Do Not Be Afraid

Text: Matthew 14:22-33
Date: Pentecost VIII + Proper 14 + 8/7/11

What is frightening you of late? What is it that causes your deepest fears? Is it the state of the economy and your sincere doubt that those currently in control of it have the first clue as to how to turn it around? What makes you afraid these days? What is so unsettling? Maybe it’s your physical wellness and worry over what the doctor might find after a battery of tests. What do you fear most? What sends you into a panic? Unemployment numbers keep rising. And you wonder if there is anything to the dire predictions of whether or not Social Security checks will continue or if the program itself will even survive. I like it a lot when the doctor smiles and says, “You’re in good shape” because he ought to know what he’s talking about. I’m quite a bit less confident when a politician tries to reassure me that things will improve if we only first insure his or her reelection. Everything depends on who’s talking. Is it just a spin of encouragement to a blind faith in some nebulous hope of a better tomorrow? Or is there something more certain than that?

Every Sunday we confess, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” But it seems every Monday we give witness to our fears and doubts whether that is truly so. It’s as if we were with Jesus today, here around this altar, but tomorrow He’s stayed behind and we are many “stadia,” furlongs or miles away from Him, out of His helpful, saving reach. In today’s Gospel we see this separation of Jesus from His disciples, and their fears and doubts even as He demonstrates His divine power, which ought to give them and us great comfort in the face of everything and anything in all creation and all our days that causes debilitating anxiety or worry. For the same Lord is here today with all authority and power to say to you, as He did to them, “Be courageous; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

We’re all familiar with the account in Matthew chapter eight where Jesus is in a boat with His disciples and He stills a great storm with but a word of command. On that occasion it was the ferocity of the storm, the wind and the waves that caused the disciples to fear and cry out for help. You need to notice that this is not the case in today’s reading. Yes, “the wind was against them.” But this was not the cause of any fear for these otherwise experienced mariners. The opposing wind only made for harder work. Their fear today came at the display of Jesus’ power and authority as God, the divine Son of God.

Throughout the Old Testament God is acknowledged as the creator of the earth and the seas. He is the answer to the questions He laid before Job in today’s first reading. God alone “shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’” (Job 38:8, 10-11). Job had already acknowledged God’s power back in chapter nine, describing God as He, “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). God made the seas. God broods, hovers over and walks on water. Now, if it is of ultimate importance that we acknowledge that Jesus is God then it should not surprise us that Jesus walks on water!

But what do we see and hear? “In the fourth watch of the night,” (about the time, by the way, that you need to get out of bed to get to the airport to catch the 6:08 a.m. flight out of Kansas City to Detroit) between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., Jesus “came to them, walking on the sea.” Now, not the wind and not the waves, mind you, but the sight of Jesus walking on the sea caused terror among the disciples. “It’s a ghost!” they said, crying out in fear.

When is the last time you called Jesus a ghost? or anything but what He really is? It is a similar “anti-confession” when some theologians say, since Jesus is “locked up” in heaven, it cannot really be His true body and blood on the altar at the Holy Communion. It is an “anti-confession” when you begin to think that God is ignoring you or doesn’t really care about you. It is an “anti-confession” when you decide not to make waves and just blend in to the circles where “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Cor 12:20) hold sway. “It’s a ghost!” was an “anti-confession.” No, Jesus is the Son of God…on Monday and Friday as much as on Sunday.

“It’s a ghost!” they cried out. “But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, be courageous, it is I. Stop being afraid.” More than a mere pious wish the words “stop being afraid” are given power to do what they say because of who it is that is speaking. And who is it that is speaking? Jesus says, “it is I.” This is the way God talks about Himself in the Old Testament. Listen! In Isaiah God says, “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, the first, and the last; I am he” (Is  41:4). “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior’” (Is 43:10-11). “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Is 43:25). “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last” (Is 48:12). “I, I am he who comforts you” (Is 51:12). “Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I” (Is 52:6). And in the Fifth Book of Moses commonly called Deuteronomy, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32:39). This is the way God talks about Himself. Jesus is talking the way God talks.

If you stop and think about it, Peter’s challenge saying, “Lord, if it is you,” was not so much a challenge asking for additional proof from Jesus as it was more of an honest admission of his own doubt and weakness. Every other time someone asks Jesus, “If you are the Son of God,” it is of demonic origin and receives refusal. “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” But here the challenge is for Peter’s weakness of faith. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Did Peter really expect Jesus to invite him to walk on the water? Or does this bizarre request reveal Peter’s almost complete lack of faith that this really was Jesus standing on the water before him? At any rate the surprising response from Jesus? “Come.” That the chief disciple actually got out of the boat and walked over to where Jesus was on the water isn’t the point. Peter, as usual, is not the pillar of faith we are to imitate. Rather, because of fear and lack of faith he’s sunk! He cries out as the others did earlier. Immediately Jesus reaches out and grabs this one called “Petros,” “the rock” so he doesn’t sink like one.

The point is to understand and believe that Jesus is the powerful, divine Son of God who has patience and grace to use that power to save even those of little faith.

The disciples in the boat join us in the confession, “Truly Jesus is the Son of God.” “And those in the boat worshiped Him.” This is what worship is, namely, this faith and confession. In that same faith, then, we can believe, know and count on Jesus’ deliverance when we call upon Him for salvation. Even when we get lost in diverse fears and troubling doubts He will not deny or abandon us. After all He is God—the God who created us, the God who redeemed us by His bloody sacrifice of Himself on the cross, the God who walks on water and has come to us bidding us walk with Him in the waters of Holy Baptism. He’s done everything to save you and to give you eternal life. In that faith we can join the disciples in the boat worshipping Jesus as with the words of Psalm 27:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to
inquire in his temple.

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:1, 4, 14).