SERMON NOTES — August 9, 2020
“Do not be afraid!”
- There is so much to fear right now: an economic retraction of Great Depression proportions; civil unrest over centuries of accumulated injustice; seemingly unreconcilable division in our politics; and the greatest pandemic in a century that has already killed 150,000 of our fellow citizens. It’s depressing and frightening to even list it.
- So we listen-in this morning when Jesus walks out to his disciples on the water, and says, “Do not be afraid!”
- We might sometimes get this story confused with an earlier story (Matt 8:23-27) in which Jesus ‘calms a storm.’ In that story, he’s in the boat with the disciples and wakes up to calm the storm. There’s no mention of a storm in today’s story — just battering waves from a wind that’s against where they’re going. Notice, too, that there’s no mention that they’re afraid — until Jesus starts walking to them on the water in darkness before the dawn.
- It’s very clear in the text: they’re aren’t afraid of the waves; they’re afraid of Jesus! Because they think he’s a ghost!
- Something we need to know about peoples of those times: the thing that made them most afraid were the many spirits, gods, and demons they believed in, because many of them, they believed, were out to do them harm — including, sometimes, their God. They saw the gods behind many of the bad things that happened to them, including so-called acts of nature. You became ill, or were battered by things like storms and earthquakes, because the demons or gods were out to get you.
- There’s also an unhelpful translation. In v. 25, it says that this happened “early in the morning.” That’s a paraphrase of the original, which literally says, “the fourth watch of the night.” This was the last watch of the night, around 3:00-6:00 am. And here’s the really important thing: it was believed to be prime time for demons and other agents of Satan to be out doing their dirty work. So now you have a better idea of the disciples’ terror when they thought a ghost was coming to them on the water!
- “It is I,” says Jesus, “don’t be afraid.”
Not only not a ghost, but a completely different kind of God
- I believe there’s something much deeper going on here than fear of a ghost. Fearing ghosts was a symptom of fearing God, part of the same disease, so to speak. With so much to be afraid of in this world, we don’t need to also be afraid of God! That’s the larger issue I think Jesus is addressing in this story.
- When Jesus says, “It is I,” ego eimi (Greek), it is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh, “I am.” Jesus is effectively saying, “Yahweh says, do not be afraid.”
- When we say that Jesus is both truly human and truly divine, do we fully understand how important that is?
- Last week, I introduced you to the idea that our Gospel message has become off-center. ‘Going to heaven when we die’ is certainly very important, but it’s more like the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself. More central to the Gospel is that as truly human Jesus has come to lead us all into a new Way of being human — the true Way of being human. After the first human beings got us off to the wrong start, Jesus has come to get us back on track (see, for example, Romans 5:12-21).
- But since Jesus is both truly human and truly divine, here’s the second part of the core Gospel message: Jesus reveals God to be quite different than what we thought! Part of fallen way of being human is to get the part about God nearly all wrong. We might say that the whole point of the Bible is that God, beginning with the covenant to Abraham and Sarah, is taking all of humankind on a very long journey to truly understand who God is — with Jesus as the fully revealing model.
- And I don’t think we are there yet even now. I believe that Christians have lapsed back into the same kinds of mistakes as our Jewish brothers and sisters and all who’ve gone before us.
- I’m glad to see the Mission Statement at Redeemer: “Knowing God’s Grace / Sharing God’s Love.” This is a great summary! But. . . .
. . . We’re not quite there yet
- Let me cut right to the chase: we know that God is gracious and wants us to share God’s love. That’s the good part of our experience of God. But we haven’t quite yet cut out all the bad stuff from our fallen views of God. We haven’t quite yet gotten to where St. John was when he wrote, “This is the message we have heard from Jesus and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). More specifically, I believe the darkness to refer to violence — to believing, for example, that God still punishes people violently with things like illness, disasters, or hell, or sending people off to war to kill the enemy. Let’s face it: it’s us human beings who believe that you can only stop violence with violence. I believe that Jesus shows us a God who wants no part of that faith — teaching us to have faith in the power of Love.
- Right from the beginning, Matthew presents to us a Jesus who reveals a completely different kind of God. Jesus’s ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus starts off on a very clear Jewish note: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). It’s that “fulfill” part that changes everything.
- We still think of justice in terms of reward and punishment. Because look at the system of law in this “Christian” nation of ours! There’s almost no effort to heal or restore a person’s life who has fallen into crime; only to punish. Yet Jesus turns that all upside-down in the Sermon on the Mount when he teaches us to turn the other cheek to violence and about a God who wants us to even love our enemies. He himself will become the number one example — by letting himself be tried, convicted, and executed in our human courts of law, only to have God raise him on Easter, as if to say, “You’ve got it all wrong!” Fulfilling the law in love means forgiveness, healing, and restoration — not punishment.
- Obviously, our court system isn’t ready for these changes yet. But does the Black Lives Matter movement present opportunities for us to advocate toward them?
- When Jesus says, “It is I, don’t be afraid,” it’s much more than assurance that he’s not a ghost. He has come to lead the disciples and us into knowing a completely different God of love, one who can help us to fulfill our human societies based on law.
- Walter Wangerin’s story of his son Matthew stealing comic books (“Matthew, Seven, Eight, and Nine,” in The Manger Is Empty [Harper & Row, 1989], pages 116-32). Three times Pastor Wangerin tried to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books, using the law and fear of punishment. Matthew did stop after the third time. But why?
- Personal story of my posing for a painting of Christ’s crucifixion by artist friend Harry Antis. Harry tells a story of how God, in a prayer, told him to paint in rain at the last minute.
- With so much to be afraid of in this world, we don’t need to also be afraid of God. Jesus comes to us and says, “It’s me, your God, do not be afraid. I’m not here to punish you. Together we can find healing and abundance of life.” (e.g., John 3:16-17)