Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why are you so afraid? [The Bible's Greatest Questions]

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." 20 And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." 21 Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." 22 But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." 23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves...
If you've ever stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as I have, you will notice that it is a very small "Sea"…only 13 miles from north to south and 8 miles from east to west.  At 680 feet below sea level it has a warm and pleasant climate, and yet what is described in Matthew 8: 18-27 is actually very typical.  The lake is bordered by hills and valleys from the west which act like funnels, compressing the wind and causing very sudden and violent storms in less than half an hour.  It's not that the Galilean storm was all that unusual, it's that Jesus' response was...
But [Jesus] was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" 26 And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" 
I can’t read this story without thinking of a time in college when I was rowing on Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara with my team from UC San Diego.  On the morning of the regatta, it was cloudy and calm, but as soon as the race began, the wind whipped up the lake as eight boats, including our own, started the race.  As we rowed into the wind, we could see white caps developing, and very soon water began sloshing over the sides into the sixty foot, eight man shell.  We were determined to keep going, so we continued to pull against our oars in stubborn denial.  Within five minutes, however, we were swamped, and not our shell alone but every other boat in the race.  Well, almost every other.  In those days conversion from wood to the new carbon-based materials was just beginning.  There was one boat with a water-sealed bow and stern compartment; and that boat floated!  As for the rest of us with our inferior equipment, we could only laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of our situation.  Our Brittish coxswain, James Bernstein recently contacted me with this memory, "I was also laughing; especially as the weight of my water sodden clothes kept pulling me under the water."  Needless to say, we were not just up a creek without a paddle...we were under it.  Imagine it…more than 72 people out in the middle of a lake and only two chase boats to get us all out.  Should we try to swim ashore, pulling our 60 foot shells behind us or wait for a little help?  I'll get back to this story in a moment...

Fear can come on us suddenly like that storm, without warning, without time to prepare…fear of illness, fear of losing control, fear of financial problems, fear of not being popular, fear of failure, fear of shots, fear of the dark, fear of fear! We all have times when we are afraid.  Fear is a storm-tossed feeling (it rises and falls with the waves of life).  It can come on suddenly like that storm.  But Jesus’ question invites us to ask ourselves “Why do we continue to be afraid?” And better, “How can we move from storm tossed fear…to unsinkable faith?”  Our passage teaches us several important lessons about life’s storms….

The first is this: Following Jesus does not mean a storm-free life.  “And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves.” (23-24)  Jesus had been preaching beside the Sea of Galilee to huge crowds.  According to Mark 4:1, the crowds were so big that he had to speak to the people along the shore while sitting in a fishing boat!  

After a long day, Jesus' disciples follow him into the boat and head for the other side of the lake. Here is a beautiful description of what disciples do: disciples follow Jesus wherever he goes.  But notice where they’re going?  Into a storm!  The Greek word Matthew uses here for “storm” is seismos or the common word for “earthquake.”  It occurs three times in his gospel.  Here on the Sea of Galilee, again at the moment of Jesus’ death when there is an earthquake and the temple curtain is split in two (Matt. 27: 51), and again on Easter when the power of God rolls back the stone from Jesus' tomb (Matt. 28: 2).  it seems that Jesus’ entire ministry, his life, his death, and his resurrection is marked by earthquakes!   

With this in mind, let's go back briefly to the events just prior to Jesus' departure in the boat. A man says to him, “Jesus, I’ll follow you anywhere” to which Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words…I am not offering people a one way ticket out of this world and its troubles, but a round trip ticket right back into this world…troubles and all.  In fact, that is why I came. I’m on a mission to this storm-tossed world, and I’m inviting you to face those storms with me, to heal this world with me, to bless this world with me…so if you still want to follow me, climb on board.

Again, there will be times when it feels like Jesus is not aware or does not care, but we will be mistaken. “But [Jesus] was asleep.” (24b)We read that while this tempest is raging, Jesus is actually snoozing.  He was probably back in the stern compartment of this fishing vessel, with his head on a sand bag…used as ballast.  Mark’s gospel records that when the disciples find Jesus sleeping, they ask, “Lord don’t you care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38)

