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Worship Theme: Christians live by faith, overcoming doubt

Sermon Theme: Jesus Overcomes Our Fears

He counted the seconds from the flash of the lightning bolt that sliced the black sky. “One, two, thr…,” and “Boom!” the thunder rattled the night. “I’m afraid!” cried the little boy, bolting into his parent’s bedroom. “I’m afraid!” admitted the teenager as she stepped back from her parents’ hugs and peered at the college dorm, away from home for the first time. “I’m afraid!” whispered the cancer patient heading in for surgery. Fear can be paralyzing and so powerful that it drives some to do things they know are wrong and will be sorry for later. The accountant was afraid of losing her job so she spread rumors about others just to get ahead. The husband was afraid of losing his spouse, but he ruined the marriage by trying to manipulate his wife into giving him love and attention. The young woman was afraid of losing her boyfriend so she gave in to his pressure for sex and lost her self-respect and her reputation.

Big fears, little fears, we’ve all got them. The question is, “What are we going to do about them?” How about this? Instead of asking, “What are we going to do about them?” let’s ask, “What can God do about our fears?” Today’s Gospel account from Matthew chapter 14 proclaims the answer: Jesus Overcomes Our Fears.                       

He answers prayer

Ever have this happen? You’re so worried or so afraid about something that you shoot all kinds of prayers to the heavens, but you aren’t sure God will answer.

A crowd of well over five thousand people had been fed by Jesus. He didn’t order out or call a catering service. He miraculously multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish. After the meal the crowd drew the conclusion, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). They were right! Ancient Bible writers had predicted that a great Prophet would come. But the crowd was also wrong because they assumed the promised Prophet would be a political messiah who would fill their stomachs and give them a life of ease. They cooked up plans to crown Jesus as their king to replace Herod, Pilate, Caesar, and any other ruler who made life hard. As this groundswell gained momentum, Jesus took swift and decisive action. He knew that this unholy pressure would be a temptation to his disciples. They were still fuzzy on the edges about his mission. He knew that there was more danger to the disciples from the favor of the crowd than from the fury of a storm. Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side. They were probably disappointed that Jesus didn’t let the crowd press a crown on his head, but they needed to learn that he was already King in a far higher sense than they imagined and one day a completely different kind of crown would be pressed on his head.

Then he dismissed the crowd. That’s significant. Not only was it in the best interest of the disciples and the people that they be dismissed before they took hasty and drastic action, but their plan would have been used by the devil to tempt him. Their plan matched the offer Satan tried to use on Jesus two years earlier, “Be an earthly king. Why suffer? Just snap your fabuloso fingers and take over.” Jesus slapped that temptation aside. But the devil doesn’t give up easily. Jesus needed strength to withstand the devil’s constant attacks, including this one through the pleas of the crowd. He needed peace and quiet.

So, after he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone. Alone to bolster his own heart because Satan kept dangling the bauble of the easy way out in front of him, trying to distract Jesus from the bloody path to Calvary’s cross which was only a year away! But when praying on that mountain, do you think Jesus was only thinking about himself? Hardly! Very likely he prayed for those thousands who had been more impressed by the miracle of free food than by the message of free forgiveness. And he prayed for his disciples. They would be in danger on the sea as a storm kicked up, but a worse storm was churning in their hearts as they pondered the “missed opportunity” of that day.

So, what do you think the disciples were praying as they got into the boat? “Lord, please cause a big storm to come up to scare the living daylights out of us!” No! Perhaps they were praying for a safe journey or praying that Jesus would hurry from his private time, come running down the dock, and leap into the boat. But Jesus had an altogether different way of answering their prayers.

Can you see how important this part of the story is for us? At the slightest threat to our security we become afraid. In the blink of an eye we goof up once again, sin, get ourselves in trouble with God and with others around us, and we begin to think that he won’t listen to our prayers. Jesus teaches us here that all of our prayers are heard and answered in the best possible way, which is often far better than we dreamed or imagined. When we’re afraid, when we think we have nowhere to turn, Jesus overcomes our fears as he answers our prayers.

He is always there

OK! He’s listening to us. But how can you be sure the Lord is near and will actually help? Sometimes it feels like he’s far way, doesn’t it?

Can you see the storm waves smacking the boat, rocking it up and down and side to side? Can you feel the splash of water and the icy fingers of despair? The disciples had experienced a storm like this before, but that had been in broad daylight, and Jesus had been with them in the boat. Now the darkness and his absence ratcheted up the fear-factor. The boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, around three a.m., they are in the middle of this deep lake three miles from shore. They had been rowing for almost nine hours. The darkness, the danger of drowning, the exhaustion all combined to tingle superstitious fear. When the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” A one-hundred-eighty-degree flip! From fear to faith, from trembling to trust with just a word from Jesus!

Don’t expect spectacular miracles when you want the Lord to be near and do something about your fears. He does indeed come to us but not in blow-us-away miracles. He comes to us through the gentle whisper of his Word. He never promised to rid our lives of all troubles, but he did promise to be present whenever and wherever his Word is proclaimed. Listen carefully! He told the disciples, “It is I.” It’s hard to catch the connection in English, but those are the same words God spoke to Moses at the flaming shrub, I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). The Lord’s loving nature never changes. He is always the same. He overcomes our fears by being always there for us through his word and promises.

He proves his care

So, why do doubts still creep into our brain? Could it be that we’re staring at our problems or looking at ourselves instead of concentrating on Jesus and his care?

I don’t mind getting polyurethane flip-flops wet when at the beach, but nice leather sandals? Who wants to squish around in soaked sandals? Peter wasn’t worried about his sandals or anything else when he kept his eyes on Jesus. “Lord, if it’s you … tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. This doesn’t mean that if you believe in Jesus, you can walk across Lake Michigan. It does mean that if you fall into a sinful behavior, if you feel stuck in an addiction, if a guilt-load seems crazy-glued to your back, stop looking inside yourself for strength and look to Jesus. He will give you the honest truth about your sin and the honest truth about your only hope for help, his forgiveness.

But when [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” Peter had risen from fear to faith, but now he had sunk back to fear again.

Have you ridden those waves? You leave church or watch on-line feeling strong and secure in your faith. Then Monday comes, and “Zoom!” down you go, losing sight of Jesus and seeing only storms of trouble all around. Jesus knows the pattern. He saw it in Peter and knew what to do, pulling him up, proving his care. Jesus sees it in us and knows what to do. He overcomes our fear as he proves his care. And the best proof of that? Drops of blood streaming from his head, his hands, his side – his life given so we live forever.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It drove Adam and Eve into hiding, caused Elijah to run, put a noose around Judas’ neck. Don’t be surprised if Satan tries to use fear to drive you from God. If he does, grab your Bible and read the “Fear-nots” and “Don’t-be-afraids” of Scripture. They are there because Jesus really wants to overcome our fears. Then climb back in the boat with Peter, join him and the other disciples, and worship Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Amen.

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