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Delivered from Fear
Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 1: Jesus Teaches About Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of June 13, 2021
By Dr. Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 8:23-27
The lesson this week is about being delivered from fear. Fear can paralyze us and demoralize us. Fear can stand in the way of a confident hope and hinder us from moving forward in life and in faith.
The scripture says, “And when he got in the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.
” To understand what is going on in the story, it would be good to familiarize ourselves with the lake, the boat, and the storm in the story. The disciples were in a boat in the middle of the lake we often call the Sea of Galilee, also referred to as Lake Gennesaret. So much of Jesus’ ministry occurred around this inland freshwater lake, which is about 12 miles long north to south and 7.5 miles wide east to west. The lake is fed by the Jordan River from the north and empties into the Jordan River to the south as the river heads down to the Dead Sea. The lake and the river are nestled in a rift. The rift runs so deep that the surface of the Sea of Galilee is more than 500 feet below sea level, and the rift continues to plunge much deeper below sea level as the river the flows south from the lake toward the Dead Sea. Since the lake is located along this rift, it is 140 feet deep in places. When you are in a boat in the middle of this lake, the central highland region to your west can block the view of an approaching storm system that comes from the Mediterranean Sea. A storm can come with very little warning. A first-century fishing boat discovered in 1986 along the shore of the Sea of Galilee gives us an idea of the size of the boat that Jesus and the disciples may have used. It measures 27 feet in length and 8 feet in width. When you look at the sides of this boat, it is not hard to imagine a strong wind kicking up waves enough to toss a boat around and spill into the boat. If a boat capsized in the middle of the lake, it would be disaster.
The contrast between the disciples and Jesus in the storm
“And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing! And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’
” The contrast between the picture of Jesus sleeping in the stern of the boat and the frantic behavior of the disciples could not be any greater. Jesus asked why they were afraid, because the fear was so evident. Their fear was the most noteworthy aspect about them at that moment. Perhaps, at no other time up until this moment had the disciples revealed so much about themselves to Jesus. Yet, Jesus had been able to sleep – rather soundly it seems.
At this point, it would be good to pause and locate where we are in the story. In other words, with whom should we identify in the scripture? A good rule of thumb in the interpretation of the gospels is not to put ourselves in the place of Jesus. It is better to imagine that we are one of the disciples – even if the picture of the disciples is not the most flattering picture. Rembrandt’s famous picture of Christ in the Storm features a striking seascape, a magnificent stormy sky, and 14 men. There is Jesus, the 12 disciples, and a self-portrait of Rembrandt. Rembrandt wanted to put himself in the boat with the disciples. We need to approach the gospels with that same sense of humility and identification with the disciples. After all, we are disciples. When we identify with the disciples, Jesus’ words in the scripture become his words to us.
If I am being completely honest, I relate more to the fear of the disciples in the storm than to Jesus’ calm. It’s one thing for Jesus to call out his disciples for being afraid, but it’s another thing to hear Jesus call them out for having “little faith.” We came across this charge of having “little faith” last week in Jesus’ teaching on worry in the sixth chapter of Matthew. In that case, what prompted him to say these words was his followers not understanding how God cares for them more than for the lilies of the field. We will see Jesus bring this charge of having “little faith” again in our scripture lesson in a couple of weeks.
Jesus did not condemn the disciples for having little faith, nor did he walk away from them in disgust or decide not to include them in his mission. Jesus’ assessment that the disciples had little faith could even be seen as encouraging because there is the realization that there is much more faith that can be had. There is room for their faith to grow, which means that they should dare not settle for the faith they have at the moment. I think a good synonym for little faith would be “immature faith.” If I am honest, I could say that there is some evidence in me of mature faith, but also evidence in me of immature faith. In fact, I think it is a response of mature faith to recognize the continued existence of immature faith. It is my mature faith that is humble enough and wise enough to uncover instances where immature faith still exists in me.
What’s at stake in this instance is the disciples’ deliverance from fear. Immature faith gives way to mature faith as we are delivered from fear. Jesus is the one who stands out for his calm confidence in the middle of the storm. The fact that Jesus had remained sleeping longer than he should have (in the disciples’ eyes, at least) may have conveyed the idea that Jesus did not care if they perished, but, of course, that wasn’t the case. Jesus simply knew that he had nothing to fear.
Reasons Jesus had no fear
“Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’
” Jesus had no reason to be afraid, because he knew he was about to get up and rebuke the winds and rebuke the waves and it was going to get completely calm. According to Colossians 1:15-16, Jesus was, and is, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible,” Jesus was there when the forces behind the winds and waves were first created. His connection with both the creation and the Creator would naturally make him master and commander of the winds and the waves.
