Sunday, July 8, 2012

Trouble's Here and Jesus Isn't

Jesus Comes

Gospel Reading: Mark 6: 45-56

 I was coming back from lunch on Friday, November 22, 1963, when my teacher reported that there was news the President had been shot. Later that afternoon, as I sat through the misery of Algebra II, the principal spoke over the intercom and announced that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. This was upsetting news, not only at Pensacola High School, but all over the country. The news was met with shock, disbelief, worry, and fear.

 My Dad was out of town at the time, overseeing a construction project in Florence, South Carolina. However, he was coming home that weekend. I waited up for him that Friday night, because I wanted to know what he thought about all that had happened, and because I knew I would feel better just because my Dad was home.

 As Christians, we always feel comforted and secure when Jesus is with us. The account of Jesus’ walking on the water to His struggling friends assures us that Jesus always comes to His people in their distress.

I. Context

 We need to set the story in context. Mark tells us that Jesus “made his disciples get in the boat and go before him to the other to Bethsaida.” There is a note of compulsion. He did not offer them a choice, and He did allow them to dawdle in carrying out His order. It appears that He wanted to get them out of there as quickly as possible. That makes us ask why. And the answer is no doubt to be found in what John tells us happened after the feeding of the five thousand. The people saw the miracle and concluded, “This is the Prophet who is to come into the world!” There was a prophecy in Deuteronomy that one day the LORD would give His people a “a prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18: 15ff). The Jews had come to expect this prophet to come in connection with the Last Days and the establishment of God’s kingdom. So the people, who ate the bread and fish, determined that Jesus must be this Prophet and that the Kingdom must be at hand. So they were going to force Him to become king and to organize a revolution around Him.

 But Jesus was not that kind of Messiah. He had not come to give an endless supply of bread or to establish a kingdom like the kingdoms of this world. He was not a revolutionary. His kingdom, as He said later, “is not of this world.” Jesus was concerned that His disciples, who show themselves to be less than discerning in this story, not get caught up in the spirit of the crowd and get in their minds false ideas about Him and false expectations of Him. We, too, must guard ourselves lest we operate on false assumptions about Jesus and the Kingdom. Jesus did not come and does not want a political kingdom. He came to establish a spiritual kingdom, the Church, which transcends all borders and all ethnicity and which advances not by means of political or military might, but by the proclamation of the Gospel.

 Jesus dismissed the crowd, too. That may have been a very difficult accomplishment with this misguided but highly charged crowd. Then Jesus went up the mountain to pray. The crowd’s reaction may have been another temptation for Jesus – a temptation to abandon the way that led to the cross and to take another way to attaining the kingdom. Whatever may have been going on in the mind and heart of Jesus, this was a crisis moment for Him, and He needed to pray. We might ask why the Son of God needs to pray to God. Remember that Jesus was not only fully God but also fully man, and, as a man He was like us in every way except for sin. He needed communion with God the Father; He needed wisdom; He needed help; He needed strength. Two of the three times, when Mark tells us that Jesus prayed are in connection with Jesus popularity with the crowds. The other is in Gethsemane when He was facing the cross. Jesus got by Himself and He prayed to the Father.

 If Jesus, the God-Man needed to pray, and to seek help, especially in times of crisis, how much more do we? Yet we often pray on the run, and try to handle crises by our own strategies and plans. We need to learn to pray, to seek out our Heavenly Father, who is more ready to hear than we are to speak, and more ready to give than we are to ask, and more ready “to be there” for us than we are to seek Him in our distress.

II. Conflict

 While Jesus was praying, His disciples were engaged in a great conflict with the sea. There was a strong headwind, and, though they had been and were rowing, they were making little headway. As Mark describes it, “they were making headway painfully.” It took all their strength to pull the oars, and all their labor seemed to accomplish little or nothing. They still had a long way to go to reach the shore. They had been in a storm before when they had thought they were going to die, but Jesus had been in the boat with them. This time Jesus was not with them, for He had sent them on, while He stayed behind to pray.

 Is this not the place where we find ourselves so often as individuals and as a congregation? We are straining at the oars and making progress painfully, and we feel that Jesus is not with us.