I wonder how many of us haven’t asked Jesus the same question, “Lord don’t you care?  Do you see what I’m going through right now?"  At times, it may feel like Jesus does not care or is not aware of our troubles…but we will be mistaken. I remember a particular plane ride from California to New York.  I was a young man and feeling pretty vulnerable, having just become an insulin dependent diabetic in seminary, and wondering about God’s plan for me.  The bubble of invulnerability had just recently been broken.  Some of you know what I'm talking about.  It was winter, and we were diverted to St. Louis to let off passengers because Chicago had was shut down by a snow storm.  By now the storm was chasing us as well...and by the time we were scheduled to fly out of St. Louis the airport was shutting down.  We were blessed to be the last plane to leave the airport (I think I would have been fine with a comfy bed at the Hilton Hotel).  After the plane was being de-iced (always an encouraging site), we  took off...and immediately encountered significant turbulence.  At one point the plane dropped so suddenly I grabbed the seat in front of me.  There was a collective which I added my own.  Anxious thoughts passed through my mind as I began to pray. "Lord, am I expendable?" I wondered to myself.  That’s when I turned to my left and noticed a seasoned business flyer beside me. He was reading the Wall Street Journal, calmly turning the pages …completely unaffected!  Were we on the same plane?! I decided to get my Bible out and start turning the pages too!  In the end, his peace was a sign to me of God’s presence!

You see, Jesus’ slumber was not a symptom of his indifference; it was a sign of his serenity. The gospel message is not, “How could Jesus be sleeping at a time like this?!”  But, “Hey, look at Jesus, sleeping at a time like this!  Maybe we should relax a little too!”  Jesus is our mentor and our model in stormy times.

Thirdly, Jesus’ disciples know that it’s OK to be needy out loud. “And they went and woke him up.  ‘Lord, save us!  We are perishing!’” (25)  Matthew records three short Greek words here: “Lord!  Save!  Dying!”  The most important rock climbing term that I learned was “Falling!”  That’s what you say just before you slip, and the belayer has time to break your fall.  The first time I tried rock climbing in the Minaret Wilderness I fell seven times... “Falling, falling, falling, falling, falling, falling, falling!”  That's because you don’t want to wait until you’ve hit the ground to ask for help!   

Now I don’t have the freedom to tell you all the stories of those who have called or written our church and basically said, “Falling!”  It takes courage and faith to write down a prayer request and put it in the offering plate…but know that those prayers are heard and that your church family is lifting you up before God when you express that need.  It’s OK to be needy out loud.  In fact, it’s critical if we’re going to be there for each other.

I met a guy yesterday who works as a material scientist.  He’s brilliant in overdrive, and he was talking to me about how he is designing these micro filaments that are thinner than a human hair but much much stronger…so fine that they may one day be used to rewire broken neural connections in the brain.  He was telling me all this while we were volunteering at this church by USC, helping the poor at a free health screening and legal aid clinic. Why was he here? He was very straightforward about it, “Honestly, I live a pretty solitary life.  I work all day in a clean room with a mask around my face, and rarely see the light of day. I miss and need that human interaction.”   In other words, he works all week designing a material that may one day help reconnect damaged neurons, but the need he recognizes in himself is reconnecting with other human beings. I wonder how many of us feel like we live our lives in a clean room, alone and isolated much of the time like this guy… maybe you’re here today because you’ve recognized that need.  Jesus disciples know it’s OK to be needy out loud, to say, “I can’t do this alone.  I need help!”

Finally, let’s remember that Jesus himself is the best reason of all not to be afraid.“ ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’  Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.  They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Feelings of fear are inevitable…and come to every human being; but how we respond to them is what counts.  Our Lord wants us to make the courageous decision to trust him.  Faith is a kind of bravery…and Jesus wants us to exercise that bravery as his followers…but knowing this, we must also say this…that Jesus loves us and helps us even when our faith is little and weak! 

In Mark’s account of this event, when Jesus stands and speaks to the wind and waves, he says, “Quiet!  Be still!”  And there was a dead calm.  “Who is this,” the disciples ask, “that even the wind and waves obey him?”  No answer is given because none is needed… He’s the One who does what only God can do.  Listen to Psalm 107: 28-30, "Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven."  Jesus does the same things that God does.  I kind of shake my head at the weather casters who say things like, “Tomorrow we’re going to bring you a perfect 74 degree day…and we’ll keep it that way for you into next week," as if they had any power over the weather.  Do you notice that when the forcast is bad…they always blame “mother nature”!  On the other hand, I do believe that the Master of storms, sunsets, and solar flares does intend for us to exercise authority over the things that terrify us in his name...