Another angle of vision we could use has to do with Jesus’ authority. Jesus was seen to have authority over the winds and the waves because they obeyed his command. Jesus was also seen to have authority over diseases and demons. That authority also extended, of course, to Jesus’ teachings because Jesus taught with an authority that was unlike the authority (or lack of authority) of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus’ words spoke to them because they had the ring of the truth. Also, when Jesus speaks, his words do things. They result in action and move to action, whether in relation to natural forces, diseases, demons, or hearts and minds. Something powerful is unleashed and the miraculous happens.
Yet another angle of vision, perhaps the most important one, relates to Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ mission had a three-year arc. You could say it was always a dangerous mission. His life began with Herod and the killing of the innocents and the flight of the holy family to Egypt. His ministry began with the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus’ mission involved exposing the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. His announcements, teachings, and invitations to the coming reign of God gave people hope, meaning, and a realization of God’s love for them. The religious leaders saw their influence being undermined. Jesus’ mission rallied people’s allegiance to the reign of God, and that was what the leaders used against Jesus. They twisted Jesus’ words to say that Jesus planned to set up his own earthly kingdom to rival Rome and its emperor. They plotted to put Jesus to death. Little did they know, however, that Jesus foresaw what they planned to do. He understood that God planned to use this to bring about humankind’s redemption. This was all a part of the arc of God’s mission of salvation through his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. It was a dangerous mission, but one with a victory at the end that was assured.
What does this mission have to do with the disciples in the middle of the storm? It is this: Jesus had no reason to fear the storm on that day with the disciples because Jesus had a mission to accomplish, and nothing would stop that mission, least of all the storm on the lake. Jesus was absolutely confident in his mission.
The faith of the disciples had not yet reached the maturity level that would alleviate their fear of a raging storm in the middle of a deep lake. The consequence of an immature faith is the ability of fear to paralyze and demoralize a disciple of Jesus. I think the application of this gospel story to our lives as disciples today has less to do with weather events and more to do with Christ’s mission. We can and probably should still heed the meteorologists who tell us when we should go out for the day being “weather aware.”
How many times are God’s people driven to inaction by fear? This happens when we are afraid to give our witness or invite people to our church because of fear of embarrassment or rejection. It happens when we see something that needs to be done in our church or community, but we are afraid of the “cold water” committee who seem intent on throwing cold water on the enthusiasm of others. It happens when we see an injustice of some kind and are compelled by the Holy Spirit and God’s word to speak up about it, but we are afraid of the push-back.
The Apostle Paul was speaking not only of his own personal experience but also that of his fellow workers when he said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10) I once heard a sermon to a large group of men that was entitled, “Dead Men Don’t Die.” If you are already dead, you don’t have to be afraid of dying. That may seem to be a weird or nonsensical title for a sermon. It makes sense, however. If you have already died in terms of keeping up your reputation, then you have nothing to lose on that score. If you have died to the need to be accepted by everyone, then you have nothing to lose by being rejected. If you have died to a comfortable lifestyle, then you have nothing to lose by being made uncomfortable because of the push-back of others.
There is also the fear we have of our own complete conversion. Let that thought sink in for a moment. If I go all-in, what will I be losing as a result? What control will I be losing? My life won’t be my own any longer. What will people think of me? Will they think I am a fanatic? This fear is real given all the lukewarm Christians there are in the world. Even as I write this, I wonder if I am lukewarm too much of the time. Do I play it safe? Am I holding the transforming power of God at arm’s length out of fear?
Having a mature faith has everything to do with being delivered from fear. I remember when my Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My mother felt like and appeared to be a vivacious 71-year-old when she was diagnosed. She would have 10 weeks to live. Immediately, however, upon her diagnosis, my Mom started witnessing to her faith to deal with what she faced. Mom’s witness helped her family deal with it. Mom said these words, “I want to be a witness in how I handle this.” Everyone one of us who heard her say these words will never forget it. She succeeded. She did not crumble beneath the weight of the fear that often comes with the approach of death. She had one last mission to accomplish.
What is your mission? How is your faith? Where is your confident hope? How do you plan to rise above fear? Jesus can calm the wind and the waves.
O God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your Son Jesus commanded the winds and the waves to be calmed, and they obeyed his command,
Help us to take stock of the fear that paralyzes us and hinders your mission,
That we may be assured of your presence and delivered from our fear,
Through our Mission-Giver, Jesus Christ,
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.