Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sermon on Mark 6:45-56, for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, "Take Heart; I AM!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The miracles in today’s Gospel follow just after Jesus fed the 5,000 with the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. While Jesus was dismissing the crowds, He sent the disciples in the boat to cross the lake ahead of Him, and then He took some time alone for prayer. Today we’ll see how Jesus calls us to courage. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Try to picture the situation of the disciples. Jesus sent them out across the lake to Bethsaida late in the evening. Jesus finishes praying and sees that they’re struggling against a strong wind, and were making it across the lake with great difficulty. Their backs must have been bent hard against the oars, their muscles fatigued and failing, their spirits discouraged and distressed by the lack of progress. And it was the 4th watch of the night! That was the last watch of the night, which meant it was between 3-6 AM. This means they’d been attempting to cross since evening! No doubt exhausted and sleepy because of the intense strain and the late hour, they were perhaps a little worried about their safety. The passage doesn’t say that they were caught in a storm, but the heavy wind must have produced strong waves as well.

Did they wonder about the same questions we might ask? Where’s Jesus? Why did He send us out here against this impossible wind? And why did Jesus wait till the last watch to come out to them? Why couldn’t He have intervened sooner? Jesus knew what was happening all along, as the Son of God. Then in a demonstration of His mastery over nature, Jesus set out for a late night stroll, on the surface of the Sea of Galilee! He walked out on the water as if it were solid ground. Who does such a thing? No one but the Son of God. He is the same God described in the book of Job, “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8), and who “walked in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:16b). For the God who put the stars in their places and called light and life into existence, nature and all its laws lie fully at His disposal. After multiplying the bread and fish, this should’ve come as no surprise.

But when the disciples saw Him moving across the surface of the waters, this was beyond their imagination. They crossed from clear thinking into superstition as they cried out in fear, thinking He was a ghost. Suddenly terror had drained all of their courage and stamina, and they actually feared Jesus, their friend and master, as a phantom who might harm them. It just goes to show how irrational fear can be. But it’s at this point that Jesus reaches out and closes the gap between fear and courage. He’ll not leave them in fear, but immediately speaks to them. His words are even more arresting in the original Greek than most English translations. He speaks these commanding and authoritative words: “Take heart! I AM! Do not be afraid!”

More than simply telling them, “it is I,” Jesus is actually calling Himself “I AM.” What does this mean? I AM, or YHWH, is God’s Divine Name that He revealed Himself by to Moses and the Israelites. It was the name God gave to Moses out of the burning bush: I AM WHO I AM (Ex. 3:14). Tell them that “YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex. 3:15). YHWH, or I AM, is God’s eternal, self-chosen name. And when Jesus said “I AM,” several places in the Gospels, including at His arrest in the garden and His trial before the chief priest, everyone knew He was making the claim to be God. So these are the powerful words that suddenly ended the disciple’s fear and called the driving wind to a peaceful halt. God declares His presence there on the water, and all of nature obeys Him.

They endured a rough ride across the lake, and a strong test of their patience and courage as they struggled alone against the wind. But when Jesus enters the boat, and speaks His Words of courage, suddenly fear is banished. Hope is restored. But now utter amazement filled them. Astonishment seems a natural reaction, but Mark actually points this out as an example of their hardness of heart, because they still didn’t understand about the loaves and the feeding of the multitude. What he’s saying is that they already had the evidence to believe. They had just witnessed an astonishing miracle. Not long before that they witnessed Jesus command a violent storm to be calm on the very same lake. It should’ve been a no-brainer. They knew the power He held. This was one more confirmation that He was true God. It was still a lot to grasp.

How often in life have we felt like God has set us out to row in a sea of uncertainty, and we feel like we’re rowing against the wind? When in life have you felt as if you were straining at the oars, but making no headway? All your best efforts were met with frustration and you were losing the strength and energy to keep fighting. Sometimes we may wonder why God throws challenges into our life that seem to hold us at a standstill. Perhaps we’ve marked a destination in some stage of our life, and it seems that we cannot reach it on our own. Fear can take hold of us like the disciples, and weaken our resolve. It can even make us doubt or fear God Himself. Maybe He’s got it in for me? Maybe I haven’t done enough to please God? Maybe we doubt that God is willing or able to bring the calm to our lives.

But into our small world of failings and fears, of doubts and disbelief, Jesus stands and booms these words into our life, “Take Heart! I AM! Do not be afraid!” “Take heart” is Jesus bolster of confidence and determination, an injection of courage to our heart so that we wouldn’t be discouraged or fearful in the face of difficulties. He’s watching over us, and will see us safely to shore. He declares Himself God in our presence, the Great I AM, still present in our lives, even until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). With Jesus in our lives, we can take heart because we know that whatever difficulties lie ahead of us, Jesus is guiding us safely to shore. His presence in our lives removes the fear and uncertainty, as well as any question of our destination.

