Fear and Faith

[The above recording and the manuscript below is a sermon delivered at Bethel Bible Church – Whitehouse on 7/10/2016 entitled “Fear and Faith.”] 

Fear.

Our world is covered in fear: fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of death, harm, injury, loss, missing out, judgment, discrimination, injustice. We’re afraid we will lose our rights, our jobs, our freedoms, our money, our time, our reputation, our dreams. We’re afraid we will get lost, sick, fat, old, wrinkled, ignored, taken advantage of, fooled, criticized, misjudged. And we fear not only for ourselves, but also for our family, our community, our country, our world.

The tyranny of fear feels impossible to resist. We allow it to paralyze us when we know we should act, to work us into a frenzy when we know we should remain calm; we allow it to lie to us about who we are; to stretch the truth beyond reason; we allow fear to dictate our relationships, to guide our interactions with each other; we allow it to justify our behavior, to help us avoid responsibility. Fear is the most motivating of all our feelings. Only fear can motivate us to do things we would otherwise be too afraid to do.

Fear is everywhere. From the most basic marketing strategy to the growing threat of terrorism, fear permeates our thoughts, emotions, and intentions. And, eventually, it causes us to take action. Sometimes those actions are noble, sometimes they are wicked. In either case, what we do when we are afraid tells us a great deal about what we believe is truly powerful, what we believe can truly silence our fears.

As believers in Jesus Christ, what should be our relationship to fear? How are we to respond to fears in our past? How can we prepare for fears we have yet to face?

I would like to make the assertion that fear is not the problem; we are designed to be fearful. The problem is that we have given our fear to objects that are not worthy of it. And misplaced fear causes our faith to shipwreck on the rocky ground of idolatry, which, in turn, begins to erode our faithfulness to God and our confidence in him when our circumstances deteriorate.

We’ll begin in Mark 4:35: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

Mark chapter 4 is a survey of Jesus teaching the people in parables about life in the Kingdom of God. Two of Jesus’ most famous parables can be found in this chapter: the Parable of the Sower and the parable about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. He teaches in many other parables too, but in each case, the disciples are slow on the uptake; they need Jesus’ interpretation of the parable to understand what he means. After teaching them all day in this way, he tells the disciples – quite nonchalantly – that he wants to go to the other side of the lake. Because Mark makes a point to emphasize that all of these things happen on the same day, we are meant to understand them as all being connected. Jesus had given them the verbal answers to their questions – now they were going to experience them.

The parables that Jesus shares are about the promised culmination of the Kingdom of God. Despite the circumstances of the world in which they live, the disciples were to understand that God is in complete control of the events that guarantee the establishment of His Kingdom – most obviously through His Son (something that hadn’t become completely clear to the disciples just yet). So, the placement of this miracle story after Jesus’ teaching in parables should not be thought of a separate from his teachings. Jesus both announces the coming of the kingdom of God in his teaching and demonstrates his authority and power by his actions. So, into the boat they go.

This is a map of the Sea of Galilee. They likely board the boat somewhere on the western or northwestern shore of the Sea. And in those days the faithful Jews lived along the western and northern shores of the sea. The eastern shores began what was then called the “Decapolis” – a league of ten Greco-Roman cities – each one of them as potent and vile as Las Vegas on its worst night. So, when Jesus tells them that they’re going to the ‘other side’, it was a fairly alarming announcement. As if that were not enough cause for concern, rarely did fishing boats cross the entire span of the lake at any time. Typically they would hug the coastline – never really venturing out into the very center of the sea. And, finally, to make matters even more tense – the sun was setting; night was upon them.

There was nothing routine about this moment. Eyes were wide. Mouths were shut. Deep breaths. We trust this guy, right?

Verse 36 says: “And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.” So, they waste no time. Jesus doesn’t even get out of the boat he had been teaching the parables to the crowds from. It was time to go. The boats were not large, however. They were only about 26 feet long, 7 feet wide, 4-5 feet deep, and, at most, could hold 15 people. In fact, in 1986, just 30 years ago, one of these boats was discovered in the beach along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and they dated it to the time of Christ.

