"Take Heart! It's Jesus! Don't Be Afraid!"
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost—First Sunday in St. Laurence' Tide
St. Matthew 14:22-33
August 7, 2011 (first sermon as vacancy pastor, Zion Lutheran Church, rural Harbine, Nebraska)
IN NOMINE JESU
What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of things that go bump in the night? Are you afraid of bumping into things in the middle of the night? Are you afraid that the harvest may not be quite as bountiful as first hoped this past spring? Are you afraid of losing a spouse due to illness? It's my greatest fear. I've been down that road once already, and I don't want to go through that again for a long, long time. Are you afraid the Big Red may stumble a bit in its first season in the Big Ten? Are you afraid of not being able to make ends meet? Are you afraid of being afraid? Are you afraid of the uncertain future facing this congregation called Zion, this congregation you call home, this congregation your family may well have called home for generations? Are you afraid as you and your brothers and sisters in Christ here struggle in a fight for her survival? Are you afraid the doors to this house of the Lord will one day—and perhaps soon—close?
I wish I had an answer to those last questions. I wish I had some magic words to make all this uncertainty go away. I would like to make all your fears about Zion's future disappear in an instant and be gone forever. I want to, but I can't. I have no words of wisdom, no magic formula. What I do have for you is much more important than anything I can muster, much more precious than silver or gold. What I have for you is wiser than any wisdom I could impart. What I have for you is Jesus. What I have for you is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, who takes away your fears, who wipes away your tears. What I have for you is your Lord and Savior, the Lord of the Church who says to us in our text, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid" (v. 27b).
Do not be afraid. These are words that are easy enough to hear, but they're really tough to put into practice. The disciples in our text serve as prime examples of this reality. The Lord sent them on their way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while He dismissed the crowds whom He had just fed with only five loaves of bread and two fish. He sent them away, dismissing them, perhaps by pronouncing a blessing on them. Then He went up on the mountain to pray. When He finished praying, He was by Himself, and His disciples were attempting to cross the sea but were facing a very stiff wind and the waves crashing down on them. The Lord then proceeded to go to them, walking on the water. Have you ever tried walking on the water? I'll only walk on the water if it's frozen! And even then that ice can be a bit thin sometimes, not something that works well for big guys like me. But here comes the Lord, walking on the water toward a bunch of wind-whipped and wave-beaten disciples. This happened in the fourth watch of the night. There were generally four watch periods during the time between sunset and sunrise, a time when they would take turns being on the lookout. This was the last watch of the night, sometime between 3 and 6 in the morning. The disciples had had a long day, made longer by the wind and the waves beating on them. They probably didn't get very much sleep that night. When you are sleep-deprived, what begins to happen? You start imagining you're hearing and seeing some weird things happening. So let's set the scene: it's dark outside, between 3 and 6 in the morning; the disciples were very tired but were battling wind and waves; and here comes Jesus, walking ON the water, heading right toward them. So what happened? Our text tells us the disciples were terrified, thought Jesus to be a ghost, and cried out in fear.
So what happened next? Did Jesus taunt them? Did He try to spook them even more and say, "Boo!"? No. He knew their fear. He knew they were afraid. He knew they needed to be comforted. Matthew, himself likely to be in the boat with the rest of his fellow disciples, notes that Jesus immediately spoke to them, saying, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." He brought them words of comfort. He did it immediately—without playing mind games with them. Such is the task of the Lutheran preacher, to bring words of comfort to terrified consciences and souls. What better words to bring to the sad and the scared than the words the Lord Himself has spoken? Apparently that wasn't good enough for Peter. He wanted more proof. He wanted Jesus, if it really WAS Jesus on the water, to command him to come to Him on the water. Since it really was Jesus, Jesus really did call Peter to come to Him on the water. And Peter really did begin to walk on the water himself. What came next? Peter took his eyes off Jesus and caught a glimpse of the wind and waves, and he began to sink like a rock. That seems appropriate, since the name Peter means "rock." He was petrified that he was sinking.
