Take Heart

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel

Grace to you and peace
from God our Father
and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

The Son of God came to the Kilba people of Nigeria one day. While eating at the house of an old woman in a Kilba village, a woman who was a very poor housekeeper, the Son of God scratched his finger on the dirty, rough bowl out of which he was eating and as a result died of blood poisoning. When God heard the tragic report, he withdrew into the heavens. God was gone from the Kilba people.

Another tradition says that the first cattle people set fire to the long bush grass. God was disturbed by the smoke and went far away.

The first time people ate animal flesh, another report says, God was offended and withdrew from the earth.

An Ashanti tradition reports that an old woman was pounding yams and accidentally struck God with a pestle. The Supreme Being withdrew into the sky.

God was gone. African people believe in God but one who is remote and far away. People have displeased God and God has abandoned the people. The Nupe people say “Soko—God is far away.” God is gone. For many people today, God seems pretty far away from them too.

We have had an interesting three weeks. Our Chinese students left yesterday. We enjoyed them very much—Shui Yue and Mao Gen. They came to church with us and sang hymns, came to the church picnic and asked about our table prayer. Neither of them has any religion. One has a grandmother who is a Buddhist. In the whole group who came to Eugene there was likely no one with a religion. Some went to church with their host families here. But they were visiting an area where “no religion” is the largest category of people. Books have been written on the low rate of religious affiliation in the Northwest with Oregon being the state with the lowest percentage of church members. People say they believe in some sort of God but I dare say for many that God is far away from them too.

Christianity offers a very different view of God. Our God is not off on a mountain somewhere or in a cloud or a beautiful isle of somewhere, but God comes to us in Jesus, a man. Jesus is Immanuel—God with us and God for us. Our Gospel lesson shows so clearly God’s power and presence. The setting is the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has sent his disciples off in a boat and dismissed the crowds who had been fed abundantly from the five loaves and two fish.

Then Jesus went to a mountain to pray. While he was away, the disciples set sail only to find themselves in a storm at sea. The winds came up and the boat was battered—the Greek word literally means “tortured” by the waves. It was somewhere between three and six in the morning when they saw Jesus coming to them, walking on the water. The disciples were terrified. They thought they saw a ghost, but Jesus called out, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” These words stand at the center of this passage. What Matthew is recording for his people and us is the clear message that we do not need to be afraid as we go through the storms of life because Jesus is with us. He is the power of God to help and save.

Our God does not leave us tossing about in life’s storms. God is with us and can calm our fears. God is with us so we should trust and believe and obey. There is the need for response. Peter, as the representative of all the disciples, is called out of the boat to come to Jesus. He responds in faith but he is still a human being. He believes, but wavers. He responds to Jesus’ call, but still needs God’s power to help and save him. When he starts to sink, Jesus reaches out and catches him. Peter can not do it on his own.

God is not far away. God is not gone. The African stories describe what seems to be the common human experience that God is far from struggling people who feel abandoned to their troubles. A myth from Ghana tells of an old woman who attempted to regain contact with God by piling up the mortars in which yams were pounded. She almost reached God but fell one mortar short. She then attempted to take the bottom mortar from under the tall stack in order to finally reach the heights where God was, but of course the result was that the whole stack of mortars tumbled to the ground. She could not reach God.

Our catechism tells us,

“I believe that I cannot of my own reason or strength
believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him,
but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel.”

We cannot climb a ladder or build a tower to reach God and we do not need to. Our God is not far away but with us. All God asks of us is to believe. We are often like Peter—of little faith— but Jesus still comes to us in power to lift us up, to catch us and save us.

Some people have trouble believing the miracles of Jesus. They can readily accept that Jesus told good stories and taught a better way to live. Yet today many are skeptical that five loaves and two fish could feed five thousand men and unnumbered women and children. They doubt very much that Jesus could walk on water or that Peter could too.

Some people, like Thomas Jefferson, dealt with the problem of miracles by just cutting them out of their Bible.  Others have sought to give natural answers to the question of how they happened. Maybe everyone carried a sandwich along with them to hear Jesus so they really didn’t need to bread and fish after all or maybe Jesus was standing on a reef or sandbar. I know that a few years ago an Israeli entrepreneur was planning on building a walkway just under the surface of the Sea of Galilee so that tourists could replicate the experience of Peter and walk on water, sort of, or at least get a picture of themselves doing it.

But the miracles of Jesus are not magic. Neither are they recorded to draw attention to themselves or even to impress people with Jesus power so much as to demonstrate Jesus’ compassion and love. Jesus is Lord and Savior and in our text, the disciples confess Jesus as Son of God, but the point of this story as that of last week’s miraculous feeding is to show Jesus’ compassion. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus fed the hungry. Jesus stilled the waters. Jesus’ power is used to help people. The miracles demonstrate over and over again that God is not remote or far off. God has not abandoned His people. God is not gone.

Some commentators read our story, less as what happened early one morning on the Sea of Galilee, but rather what was happening in Matthew’s Church at the end of the first century. There was faith in Matthew’s Church. People believed that Jesus was the Son of God and Savior. But there was also doubt and wavering. The ship may be seen as the Church—actually the ship is often used as a symbol for the Christian Church. We sit in the nave—the same word as navy, naval. The Church is a type of Noah’s Ark. We enter through our baptism and we remain on board through faith. But the ship is often tormented by storms, tossed about on the sea. What is true for us as individuals is also true for us as a community—we can enter some pretty rough patches. And it often seems that Jesus is away as he was on that dark night—away on a mountain in prayer while   his disciples were tormented by strong winds at sea.

Matthew’s Church remembered the Lord’s resurrection and ascension, how Jesus promised to be with them always even unto the end of the age, but he still left them. This Gospel miracle is a reminder to those struggling Christians and to us, that Christ is still present. God is with us. We still receive help in trouble, support and encouragement. We can still hear the words, “Take heart; do not be afraid.” And like the disciples we can still believe and confess that Jesus is Son of God and our Lord.

About thirty-five years ago, Time magazine ran a cover story about modern theology and asked the question, “Is God Dead?” It was the most controversial issue in the magazine’s seventy-five years of publishing. Dag Hammarskjold in his Markings wrote,

“God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in Him.
But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated
by the steady radiance, renewed daily,
of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

God is not gone. We may not always see the Lord walking to us, calling us to come. We may not always hear the words, “Take heart.” “Do not be afraid.” We may not always feel Him grabbing our hand, lifting us up, drawing us close. But Jesus is there. God has not abandoned us. God is not far away. God is not gone. Our God is ready to help and save. Take heart. Amen.

Copyright 2005 James D. Kegel.  Used by permission.