Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Faith in the storm

In May 2008, a massive earthquake struck the Sichuan province of China, leaving 90,000 people either dead or missing.  Less than a year later in February 2009, the earth shook again in Southern China.  This time it was from the Chinese military conducting live-fire exercises in the region.  The pressure waves from exploding bombs rocked homes and rattled windows for miles around.  Rumors of another massive quake rapidly spread by phone and internet.  These rumors, along with the extra vigilance after the recent quake the year before, caused widespread panic.  Despite the efforts of the government and local officials to convince the villagers that no quake had occurred, the people still felt unsafe, and tens of thousands spent the nights on the streets, afraid to return to their homes.

I recently had the privilege of filling in as "guest preacher" at my church while Pastor Chris was on vacation.  The sermon message I gave was part of a sermon series on "Great Questions of the Bible."  The question I addressed is "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?"  It comes from a well-known passage in Matthew 8:23-27.
The apostle Matthew remembers this day.  It started like many others. But this day included quite a bit of activity Matthew wasn’t use to seeing. Earlier in this chapter we have a leper whose skin is eaten up with sores and missing fingers and putrid smelling, suddenly grow new skin at the command of Jesus and become clean again.

In the same chapter we have a Roman centurion's servant who was near death instantly healed by Jesus. And Peter’s mother in law is healed of a fever.

So, on what turns out to be a not-so-ordinary day, Jesus tells his disciples to get into a boat. How many times had these fishermen been in a boat before? I am sure they were thinking, “Now here is something we can do! We can’t grow toes on a leper, but we know how to sail a boat!”

But what Matthew remembers is that this time a gigantic storm arose. Now, the Sea of Galilee is in a unique setting where it is surrounded by mountains on three sides.  The mountains are arranged in such a way that when the winds blow they are funneled between the mountains, causing strong wind, much like our Santa Ana winds here in Southern California.  And with these winds frequently come strong, sudden storms.  The Greek word used for this great storm is “seismos megas” where we get the word “seismology” the study of earthquakes.  Only two other times in the whole bible is this word used; once when Jesus died and the earth shook, and the other when Jesus rose from the grave and again the earth shook.  And like an earthquake, these storms on the Sea of Galilee would come from out of nowhere. 

In this particular storm, waves were crashing over the side of the vessel, pushing the most experience of fishermen to their limits, even to the point where they were in fear for their lives.  They were sitting ducks out in the middle of a lake with no recourse, no solutions, totally at the mercy of whatever happened next.

Have you ever been there?  Being at the mercy of what happens next?

At the mercy of the company or boss you work for?
At the mercy of the judge presiding over your case?
At the mercy of the doctor reading your test results?
At the mercy of your bank or credit company?
At the mercy of a stranger to help you out?
I can recall one time in particular where I was at the mercy of what happens next.  I was living  the town of Turlock in Central California at the time . This was around the mid-90-s.  Home computers were just catching on; the internet usage was charged by the hour; cell phones were still a bit cumbersome, and mostly used by business people who were away from the office quite a bit.  In fact, a status symbol of the day was how big the battery pack on your Motorola Flip Phone was – the bigger the battery pack, the more important you were.  This particular night I was driving home alone from a friend's house in Merced, about 20 or so miles away.  Now,  the stretch of Highway 99 between Merced and Turlock where I was driving had a few small towns, separated by mostly farms and ranches.  And about halfway home my car breaks down.  Remember, I didn't have a cell phone yet.  Add to that, that stretch of Highway 99 did not have roadside emergency call boxes.  I was alone, stranded by the side of the road on a dark night, with no place to walk to and no way to call for help.  And my mind started in with the “what-if” game.  How long will I be there?  And who will help me?  What if a car or a big-rig swerves to the side of the road and hits me, or what if the wrong person stops to “help”?  Just like the disciples on the boat, I was afraid.  I was at the mercy of what happens next. 

Let's return to our passage, and what did happen next for our guys. 

In the midst of their fear they turned to the most experienced sailor among them, right?  No.  They turned to the one who spent his growing-up years in wood-shop.  And he was below deck, sawing logs.  Laying in the protected part of the boat, curled up on a net with his head on a leather bag filled with sand.  Jesus was fast asleep.

