4th Sunday after Epiphany + Matthew 8:23-27 + January 29, 2017
Order of Holy Communion - Pg. 15Hymn # 5 Lord, Open Thou My Heart to Hear
Collect for the Fourth Sunday after EpiphanyAlmighty God, Who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright, grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Sermon on Matthew 8:23-27
Grace and Peace be unto you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1) In today’s Gospel lesson, Christ gets into a boat and His disciples follow Him. It is once Christ is in the boat that “suddenly” a great storm arises. All had been calm before, but once Christ enters the boat the weather turns nasty. The weather becomes so terrible that that Matthew calls it a “great tempest, so that the boat was covered with the waves.” This small vessel made with human hands was then put to the test. Winds buffet it. Waves engulf and overcome it so that that the disciples despair of their lives. Their reaction would be anyone’s reaction in that moment of panic. They look to Jesus, their teacher, the One who is God’s Son, for help. “But He was asleep.” Even the Lord seems aloof to their misery. So they wake Him and say, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” What is so interesting to me is that these physical problems, these external threats against their boat, lead to such spiritual and internal despair. They most certainly fear death. But they also fear that that their Lord will not come to their aid. In St. Mark’s account of this event the disciples wake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The external circumstances, the winds and the waves, caused these men to cower in fear so that faith seemed to have fled their hearts in that moment. Physical anxieties cause spiritual unbelief so that they look at Jesus and wonder, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing, in turmoil and danger, and about to die?” This fear is worse than the fear of dying. This is the fear of dying while God does nothing to help. It is the fear that you have been abandoned by God. The winds, the waves, the doubt, the fear, all of these things are great tests of the disciple’s faith.
2) When Jesus awakes and they beg Him, “Lord save us, we are perishing,” He asks them, “Why are you fearful? O you of little faith?” It is a stunning, yet gentle rebuke of the disciples’ faith. Their faith had been in the wrong place. They had put their trust in the wrong object. Jesus reveals their unbelief with this simple and quiet question. Jesus is not interested in the winds buffeting the boat or the waves crashing onboard. Jesus is concerned to teach the disciples faith. Their faith, before that moment, had been misplaced. They trusted the weather. If they had good weather, then they had a God that was good and gracious. They trusted their experience. As long as the situation was under control they knew God was favorable to them. They trusted themselves and their abilities as fishermen, and as long as they thought they were up to the task, they knew they had a God who loved them. For as much as all that looked like faith, externally, it was nothing but unbelief in Christ. The moment things went sideways, the moment the wind became too strong for their strength and the moment they took on more water than they knew what to do with, their unbelief was exposed. “Why are you fearful? O you of little faith? Do you really think that I would let you die out here? Did you really think that this situation would engulf me, the Son of God in human flesh? Did you really thing that any real harm could befall you as long as I was in the boat with you?” The little faith the disciples had was misplaced. Their faith grasped for all the wrong things and that is what led them to fear the situation, to fear death, and to fear that they had a God who did not care whether or not they perished.
3) Jesus rises and rebukes the winds and the sea. Matthew doesn’t tell us His word. Mark does. “Peace, be still!” (Mark 4:39). Literally, “Silence! Be muzzled!” God spoke and it was so, for at that moment “there was great calm.” Jesus shows the disciples that He can bring creation’s wild outburst to heel with the word of His mouth. He shows them that He is God in human flesh. He is the Word of God of whom it is written, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3). And while this is amazing in and of itself, that the man Jesus of Nazareth reveals Himself to be the very Word of God which spoke the creation into existence, this is not what Jesus wants the disciples to take away from this episode. He wants them to be able to say more than just, “Jesus is Lord of the creation.” He wants to teach them faith and faith’s proper object. Their faith, which they believed to be strong, was quite weak because the object of their faith was weak. But if faith has the proper object, then it doesn’t matter how weak or strong it is at all. It’s the not the size of the faith that matters. What matters is what the faith holds onto. Jesus shows the disciples that He is the only worthy object for their faith. He is the only one who is powerful enough to help in the face of death. Not only does He show them His power, He shows them His compassion. Unbelief says, “Lord, don’t you care that we’re perishing?” Faith in Christ would have said, “We have Christ with us in the boat. We will not fear in spite of wind, wave, water, and tempest, anxiety, or death itself.”