But why does God put us through it all? Why does God let us face difficulties in life when it sometimes feels like He’s not with us? It trains us to strengthen ourselves against the challenges and hardships of life. It’s an exercise of our faith, and shows whether we see and know Jesus for who He really is…the True Son of God, and YHWH, the great “I AM.” And it makes us all the more appreciative when we do experience the peace after He has calmed the turbulence of life. As Jesus walked across the waves, so He tramples all the churning worries of life under His feet; so dear Christians, why are you afraid? (Augustine paraphrased). “It is the simple fact of life, a fact which has been proved by countless thousands of men and women in every generation, that when Christ is there the storm becomes a calm, the tumult becomes a peace, what cannot be done is done, the unbearable becomes bearable, and men pass the breaking point and do not break. To walk with Christ will be for us also the conquest of the storm.”

When Christ stands in the midst of the turbulence of our lives, there is a calmness that surrounds Him, and He who can command the forces of nature has complete control over all the trying circumstances of your life. His Word reverberates through our lives: “Take Heart! I AM! Do not be afraid!” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers will be known in every generation as I AM!, the God who saves. Knowing that He stands at your side, that He has declared His presence in your life by faith, He also speaks courage to your heart. It’s been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it. Christ can master our fears just as He holds mastery over nature.

All of these miracles, the feeding of the 5,000, the walking on water and calming the wind and waves, and the healing miracles that followed after they landed, are all but a preview of the ultimate miracle that Jesus performed. His mastery over nature, over sickness and hunger, are building toward the display of Jesus’ mastery over death—His own death. When Jesus hung on the cross, the wind and fury of evil was rushing at Him in gale force, and He made headway painfully indeed, as His very life was drained from Him by severe abuse and pain. All the force of sin, death, and Satan was poured out and driving against Him. It seemed that Jesus’ previous mastery over the powers of nature and even against evil had ground to a halt. With His dying breath and death, it would’ve seemed that fear had become reality and the gale force of evil had brought goodness and life itself into futility and submission. But Christ’s death was in fact the calming of the storm. In the death of Jesus, all the gale force of evil had emptied and exhausted itself against Him, and what worse things than death could it bring against Him? Evil had played its trump card and lost. With His following resurrection from the dead, Jesus showed who was the master of death. After His resurrection, His familiar words to the disciples, “Do not be afraid!” (Matt. 28:10) showed that the Great “I AM” once again stood among them, banishing fear, creating hope, and ruling over death and all evil.

This same risen Lord, the same “I AM” who ruled over nature with a mighty hand in the Old Testament, who beat the forces of death in the mighty victory at the cross, this Jesus now speaks courage to your life. Through your Baptism in His name He has entered your life and made you His own. Through the hearing of His Word, He now stands in your life, saying: “Take heart; I AM!” He who rules over the wind and the waves stands next to you, so that you can master your fears, and have courage in the face of the winds and turbulence of your life. Whatever hardships you face now, and however you labor and strain against them, know that there will be a calm. And know that with Jesus steering the vessel of your life, you can be certain that He will guide us safely to the heavenly shore, and that the storms and turbulence of life will all be left behind. Until then, as we still are crossing the sea, have courage and pray “Be still my soul; the Lord is on your side.” Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. Jesus again takes time alone for prayer. If the Son of God took this time, how much more important is it for us to do so? Do you face the challenges of life with prayer?
2. Why did Jesus allow the disciples to struggle so late in the night against the wind? What “driving winds” in your life seem to hold things at a standstill? What challenges leave you discouraged?
3. How is fear irrational? How does it lead us into inaction or even superstition? What do you fear? Impress Jesus’ words on your heart: “Take Heart; I AM! Do not be afraid!”
4. Read Exodus 3. By what name did God reveal Himself to Moses? How did God’s giving of His name to Moses command an end to his fears?
5. Read John 8:57-59; 18:1-8. What was Jesus claiming when He referred to Himself as “I AM”? What connection does this have with speaking courage to the disciples and us?
6. How does the Word of God and Baptism stand as the entry point of Christ and His saving work into our life? How does this presence calm our fears?

1 comment:

Bro. Brandt said...

Thank you for your thoughts on this passage. This one has left me a little stumpedas to the application, but your article gave me a lot of clarity. The deity of Christ ought to bring a peace into the life of believers. My sermon will be better tomorrow morning because of this article. Thank you.