Don't Freak Out; It's Jesus!
|"Jesus Walks on Water" by Ivan Aivazovsky|
The text for today is Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You would think that the disciples would get it by now. They’ve been with Jesus for some time. They’ve seen Him preach with amazing authority, heal the sick with a touch, cast out demons with a word, raise the dead, calm a stormy sea, and feed thousands of people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Sent out by Jesus and acting on His authority, they’ve even personally participated in some of that powerful stuff. You would think they would get it. You would think they would begin to have an inkling of just who Jesus is and what He can do.
But then we come to our text. Jesus sends His disciples back out on the sea while He goes up on the mountain to pray. Evening comes. Jesus, though deeply in prayer, is aware of their situation. He sees the disciples are “making headway painfully, for the wind [is] against them.” But He lets them struggle for awhile.
It is about the fourth watch of the night, sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. The disciples are worn out and tired from their all-night struggle against the wind and the waves. And suddenly Jesus comes out to them walking on the sea, unhindered by the wind and the waves and not bound to the laws of physics!
When approaching the boat, Jesus walks as though He means to pass by them. This was by design—to get the attention of the disciples and to test them. What happens does not say much for them. Superstition overwhelms them. They don’t recognize Jesus, but rather think that He is a ghost and cry out in terror.
As my son-in-law has taught my three-year-old grandson to say: They freak out! Imagine that! Jesus freaks them out! He absolutely terrifies them! And even though they have certainly been taught better than to believe such superstitious silliness, they find it easier to believe they see a ghost walking on the water than the Lord Jesus Christ. The irony in their seeing something supernatural is that Jesus is supernatural, but in a more profound way than they could ever imagine.
What does the Lord do? Like He did for the hungry multitude in last week’s Gospel, Jesus has compassion on them. Jesus shows them mercy. He doesn’t wait until they “get it” to come to them. He reaches out to them: “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” That’s how it’s translated in the ESV. But there is a deeper meaning in His words, for by these words Jesus is spelling out who He is. “It is I.” More accurately translated: “I AM.” I AM. Yahweh Himself. The great I AM who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. The Lord God who rescued Israel from Egyptian bondage and led them through the wilderness, across the Jordan River, and into the Promised Land.
“Don’t freak out!” says Jesus. “I AM the Lord. I am here to help you. I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob come in the flesh.” Then Jesus hops into the boat and the wind ceases. It’s completely calm. And the disciples’ fear turns to amazement. But they still don’t get it. St. Mark comments: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
The disciples do not fully understand what has taken place. If they would have learned from the feeding of the five thousand, they would understand this miracle. They would’ve learned that Jesus is the Lord of creation; all of nature is under His control. But they don’t understand; their hearts are hardened. This does not mean that they reject Christ or do not believe in Him as their Savior, but that they fail to grasp fully what He has done. Their hearts are not open to all that Jesus is seeking to teach them.
Mark is very candid about exposing the spiritual weaknesses of the disciples and very lucid in expounding the greatness of Christ. He is truly “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” The disciples do not understand this because their hearts are hardened. Like Pharaoh in Exodus. Like Jesus says of His opponents later in Mark’s Gospel. They are unbelieving, uncomprehending. And sadly it’s going to get worse before it gets better. When Jesus starts speaking more plainly about His death His disciples are going to really freak out.
The cold, stark reality is that the disciples suffer from hardened hearts. They know Jesus can do some amazing things. Can’t deny that. He’s got them out of a couple serious boating problems. He has proved He can feed huge crowds with hardly any food. He has a way with the sick. He can even stand toe-to-toe with demons and death and prevail. But do they believe He is the Savior?
Yes, that’s right. Can they trust this Jesus is the promised Savior of the world and of all sinners? Savior for even them?
Do you? Do you trust in Jesus as your Savior? Or is your heart hard? Are you willing to trust Jesus with every area of your life? Or is there something about this Jesus that freaks you out a little bit, too?
Jesus says to His frightened, hard-hearted disciples: “Take heart. I AM. Don’t freak out.” This is not so much a command as a promise. Jesus’ powerful Word does what He says. The same eternal Word who spoke the heaven sand earth and everything in them into existence in six days, creates courage and faith by His Word alone. And He continues to do so even today.
It doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to believe. But Jesus promises to save you through His Word, His means of grace—Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Supper. In simple means like water, spoken Word, bread and wine, Christ exchanges your sin for His righteousness. All the benefits earned by Jesus with His perfect life and atoning death are given to you.
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation who all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).
How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-8).
Christ speaks forgiveness through His called and ordained servant. The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. This is what St. John the Evangelist writes in chapter twenty: The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:22-23).
The Sacrament of the Altar is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink. Where is this written? The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write: Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.” In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
These words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here; “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins.”
