Like Jesus, facing the dark times in our lives may require going alone into solitude, into the presence of God, to pray. And like to his disciples, in the darkest moments of our lives Jesus says to us: “Take heart, It is I, Do not be afraid”.
Last Sunday some of those who attended the recent sessions of Northwest Yearly Meeting shared their experiences. We are certainly blest to have been so well represented and then were even more blessed as we heard them share with us from their hearts.
As is par for the course, I had prepared a message based on the Gospel reading for the day, just in case. Not needed, I folded it up. What I now know is that that message was just the first part of a message, well, actually a preliminary introduction to a message. It is like what Realtors say is the most important thing about a piece of property: “Location, location, location”. For us it is
”Context, context, context!” One writer quoted his Dad saying that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. Again, context.
So, to put things in context, first, I want to read two contiguous passages of Matthew 14. They are both quite familiar to us. We’ve all heard sermons on these two passages over our life.
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
That was the first one. Matthew 14:13-21. Now the second, Matthew 14:22-33
“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
Now let me read what didn’t get read that is preliminary to those two passages – what in fact sets the context: Matthew 14: 1-12:
At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
That is where our lection for today begins: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” He had to get away.
You, of course, remember what the relationship of Jesus was to John the Baptist? They were cousins. John being six months older. John came from a priestly family but he chose a different path, that of a prophet. He was the original hair shirt. He wore camel’s hair clothing. Though never explicitly identified as such, he lived the life of a Nazarite. One who takes ascetic vows to be set apart, consecrated to the Lord, as mentioned in Numbers 6:8. He didn’t cut his hair and he ate grasshoppers and honey and drank river water. He owned nothing. Not alone in his time, he believed that the kingdom of God was then breaking in on the world and speaking the words of God’s prophet he called the Jewish community to repentance and a ritual spiritual cleansing. Religious leaders by and large ignored him. Jesus was raised in the home of a carpenter. His real ministry begins immediately after his submission to being baptized by his cousin. At the height of John’s work Jesus came to him from Nazareth to be baptized. John tries to prevent it but Jesus prevailed. As he came from the water Matthew tells us how the Spirit of God descended on Jesus and those with ears to hear heard the words: “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”.
So back to our text. Herod wanted John killed ever since John had called his hand for taking of his brother Philip’s wife. At his birthday party Herod had John the Baptist beheaded as a party favor. John’s disciples buried his body and then went and informed Jesus.
Jesus was deeply troubled. It was more than grief. We think that after Jesus’ temptations in the desert at the hands of Satan he was somehow free from the struggles of life. Had John’s life of dedication and self surrender been worth it, cut down as he was at the very height of his effectiveness? Up until this point, Jesus’ ministry was about healing, feeding, teaching a better way to live. To step up to his vocation, to decide to turn up the heat, to consciously challenge the establishment and risk his life became, for Jesus, a dark struggle with God.
We know the cheater and liar, Jacob, in the Genesis(32:22-31) story did. He had been very successful but was again having to face his brother. It was an engagement that could not be postponed. He sent ahead a tribute, he divided his live stock to hedge against loss, he sent his wives, concubines and offspring into hiding. What should have been his brightest moment was a dark and fearful struggle. Finally, he was alone, in the darkest part of night, and it was then that he found himself wrestling with God. For the rest of his years Jacob limped. He didn’t stop being a liar and a cheat. He would face more dark times in part due to the favoritism he showed in his own family. His daughter and two of his sons will give him grief. Life is a struggle. It has always been that way and the struggle often includes God. Jacob, the cheat and liar, was still blessed by God.
Paul shares with us in Romans (9:1-5) that though he was eminently successful in his ministry with the gentiles, which should have given him great satisfaction, it in fact increased his grief and sorrow because he was unable to reach his own people – God’s chosen — the Jews. Don’t you imagine that Paul wrestled with God over that? The good news in this is that in our dark moments, instead of exhausting ourselves in wrestling with God, we can find peace there by resting in his care. In one of several books I’ve read recently an author says something to the effect that “Almost everyone believes in God. I believe in a God who cares for me”.
That is what takes us to the last part of our Gospel reading. First, Jesus had tried to get in a boat to get to a lonely spot to pray. He failed. The people and his disciples found him. So this time he puts all his disciples in a boat and sends them off which, finally gives him the opportunity to be alone with God. Part of the story we often overlook, in too big of a hurry to get to Peter trying to walk on water, is that the disciples had weathered a storm during the night while they were in the boat. The text says they were battered by waves and the wind had been against them. Have you ever felt like that?
Jesus came to them in the storm and while they were struggling to survive and in their fear they didn’t recognize him – until he spoke to them “Take heart”, he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
Jesus knew what it was like to be faced with grief and the recognition that he must challenge the religious establishment. Jacob wrestled with consequences of his own making. Paul wrestled with disappointment. The disciples faced threatening winds and battering waves. Like Jesus, facing the dark times in our lives may require going alone into solitude, into the presence of God, to pray. And like to his disciples, in the darkest moments of our lives Jesus says to us: “Take heart, It is I, Do not be afraid”.