“But immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘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 a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, the disciples were in trouble. Just hours before, they had witnessed one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, the feeding of the five thousand. In fact, He had used them as the instruments of that miracle, as they distributed the bread and fish, then picked up the pieces. But they could not remain on that wonderful hill forever. “Immediately [Jesus] made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dismissed the crowd.” They were alone on the sea as Jesus found some much needed rest. “And after He had taken leave of them, He went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and He was alone on the land.” But the sea is not a safe place, in fact it is a place of danger, it is no mistake that many Old Testament passages use the sea as a metaphor for death. The disciples were soon in big trouble. “And He saw that they were making headway painfully.” This verse is translated too softly. Mark tells us that disciples were being tormented, literally tortured by the wind and the waves as they rowed.
This is the same word used in Revelation to describe the torment and torture of hell. Yes, hell. That is not a word that we like to hear, or even think about. Heaven, yes that’s a place we can imagine, but hell? Even many Christians have a hard time believing that such a place even exists. It’s the subject of jokes and cartoon strips, the devil and his dwelling have become a part of pop culture. And like many things in pop culture, the terrible reality behind these images has been lost. Hear what God has to say about this place in His Holy Word: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.” This is no joke, this is a real place, and it is reserved for those who rebel against God, those who have followed Satan in His rebellion. Torment defines it, torment that was only slightly experienced by the disciples in our text. We cannot understand this terrible place rightly until we understand that unless someone acts to deliver us, it is our destination. This torment is the punishment that we deserve for our sin. We are like the disciples on the sea, alone and in need, surrounded by death and tormented by the threat of hell.
But behold, on the horizon a figure is approaching. “And about the fourth watch of the night, He came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them.” Someone is coming, and even though the disciples don’t recognize who it is, Mark tells us. This is God Himself, the second person of the Trinity walking upon the water, walking toward the disciples. Just as God passed by Moses in the cleft of the mountain, showing to Israel’s leader His glory, so Jesus wants to pass by the disciples, showing them His glory, showing them that He is true God. This is not necessarily a good thing. Throughout the Scriptures, God comes near to His people to give His holy Law, to show them and us how far we have fallen from His standards of holiness, to show us our sin. An appearance of the living and just God is not a good thing for sinful people, for those who with their thoughts, words, and actions reject Him and His love for us. In fact, this is a very bad thing, for the justice of God demands that He remove from His presence anything that is unholy. And we know that we are unholy, just as the disciples knew that about themselves.
“When they saw Him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they saw Him and were terrified.” No one who has a body could possibly be walking on the water, so it must be a ghost. Superstitions kick in for the disciples- they are in the middle of the sea, this old enemy and symbol of death. Moreover, they are being tormented by the wind and the waves, which seem to have the very character of hell itself. And now there is a ghost coming!? What response is there other than fear? But they would truly fear the fear of God’s Old Testament people if they realized what they were seeing. A disembodied spirit is terrifying enough, but a disembodied God brings His just judgment for our sin, He brings the Law, His glory is a terrible and terrifying thing for unclean sinners, His rebellious creation.
But this figure, coming to them through the storm, is not God in His naked glory and wrath, instead it has a real, physical, body. For this mysterious figure is God incarnate, God in the flesh, God come to this earth in bodily form. This is no ghost, this is Jesus Christ Himself, the one born of the virgin Mary as a true man, born to dwell among us bodily. This Jesus, true God and yet true man, ate and drank, He slept and went to the bathroom, He laughed and wept. He felt pain and joy, touched and was touched by others. This was no ghost, as the disciples feared, but a physical person, bearing human flesh just like us, for that was essential to what He had come to do. Jesus Christ took on human flesh to deliver us from the wind and waves of death, from the torment of hell. He came to live a perfect life, to dwell in the flesh just like us, yet without sin, as the Father intended for us. And He did this in our place, He did this for us, on our behalf. He lived the perfect life that we could not. And then He died the death we deserved.
He was true God and true man, and so He wept over those who condemned Him to death. He was true God and true man, and so He felt the excruciating pain as the nails pierced His wrists and feet, as He struggled to pull Himself up to breathe. He was true God and true man, and so He endured the tremendous hunger and thirst of crucifixion, His final fast. He was true God and true man, and so He felt the loneliness of God’s abandonment, the very pain and punishment of Hell itself. Hell is not about fire and brimstone, it is about separation from God, and on the cross, Jesus Christ endured in His body the pain and punishment we deserved for our sin. He did this in your place, because He loves you.
He suffered all of this in His body, the body He took on for our salvation. And in that body, that real, physical, human body, He was raised from the dead. “And about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea.” The fourth watch of the night is the final watch, the one during which you see the sun’s light drive the darkness away. In the fourth watch of the night, at the dawn of the first day of the week, Jesus Christ rose victorious over death, the stone was rolled away and the burial cloths were discarded. For Jesus had crossed the waters of death triumphantly, He had tread death underfoot just as He walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. And He did this bodily. The resurrected Jesus was no ghost, but instead He was raised up just as He walked this earth: real, physical, whole.
This resurrected, incarnate, bodily Jesus then speaks words of comfort to all people, to you and me, much as He did in our text. “They all saw Him and were terrified. But immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.’” My friends, these are the most beautiful words that Jesus could speak to anybody. All people, along with you and me, had reason to fear the just judgment of God, we had reason to fear hell. But Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, speaks these words to you: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus has taken all fear away, for He has defeated death, He has trampled it under with the power of His resurrection, and He has removed the torment of hell from us. The disciples were in the midst of the sea of death, in torment from terrible forces, and Jesus bodily crossed over those dangerous waters to deliver them with words of absolution. We too were in the midst of death, in danger of spending eternity in torment for our sin, but Jesus bodily crossed over death itself to deliver us with words of absolution. When you read the declaration of the forgiveness of your sins in Holy Scripture, or hear it proclaimed by others, or when the pastor declares absolution in the stead of Christ, Jesus is saying to you: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”
But Jesus does not only operate with words. Remember, He is no ghost, but instead has been raised real, physical and whole, and so He comes to us in ways that are physical and bodily. He delivers to us the salvation He won, His victory over sin, death, and hell, in ways that are tangible, that we can see and feel. “And wherever He came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored Him that they might touch even the fringe off His garment. And as many as touched it were made well.” Jesus heals, He forgives, He saves, through a touch. On this very day, our incarnate, bodily risen Lord comes to us in this place in an amazing way. Mark tells us that the disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” They did not understand the great lesson of the feeding of the five thousand, that God in the flesh was on the scene to provide for His people. But there was an even greater lesson that they would miss until the night of Jesus’ betrayal. For that night Jesus took bread which He declared to be His Body, and a cup that He said now contained His Blood, and gave them to the disciples. What they could not understand about the loaves after Jesus walked on water now became clear. Jesus would be bodily present with His people through the Supper He has established. That would be the means of His physical, tangible presence with the Church until He came again.
Later in this service you will receive Christ’s very Body and Blood with the bread and the wine, the same Blood shed on the cross, the same Body risen from the grave. You will receive it for the forgiveness of sins, in intimate fellowship with your Incarnate, crucified and risen Redeemer and Savior. Through this feast, Jesus says to you: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Come to the table, take eat, take drink, for our Lord is here, real, physical, bodily, for your salvation. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ grant to you the assurance that you have been delivered from sin, death, and hell through His death and resurrection, this day and every day, until that day when you follow Christ’s bodily resurrection with your own, Amen.