Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Proper 14 of Series A (Matthew 14:22-33)

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read just a few moments ago from Matthew chapter fourteen. Dear friends in Christ- Whew! The disciples had one long day! It may seem even longer to us, considering that we began it with the disciples in the sermon last week. We heard then from Pastor Werly how Jesus went to find a quiet place for reflection and prayer, for communion with His (and our) Heavenly Father, and instead found 25,000 hungry Yankee fans waiting for Him. Well, now He has finished feeding that multitude, the miracle is over, and it is time to go home. More importantly, it is time for Jesus to do what He came to do originally- pray. So the disciples are sent out to sea while Christ communes with the Father. But during this eventful day, even the night holds no peace. I don’t know about you, but one of the most frightening things I have experienced is to be out in the open during a storm. No shelter, no protection, you see it coming and there is nothing you can do. This is especially frightening when you are on the water, where the very surface you are traveling on is deadly. So we can easily imagine what the disciples felt like as things became dangerous: “The boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, and the wind was against them.”
Matthew does not tell us if the disciples cried out for help, but I think we can safely assume that they were hoping and praying for deliverance. Death was staring them in the face, and they needed help, they needed rescue, they needed safety. And so, off in the distance, Jesus comes to them. “And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea.” Jesus came to them in their distress, He came to save, to comfort, as He has done so many times in your life. The fact that Jesus walked on water to come to His disciples is not nearly as important as that fact that HE CAME TO THEM. Their fear drove Him to them.
But the disciples retained their fear, they did not recognize their Lord, Savior and Teacher coming toward them. Matthew tells us: “But when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear.” In the terror of that night, everything was a phantom, another agent of death. The disciples let loose a cry, a cry of fear, a cry of doubt, a cry of worry.
Their cry did not go unanswered. Immediately, at that very moment, in the midst of their fear and distress, Jesus answered their cry. Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” And so they cried out, and Jesus called to them, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus spoke these words, words of comfort, words of courage, words of absolution. He did not calm the waves, but He simply spoke, and His Words held power to do what they said. First He said ‘take heart,’ encouraging them to stand resolute in the face of danger. Next came a statement of identity, ‘it is I.’ This English translation does not capture the significance of the words Jesus spoke. Jesus literally said, “Take heart, I AM.” Jesus is here invoking the Divine Name of God, saying that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the only True God, Yahweh Himself, the great ‘I AM,’ is here, and He is here to save. This man, born of a virgin in a stable is true God, and He brings salvation with Him. Because of who Jesus is as true God and true man, the Messiah sent from God, He can now say to the disciples, ‘Do not be afraid.’ These are the words of absolution, of true comfort. Their fear has been extinguished by the words of Christ. But do not think that just because Jesus was standing on water while He spoke these words that it is any different for you. You had reason to fear, you stood under the condemnation of God for your sin, but Christ came to you in your distress. He did not stand on water, but He used water to bring you into His kingdom through Holy Baptism. When the pastor said “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said to you, “Take heart; I AM. Do not be afraid.” God placed His name on you in your baptism, the same name that Jesus spoke to the disciples, the only name in which salvation comes to us. When Pastor Werly says “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said to you, “Take heart; I AM. Do not be afraid.” In these words, by these means, Christ comes to us, and He comes bringing salvation.
But for Peter, the words of Christ were not enough. This wonderful, blessed absolution from Jesus, spoken in the midst of the storm, did not satisfy Him. And so He calls out to Jesus “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” It is easy for us to sit here and laugh at the foolishness of Peter, who has once again stuck his foot in his mouth. But if Peter seems to make a habit of doing just that, it is only because he is a representative of all the disciples and of us all. We too have trouble believing the absolution; we struggle to trust Christ’s words. We seek confirmation, sometimes looking within ourselves for some sign that God really does love us, and sometimes looking to God, like Peter, demanding a miracle. Words and water, or even bread and wine, do not seem to carry the importance we would expect. Christ can’t simply just talk to us, place some water on us, or give us a meal for our salvation. There must be something that we can do, we must need to come to Christ, if only partway. This is part of the air we breathe in our culture today, especially our Christian culture. Words are not simply enough, we need miracles, we need to come to Christ, it can’t be so easy that He would only come to us. And so we step out of the boat with Peter, in search of a miracle, driven by the desire to come to Christ.
And like Peter, we might find that walking to Jesus seems quite easy. Matthew tells us, “So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.” Peter asked for a miracle, and he received it, He wanted to come to Jesus, and it seemed to be working out. There is something so distinctly American, so distinctly human about us walking to Christ. Even if we are only walking on the water through a miracle, we can still be proud that we are the ones who stepped out of the boat and made the effort to come to Christ. But then, the storms of life continue to be around us, and suddenly things don’t seem so rosy. We go through a tough time at work or at home, or we lose a loved one, and we realize that walking to Christ is a lonely road. “But when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” We will always sink when we are walking to Christ. For despite how much we talk about Christ as we walk, when we doubt His words of absolution we have rejected His coming to us and are attempting to walk to Him by ourselves.
But Christ, in His loving mercy, does not let us sink. We cry out for salvation once again, yearning to hear His words of Absolution, we cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!” And Christ does save us, as He saved Peter. Our fears drive Christ to us. “Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” Peter did not only doubt when he saw the wind and the waves, he doubted more importantly when he doubted Christ’s words of absolution, His coming to them, and instead struck out on his own. But Christ’s love for us compels Him to rescue us again and again, each time that we strike out on our own.
It was this love that brought us salvation in the first place. When Peter cried out “Lord, save me!” he wanted deliverance from the wind and the waves. But Christ did not come to this earth to simply calm storms. He came to rescue us all from drowning, from the fear of death and punishment that surrounded us, the terror caused by our fall into sin. He took away our fear and the punishment we deserved by taking it upon Himself, and taking it to the cross, where His shed blood washed away all of our sins. It is only through that sacrifice and the victorious resurrection on the third day that Jesus’ words “Take heart, I AM. Do not be afraid” have any significance. Without Good Friday and Easter, Pastor spoke empty words to you this morning in the absolution, and your Baptism simply made you wet. But with the death of Christ on Calvary’s cross and His victory over the grave on the third day, those words have meaning, they have power, they do what they say. They forgive your sins, they restore the broken relationship between God and man, they bring you salvation. And because He went to the cross for you, you can trust those words. You do not need to come to Christ, because He came to you in the midst of your distress, He calmed your fears, He forgave you through simple Words, water, bread and wine. As Saint Paul teaches in our Epistle lesson: “But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);” (Rom 10:6-8) The storms of life continue to rage, but through these means by which Christ comes to us we have the assurance that He has defeated the only storm that really matters in the end, that of sin and death.
And what is our response to this gift, this salvation conveyed to us in Word and Sacrament? As the disciples, we are moved to confession and worship. “And those in the boat worshipped Him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” We confess what Christ as done for us to those around us, and we join all other believers to continue to receive these gifts, here in this place and every day. God’s Word sustains us and gives us the strength to face life’s storms. May the Lord use His Word and His Sacraments to strengthen and preserve you in the true faith, today and every day, Amen.

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