June 21, 2015 1 Samuel 17 2 Corinthians 6: 1-2 Mark 4: 35-41
Rev. Catherine Purves
You know that I love being here with you at Bellevue U.P. Church, but in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to my vacation. On July 24th, Andrew and I will be going to another place that we love, the coast of North Carolina. If you don’t count Scotland, this is our favorite vacation spot. We stay on a little barrier island in the southernmost part of the state. The name of that small island has recently been in the news, because Oak Island is the place where there were two shark attacks this week. We love oceans, but they can be unpredictable and even dangerous. I’m still looking forward to my vacation, but I may do more sunbathing than swimming this year. If I only go into the ocean up to my ankles, does that count as swimming? Can I still say that I love the ocean if all I’m willing to do is get my feet wet?
This seems to raise the question of commitment. But who wouldn’t be afraid when faced with the prospect of swimming with sharks. So, I’m kind of stuck between my love of the sea and my fear of being eaten. Both faith and fear feature in all of our readings this morning. In the story that I told the children about David and Goliath, the ranks of Israel stood shoulder to shoulder, fully armed and ready for battle, but when faced with the giant, Goliath, they were terrified, in spite of their professed belief in the God of Israel. Only David was able to overcome his fear and face the enemy.
So too, with the disciples. They set out with Jesus after a long day of teaching, intending to cross the Sea of Galilee. They were his disciples; presumably they believed in Jesus and trusted the God who sent him. But when a great windstorm stirred up huge waves and their boat was being swamped, they panicked and turned on Jesus. Shouting above the noise of the ocean they cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” What happened to their faith? It seems to have been overpowered by their fear.
And Paul, in his letter to the wavering Corinthian church wrote, “As we work together with him [that is, with Christ], we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” They had accepted the grace of God. Like the Israelite army, like the disciples, they too would claim to be believers. But, as in those other instances, when confronted by wild oceans or overlarge enemies, what would they do? Would their faith be in vain? Would fear conquer it? And could our faith be in vain?
That is a frightening question. How can we know if our faith is strong enough, if our love is deep enough? Do I have to swim with sharks to prove that I really do love the ocean? Do we need to take on a Goliath or do we have to set sail in a hurricane just to prove to ourselves that we really do love Jesus? Can’t we just be one of the rank and file in the army of Israel? Can’t we plot our course across the Sea of Galilee when the weather is fair with no hint of a storm? Better yet, can’t we just love Jesus on dry ground?
Well, this is the thing. Storms happen. Giant-sized life challenges do exist. Smooth sailing and small enemies – that’s great, as long as it lasts. An unadventurous and an untested faith is not necessarily a bad faith, but we all need to know that there are sharks in these waters. There are threats out there that a weak and unfortified faith may not be able to withstand. And fear is a real factor. It was for the armies of Israel, for the disciples in that boat, and for the struggling Corinthian church. Do you remember the question that Jesus asked the disciples after he calmed the storm? “Why are you afraid?” he said, “Have you still no faith?”
What is this mysterious thing, faith, and how is it related to fear? It’s really important for us to recognize that faith is not something that we generate. We don’t decide to have faith, and we cannot will ourselves to have more faith any more than we can force ourselves to love someone. Faith, like love, is a mysterious gift that results in a relationship. Once we find ourselves in the relationship, we can choose to be faithful to that relationship or not. But when it comes to faith in Jesus, it is Jesus who establishes the relationship, and it is the Holy Spirit who nurtures it. As in any relationship, what we are called to do is to keep our focus on the one with whom we have the relationship, not letting anything else get in the way or divert our attention. Because it’s when other things, other forces, other threats claim our attention and get us worrying that fear can become a factor.
Consider the story of David and Goliath. The Israelite armies saw only a giant of a man, a warrior capable of defeating any one of them. But David saw only the power of God and he knew that God could defeat the Philistine. He went into battle with just a sling shot and his staff, without any armor, because he knew that God was with him. The Israelites were afraid, but David, who saw only God, was not.
And consider the story of Jesus calming the storm. Jesus was right there in the boat with his disciples, but their attention was focused on the wind and the waves. They even accused Jesus of not caring about them, doubting the relationship that they had with him. No wonder they were afraid. They only saw the power of the storm; they had stopped looking at Jesus.
And consider Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. In those days of persecution and testing it was easy to give in to fear and uncertainty. But Paul, quoting the prophet Isaiah, reminded the Corinthians that they should not look at their enemies or dwell on the things that threatened their church. They should focus on what God was doing to save them. As God told his people, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” “See,” Paul tells the Corinthians, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
There was no need for the Israelites to be afraid, or the disciples to be afraid, or the Corinthians to be afraid, because God was faithful, and Jesus was faithful. So, it is the faithfulness of God, rather than the strength of our own individual faith, that has the power to cast out fear. When we trust in the faithfulness of Jesus and his will to make every day a day of salvation, then neither oceans nor enemies can really threaten us, because in life and in death we belong to him.
I’m reminded of the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen preached a barnstormer of a sermon before the Jewish Council in which he accused them of persecuting their own prophets and then murdering Jesus, the Righteous One of God. This made the religious leaders absolutely enraged, and they were ready to stone Stephen. But Stephen wasn’t focusing on their angry faces or the stones that they held in their hands. Looking up, he exclaimed, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” While they were stoning him to death he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” In life and in death, all he saw was Jesus.
There are oceans and there are enemies; there are storms and there are giants, and there are sharks in the water. Faith is knowing that the relationship that Jesus has established with us is stronger that all of that. Faith is knowing that Jesus is in the boat with us, and that God is fighting for us. Faith is remembering that our God is a God who keeps promises and that Jesus is God’s promise incarnate. Faith is keeping our focus on the One who saves us in life or death. He is the One who can conquer our fears, even when we are swimming with sharks.