4) Modern day disciples have the same problem, for we have the same sinful flesh that clung to the twelve. We experience physical, worldly, external tests of faith that cause us to quail in fear and cower in despair. We are the disciples in the boat. We often place our faith in objects which are unworthy of our faith and unable to save. Then when those things give way, we crumble with them. At times we place our faith in our good health. If we have good health then we must have a God who is good and gracious. If we have a comfortable life with more than we need, then we know we have a God who favors us. If our lives are going smoothly with only minor hiccups in the road, then we know we have a God who truly loves us. But then God allows a tempest to suddenly arise. He allows our health to deteriorate, perhaps in a small way, perhaps in a large way. Either way, when that happens we begin to see the frailty of our flesh and just how susceptible to death it truly is. If we had placed our faith in good health, the absence of health can only be interpreted as divine wrath, that God is no longer good to us. At other times the Lord allows us to experience lack to some degree, so that our homes, our possessions, or our incomes suffer. If we had placed our faith in our wealth, that it was a sign of God’s favor, then sudden lack could only mean that God does not favor us but is displeased with us. Whenever these things happen, they are tests of faith, as the disciples’ faith was tested in the boat. These things are sent to us not to show us God’s disfavor or wrath. They are given to us to show us that our faith has the wrong object, an object that will let us down when we need it the most.
5) As Christ showed this to the disciples and then pointed their faith to His almighty power and promise, so He does with us as well. He exposes our unbelief so that we can repent of it and be absolved of it. Christ showed the disciples that He was to be the object of their faith by speaking His powerful Word. He does the same with you, pointing you to His Word to demonstrate that your heart should cling to Him alone in all external situations. When the wind and waves of illness, sickness, and disease in your body buffet your heart, the Word comforts your heart with His Word, “My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26). When the gale force of loss and the tumultuous waters of scarcity threaten to capsize you, the Word consoles you heart, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things” (Matthew 6:33-34). When your sins, present or from the past, pester you and your heart condemns you for the wicked things you have done, so that you are tempted to believe that you are beyond God’s grace, the Word offers your refuge. “If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20). He tells you, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). When you feel sin still clinging to your flesh each day and you feel it yourself, He gives you the Word of Absolution in which Christ says to you, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”
6) Dear saints of God, when your hearts are driven by the winds of temptations, when you are buffeted by doubts as to whether or not God is only good and gracious to you, consider where you sit. You sit in the boat with Christ. The boat has, since ancient times, been interpreted spiritually as the Church. And you, by faith, belong to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in which Christ is truly present. I have heard from several people that the building in which we sit was built with material from a shipyard. How appropriate is it that the building we have been given in which to hear the Word is made from a ship? Not only that, but in this boat Christ is truly present just as He was present in the boat with the disciples. There is no need to wake Him because He does not slumber or sleep but is attentive to the voice of your prayers and concerns. He is present here in the preaching and reading of His Word. Christ is physically present in the Sacrament, real body and real blood, given and shed for you for the real forgiveness of your real sins. Christ is present in this boat right now, preaching to you the Word of forgiveness and life and salvation.
7) There is no reason to put your faith in anything else than Christ’s promises in Word and Sacrament. These are the objects which He has given to us to place our faith in. They are not unworthy objects of faith, for they are sure and certain, straight from the mouth of the Lord. When your heart is buffeted back and forth by the waves of temptation, remember that you sit in the boat with Christ who strengthens you against temptation. When your mind is driven back and forth by the winds of doubt and despair of God’s mercy, so that you think that God is not only good and gracious to you, remember that you are in the boat where Christ is truly present not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. When your heart condemns you of your sins, when your conscience oppresses you for the wicked things you have done, when your health and possessions fail you, remember that these are not signs of God’s wrath upon you. The Word He gives you the absolution and in the Sacrament, this Word you are to trust, believe, and fervently cling to no matter the physical and external tests of faith which come your way. You are in the boat with Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.