Verse 37: “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Look at all the fear factors that face the disciples in this story:

1). They were going to the infamous “other side”, the Decapolis – Vegas.

2). They were crossing the deepest part of the lake – which was rarely done. Fishermen rarely ventured further than 100-200 yards from shore.

3). It was dark.

4). A great windstorm was causing them to sink.

5). Jesus was asleep (and not just asleep; he’s gotta be soaking wet and asleep; and wouldn’t have woken up had the disciples not woken him!).

It’s quite a scene.

We should also ask the question, ‘why are the disciples waking Jesus up?’ It is unlikely at this stage of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus that any of them expected or even had the thought that Jesus would or even could calm a storm of this magnitude. They are not waking him up so that he will calm the storm. They, first, probably just couldn’t believe that he was still asleep. And, second, they probably didn’t know what else to do and hoped that he might have direction for them. They were certain they were about to die (remember, four of these guys were fishermen; they knew when they were in serious trouble) and apparently Jesus doesn’t seem to care. So, the moment of incredible tension and fear prompted the disciples to ask Jesus a passive aggressive question that was just as much a rebuke as it was a cry for help: “How can you sleep at a time like this?!”.

It should be emphasized at this point that the fear of the disciples is understandable. The Sea of Galilee is 12 miles long and 7 miles wide. The route for this journey to the other side took them across the longest width and the greatest depths of the lake. Getting caught in the middle of a lake of this size  in a ‘great windstorm’ meant that there was really no hope to make it to shore. They were in an extremely perilous position and the storm wasn’t letting up. Death was a very real possibility. They believed it to be inevitable.

Verse 39: “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

Jesus wakes and stands up and gives two commands that are immediately obeyed. He commands the wind to be at peace and the waves to be still. Obedience is immediate; the wind disappears and the sea becomes calm. The statement that Jesus is making is clear: He is Lord of all creation. Anyone who can command obedience from the wind and the waves is no ordinary man or teacher. Mark links this story together with Jesus’ parables about the kingdom to emphasize that God is in complete control of the events that guarantee the current and future establishment of His Kingdom. Jesus was who he claimed to be and he would do all that God promised would be done.

It must have been quite a scene: dark of night, dead calm, complete silence, mouths shut, eyes wide.

Verse 40: “He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

In the sudden silence of what he had just commanded, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them an echoing question. It is significant for many reasons. First, his question is an answer to their earlier accusation that Jesus didn’t care that they were about to die. He wasn’t indifferent about the disciples; he simply wasn’t frightened by the situation. Second, given everything he had already taught them, Jesus expected the disciples to have had more faith in him than they demonstrated. Why would you fear the wind and the waves when the One who created both is in the boat with you? Third, Jesus’ question establishes an inverse relationship between faith and fear: the greater the fear of the storm, the lesser their faith in God became. Or, said differently, the less they feared God, the more they feared what was not God.

I wonder how long the silence was after Jesus’ question.

Then, verse 41 says, And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They missed their opportunity for faith in God when the storm was raging, but after Jesus’ gentle correction, both their faith and their fear was re-oriented. The proof? Mark tells us that they were filled with great fear after the storm had been silenced. The moment in this story where the disciples have the greatest amount of fear is when the wind and the waves were completely calm.

The question they ask each other isn’t from ignorance. They aren’t asking in wonder; they are making a statement with a question. We might say it like this, “The wind and the waves obey him; do you realize, then, who this is?!” The disciples were no stranger to the verses in the Hebrew Bible that spoke about God’s power over creation – even explicit verses that described his silencing of the sea:

  • Job 26:11-12 – “The pillars of heaven tremble And are amazed at His rebuke. He quieted the sea with His power, and by His understanding He shattered Rahab.”
  • Psalm 65:7 – “Who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the tumult of the peoples.”

So, if this Jesus just taught what we heard him teach and did what we just saw him do, who then is this?! He is the Messiah? He’s the Messiah. He’s the Messiah!

Jesus’ teaching on the shore and their experience in the boat helped the disciples experience fear the way they God designed fear to be experienced: in Him.  There is no need to fear the wind and the waves if you fear that one who not only created them, but also commands them. This is a fear without terror, a fear without hopelessness, a fear without despair. It is a respect and a reverence of someone who has infinite authority and power. It is a humility that acknowledges Who is really in control and who is not. It is fear the way it was meant to be felt. That is the great fear that the disciples finish this story with. They begin by fearing the things in this world – convinced they are about to die; they end fearing God – and being at peace.

We may not find ourselves in the exact same situation as the disciples, but I believe the same principles that the disciples learn are ones that we, too, need to learn. I see 3:

1. Fear of God rightly orients our faith in God. When our faith is in Jesus we fear rightly both our Lord and the elements of His creation. When our faith is elsewhere we are blinded by fears and led astray by them. This first conclusion, then, necessitates the second.

2. Fear is not bad; misplaced fear is. Much like the disciples probably did, we too might wonder what faith has to do with a situation where death or harm seem inevitable. Were the disciples not supposed to be afraid that they were about to die? Does having fear in a tense moment such as this one mean that we don’t have faith in Jesus? These are good questions.

Most of us don’t have the wherewithal to even think about where our fear is when caught in a moment like what the disciples experienced. That kind of fortitude escapes us because we have not taken Jesus at His Word on a regular basis. It has not become nature to us. So, on the one hand it seems reasonable to experience the terror that the disciples displayed in such a perilous moment, but on the other, we must remember that Jesus, under the same circumstances, was fast asleep.

God doesn’t promise to keep us from trouble. So, when trouble comes, does that give us the right to panic? If our faith is in Jesus, then no. Panic is a sure sign that we consider created things to be worthy of the same kind of reverence as the one who Created and controls them.   

When the disciples’ fear was misplaced they became wild, erratic, and panicked. When Jesus corrected them and helped them to see where their fear really belonged, they became calm; submissive. Why? That’s the third principle.

3. Our fear needs a worthy object. What other man, situation, event, or natural disaster is more worthy of our fear than the Lord of all Creation? When we fear storms, violent men, political upheaval, we fear things that aren’t worth being afraid of. God’s power is omnipotent, beneficent, and permanent. The power of men, governments, and storms is only physical and temporal at best. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Psalm 118:5-9 says it beautifully:

From my distress I called upon the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a large place. The Lord is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me? The Lord is for me among those who help me; therefore I will look with satisfaction on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

God is the only one worthy of our fear.

So where does that leave us with the circumstances of the past month? We’ve seen white policemen kill black civilians. We’ve seen black civilians kill white policemen – both exposing a growing realization that racism is alive and well in every part of our country. We’ve seen the FBI fail to indict a presidential candidate for lying about her careless handling of classified materials. We’ve seen the Supreme Court uphold the legitimacy and right of killing an unborn child in a mother’s womb. We’ve seen massive terrorist attacks in Orlando, Istanbul, and Baghdad. The Zika virus is causing widespread alarm as it presses into the United States. We are watching the fabric of our American way of life beginning to fracture under the stress of political, racial, and economic upheaval.   

And that is just in the past month. Plenty to be afraid of.

How should we respond, brothers and sisters? How will we respond?

First, we must respond with our faith and our fear rightly placed in the Lord Jesus. When we believe that the calmer of the storm can calm all storms, still all seas, conquer all death, unite all races, break all brokenness, right all injustice, and make all his enemies a footstool for his feet, THEN, and only then, can we experience these storms with our fear rightly oriented so that our faith will not fail – even if Jesus doesn’t calm the storm right away.

The world around us won’t understand our peace. To them it will look like we’re asleep in the stern not caring that they are about to die. Nothing could be further from the truth. We simply don’t fear what they fear. And since we won’t be gripped by fear in those moments of apparent peril, it will be the church that will demonstrate to the world what true reconciliation, unity, compassion, safety, and security really are.

THEN, and only then, can we can engage the specific problems in our communities and in our country with both courage and humility in the Name of Jesus and for the glory of God.

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