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Sunday, August 10, 2014

“Do Not Be Afraid”

Matthew 14:22–33, Pentecost 14
Focus: God saves ALL who call upon His name.
Function: That the hearer continues to trust in God’s Word alone.
Structure: Biblical Story Interrupted
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I’m sure many of you are on the edge of your seats, eager to start the next fifteen minutes or so of our worship service. For better or worse, you’ve endured nine years of hearing Pastor Snyder preach from this pulpit. Sure, you’ve listened to others preach while pastor was away, but this is different. I’m not leaving when Pastor comes back. You’re stuck with me for the better part of a year. So I would imagine you are wondering how I am going to be as a preacher. Am I going to be funny? Am I going to be exciting? Will I speak with a lot of colorful images or be as dry and boring as a doctrinal textbook? Will I be theologically correct? Will I be politically correct? And just who is this guy standing before you anyway? Well, let me start my sermon by telling you a little about myself.
Entering college I had no idea what I wanted to be. The farthest thing from my mind was that I wanted to become a pastor. It took most of my freshman year and several changes in my major to arrive where I am today. though I hadn’t the slightest clue academically, I started the year knowing who I wanted to surround myself with socially. I immediately immersed myself in a search for a Christian group to join. I hadn’t been involved in church much since confirmation, but my faith brought me through a pretty rough depression in high school, and I knew I needed to feed and nourish my faith if I wanted it to grow. The first week of school I joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I didn’t know it then, but that was where I would meet my now wife, Marie. With some encouragement from my friends, I also joined Sigma Theta Epsilon, National Christian Fraternity in the spring.
I owe much to these two groups as they are the ones who put the fertilizer on my faith, but it was my fraternity brothers that really challenged me to grow and put me on the path to the seminary. After our fraternity’s spring retreat, I came home to a dark and empty dorm room. I began reflecting on what I had witnessed. My brothers were all gathered in Christian community: serving each other, laying their struggles and burdens on one another, worshiping together, and having good, clean fun…and there may have been some fire jumping, fireworks, and shotgun shooting too. Back in my room, I closed my eyes and silenced myself, and just sat and thought. That’s when it hit me. From that very moment I knew I belonged in the ministry.
Shortly after that, my freshman year concluded and I was finally on track towards the seminary. I wish I could say I lived happily ever after, but unfortunately life is much messier than that. Fall of my sophomore year brought many more challenges than I was prepared or able to face. I was trying to find out who I was as an individual. I was frustrated with leadership roles I took on in InterVarsity and often felt like a failure. My duties as the activities chairman in the fraternity were stacking up. School was getting tougher as I started my core classes. I was struggling in being a supportive boyfriend in a Christ centered relationship. Conflict within my family strained relationships at home. The internal pressure and turmoil built and built until finally it exploded. In the spring I was presented with an opportunity, a temptation, and I had no strength within myself to resist. I gave in and I messed up. I messed up BIG. Not only that, in the wake of my sin I made a shipwreck of not only my faith, but the faith of someone very close to me.
…I was broken, lost, and alone. I was going to be a pastor, but now…look at me. I was tainted and sure that God wanted nothing more to do with me. I tried to hide my sin and run from God. I couldn’t stand being in His presence as it only brought shame, guilt, terror, and pain. Yet I couldn’t wriggle free from His grasp. The harder I tried the tighter He held. Finally, I relented and gave in. I had no choice but to stand, confronted by the Almighty Father, the Creator and Judge of the universe, with Jesus Christ not as my Savior but as my accuser. My fear had blinded me and I doubted that even in His infinite mercy, Christ could not love me anymore.
I did not recognize it at that moment, bit I was not the first to be terrified because I did not recognize Jesus for who He was. In our passage today, we find the disciples exhausted, slowly fighting against the wind and the waves all night long. They were alone, and expected nothing out of the ordinary to happen, for Jesus stayed behind to pray. Sometime during the fourth watch, the darkest part of the night before dawn’s light breaks, they see a figure approaching their boat from across the water. They were terrified, because the only conclusion they could make was that it was a ghost.
I am sure many of you know this story well. You probably even have a mental image of it playing in your mind. Jesus, standing a distance from the boat. The disciples seeing this and are terrified. Jesus, telling them to no longer be afraid, for it was Him and no one else. Peter, confident in His Lord, declares, “Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus smiles, pleased with His disciple, stretches out His hand, and says, “Come.” And in daring faith, Peter jumps overboard and runs to Jesus over the bobbing waves. It’s hopeful. It’s inspiring. It leaves us wishing that we too could have faith like Peter to walk on the water. Entire books have been written and programs developed dedicated to this single image of Peter’s faith. The problem is though, when we look at the text it just doesn’t add up.
In the broad context of Matthew’s Gospel whenever we see Peter acting on his own, we can bet he is giving a rash response to whatever the situation may be and should not be emulated, but whenever we see Peter acting on behalf of the disciples it ends up being a true confession of faith. Applying this to our text, Peter is giving a hasty reply to Jesus’ words of comfort. Doubting it was Jesus, Peter shot back, “Lord, if it is you!” At this time the disciples still had no idea that Jesus was God Himself, so it does not take much to believe that Peter doubted the figure walking on the water was actually Jesus and not just a ghost trying to deceive them.
