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?

Psalm 4 – Rhythms of Trust

God, you are my righteousness, my Champion Defender.
    Answer me when I cry for help!
    Whenever I was in distress, you enlarged me.
    I’m being squeezed again—I need your kindness right away!
    Grant me your grace, hear my prayer, and set me free!
Listen to me, you elite among men:
    How long will you defame my honor
    and drag it down into shame?
    Will you ever stop insulting me?
    How long will you set your heart on shadows,
    chasing your lies and delusions?
May we never forget that Yahweh works wonders
    for every one of his devoted lovers.
    And this is how I know that he will answer my every prayer.
Tremble in awe before the Lord, and do not sin against him.
    Be still upon your bed and search your heart before him.
Bring to Yahweh the sacrifice of righteousness and put your trust in him.
Lord, prove them wrong when they say, “God can’t help you!”
    Let the light of your radiant face
    break through and shine upon us!

The intense pleasure you give me
    surpasses the gladness of harvest time,
    even more than when the harvesters
    gaze upon their ripened grain
    and when their new wine overflows.
Now, because of you, Lord, I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once,
    for no matter what happens, I will live unafraid! (TPT)

This is a psalm of David. It is a heartfelt and confident plea for deliverance.

David had a track record with God. For most of his life, David had a spiritual and relational rhythm of looking to God, trusting God, and resting secure in God.

Small Faith

I’m not sure where the idea popped up amongst some Christians that faith and trust in God means everything in life is going to be hunky-dory and a bowl of cherries. That was not true of any godly character in the Bible. In fact, it seems the more integrity one has in Scripture, the more they faced trouble and suffering.

It is the pea-brained, small-hearted, and gutless who have the time and privilege of leveling criticism and defamation on the ones sincerely trying to make a difference in this world. On the one hand, it is unfortunate that the spiritually devoted must put up with the petulance of puny people. Yet, on the other hand, the faithful recognize God controls all things and uses anything and anyone to shape them as persons who have grown expansive spiritual faculties, enlarged hearts, and gut-feeling compassion. The wise truly learn from all things.

“Trust the Lord completely, and don’t depend on your own knowledge. With every step you take, think about what he wants, and he will help you go the right way.”

Proverbs 3:5-6, ERV

Big Faith

The godly have become so because they have learned over-and-over again to let God champion their cause and defend their personhood. The faithful reflexively cry out to the Lord with all their troubles. The devoted aren’t shy in boldly telling God exactly what they want and need. They find joy in their spirituality, and they let it support them in stressful times.

God has shown them steadfast love. And they are supremely secure in the settled conviction that God has their backs. They believe it so much that followers of God can lay their heads on their pillows at night and fall asleep – despite the reality there are those who would take their life, if given half the chance.

No Sleep

Insomnia happens for a lot of reasons. Many, like me, have sleep apnea and restless leg disorder, both diagnosed medical conditions. Others can’t get a good night’s rest because of poor sleep hygiene by not planning for adequate sleep, drinking too much caffeine during the day, inattention to a healthy diet, or a host of other habits. Some, like my dear wife, have issues of chronic pain which can make it difficult to sleep well.

And then there are yet others who suffer from racing thoughts, anxiety, and depression. The stress of their waking life is so significant that several hours of deep sleep seems only like some pipe dream. It’s impossible to sleep when the weight of the day is pressing on you. Finding a sense of calm before bed isn’t easy—especially when you can’t unplug from the demands of your day.

I am wondering if many of us will even allow ourselves to unplug and establish some quiet wind-down time. Reading a real book – not one on a backlit tablet device – or talking with a friend or family member are simple ways of easing our anxiety and letting rest come.

Sleep ZZzz

The psalmist, David, had a regular practice of meditating on Scripture, recalling the events of God, and expressing gratitude and praise for answered prayer. Each of us has a built-in spiritual rhythm just like we have a circadian rhythm. Always trying to buck those God-given rhythms will inevitably result in being “off,” at the least, and experiencing debilitating depression, at worst.

Yet, when we learn to move with the unforced rhythms of grace, there is a groove we slip into which serves us well. In other words, allowing ourselves to be human brings health.

David had neither delusions nor illusions about his enemies, friends, others, and himself. He didn’t try to be somebody he was not. Instead, David had firm and confident convictions about God and the place of prayer. A steady diet of David’s psalms teaches us to hold together both faith and doubt, confidence and confusion, perseverance and perplexity in ways which strengthens belief.

Christ be with you: Christ within you;
Christ before you: Christ behind you;
Christ on your right: Christ on your left;
Christ above you: Christ beneath you;
Christ around you: now and ever. Amen.

Daniel 6:1-28 – A Time and a Place for Prayer

Daniel in the Lions Den by John August Swanson

Darius decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. Because of his extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators—so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption.

So, these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”

So, these officers and chief administrators ganged together and went to the king. They said to him, “Long live King Darius! All the officers of the kingdom, the ministers, the chief administrators, the royal associates, and the governors advise the king to issue an edict and enforce a law, that for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions. Now, Your Majesty, issue the law and sign the document so that it cannot be changed, as per the law of Media and Persia, which cannot be annulled.” Because of this, King Darius signed the document containing the law.

When Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went to his house. Now his upper room had open windows that faced Jerusalem. Daniel knelt, prayed, and praised his God three times that day, just like he always did. Just then these men, all ganged together, came upon Daniel praying and seeking mercy from his God. They then went and talked to the king about the law: “Your Majesty! Didn’t you sign a law, that for thirty days any person who prays to any god or human being besides you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into a pit of lions?”