I met a guy yesterday who told me he had been a methamphetamine addict, but was now clean and attending the same church where this free health screening and legal aid clinic was being held.  He told me that before he met Christ, he had been sleeping for an hour a day for more than a year, high on meth. Incredibly, he was a taxi and limo driver, and was working while doing drugs.  Then one day, while driving a woman in his limo, she asked him a question.  “Are you on something?”  He admitted the he was.  “May I pray for you?” she asked.  “Yes, I need help.  I’m afraid of what this is doing to my life.” So the woman started to pray that God would deliver him from this addiction at replace that addiction with his Holy Spirit.  He told me that 24 hours later, the next time he was offered some drugs, he said, “I don’t want you to bring this here again.”  He told me that he had lost all desire for it… and that he has been clean for four years now.  Jesus calmed the storm in his life, he told me.

Matthew tells us that the disciples were in awe.  Actually, the word is stronger than "awe."  It actually says that they were afraid.  Matthew uses the Greek word phobos here!  But this was a different kind of fear than the fear they had of the storm.  This was the fear and awe and reverence that is due God himself.  And that’s a good thing, because when we fear the Lord, we don’t have to be afraid of anything else.  How long has it been since you felt a healthy fear of the Lord…since Jesus’ presence made your jaw drop and your knees buckle?!  The bigger our Jesus is, the smaller our fears will be! 

Just to let you know, I did survive that near drowning in Lake Cachuma, and so did everyone else. I know you were worried!  A yacht finally pulled up to us and a guy leaned over the railing and yelled, “Do you guys need some help?”  We had to think about that for a minute...all 72 of us.   As it turned out he, and some other private boats, dragged our shell to shore where we carefully emptied the water, and then rowed to the finish line.   Jesus and his disciples reached their destination too.  They didn’t turn back after He came to their rescue, they kept rowing to the other side where he had a mission for them to accomplish.  That's because Jesus wants to unshackle us from fear and free us up to be about his kingdom work.  Fear may be a storm-tossed feeling, but faith is an unsinkable decision to trust in the One who cannot fail us.  In that spirit of courageous faith I want to sum up some biblical principles under the word PEACEFUL that I and my wife Lisa (a Marriage & Family Therapist) have found helpful for addressing fear (with thanks to Max Lucado's book, Fearless, which we expanded upon here):

1. Pray first.  Instead of panicking first, ask “Lord, what are you inviting me to learn, practice, or see in this situation?” (1 Peter 5:7)
2. Easy, now. Invite your body to slow down, take some deep breaths, take a walk, release the anxiety (Psalm 37: 7, 1 Timothy 4:8).
3. Act on it.  Take one small first step to address the problem.  Consult an expert.  Don’t wonder, ask.  Be a doer, not a stewer.  (Matt. 25: 14-28)
4. Compile a gratitude journal. What are you grateful for? In times of anxiety and worry it helps to recount our blessings (Psalm 103: 1-5)
5. Envision something beautiful, uplifting, or praiseworthy! (Phil.4:8-9).  Paul challenges us to intentionally “think about” what lifts up and builds up.
6. Focus on today.  Instead of living in the past or in the future, “Be here now!” God meets daily needs. (Matt.6:34; Heb. 4:16)
7. Unleash God’s worry army.  Share your feelings with a few loved ones or a Christian counselor. Ask for their prayers and help (1 Thess. 5:25)
8. Let Jesus be your Shepherd (Psalm 23; Phil. 4: 6-7). This he promises to be!

Let Jesus be your Shepherd through every dark valley and dark hallway…let Jesus be your Shepherd in every anxious waiting room, and classroom.  Let Jesus be your Shepherd through every failure and financial meltdown.  Let Jesus be your Shepherd  as you await a new baby, pray for a new kidney, or move to a new city.  Let Jesus be your Shepherd from storm-tossed fear to unsinkable faith; from birth to death and on to eternal life…for He loved you with his own life, and as you trust in Him, no one will be able to snatch you out of his hand.

King Jesus, I confess my many fears: the fear of life’s storms, the fear of failure, the fear of not having enough, the fear of losing control, the fear of looking foolish, the fear of not being popular, the fear that my secrets will be exposed, the fear of sickness and death, the fear of punishment for my many sins. I have heard the promise of your transforming love, a love which is stronger than my fears. Thank you that while fear is a feeling, faith is a decision: a decision to walk through the storms hand in hand with your people; a decision to trust You even when you seem distant; a decision to ask for help; a decision to live in gratitude for every blessing, beginning with the blessing of knowing You. Therefore I invite you, Risen Lord, to cast out my sin and fear, and to occupy my heart with your invincible, loving presence. Fill me now with your Holy Spirit so that I may serve you faithfully, in fellowship with your other disciples, forever!  Amen

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