 Sometimes in life we find that we are not so much feeling like we are about to be swallowed by the waves, but we are tired and discouraged. We feel like we are having to make so much effort, and we are just not getting anywhere. Maybe you are trying to make a marriage work, and the progress, if any, is painfully slow. Or, you are trying to get a career going, but you can’t get a foothold. Or, you are trying to make a living, and you are just barely getting by, if that. Or, you are studying hard and trying to get through school, but the grades don’t come. Or, you are wrestling with your health, and it seems that every time you get one thing fixed another breaks down. And you are wondering where the Lord is – if He has forgotten you or abandoned you.

 But what can be more painful and is surely more important is the difficulty of progress in the Christian life. Temptation can seem so irresistible and sin so strong. Prayer can seem so hard, and your heart so cold. You look for the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, and you are not sure you can find any. You long for a greater confidence in your possession of salvation, and doubts plague you. You try to show more meekness and less concern with self in relationships, and it feels like there is nothing but self in your life. You know what it is like to read Paul’s words in Romans 7 and feel that they describe your experience exactly: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing…For I delight in law of God, in my inner being, but I see my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15, 18, 19, 21-24) And you think to yourself, “If Paul is not describing part his experience as a Christian, then there is no hope for me.” And you wonder, “Where is Jesus? Where is the power of His death and resurrection in my life? Why does he leave my struggling like this?”

Then there is the life of the church. Sometimes it can seem in the life of the church that we take two steps backward for every step forward. And again we think to ourselves, “Where is Jesus? Why is He not blessing? Where is His power? Why, when we are faithful to Him and His Gospel, are we not blessed, while we see compromising mega-churches flourishing and attracting multitudes?” Or, we wonder. “Why does the church have to go through trials? Has the Lord turned His back on us? Is He displeased with us?”

Life for the Christian and for the church often seems like straining at the oars against a mighty headwind and making only painful progress.

III. Coming

 Between three and six in the morning, while the disciples were still straining at the oars, Jesus came to them walking on the water. Those who do not believe in miracles have done a lot of straining to explain what Mark says occurred. Some have suggested that they saw Him at a distance walking along the shore, or that He was walking on an unseen sandbar. But that does not account for the facts as Mark reports them. If he was walking on the shore or a sandbar, how did the disciples, experienced fishermen on that lake as some of them were, remain convinced that He had come walking across the water and had got into the boat with them?

 What was going on here? This event has many of the marks of what we call a “theophany” in the Old Testament. A theophany is an appearance of God with physical manifestations that make people acutely aware that they are in His presence. Look at some of the features that are noted by Mark.

First, He comes, and seems to pass them by. When Moses asked to see the LORD’s glory on Mt. Sinai, the LORD put him in the cleft of a rock and then passed by proclaiming His own Name. When Elijah fled in weariness and despair the LORD told him to go out and stand before Him, and the Lord passed by.

Second, notice their fear and His comfort. Now the reason for their fear was not that they knew that they were in the presence of the LORD, but because they thought they were seeing a water ghost. But Jesus response uses words very much like what was often spoken by the LORD to Israel.  Jesus said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In Isaiah 41 the LORD is speaking to His people who had been disciplined by the exile, and He says: “I am the LORD, the first and with the last; I am he…fear not for I am with you; be not dismayed for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my right hand…For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.’ Fear not you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 41: 4b, 10, 13, 14). Jesus speaks the same kind of reassuring comfort to His own that the LORD speaks to His people Israel.

But, third, and most important, Jesus says to the disciples, “It is I.” Of course, that means, “I am not a ghost; I am Jesus whom you know.” But it means more. That statement is the same as God declared to Moses when Moses asked His name, and God answered, “I AM!” When God in the rest of the Old Testament, says, “It is I’ it is meant to remind the hearers that the One speaking to them is the great I AM, the God who exists eternally out of His own power, and who remains the same, faithful to His covenant in all generations. Jesus here deliberately uses words with His disciples that will make them think of the Name of the LORD and so to hear Him using for Himself that great Name. In other words, this is another claim that He is the Son of God. And, like the great I AM of the Old Testament, He comes to His struggling people to encourage and help them. When Jesus got into the boat, the winds abated.