The king replied, “The decision is absolutely firm in accordance with the law of Media and Persia, which cannot be annulled.”

So they said to the king, “One of the Judean exiles, Daniel, has ignored you, Your Majesty, as well as the law you signed. He says his prayers three times a day!”

When the king heard this report, he was very unhappy. He decided to rescue Daniel and did everything he could do to save Daniel before the sun went down. But these men, all ganged together, came and said to the king, “You must realize, Your Majesty, that the law of Media and Persia, including every law and edict the king has issued, cannot be changed.”

So, the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and hurled him into the pit of lions.

The king said to Daniel: “Your God—the one you serve so consistently—will rescue you.”

A single stone was brought and placed over the entrance to the pit. The king sealed it with his own ring and with those of his princes so that Daniel’s situation couldn’t be changed. The king then went home to his palace and fasted through the night. No pleasures were brought to him, and he couldn’t sleep. At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.

As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”

Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”

The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God. The king then ordered that the men who had accused Daniel be brought and thrown into the lions’ pit—including their wives and children. They hadn’t even reached the bottom of the pit before the lions overpowered them, crushing all their bones.

Then King Darius wrote the following decree:

To all the peoples, nations, and languages inhabiting the entire earth: I wish you much peace.I now issue this command: In every region of my kingdom, all people must fear and revere Daniel’s God because:

He is the living God.
    God stands firm forever.
His kingship is indestructible.
    God’s rule will last until the end of time.
He is rescuer and savior;
    God performs signs and miracles in heaven and on earth.
Here’s the proof:
    He rescued Daniel from the lions’ power.

And so, Daniel was made prosperous during the rule of Darius and during the rule of Cyrus the Persian. (CEB)

“If your day is hemmed in with prayer, it is less likely to come unraveled.”

Cynthia Lewis

When Daniel learned about King Darius’ decree, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had always done. (Daniel 6:10).

It was Daniel’s regular habit of prayer which gave him the strength to ignore the king’s edict. Daniel was kept safe, not by being saved from the lions’ den, but in the lions’ den. Daniel is our best model in the Bible of one who consistently prayed, no matter the situation. Two characteristics of Daniel’s prayer stands out: a planned approach to prayer; and perseverance in prayer.

We need a plan for prayer.

Daniel had an intentional plan for prayer. He also prayed spontaneously throughout his life – all the time. That, however, was not his bread-and-butter daily life of prayer. Daniel had set times in which he prayed three times a day. 

I am not insisting we all ought to pray at the set times of 6am, 12pm, and 6pm, as Daniel did every day (although that is good biblical plan to emulate!). Yet, I will insist there needs to be some planning behind carving out time for prayer every day. We need to approach prayer with the same deliberate discipline we approach anything else – like housework, writing a paper, sports practice, or getting work accomplished on the job.

Prayer is the way we escape the gravitational pull of our fleshly lives and enter God’s orbit. It takes much planning, energy, commitment, and focus. And it is all worth it.

We need a set time and a set place to pray. Just as we set aside a special room in our house for sleeping (bedroom) and a particular place to sleep (bed) so we need a sacred space just for prayer. We understand the value of a good night’s sleep. So, we plan to go to bed at night and arise in the morning. In the same way, we must arrange a time and place for prayer. The value we place on prayer is demonstrated by our planning for it.

We need perseverance in prayer.

Daniel was a teenager when the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, tore down the wall, and took the best young people of the city into captivity. When the lions’ den event unfolded, Daniel was an old man of about 80 years old. For over sixty years, Daniel prayed three times a day, every day, without fail. His prayers were consistent and sustained. He never gave up. 

The reason Daniel always opened his window and prayed toward Jerusalem is that he was praying consistent with God’s promise. The exiles would someday return to Jerusalem. So, Daniel looked out his window every day, three times a day, praying repeatedly for God’s help and peace.

Daniel was so consistent about prayer that when the jealous rascals in the king’s service went after him, it did absolutely nothing to deter him from his usual routine. Daniel maintained his focus without being sidelined by all the drama. He kept up his regular practice of prayer in the same place at the same time. It is interesting his enemies knew exactly when and where Daniel would be praying every day, and they set their trap according to that knowledge.

Daniel was incredibly calm in facing the lions because of his planned, deliberate, and consistent practice of prayer. Daniel’s ability, confidence, courage, and lack of worry was not simply because he was some extraordinary person. Rather, he had decades of practiced prayer which equipped him for just such an encounter.

Daniel’s posture in prayer was consistently on his knees. It reminded him of his true position, not as a high mucky muck in the kingdom of Darius with all its rights and privileges, but as a humble servant in God’s kingdom with all its joy and responsibility.

Considering Daniel’s example of prayer, it would be wise for us to do some solid planning. Identify and set aside a dedicated space for prayer. Arrange your schedule so that prayer is a priority. You’ll be glad you did!

Our Beloved Father, dwelling in the heavenly realms,
    may the glory of your name
    be the center on which our lives turn.
Manifest your kingdom realm,
    and cause your every purpose to be fulfilled on earth,
    just as it is in heaven.
We acknowledge you as our Provider
    of all we need each day.
Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves
    release forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
Rescue us every time we face tribulation
    and set us free from evil.
    For you are the King who rules
    with power and glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, TPT)