After expressing his doubt, Peter then gives Jesus a bizarre demand. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” This is not a bold confession of faith, but a test. Peter knows that if this was a ghost trying to deceive them Peter would plummet into the water below, but if it was Jesus then He was obviously some powerful man with a unique relationship to the Creator and could surely make Peter walk on water too. But of all the things he could have chosen, why did Peter choose this? Why would he risk making himself look like a fool? It just doesn’t make sense…unless you’ve been there yourself.
We all struggle with doubt, and if I had to guess I would say most people in this sanctuary have even questioned their faith at some point. Maybe you found Christianity too hard to believe. Maybe, like me, you messed up big and thought there was no way God could love you anymore. Maybe something horrific happened and you were left wondering why God would allow it to happen. Doubt comes in many forms, but it happens to all of us. Doubt comes from insecurity in our faith and we want God to prove Himself to us, to show us that we are wrong in our doubt.  Therefore, we put Him to the test, and the stronger we doubt, the bigger and clearer we want the message. For Peter, that was walking on water. For me, well…
In my time of struggle I was surrounded by friends who were mainstream charismatics. Their affirmation of faith was in seeing God work supernatural wonders in the lives of believers. They themselves spoke in tongues. They watched documentaries about exorcisms in developing countries, about spiritual revivals where people had manna miraculously appear in their hands or had fillings inexplicably turn into gold or had a disease mysteriously cured. They believed God makes His presence known through powerful and wondrous displays. In my insecurity this was just what I needed. I was desperate, so one night I prayed, “Heavenly Father, prove to me Your love. Lord, please, if you love me send me some heavenly manna so that I know that I am your forgiven and redeemed child.”
A couple days passed by silently. I was ready to give up hope when one day I walked into my room, and there sprinkled all over my bed were little white flakes. I could hardly believe this was actually happening to me. My heart raced inside my chest. With cautious excitement I reached out my hand and picked up a flake. I held it up close and examined it. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, so I slowly brought it to my mouth and delicately placed it on my tongue. I took a deep breath and lifted my face toward heaven and there I saw…paint…flaking off my ceiling. I was mortified, than ashamed. I thought to myself, “If only you had the faith…”
When Peter stepped out of the boat and onto that water, even though he was within arm reach of Jesus, fear overcame him and he started sinking. His new found confidence in Jesus quickly waned. This time he did not call for something bizarre or miraculous, but he called out to Jesus for rescue, and immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and saved Peter. Out of everything else in the text, what happens next is the most important part. Jesus did not congratulate Peter on the risk he took. He did not hold up Peter as an example to the disciples to follow. He didn't even rebuke the other disciples for not having the faith to walk on the water like Peter. Instead, right there, standing on the surface of the sea, Jesus looked at Peter in the eyes and said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
This miracle isn’t about the cool stuff that Jesus did. This miracle isn’t about the cool stuff that Jesus can do through us. This miracle, as with all miracles, is about who Jesus is. When they climbed into the boat, the disciples fell down and declared, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Jesus was not telling Peter that if he had only persisted in faith he would still be walking on water. No, Jesus is telling Peter that if he had not doubted then he would have seen Jesus for who He truly was. He would have taken Him at His initial word and would never have gotten out of the boat in the first place!
In just a few chapters Jesus will be asking Peter a different question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter will respond, this time on behalf of the disciples, by confessing, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is because of this response that Jesus declares that Peter is the rock upon which He will build His church. Peter’s faith is an example, not because of the risks he took, but because in the end he recognized Jesus as the one who saves. Later, he would discover that not only did Jesus stretch out His hand to save Peter here in the Sea of Galilee, but that Jesus would stretch our His hands to save Peter, and all of us, upon the cross at Calvary.
You may be wondering how someone who made a shipwreck of his faith, someone who was so completely lost, scared, and alone that he was desperate enough to eat paint chips because he had hoped them to be manna from heaven, became the same man speaking these words confidently to you today. Let me tell you, it was not something miraculous that changed my life and strengthened my faith. It was just the opposite. It was the continual reminder, the whisper in my ear, through the Word and Sacrament that revived my faith and brought me back into God’s family. While I know that most of the time we do not feel the weight of our sin to the point that it is crushing us, I pray that if you ever do find yourself doubting the love and mercy of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, that you remember as long as you allow Christ to hold onto you, His blood will run down and cover you and wipe away even your worst transgressions.
We are continually made new in Christ each time we hear His Word and partake in His Sacraments.  Christ will one day return, and on that glorious day He will raise all the dead, and to those who are found in Him this renewal will be made complete.  So no matter how big you messed up, or no matter how scared you are, just hold on to the hope and promise of Christ because Jesus is NOT your accuser, but your loving and merciful Savior, and He won’t let go of you.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.