 We might think to ourselves, “Well it surely was a blessing to the struggling disciples to have Jesus come walking across the water to them, but I don’t see Him walking across the waters of my struggling life and causing the adverse winds to cease.  I don’t see Him coming when His church is struggling and making pulling the oars easier.” Don’t be so sure, my friend. The Lord Jesus does come to us, to assure us that He is the Son of God, and that He cares about our struggles, and will help us.

 He comes to us today first by the Word and sacraments made alive and effective by the Holy Spirit. I know I say this often, but I do so because it took me a long time to understand, believe, and experience this. Jesus has promised to come to us as we are gathered in worship. He comes saying to us, “I am He. Do not be afraid.” The fact that He comes to us in this way means that the worst thing we can do to ourselves when we are struggling is to stop coming to worship. When we are struggling, we need to worship – we need to hear the Word and receive the sacraments – more than ever. If I would get one essential thing across to believers for their spiritual welfare, it would be the truth that Jesus always comes to us with grace by the Holy Spirit when we are gathered as His people gathered in worship.

 Jesus comes to us as well in our troubles as His Spirit speaks to our hearts the message of the written Word. He says to us, as He said to Paul in Corinth, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you” (Acts 18:9,10). Even when Paul was completely by himself, he could say, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me…But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me…(2 Timothy 4:16,17). Some of you have found this to be true and have spoken of it to encourage others. You have found courage to endure things you did not think you could face and peace in situations where you should be overcome by anxieties. You know this is of the Lord, for there is no other explanation of its source. You have found the grace you need for the circumstances you face.

 He says to us, as He said to Paul in Corinth, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you” (Acts 18:9,10). Even when Paul was completely by himself, he could say, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me…But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me…(2 Timothy 4:16,17).

 But we also must always remember that the coming of the Lord that will end all our struggles and resolve every problem is His personal and glorious coming at the end of the age. That is why the Church’s prayer is, “Maranatha!” “Our Lord, come!” It is unrealistic and harmful for us to hope or expect that we will live struggle-free lives in this age. The Lord Himself taught us to expect trouble in this world and from this world. But, as Peter wrote, “The Lord will not be slow to fulfill his promise, as some count slowness…” (2 Peter 3:9). He is extending this age of grace that more people may come to repentance. But at the right time He will come and deliver His Church and all His people from every evil thing, and give them perfect, eternal rest.

 IV. Confusion

 Unfortunately as much comfort as we can draw from this event, it ends with a note of warning. The disciples were confused by Jesus coming to them walking on the water. It astounded them. They did not know what to make of it.

 Why? Mark is very frank about their trouble: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” This statement may disturb us. We know unbelievers can have hard hearts, but believers? Yes, believers can to some extent have their hearts hardened, not to the point of total unbelief, but nevertheless to an extent that leaves them unable to profit from the revelation that Jesus Christ makes of Himself.

 The disciples had not had the spiritual insight and faith to understand what the miracle of the loaves told them. It revealed that Jesus is the Shepherd who cares for, feeds, and leads His people. It revealed more that He was greater than even Moses the great prophet, mediator, and deliverer of God’s people. He was indeed the One who could take the scanty supply of food and multiply it to feed 5,000 men. But they were utterly astonished when He came walking across the water, and got into the boat, and stopped the headwind.

 So many of our troubles can be traced to the same source as the disciples’. We know a lot about Jesus, who He is, and what He has done, but we still lack understanding. That is why we have so much trouble when the winds are blowing against us. We are unable to say to ourselves, “The very Son of God is with me. He has promised to be with me to the end of the age. He will never leave or forsake me. I am safe in His care.” Our hearts are often too hard to hear God’s promises and take them as ours. That is our great failing as Christians, and it is one we must address for the sake our own comfort and courage when life becomes a hard struggle.

 My brothers and sisters, let us ask the Lord to soften and open our hearts that we may believe that Jesus, the Son of God comes to us in our troubles. Let us experience His presence in worship. Let us know within His presence when the winds of trial are blowing hard. And let us be confident the one day He will come to us and put an end to the adversities of this world forever.


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