Mark 6:45-52 – Facing Fear

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.

The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.  

The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.

Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.

This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.

So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.

If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you.  And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.

We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.   

Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears. 

There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.

Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:

But when I am afraid,
    I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
    I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
    What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)

I sleep and wake up refreshed
    because you, Lord,
    protect me.
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
    but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)

When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)

Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.

Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown. 

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan

**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water

***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)

1 Samuel 17:1-49 – Faith in Action

The story of David and Goliath is one of the best known stories in the entire Bible. It’s a classic example of what can be accomplished through one person who chooses to exercise faith. Puny David taking on giant Goliath has served as one of the greatest inspirations for believers through the centuries – seeing God give victory to people against dramatically overwhelming odds.

Whereas the New Testament exhorts us to live by faith, this Old Testament narrative demonstrates what can happen when a person of faith decides to put that faith into action.

Old Testament stories are framed in a way to help the reader or listener discern the differences between the characters of the story – to understand the contrasts between good and bad. So, then, the account of David and Goliath revolves around four character contrasts so that we will learn the lessons of faith God wants to teach us.

First Contrast: David and Saul

David is brave. Saul is fearful. In the ancient world, a typical tactic of warfare, when the battle lines were drawn, was to choose a champion from each side. They would fight together, just the two of them, on behalf of the entire army. It was a fight to the death, and the losing side would submit to the winning side. 

This was a way of preventing the terrible carnage of war. It also created some incredible individual champions.  A champion would be selected not only for his ability to fight, but also for his impressive stature so that there was an intimidation factor to it all.

Saul was the King of Israel. He was the logical choice for the combat since he was a head taller than all the other Israelites and a rather impressive looking soldier. But compared to Goliath, Saul looked like a midget.  The intimidation factor worked. Saul was downright afraid and not about to put himself out there to face a giant.

David is brave because he has faith in God. Saul is fearful because he is not a man of faith in God. The opposite of faith is not unbelief, but fear. As the muscle of faith grows through trusting God in the daily stresses of life, fear is better confronted and managed. The development of faith is a process, and it takes time.

Considering this story in light of Father’s Day, Dads have the daily opportunity of being a hero to their kids through faith in God. That means dealing with two great fears: being found inadequate; and, being controlled by another person or circumstance.

Those two fears were evident in Saul. He felt inadequate because he compared himself to Goliath. He felt controlled by the situation because the Philistines were picking a fight. So, he froze. There are many men who would rather do nothing than be labelled as inadequate or controlled.

David, in contrast, had plenty of practice facing down foes as a shepherd – the bear and the lion – who threatened the sheep. David was often out in the countryside all by himself, guarding the sheep, and his skills were improved in a place where no one was looking.

The way to progress our faith is to be assertive in owning our relationship with God through prayer and Bible reading (or listening on a Bible app) on a daily basis. It’s something everyone can do.

Second Contrast:  David and the Israelites

It was not only Saul who was intimidated by Goliath; the entire army of Israel was hiding behind the battle lines cringing in fear. David, however, discerned no reason to avoid this bullying blowhard. It appears he is the only person able to see Goliath as a small person in comparison to a big God. By faith, David understands Goliath is no match for God.

So, we see that one person full of faith can accomplish the impossible – whereas an army full of fear cannot accomplish a thing. 

We might tend to believe everything has to be large with a big splash to it – that only then can we accomplish big things for God. But really, if we want to achieve something for God, we need to step out in faith and do it – instead of recruiting an army of people or hiding in the group, nursing our fears and anxieties.

No one can do your personal faith work for you; you must do it. The Beaver Cleaver philosophy of life says, “Gee, Wally, if I get in trouble or in a pickle, I’ll just ignore it and hope it goes away….” But Goliath is not going anywhere. He will still be there tomorrow.

Third Contrast: David and Goliath

Goliath represents the other extreme to the fear of Saul and the Israelites. He had absolutely no fear, including any fear of God. Goliath trusted in himself, his abilities, and his stature. David, however, trusted in God alone.

The story gives a detailed description of Goliath’s weapons and physical appearance because Goliath trusted in his aptitude and the ancient technology of his day to face down the Israelites. Conversely, David was small and too young to even be considered for military service. He was too small to wear anybody’s armor. But David did not need any of that – he just needed his faith.

Humanly speaking, David appears insignificant; there is nothing about him that caused anyone to think there was something special or different about him. Goliath, however, was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his day, ready to terminate anybody who got in his way.

It can be easy to trust in ourselves, another person, or our technology to accomplish something in the face of insurmountable odds, instead of looking to God. The battle is not ours; it is the Lord’s.