When we hear this story, it doesn't take us long to realize that we are just like Peter and the rest of the disciples. You see, we like to be in control of the situations in which we find ourselves. And when things appear to be out of or beyond our control, we don't feel too good about things. We become quite uncomfortable, and we start to worry. That worry turns into fear. We worry about, and we are afraid of, what the future might bring, whether it has to do with the farm, work, finances, school, or illness…or even our future as a congregation. There are a lot of things going on that take our eyes off Jesus. Like Peter, we see the wind and waves, and our faith begins to shrink. We see numbers declining in membership and finances. We have been a vacant congregation for two and a half years, without a full-time shepherd for a long time. We were certain about things at one time. We have doubts about Zion's future. We begin to worry that she may not survive. We become afraid we might not be able to sit in these pews or be gathered around this altar for much longer. We've taken our eyes off Jesus and looked to ourselves for the answers. This is because we lack a proper First Commandment relationship with God, as we do not fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. Here, and in our Psalm for today, Psalm 34, the word fear does not mean we are to be afraid of Him. But if we continue to act on our own and apart from God, then we have every reason to be afraid of the judgment He brings on those who do not believe or trust in Him.
In this context, the word fear means we are to place our full faith and trust in God, to love Him with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength, to trust in Him and lean not on our own understanding. The Psalmist encourages us as he says in our Psalm for today, "Fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear Him lack nothing!" (Ps. 34:9). Trust in the Lord, fellow redeemed, for though you have many fears, many things you're afraid of, He delivers us from them all. How does He do this? How can this be as we face the same situations, the same troubles, the same fears, day after day? He gives us His peace, the peace that far surpasses all understanding, the peace which the world cannot give. Just as our Lord came to His disciples on the water and toward the boat, He comes to us in the nave of His house through His Means of Grace and says to us today, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." You see, the devil wants to capitalize on your fears and your despair over the troubles in your life and over the future of this congregation Zion. Satan wants no peace for you, only turmoil. But behold, Jesus has overcome the world. He has overcome sin. He has overcome death. He has overcome your fears, and He has come to wipe away your tears. He has come to say, "Don't be afraid, for I am here…I have come to you. I have come FOR you. It is I. I am here to give Myself to you and FOR you." He comes to you and says, "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me" (Jn. 14:1). Again He says to you, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30). "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (Jn. 14:27).
Our Lord has come to you today in His Word, and He says to you, "Take heart; it is I, your Lord and Savior, Jesus. I have come to forgive you of all your sins on account of the blood I shed on the cross for you and in your place. The forgiveness I won for you on the cross of Calvary I have given to you in your Baptism, in the Absolution I have sent pastors to give to you, in the reading and preaching of My Word, and in My body and blood. Take heart! Take, eat; this is My body, given for you! Take heart! Take, drink; this is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins!"
Fellow redeemed, do not be afraid, for your Lord is here with you to give you His gifts, that you would have the strength to face whatever may come. Jesus Christ is Lord of the Church; He has come to take care of you, His bride. It doesn't matter if we had 2 million people here or even two people, for God Himself is present. Our Lord assures us with these words: "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Mt. 18:20). The Lord tends to His people; He hears your prayers, as the Psalmist says, "I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears" (Ps. 34:4). What will happen with Zion in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead? Only God knows the answer to that question. But rest assured that He will take care of you in both body and soul. He gives you His Word. He gives you His Sacraments. Do not be afraid! He says to you today, "I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you" (Jn. 14:18). Your Lord HAS come to you; you have heard Him coming to you as His Word has been read and proclaimed in your hearing, for "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17), as St. Paul tells us in our Epistle. Take heart! Your Lord IS COMING to you this day in His body and blood—His body beaten, bloodied, dead, buried, resurrected, and ascended, and coming to you again—for you! "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!" (Ps. 34:9). Amen!
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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