even when we sink, He is there to save us.  We can experience both faith and doubt, both trust and fear, all at the same time, and still be Jesus’ disciple.

            Finally, and most importantly, note that when the storms of life come, when “darkness like sea billows roll,” we find Jesus in the very center of it.  Jesus does not flee from us in the chaos of the storm.  Jesus comes to us right in the center of it.  I have never seen Jesus walking upon the water, but I have met Jesus in the darkest, loneliest, most devastating times in my life.  I have learned that the most fearful, most God-forsaken times are not that at all.  In the deepest, darkest moments and places, I have learned over and again that Jesus is there, with me, for me and always going ahead of me.

  1. Dale Bruner is one of my favorite New Testament scholars to read. He is something of a Bible nerd.  He makes note of Jesus’ words in this account.  “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”  The words translated “it is I” in Greek are the words “ego eimi.”  In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament Matthew would have read, these are the same two words God gave to Moses, when Moses asked for God’s name out of the burning bush: “ego eimi” – “I am.”  Bruner then notes that these words from Jesus, “ego eimi” – “I am,” sit right in the middle of Matthew’s story!  There are ninety Greek words before “ego eimi,” “I am,” and ninety words that follow.  Bruner says, “Jesus stands at the center of everything, even the darkness of the storm.”

            And just as Yahweh triumphs over the waters of creation, and parts the waters at the Exodus, and causes, then calms the storm in Jonah, so Jesus strides atop the very things we fear the most.  And in the words of John Calvin, Jesus comes “clothed in His Gospel,” in His word: “Take heart, I am; do not be afraid.”  No word is more characteristic of Jesus!  At Jesus’ birth the angels sang it: “Be not afraid.”  At Jesus’ resurrection they said it again, “Fear not.”  And here, echoing in the storm: “Do not be afraid.”  “Do not be afraid.”

            In Barcelona, one of the western world’s great cities, terror and hatred struck another blow.  Las Ramblas is one of the most beautiful city streets in the world.  It is a two-way road, an esplanade, where traffic is restricted, and where people walk.  When Isis members drove a vehicle down the middle of it, they killed fourteen innocent human beings.  Two days later a huge crowd gathered in Plaça de Catalunya, a gorgeous city square that opens onto Las Ramblas.  The King of Spain, Felipe VI and President Mariano Rajoy were there to speak.  As they finished, the crowd began to chant, in Catalan, “No tinc por,” “I am not afraid.”  They walked Las Ramblas chanting it the whole way: “I am not afraid.”

            So Jesus chides Peter, I think with a smile, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  I like Jesus’ phrase, “little faith.”  Jesus has just told a parable about faith the size of a mustard seed, another about a small pearl of great price, and He takes a little bit of food – five loaves and two fish – and uses it to feed five thousand, with twelve baskets leftover.  Again, Bruner says, “Matthew knows that all faith has ‘little faith’ in it, and that doubt is always a part of human faith.”  Jesus takes the “little faith” we offer, and makes it enough.

            This story starts in terror and ends in worship.  And the One we worship says to us over and again, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”  We have far too much terror in our world.  But we also have Jesus, who is with us in every storm, who is Lord of heaven and earth, and whose perfect love has the power to cast out fear, and banish terror.  “I am not afraid.”  How about you?

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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