How often do we feel that way?  That Jesus is asleep in the midst of our storm?  Or worse, he had abandoned ship or left us stranded alongside the road, to fend for ourselves?  Does he even know we are in a terrible storm, a seismos megas? 

Fear.  It's our natural emotional response to a perceived threat to our well-being.  It's an expectation of something really bad, even evil.  We begin to focus our thoughts on the what-if's, and the fear takes over.  When we focus on the circumstances, we develop “spiritual amnesia,” forgetting all the great things we have seen God do.  The disciples were first-hand witnesses just that day of a leper being restored, a healing of the centurion's servant, and Peter's mother-in-law.  Three miracles!  And now in the storm they can't remember a single one.

And in their fear the disciples do awaken Jesus.

And Jesus asks them the question, "Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?" 

At first this might sound like Jesus is chastising the disciples for their spiritual amnesia, for not trusting him, and being afraid in his presence.  In taking a closer look, he is more disappointed that they had so little faith.  In fact, the Greek word used here is “oligos” which translates to puny.  That's how little faith they had!  But Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 17:20, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you."  Just a puny amount of faith, the size of a mustard seed, can be just enough for God to move the mountains in our lives, changing the way the winds travel through them, and change the course of the sudden storms in our lives.

As Matthew continues his account, Jesus got up and rebuked the winds and the waves. In Mark's gospel, Jesus said to the sea, “Peace, be stillImmediately the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. 

Hebrews 11:1 says   “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”    What does that mean?  How can you “do” faith?   You know the "trust exercise," where you lean back and someone is supposed to catch you?  Well, when I gave my sermon this sermon the other day I called my friend Becky up, and asked her to lean back.  She didn't do it.  Even though I would not intentionally allow her to fall and possibly hurt herself, and even though there were enough people watching me that I could not get away with embarrassing her, Becky still could not "do faith" and allow herself to lean her whole weight upon my hands that were about six or eight inches behind her, ready to push her back up to standing position.

To "do faith" means "to lean your whole weight" upon someone or something.  

Getting back to my drive from Merced to Turlock.  Before I left my home, I trusted that my car would get me from Turlock to Merced and back again, safely and without incident.  Why?  Because it had done so on many occasions in the past.  “Doing faith” was the action of getting into the car and driving it.

But even though I had faith that my car would perform as I expected it to, it broke down, leaving me stranded along the highway, helpless, and afraid.

It's not about the storm; it's about who you discover in the storm.

In the midst of my storm I turned to Jesus.  I didn't just pray.  I started singing.  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so...” Over and over and over.  At times I'd be singing softy.  I remember moments of battling between the expectation of something bad – the fear – and faith that I would be safe.  At those times I'd sing loudly through the tears.  I turned my focus away from the storm of my circumstances and turned it toward Jesus.  After about three hours my prayers and cries for help were answered.  God sent a police officer, who called a tow truck, and I was brought safely home.

There is an interesting phenomenon, even a spiritual law, where faith and fear are concerned.  The two cannot co-exist.  Fear is the expectation of something bad, even evil; Faith is the expectation of God's faithfulness to us.  Fear is "False Expectations Appearing Real"; Faith means when I "Feel Afraid I Trust Him."  Fear keeps our focus on our outward circumstances; Faith turns our eyes toward Jesus.  The apostle Paul tells us in the book of Philippians, "Do not be anxious for anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. If we hold on to our fears, our anxious thoughts, we cannot experience the peace in our hearts and minds that Christ affords us. 

Paul goes on and instructs us, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things."  When we're focused on the waves crashing all around us, we can't be focused on things that are true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable or praiseworthy.  But we can when we are sheltered by God's peace.

Storms come in all sizes and intensities.  Sometimes they are expected and we can adequately prepare for them; sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere.  Maybe you are going through a storm of your own right now.  Maybe it's a recent loss of a loved one.  Or some bad news.  Maybe it's financial.  Or health.  Or relational.  Maybe your storm is a pattern of sin that you can't change no matter how you try.  Whatever it is, you feel as though your life is capsized, turned upside down.  Know this:  Jesus is with you in your storm.  He answers your cries for help.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.  When we let go of our fears and put our faith and trust in Jesus, only then can we truly experience peace in the midst of the storms of life.

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