Most things in life take a great deal of bravery – especially parenthood! It takes more than copious Dad speeches (and I had a lot of speeches for my kids). Fatherly courage requires modeling for boys what they are expected to become and modeling for girls what they should expect from males.

Children need to observe men who have courage to do the right thing, even when it has personal cost. They need to see them bravely shouldering responsibilities – even when they don’t feel like it. Kids need to see men who demonstrate the courage to be vulnerable, as well as strong and self-disciplined. They need to experience fathers and men with courage to pay attention to them – even, and especially, when those men are angry or disappointed with their own choices.

Fourth Contrast:  David and Eliab

Eliab was David’s big brother. Eliab was a soldier in the army. David was just a kid. It did not matter he was a kid; David was concerned for God’s name and glory. In contrast, Eliab was concerned about his little brother being an embarrassment and superseding him.

When we choose to step out in faith and act, there will likely be opposition, even among family and fellow believers. But David did not let a little criticism stop him. Criticism and opposition will inevitably happen. David was determined to please God, not his brother. He did not wilt and was not deterred from his concern to face down Goliath.

Conclusion

If we want to be brave in the Christian life; if we desire to live a life full of faith in Christ that deals with problems; then, the story of David and Goliath will serve as an inspiration in those times we feel less than mighty for God. 

Goliath was defeated and fell because David trusted God. The issue is not how much faith we have, but in whom our faith is placed. David trusted God. Saul did not even acknowledge God. Goliath trusted in himself. Eliab was too busy quibbling about things that didn’t matter. 

What is your response?

Acts 4:23-31 – Why Not Us?

Hear My Plea by Rochelle Blumenfeld

The apostles Peter and John were arrested for preaching the good news about Jesus. After warning and threatening them to stop doing this, the ruling council of the Jews released them. This was the apostles’ response….

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.’

Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (NIV)

The early believers in Jesus turned to God in a time of persecution. They found comfort in how God had worked in the past. The ancient church claimed the strength to carry on with speaking about Christ in their everyday lives. When they heard about threats against the apostles, the believers did not get angry or upset about how terrible things were. Instead:

The church decided to concentrate on corporate prayer together.

God is going to do what God is going to do. No government, nation, institution, group of people, or individual person can thwart God’s agenda for the church and world. God is sovereign over everything. We are not. Our place is to participate in God’s agenda through the ministry of prayer and speaking the word of God.

God acted in the past, on behalf of those first believers who came to Jesus and worshiped him with all their hearts. God is still transforming lives. It happened in ancient Jerusalem, throughout the history of the church, and in places today around the world. It can also happen with us.

Prayer is like breathing – inhaling more of God and exhaling less of me. Prayer takes the form of first remembering what God did in the past. Then, we pray specifically for our current situation which connects to the larger purposes of what God is doing. All the while we anticipate God will hear and act, just as has been done throughout history.

Remembrance is an important dimension to biblical prayer. Memory is necessary because we have a tendency toward forgetfulness. The older we get the more we tend to forget (probably because we have so much to remember!). So, continually rehearsing what God has done keeps us grounded in Scripture and tethered to what God can do now.

Remembering God’s saving actions and finding our own personal stories in the grand story of redemption helps us to pray in biblical ways.

The prayer of the early believers was a rehearsal of God’s mighty reputation, from creation to King David, to the redemptive events of Jesus. They reminded God of when, in the past, there was divine intervention. The church collectively quoted Psalm 2 about the Messiah. That psalm declares how the nations of the earth plot in vain because the Lord is the One who shall prevail over every hard circumstance. 

God bends each malevolent action toward the redemption and transformation of humanity. God will work out benevolent plans and purposes, even using people who have no acknowledgment of God. God is not surprised by our troubles and our tough situations.

God is never frustrated by people acting badly, because divine providence and guidance is in control, even if we cannot always perceive it or see it in the moment.

Remembering and rehearsing what God has done in the past helps us realize that, during any trouble, God is in control and will accomplish good plans on this earth. The prayer of the believers in Acts made the connection between what God has done and what they needed.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Interestingly, the believers did not pray for relief from oppression or for God to judge their persecutors. Instead, they prayed for boldness to speak the word of God in the middle of their trouble. They rightly discerned that they needed to pray for courage to speak about Jesus. So, the church prayed for God to act in power, for God’s Word to go forth, and for Christ’s Name to be glorified.

God’s response to the prayer was immediate. The place where the church was praying shook. God did exactly what they asked for – filling them up with the Spirit, so that they spoke boldly about Jesus. Just as God empowered people for service in the past, so it was done in the present. What’s more, God will empower us with the same courage.

