Monday, July 27, 2015

Sermon on Mark 6:45-56, for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, "From Hardness to a Trusting Heart"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Unbelief is really the chief and greatest sin of all, and the hardest sin to overcome. When we think of what the worst sin might be, our mind rarely lands on unbelief—but unbelief is really the sin against the first commandment. God says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Believing in God is the first and most important command. Unbelief shows itself in a variety of symptoms, ranging from outright rejection or anger toward God, to making substitute gods or idols, to take the place of the One True God, or hardness of heart and distrust. The last one, hardness of heart, is the core problem in today’s reading.
What does the Bible say about hardness of heart? Frequently in the Old Testament, this is described as a sin that is common to rulers and kings. Pharaohs, Kings of Israel, and Kings of Babylon all suffered from this sin. They became proud in their spirit, stubborn and resistant to God’s will, and became set in their sin. This was not only the sin of the rulers, however, as the Israelites in the wilderness hardened their hearts again and again, and fell into disobedience. Forty years of wandering in the desert was largely the result of their hardness of heart in not trusting God. Proverbs 28:14 talks about the outcome of hardening one’s heart: “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” Hard hearts lead to bad things, but turning to the Lord leads us into mercy. Job, in the Old Testament, faced many bad things that were not the result of his hardness of heart, but nevertheless he observed correctly that no one can harden their heart against God and hope to succeed (Job 9:4).
With that background on “hardness of heart”—it might be surprising that Jesus’ own disciples are described this way. They, after all, believed in God—but in the circumstances they were in, they doubted, distrusted, and didn’t understand. After seeing the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, from last week, and today after seeing Jesus walk across the lake and calm the wind, it says this: “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Jesus’ own disciples were fighting with that same sin of unbelief and hardness of heart. It wasn’t in the form of unbelief in God, but doubting and disbelieving His works and Jesus Christ His Son. The implication seems to be that if they had believed and understood the lesson about the loaves—then seeing Jesus walk across the water and calm the wind and see would have made perfect sense. You would think that after seeing Jesus miraculously feed the 5,000, walking on water should have come as no surprise. The big clue is—you are dealing with God here, in Jesus Christ! Who else but God walks on water?
If the miracles themselves were not already enough evidence, it becomes even clearer in the words that Jesus speaks as He arrives at their boat: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Now if you read this in the Greek, it’s directly, “Take heart, I AM.” I AM would have rang out in the disciples’ ears as a clear echo of God’s own words in the Old Testament, as He revealed who He was to Moses. “I AM Who I AM” God spoke to Moses, from the burning bush. Jesus speaks God’s own words, and tells the amazed disciples, as He’s walking across the waves to them, “I AM.” But does the fact that God is approaching them make it even more scary, or would they be less afraid?
In some ways, if we look at personal encounters with God in the Bible, we’d expect them to become even more afraid!! It’s not a ghost, or any mere man, it’s God Himself walking toward us! We know the kind of fear that creates in the Bible. Fall down on your face in the dust fear. What does God want with me, a poor, miserable sinner fear? I’m going to die right now fear. That’s how people often reacted in the awesome presence of the Holy and Almighty God. They want to shrink away in fear. But Jesus call to us not to be afraid. He wants to fill your heart with courage, and to see that He comes for us, for our good, for our life, for our salvation. God coming to their boat didn’t mean more trouble, it meant that fear, the raging of the wind, and the anxiety of the disciples was ending. It meant the threatening powers of nature had to be calm and obey their master. It meant that their horror of seeing a ghost, was unfounded and foolish. He was their Lord, and He was with them. In the presence of Jesus, the Great I AM, who calls us not to be afraid, fear is turned into trust. The scary, frightening situation is transformed into a situation of calm and security, because the Great I AM is in control.
And yet that nagging unbelief is still a challenge. Even after this, the hardness of heart continues. And doesn’t get better until after Jesus’ cross and resurrection. What to do about hardness of heart? What about our own stubbornness or settling into our own will, contrary to God? The apostle Paul speaks about hardness of mind in 2 Corinthians, and specifically being blinded to Christ as one reads the Old Covenant. He states that there is only one way that this blindness and hardness is lifted. It’s through Christ, when one turns to the Lord, that it is lifted (2 Cor. 3:14-17). Hardness of heart is not a medical condition with a prescription drug cure. It’s not a psychological condition with a counselor cure. It’s a spiritual condition and Jesus is the cure. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel foresaw Jesus’ solution to the hardness of heart. In Ezekiel 36:26, God says these words, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
Jesus’ solution to our hardness of heart is to give us a new one. A new spirit and a heart of flesh. The thought of having a heart transplant is every bit as fear inducing as what Jesus’ disciples experienced on the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus stands on the restless waves and calls to us, “Take heart, I AM; do not be afraid.” Jesus gives us our new heart and new courage. He gets in the boat with us, and the storm ceases. Obviously, Jesus being in the same boat with them, and with us, is supposed to make us feel calm, and trust in Him—but just like the disciples we wrestle with that hard heart. But like I said last week, thank God that Jesus is a Good Shepherd and a patient teacher, and that He bears with us through our weaknesses. He has not abandoned us to struggle helplessly in the wind and waves, but is there beside us to see us through. And we will safely make the shore with Jesus.
