Third in a Series of Sermons, “Yet”
Dear Friends in Christ,
Perhaps you have heard this story, a man was trapped in his house during a flood. He began praying to God to rescue him. He had a vision in his head of God’s hand reaching down from heaven and lifting him to safety. The water started to rise in his house. His neighbor urged him to leave and offered him a ride to safety. The man yelled back, “I am waiting for God to save me.” The neighbor drove off in his pick-up truck.
The man continued to pray and hold on to his vision. As the water began rising in his house, he had to climb up to the roof. A boat came by with some people heading for safe ground. They yelled at the man to grab a rope they were ready to throw and take him to safety. He told them that he was waiting for God to save him. They shook their heads and moved on.
The man continued to pray, believing with all his heart that he would be saved by God. The flood waters continued to rise. A helicopter flew by and a voice came over a loudspeaker offering to lower a ladder and take him off the roof. The man waved the helicopter away, shouting back that he was waiting for God to save him. The helicopter left. The flooding water came over the roof and caught him up and swept him away. He drowned.
When he reached heaven and asked, “God, why did you not save me? I believed in you with all my heart. Why did you let me drown?” God replied, “I sent you a pick-up truck, a boat and a helicopter and you refused all of them. What else could I possibly do for you?”
God sent in no fewer than three rescue teams, yet he would not be rescued. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus came walking over the water to rescue His disciples, yet their first reaction was to be terrified. Today’s sermon is the third in a series of sermons, “Yet.” Our first sermon was of Herod who was perplexed by John the Baptist, yet heard gladly. Last week was of Christ feeding the multitudes with five loaves and two fish, yet it was the hands of the disciples who fed them.
Our texts these three weeks speak of paradox, of two truths that seem to contradict each other. The Bible is full of paradox, as in “blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” and “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and “many who are first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
In II Corinthians, Paul delivers in writing a veritable festival of paradox, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true, as unknown, and yet well known, as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
Two parts to our sermon today, both stated in terms of paradox. Lesson #1 is that the disciples knew Jesus well, yet they struggled to recognize Him. It is appropriate that today’s Old Testament reading and our Gospel both deal with watercraft. Ever since Noah took his little congregation of seven aboard the ark, watercraft have been a metaphor for the church. Frequently in Scripture, ships and boats have been used to represent the church. In our Baptism liturgy, we pray that the little ones would be kept safe and secure in the ark of the Christian Church, kept separate from the multitudes of unbelievers.
Already before this miracle took place, the disciples knew Jesus well, yet they frequently did not understand. They knew that Jesus could calm a storm in three words or less, and yet they were anxious. They knew that Jesus could heal lepers and men filled with demons and paralytics, and yet they had no idea he could multiply a little bit of food and feed thousands of people. They knew Jesus could walk on water, yet when they saw Him doing so they thought it was a ghost. They knew Jesus as well as anybody has ever known Jesus, yet their first reactions to the circumstances of life are to shriek and to shrink away in sheer terror.
Even after Jesus had identified Himself as the Great I Am, even after Jesus had stepped into the boat, even after the winds had stopped blowing and the waves had ceased their crashing, even then Mark records, “they were utterly astounded….they did not comprehend the feeding of the multitude, their hearts continued to be hardened.”
If we take time to study the history of Israel, we see that this hardness of heart is not at all new or unusual. God sent plague after plague to free Israel from Egypt, yet Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. God opened up the Red Sea so Israel could walk through in miraculous fashion; He drowned the army in the sea, food appeared on the ground every morning out of nowhere, rocks gave forth water to quench thirst, God Almighty revealed His presence as a cloudy pillar of fire and smoke. Yet, they too, had hardness of the heart.
The early disciples were dull. They were slow to see answers to questions they were asking. Jesus stilled the waves, yet they didn’t see. He healed the sick, yet they didn’t understand. They were right there when He fed the multitude, yet they didn’t catch a glimpse. Time and again, their hearts went soft, and then back again to a spirit of stubbornness and status quo.
To this very day, Christians have hardness of heart. We believe, misbelieve and disbelieve at the same time. We trust and we worry and we pray and back again to doing it all over again. We fear God one hour and men the next. We are famous for trying to serve two masters at the same time. We are still and know that God is God one day and kick and scream our way through the next one. Back and forth we go, loving our God with almost all of our hearts and souls, but not quite. We see Jesus as we eat and drink at His Holy Meal on Sunday mornings and wonder where He is in our lives Sunday afternoon and evenings and beyond. Lesson #1 is to realize that like the early disciples, we may know Jesus well, but we still have this bad habit of not recognizing Him when the waves are crashing and the winds are ferocious. Recently, I spoke to a Christian woman who is going through all kinds of trouble, and she wondered out loud where God was in all of that trouble. My first reaction wonder along with her why her story had to include so much pain, and then I heard myself saying to her, “I don’t know where God is in all of that, but I do know where you can find Him.” To which she replied, “Where is that?” At which time I pointed her to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word and her Lord’s Supper. Which brings us to our second lesson today.
Lesson #2 is good news. It’s really good news. In the language of paradox, it is this: We keep on taking two steps backwards, yet Christ keeps on stepping forward. In our Gospel lesson for today, the sluggish faith of the disciples does not deter Jesus. They land on the Galilean shore near Gennesaret, and soon the people recognized Him. They brought their sick friends and neighbors to Jesus, and they healed them. They pleaded for the chance just to touch His garments and be healed, and so it happened.
To this very day, the outward appearances of life make it seem as though the Church is losing the battle, yet Jesus Christ has already stepped forward to a little hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Like a lamb he was slaughtered, yet as a shepherd He rose up and won the great victory. Like stupid sheep, we keep on going astray, yet our Good Shepherd keeps on pursuing us. We keep on losing ground with our bad habits, but Christ and His Church keep gaining. In recent days, your pastors have seen it happening again and again. In this corner of the kingdom, a young man’s body gets ruined by cancer, yet his faith and the faith of dozens of family members grows by leaps and bounds. In that corner over there, a marriage ends in disaster, yet in the quiet of the night both parties cry out for the forgiveness of sins, and even before they an utter the words, forgiveness is granted. Two steps backwards, but the Kingdom of God moves forward.
Not too far away from here is a young man caught up in meth addiction again, and off to the hospital he goes and then gets thrown back in county jail. It looks as if the devil has won yet another battle and as if all is lost. Yet a slender young pastor steps into his little space with a listening ear, a Bible and a particular word written by Paul to the Romans, “The good that I want to do, I do not do, but the evil I do not want I do,” At which point Pastor Muther said his eyes came open and he said, “that’s me. When it comes to using, I feel like I can’t help it. I know what I should do. I know what will happen to me if I don’t, but I still can’t help it.” In the loneliest of surroundings, Christ is recognized, grace is received, and heaven is tasted, two steps backwards, but Christ moves ahead..
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town that keeps on falling short, yet the royal banner keeps on standing tall. Their roof and walls may be leaking, but their foundation is firm. Some days their efforts are strong, and other days not so strong at all, yet in every one of their days, their Savior is walking towards the, standing with them, and out in front of them. Their first reaction to so many of life’s setbacks is to be terrified, but as often as they think it through, as often as they remember what they have learned from their mother’s knees, as often as they pay attention to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, as often as they eat and drink at the Holy Supper, as often as they hold on to the very obvious fact that the rescue mission has already been completed, as often as they fix their eyes on the rainbow, that often they are made well. Still they get terrified, but always, they know they have been saved.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther