(John 6: 16-21)
This is one of those stories in the Bible that a lot of people turn a perhaps…skeptical eye to. That’s the case with much of Jesus’ miracles so it is the challenge on the table for much of our Jesus Signs sermon series. Did Jesus really do that or was there some much more explicable, reasonable account of what Jesus did here, walking on the water? Maybe he walked along the shore kind of close to the boat, or maybe the water was shallow, or… maybe he had special shoes? the list goes on and on. But the question remains the same, what is it with this magic Jesus? These pseudo magical acts of Jesus which we are calling miracles, did they really happen? Can we believe them?
The late Fred Craddock, a wonderful preacher and former professor at Emory University said that when his students would get to a story like this one, they would get silly and make bad jokes like the cynicism I just mentioned, jokes about Jesus walking on the water by stepping on stones and the like. So Craddock would confront their cynicism and jokes head on. “Let’s get in a circle”, he would say, and get us some plastic garbage bags and throw in everything we don’t believe. It will be quite a pile and at the end of the process, once we’ve rid ourselves of all the material we don’t believe, we will have to ask what it is that we do believe. And I thought of another step in this important winnowing process. Before we haul away the material we no longer believe, let’s take each item out, pick it up, examine it one more time, and ask if there might be any truth we are about to discard, any hopeful, helpful truth about ourselves and our lives and the world and God that is in that little item that we are close to discarding. And my sense is that we will retrieve most of what we were about to discard and put it back in place reverently, particularly this little story.”
This is how I encourage us to approach this story, this 4th miracle told in John’s gospel, and perhaps all the stories we hear of Jesus’ miraculous work. Rather than dismissing it as myth or story or explaining it away, instead, asking ourselves, what truth does this sign reveal to us? What hopeful or helpful truth does this reveal to us about Jesus?
About ten years ago I somehow managed to scramble myself into a job as the Sailing Director of the Presbyterian camp I worked at during college. I’m a decent sailor, not a distinguished sailor but decent enough and that year decent enough happened to be the best they had around. So one day before the campers got there one of the other sailing instructors and I took one of our old boats out to sail around for a bit. The winds came strong and quick in that tiny lake and we started heading back to camp. But before we arrived safe at shore, while we were still in the depths of the lake, the winds came even stronger, and the boat hit that angle where it no longer is sailing but rather the sails are in the water that we call capsizing in sailing lingo. We climbed out of the boat and did what sailors do – stood on the centerboard and tried to yank the heavy vessel up. To no avail. And then many failed attempts later and more strong winds and the boat turned itself all the way upside down, so that the sails were precisely 180 degrees from where they were supposed to be, about 10 feet under in Higgins Lake. In sailing terms we call this turtling, because your boat looks like a turtle in its shell. Or more familiar, we were paddling up the creek with no paddle, in deep, SOL.
Here we are in the middle of the lake, no cell phone, out of ideas, dead on energy, embarrassed, cold, and boat-less. SOL indeed.
This is how I imagine the disciples on the sea that night. John’s account of this story is one of the three accounts in the gospels of this story, the others appear in Matthew and Mark. John’s account is perhaps the most downplayed of the three. What we know about this event is that the disciples were out in the middle of the sea and the winds came on strong and powerful and it was very very dark, and probably very very terrifying.
The disciples were there in the middle of the sea SOL.
And the very real, and very hard, truth of our lives and our world is that we have been there too, perhaps we even are there now. In the middle of the sea, terrified, out of options, worried. The pains of life are very real – grief, fear, loneliness, terror, illness, loss of direction, anger, terror, injustice in the world, the deep fear of failure, painstaking anxiety. You don’t need me to tell you these are very real. These are the real and harsh truths we face in our days and world.
Now, my job as a preacher is to not gloss over these and tell you that in the end it all weighs out and tips on the scale of the good. Because the truth is, for some that may be true, for others not. But more importantly, when you are in the midst of these feelings of grief and loneliness and anxiety, the good news is not that it will get better later and all weigh out in your favor. And that is not the good news of the gospel and that is not the good news of this text.
The good news of this text are the seven words found in verse 20.
It is I; do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid. The familiar greeting of the angels:
The angel greets Mary when the angel tells of her pregnancy of the Christ child. Do not be afraid the angel says.
The angel tells this to the group of terrified shepherds on their way to Bethlehem. Do not be afraid the angel says.
The angel greets the scared women outside the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection. Do not be afraid the angel says.
Do not be afraid. The mantra of the appearances of the divine.
Do not be afraid, for Christ comes even in the midst of those most desperate of places. When things seem un-rescuable, too far gone, too bad to ever be made right, too desperate to have any hope, that is where Christ appears.
3 or 4 miles out on the sea with rushing winds and no boat to get him there, Jesus finds a way to get to his disciples when they are in need, when they are afraid, when they are out in the middle of the sea terrified and out of options.
And so it is for us, the promise, the good news is that when these things come to fruition, and they will and they have, the pain, the grief, the bad test results, the injustice in the world around us, the painstaking fear and anxiety, Jesus walks on water to get us through the storm.
Let me clear this up a bit – when it seems as if hope is lost, we’re in the pit of despair, in the very darkest of circumstances, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid that God cannot reach you there, do not be afraid that the time for God has passed, do not be afraid that God cannot come to you.
Do not be afraid, for God is with you, God walks on miles of choppy water just to find you in your deep hour of great need.
Brene Brown tells of this idea I believe, she says, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away . . . But church isn’t like an epidural; it’s like a midwife . . . I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”
There is a photograph taken of New Orleans after the tragedy and devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The picture is of an historic cemetery in the historic part of old New Orleans. The devastation is rampant, debris covering the grounds, tombs smashed and scattered. In the midst of the devastation though, miraculously untouched by that terrible storm, stands a statue of the risen Christ, arms extended wide, offering a benediction of calm amid the chaos. That is the image of our faith – into the midst of our devastation, chaos, harried lives, and challenges comes Christ with arms stretched out wide giving us reason to not be afraid.
I’m borrowing again an illustration from my dad, Michael Lindvall. It’s a familiar scene to many here, but imagine it with me. In the middle of the night, a child awakens, a bad dream or noises in the house awaken him to a dark room where he is alone, crying out his mother comes rushing in. She picks him out his crib and nestling his head into her, she rubs his back, kisses his forehead and whispers the words countless mothers before have whispered, “shh, shh, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
But the question we must ask is, is she telling the whole truth? Rather than telling the reassuring words that there is nothing to be afraid of the whole truth is the good news that this gospel passage tells us, “shh shh, do not be afraid, I am here with you now.”
As the child will learn and as many of us have already, there is much in this world to be afraid of, much to struggle with, much to cry over, much to be challenged by. But what Jesus tells us is that he will be with us, do not be afraid, it is I who has come to be with you in the midst of the storm. Do not be afraid, it is I, I am with you.
In the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.