Sermon: Take Heart!
August 13th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 14:22-33
We just heard the scripture reading from the NIV. On the back of your bulletin I have the same passage printed from the ESV. I included that because I wanted to bring to your attention the variety of ways that what Jesus says in verse 27 is translated. What we just heard was Jesus saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” As you can see, in the ESV (as in the RSV and some others) it is translated “Take heart!” The KJV writes, “Be of good cheer,” which other more modern English translations have put as “Cheer up!” or “Don’t worry” “Be encouraged!” “Be brave!”
Several years ago, my eldest daughter Anna, was going through a difficult time. I forget now all the angst that was happening in her life, but I recall that she was facing deep uncertainties in making some major life decisions. She was living in Camden, NJ with a small church ministry group in a house surrounded by burned-out crack houses, crime, poverty, neglect, all of which was scary. On top of that she wasn’t feeling well physically and had a load of emotional stressors as well. I remember getting a series of messages from her one morning when I was trying to balance my own work and be attentive to her and in the end I texted back, “Take heart.” Immediately my phone began to ring – when I answered, Anna said, “Are you kidding me? What does that even mean? Take heart?!” It felt so inadequate for the depth of her struggle, her uncertainties, her sadness, her fears. She added, “Really?! Is that the best you’ve got?”
Take heart. Take courage. Cheer up. I wonder if the disciples felt like Anna. If you recall from last week, they had all been feeling tired and discouraged, but their relaxing get-away had turned into another crowd-event filled with caring for others and then Jesus’ challenge to them to feed the crowd, along with the amazement of actually doing it! A roller coaster of emotional lows and highs.
No sooner had they collected 12 baskets of leftovers than Jesus insists that they get back into the boat and head back across the lake. This time, without him. It’s late. As day fades into night, the winds pick up, the waves rise up, and so do their fears. They fear for their lives in the small boat being tossed about in the dark. They get even more terrified when what appears to be a ghost moves across the water, out of the shadows, toward them. Matthew admits that they cried out; they screamed, perhaps a few of them actually start to cry.
I’ve been surprised at how often God has brought into my own life something that connects directly to the scripture message that I bring you each week. This week has certainly been one! I’ve told you that in the midst of my health scare I have been clinging to a verse in Isaiah that says, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. Do not be terrified, I am your God.” Yet fear still washed over me in waves this past week as I anticipated the start of chemo treatments, and off and on during the infusion on Thursday. Fear for my life, fear for David, for my parents and children. David and I shared our fears with one another this week.
Earlier in the week, here at church, in a conversation I had with someone else about another concern, I could hear anxiousness in that person’s voice and see fear in his eyes – not as much for himself as for a loved one. There was a sense of fear as the Wednesday morning Bible study group talked about the tensions and threats of North Korea – Chicago is so close, a nuclear bomb would certainly have devastating effects here, too. In another moment here this week, there were tears shed over fears and a difficult decision. And I’m sure there are other fears too overwhelming even to share – fears of loneliness, fears of survival, fears of the future, fears of rejection, fears that grow in the dark of night, that rise as unpredictable events buffet. Fear is debilitating, paralyzing. And a message of “Take heart” really does seem inadequate on the surface, so let’s look a little deeper.
Jesus – the Hero of the story (not Peter)
Often when this scripture passage is studied and preached, it is Peter who receives the attention and serves as the hero of the story. But as I have read it over and over this week, it is Jesus who has captured my attention and who is clearly the True Hero. So let’s look to Him:
(The word ‘immediately’ occurs 3 times in this passage– if you have a pen or pencil, underline them on the back of your bulletin in vs. 22, 27 and 31– they will be our guide.)
The first thing that I notice as the story moves on from the crowd being healed and fed, is that Jesus’ heart of compassion takes another focus. From compassion for the crowd and its needs, Jesus immediately shifts his compassion to himself! He recognizes that his need to care for himself, to be strengthened and to be restored his own soul, has not gone away. Out of compassion for himself, Jesus insists that even his closest companions leave. He dismisses the crowd – I’m sure that took much insistence and firmness. Then Jesus walks up the mountain to be by himself; alone with God to pray. He takes his time in prayer, he does not rush. Though he must certainly have been aware of the rising wind and the disciples’ terror, he remains in rest and prayer through the watches of the night, until the early hour before dawn. He allows silence and solitude to restore his soul.