Such grace is far beyond our ability to earn, attain, or grasp. But the Lord brings it to us—not in some out-of-body, walk-on-water, top-of-the-mountain experience. Not in “liver shivers” or “burning bosoms,” but always available, in His Word. It’s right here on Sunday—in the hymns, liturgy, sermon, and in the Sacrament of the Altar. It’s right there in your Bible at home. And therein lies the “problem” for us sinners: the Word is so readily available that you’ll be tempted to take it for granted. It seems so common, that you won’t make it a priority. Or it seems so otherworldly that it will freak you out and you’ll try to avoid it in any way other than a strictly superficial basis.
But this isn’t just a problem of the world and your sinful flesh: the devil doesn’t want you to hear the Word, either. He wants you to keep the Bible next to your insurance policies—there if you really need it, but hoping that you’ll never have to use it. He wants you to despise the Word because it is so easily at hand, and common. But only by the Word is your faith strengthened, your sins forgiven.
That’s why we pastors urge you be in the Word on a daily basis. We encourage you to make weekly worship a priority, because here the Lord is at work to feed your faith and forgive your sins through His means of grace. To deprive yourself of the Divine Service is to deprive yourself of grace. And because we are the body of Christ, it deprives others as well: for as you sing and speak here, you put God’s Word into the ears of those around you. When you are not here, your fellow Christians are deprived of your voice added to the faith we confess.
We encourage you to daily reading and meditation. There are resources out there—The Treasury of Daily Prayer is one of them; but it may be as simple as opening your Bible and reading a psalm and a couple of other chapters. Or taking the bulletin home and reading and reflecting on the week’s lessons.
If your concentration is frazzled as mine often is, read God’s Word aloud so that the words come out of your mouth and back into your ears. Pick out a verse or two to memorize, to meditate upon. Close the day with a passage, as your thoughts while asleep often dwell on your last waking thoughts. If you have children, include them too. Read Bible stories. Memorize the Small Catechism bit by bit around the dinner table. The Lord works through His Word to strengthen their faith, too. For this is true: God strengthens your faith, imparts knowledge of His love, and dwells in you—by means of His Word. If you are not hearing His Word, your faith is weakening. Your heart is hardening. It’s just that simple.
So we bid you to be in the Word at home and at church. It’s not because we obsess on attendance numbers, or because you earn forgiveness every time you crack open a Bible. It’s because the Word feeds your faith, like food feeds your body. It’s a gift of God to keep you alive, especially in times of trial and suffering. And you will encounter such times, perhaps are even now experiencing trouble—maybe even BIG trouble.
You know your pains far more than anyone else, so I need not enumerate them. But let’s analyze what happens when it’s given you to suffer. When trouble strikes, you worry and dwell on it. It occupies your thoughts. The trouble with this kind of meditation is that we just fret about how troubling the trouble is. We sinners don’t always think to pray or to hear the Word for help. But the Lord has much to say to you in time of trouble. Remember: by His Word, He forgives your sins, strengthens your faith, and makes you know His will.
As you read God’s Word, the Spirit is at work to give you all of God’s blessings. The Word becomes part of your meditation. Along with the whispered fears in your mind, you will also hear, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). You hear, “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13). You hear that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). These are not pep-rally words to get back in the fight; these are the promises of God to grant you strength in trial, for you are one of His beloved children for Jesus’ sake.
Strengthened and informed by God’s Word, you pray. You know better what to pray, because you’ve heard the help that God promises. Having heard Him speak to you, you now speak back to Him. And you even have help in your praying. The Spirit intercedes for you with groanings too deep for words, crafting your prayer into one worthy for God’s ears. And you know that God hears your prayers, because Jesus intercedes for you with the Father, and for His sake the Father delights to hear your prayer. He also delights to answer your prayer.
This brings us back to one more bit of good news in our text: verse 20 declares that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” When God answers your prayers for Jesus’ sake, He does far more than all you ask or think.
This is good to keep in mind. When trouble strikes, you have no idea how much trouble you’re really in—for you fight against principalities and powers of darkness. At the same time, when you pray, you don’t know how good your prayer is—for the Holy Spirit makes it far better than you can imagine. And when God answers, you can’t comprehend how great His answer is—because He does far more abundantly than all you ask or think. That is why His Word is such a blessing in a time of trouble; and dear friends, as long as this world lasts, you are in trouble every day of your lives.
By means of God’s Word, you have all of these blessings. Apart from it, you have none. So be in the Word. For there the Lord strengthens your faith through His Spirit in your inner being. By means of that Word, Christ dwells in you. By that Word, God grants that you might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. By means of that Word, you are filled with the fullness of God. By that Word you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.