It is completely normal to simultaneously yearn for bravery while being afraid of getting a prayer for boldness answered. This is more than trying to overcome feelings of awkwardness or shyness. For the early believers, a very real and immediate danger to speaking up about Jesus was present.

It seems to me we need more people who know how to ask good questions and have the patience and attention to listen well and respond thoughtfully. It does no good to simply dispense answers to questions people aren’t asking. Speaking about Jesus does not mean making spiritual cold calls on strangers. And it certainly doesn’t involve being obnoxious or acting like a spiritual pester pup.

Discussing Jesus mostly means speaking casually, one-on-one, with a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or family member you already know. Too often we might try to fly under the radar and avoid people because we think talking about Jesus is going to be too hard, or out of our league.

Confidence and courage are not telling people what they ought to believe. It is rather like sharing a precious gift with someone. It begins in relationships with people we care about and extends to a relationship with God. It is about discovering God together, and not arm-twisting others to personal ethics or churchgoing.

Yet, it may still all sound too scary. So, maybe we start with this: “Tell me what’s going on.” Then listen. After listening, say, “I’ll pray for you.”  The next time you encounter the person, ask how that situation went.  Express that you’ll pray again. Keep doing it and watch what God will do through you.

When we pray for boldness, and courageously make ourselves available to God, then we are living sacrifices. This is our spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1-2) Who knows? Why not here? Why not now? Why not us? After praying, we might find our meeting places shaken, lives transformed, and everyone filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

God almighty, as you sent the Son, send us into the world with your compelling love. Help us by means of your Spirit, to share your good news of love, forgiveness, justice, peace, compassion, and care. Revive your Church, o Christ. Gracious God, work everywhere reconciling, loving, and healing your people and your creation. Open our eyes to your mission in the world. Send us to serve with Christ, taking risks to give life and hope to all people and all your creation. Amen.

Acts 2:14-24 – From Flaky to Faithful

Preaching of the Apostles (crayon on paper) by Peter Gorban, 1990

Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

“Fellow Israelites listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (NIV)

In the New Testament Gospels of the Holy Bible, the Apostle Peter was a flake. He sometimes got it, and sometimes didn’t. Peter could discern Jesus was Messiah, but then would turn around and refuse that Christ had to die on a cross. He would get bold and walk on water, then, end up falling short and needing help from drowning. Peter stood tall for Jesus, and then denied him three times.

However, following the Gospels in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is a completely changed man. He now gets it. He is brave. He confesses Christ with confidence and boldness. And, while the reader might be waiting for the other shoe to drop yet again, all the while Peter does not falter, flinch, or back down. Alright, Peter, way to go!

So, what is the difference between the Gospels and Acts with Peter? Why is there such a turnaround from flaky to faithful? The Scriptures make it plain: The Holy Spirit comes upon Peter. And he is never the same again. Everything falls into place for Peter. He proclaimed the life and death of Jesus in such a way that thousands changed their way of thinking, as well as their way of life, and placed their faith and hope in Christ as Savior and Lord. Not a bad day’s work for a former fisherman.

Peter’s message was pointed and straightforward: God raised Jesus up, forever changing the nature of death. Peter was dogmatic about stating that it wasn’t even possible for death to get a grip on Jesus. Oh, death thought it had him, the Grim Reaper believed he had Christ nailed to death for certain. Not so. The grave could not contain the immense and incredible power of divine love for humanity.

Inherit the Mirth

If it was impossible for death to keep its grip on Jesus, then there is absolutely nothing that can deter Jesus or hold him back from accomplishing what he wants to accomplish. Flaky believers are not going to frustrate Jesus or upset his plans; he’ll just send the Holy Spirit. 

We too often imprison ourselves in self-made spiritual jail cells, flaking-out in the Christian life, sometimes getting it right and once-in-a-while hitting upon some right combination we can’t explain, like a golfer who hits an amazing shot but can’t reproduce it no matter how hard he tries. The truth is: Jesus has conquered sin, death, and hell. By faith, we have forgiveness of sins in Christ and have the way opened to a new life in the Spirit. It isn’t a secret; it is a new reality.

The season of Lent is a time of remembering those things which hinder us in our walk with Jesus and repenting of our sins so that we can live anew. As we quickly approach Holy Week, the golf clubs of vulnerability, confession and prayer will keep us in God’s fairway and allow us to shoot par.

Gracious God, who raised Jesus from the dead, may the same power reside in me so that I can do your will in every situation through the power and presence of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.