When we face times of stress and strain, we would do well to remember that Jesus gave priority to self-care. While he had compassion for others, he was only able to sustain that by also having compassion for himself. He intentionally connected with the source of his compassion and strength, with his God. It is not being selfish to care for ourselves, and if Jesus needed to do that, how much more do we! Jesus is our Restorer.
Reassurer & Revealer
The next thing I notice is that when Jesus does go to his disciples, he immediately offers reassurance. Take courage, take heart. I see your panic, Jesus seems to say, I understand how you are feeling and what you are facing. Don’t be afraid. Jesus is our Reassurer.
It is not empty, weak reassurance. It is reassurance based on who Jesus is. In the same breath that Jesus reassures, he also reveals who He is. “It is I.” That brief statement echoes the “I AM” name of God. Jesus reveals himself in that moment as Yahweh, Jehovah, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Moses, the God of saints who have gone before us, the God who was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. What stronger reassurance could there be?!
So Peter calms down from his panic. He is reassured and filled with peace – NOT! Not at all! Nope, Peter actually seems to heap doubt onto his fear. “If it is you,” he says to Jesus. Do you hear a bit of a challenge to Jesus? The kind of prove-it-to-me attitude that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and others who mocked and doubted him. Peter is definitely not the hero in this story. I want to warn him: stop, Peter, think before you speak, stay in the boat! You’ll notice there are no words of congratulations to Peter from Jesus or from the other disciples. Rather, he gets called out for his little faith; “why did you doubt?” Yet the reassurance we receive is that despite Peter’s doubts and his desperate need to test the strength of Jesus’ encouragement and divine power, Jesus works with him. Jesus invites Peter to come to him. When we are battling fears and assailed by doubt, Jesus shows amazing patience and understanding. He continues to invite and reveal and reassure.
And then Jesus rescues. The fear is still buffeting, the doubts dissolve any substance beneath his feet, and down Peter goes. But to his credit, Peter knows what we all need to do when caught in situations like this, when we are sinking like a rock: “Lord, save me!” he cries. And immediately, immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand, takes hold of him, and lifts him up. Jesus is our rescuer!
Did you notice that the wind and waves do not subside the moment Jesus takes Peter’s hand? There is an interval, while the storm still blows, in which they have to return to the boat and climb back in. Matthew tells us that after they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Jesus is our rescuer – the storms of fear and doubt may continue to rage around even after he takes hold of us. But in His time, the storms will be calmed. Meanwhile, we are no less safe or secure. Jesus is our rescuer.
Responding to Jesus
Jesus is so much more than just a hero of a story, or a teacher and life-coach and guide. He is the One who does for us what we cannot. Jesus is the One who invites us to come away from the burdens of life to be restored by Him in times of solitude and silence and prayer. Jesus is the One who comes to meet us in times of anxiety, of fear, of worry and doubt, offering reassurance, rooted in the reminder that He is God. Jesus is the One who takes hold of us and rescues us. He saves our lives in the present; he saves our lives beyond this life, forever. Jesus is the One who walks on water, directs wind and waves, holds life and death. Faced with this Jesus, we are compelled to respond. The disciples in the boat respond with worship: “Truly you are the Son of God!”
I want to offer you an opportunity to respond now as well. We can’t go climb a mountain to be alone with Jesus, but I invite you to close your eyes and find a space of solitude within yourself. Take a deep breath and imagine yourself in the boat with Peter and the disciples. The wind is blowing, the waves are tossing. What are the fears that are whipping around you right now? Are there worries and doubts that are throwing you off balance? Is there an icy wave of terror that is washing over you? … Hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Take heart! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Reach up your hand to Jesus and feel Him take it. Immediately, as Jesus takes your hand, he’s gripping it firmly, lifting you, holding you. He is here. He is with you. Jesus is indeed the Son of God… Amen!
If you would like to remain with your eyes closed and talk to Jesus for a few more minutes, please do so while the rest of us sing the closing song. Let’s all remain seated.
Closing Song: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” #638
Benediction: Christ comes to us in person. Christ also comes to us through one another. (Invite everyone to reach out and take the hand of another.) In the name of Jesus, Restorer, Reassurer, Revealer and Rescuer, I say, “Take heart!” Go in peace. Thanks be to God!