Living with faith, living with trust in Jesus, and spiritual sight that recognizes Jesus for who He is, and what God’s power can do, is a whole different matter. Crowds are starving, and we’re out of bread? Put it in God’s hands! Jesus sent us across the lake, and now we’re stuck exhausted from fighting the wind? Put it in Jesus’ hands! I’m living day to day and don’t know how I’m going to take care of all the problems that are going to show up tomorrow? Put it in Jesus’ hands. It’s so simple, but when Jesus isn’t even on our radar, or we imagine Him to be stuck someplace far away and unable to help, or when we even see His hands at work but still don’t trust—it’s all that same fruit of unbelief. And there’s only one solution for that hard heart trouble. Back to Jesus. Eyes back on Him. Prayer and trust committing the problems and cares to His care and keeping. It’s not an empty promise, but a promise rich with hope and peace, when we are invited to cast all our anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.
And you can rest assured that Jesus’ eyes are on you. He sees and knows your struggle, and He cares, because He truly knows all about your needs. You can rest assured that He who sends us trials and crosses to bear, knows how best to end them and carry us through. Listen to the words of a beloved hymn: “When life’s troubles rise to meet me, though their weight may be great, they will not defeat me. God, my loving Savior, sends them; He who knows all my woes knows how best to end them.” (LSB 756:2). With Jesus’ faithfulness to us, and by trusting in Him, the weight of life’s troubles is carried by His strong arms. With Jesus, the Great I AM, by our side, we know that He will bring us to a faithful conclusion of our troubles—even if death should come, it cannot snatch us from His arms.
Jesus’ eyes constantly were turning to His disciples in their trouble. He put them in situations where they could be challenged, learn, and grow. But He didn’t abandon them or walk past them on the water and let them sink. He gave them courage and a new heart when fear paralyzed and unbelief filled them with doubt. My fear, paralysis, and sinful doubts and unbelief must also be thrown down at the cross of Jesus. Jesus must speak that courage and fearlessness into my heart, so that I may have a new heart and trust to walk with Him. To face storms, trials, seemingly impossible circumstances and to face them with the Great I AM by our side and in our boat. To know that the One who commands the wind and the waves has power over the troubles I daily experience.
That trusting heart that Jesus gives leaves us moldable, open and ready to be called into His service and shaped into His image. The trusting heart that Jesus gives leaves us equipped to be a disciple who follows, who listens to Jesus and knows that He will lead us faithfully and for our good. The trusting heart that Jesus gives knows that there will be peace after the storm, that He is in control, and that He really is listening to our prayers, even when we feel like we’re stranded. This is the faith that can move mountains—the faith that trusts in God, the mountain-mover. The faith that trusts in Jesus, who buried the mountain of our sins in the grave, and rose in life again, proving that with God, nothing is impossible. Join with me in prayer: Dear Lord Jesus, according to your promise, give us new hearts and spirits. Remove the heart of stone from within our flesh and give us a heart of flesh. Grant us courage and fearlessness to trust in You, for You are the Great I AM, and You are with us. In Your Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. How does it cause you to reflect on challenges in your own life, that Jesus sent His disciples across the lake, knowing that they would become overpowered by the wind, just as He gave them the seemingly impossible task of feeding 5,000? What was He teaching them/us? 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.
  2. What is significant about the fact that Jesus also needed time alone for rest and prayer? When we neglect rest and prayer, why does it cause us to trade peace and rightness with God for restlessness and worry? How does devoting time to rest and prayer restore that? Matthew 6:25-34
  3. If you were in the boat with the disciples, would the choppy waters have seemed an impassible obstacle or barrier between you and Jesus’ help? When do we fear that we are beyond the reach of God’s help? Why is this foolish to think? Psalm 77 & 78; Numbers 6:21-23. Is Jesus’ arm shortened or does He face an obstacle in helping us, since He has ascended to our Father in heaven?
  4. How do you see signs of superstitious fear, like that of the disciples, still today? Does the Bible reinforce or discredit the idea of ghosts and phantoms? Luke 16:19-31; 24:36-43; Hebrews 9:27. On the other hand, what are demons able to do? 2 Corinthians 11:13-14
  5. Read Mark 6:50. Jesus says, literally, “Take heart, I AM; do not be afraid.” How does this statement connect or borrow from God’s language in the Old Testament? Exodus 3:14-15. What is remarkable about the fact that God in Jesus commands them not to fear? What response does God want from us instead? Trust!!
  6. Hardness of heart reflects the sin of unbelief, and perhaps surprisingly, it persists, even in the face of miracles and evidence of God’s hand at work. Mark 6:52. How did the disciples’ unbelief continue, going forward to Jesus’ cross? Mark 9:32; 10:32. What is the ultimate solution for our hardness of heart? Ezekiel 36:25-27

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