Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Sermon for 8th Sunday after Pentecost--Three O'Clock in the Morning
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
It's own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea."
--Hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save
William Whiting, 1825-1878
There is no greater story than the history of how the Gospels came to be. After Jesus’ death those that had lived with him and seen his work were elevated to an important status. These were the eyewitness to the glory of God first-hand. But as the years passed and the eyewitnesses were dying off one by one. The church grew afraid. These wonderful stories and parables and miracles and all the teachings of Jesus would be lost unless they were written down. So somewhere between 75 and 80AD Mark sat down and wrote the first gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”(1.1) This was followed by Matthew and Luke somewhere between 80 and 90 AD. John’s gospel would be the last written around 95 to 120 AD. The central point of these four accounts was to answer one question: Who is he? Who is this Jesus anyway?
The backdrop of Matthew 14. 22-33 is interesting. Three gospels leave us with this account. They knew something about hard, hard times. Severe persecution broke out in AD 44. Peter, the leader of the church was imprisoned and barely escaped death. James was, one of the circle of Jesus’ three companions, was beheaded. Peter was crucified during Nero’s reign. Jesus’ brother James, one of the church leaders was put to death. In 64 AD Nero instigated a huge fire in Rome and blame the Christians which started another round of persecution. Jerusalem, their city of cities of totally destroyed in AD 70. This was the world in which the early church found itself. And so, under cover of darkness, they would close the curtains in someone’s house and quietly worship together on Sundays. And someone would say: “Elder, tell us the story again about that night on the sea…”It was a story that spoke to their hearts and lives and conditions. They knew about stormy weather. They had lost leaders and family members and friends because of their faith. Others had simply renounced their faith—one had to live after all. And when Caesar passed an edict that he was God and that all must burn a pinch of incense on the altar and say: “Caesar is Lord” many Christians followed suit to save their lives. But this little cluster remained faithful. Caesar is not Lord they said. Jesus is Lord. Jesus only.
The Leading Elder kept talking. "It was night. Sometimes", he said, "the dark, swirling waters look scary." And they murmured yes. He said " they rowed that little boat or tried to. Matthew said that the wind was against them." Somebody in the crowd chuckled and said: “Seems like the wind is always against us, too.” The Elder said, "Have you ever tried to row a boat with a strong wind blowing hard in your face"? "Yes", they said. "Have we ever". And then the wind got stronger and the waves choppier and those strong fisherman were terrified. Utterly terrified. They knew what storms could do. They had all lost brothers or friends or fathers on the water. It took every ounce of strength they had just to keep the boat from tipping over.
The Elder kept talking. “It was sometime in the fourth watch of the night which was between three and six in the morning. There in the dark with the waves crashing into the boat they knew any minute they could sink. Helpless and afraid—they did not know what to do. And looking across the lake they saw a figure." " It was a ghost," someone said. And you could now hear a murmur in that little house church. A chuckle really. They already knew how the story ended. “But it wasn’t a ghost at all. As he got closer one of them said: ‘It’s Jesus—guys. It’s not a ghost. It’s Jesus.’ And there on the water with the wind blowing so hard they could hardly hear what he said, Jesus spoke to them: ‘Take heart,’ he said, ‘Be not afraid’.”
But the Elder leading the service was not finished. “Simon”, he said, “so glad to see you. Peter asked the Lord if he could come to him. And Jesus nodded. And Simon Peter began to walk on the water, too. But he looked down, taking his eyes off Jesus and he sank. He was drowning. Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter up. They both walked back to the boat and crawled in. And the strangest thing happened,” the Elder told them. Matthew recorded it later. “The wind ceased and the waters became calm and the Disciples in awe and wonder said: ‘Truly you are the son of God’.” Do you see why the early church loved that story and left it in the gospels? On a dark and stormy night when they thought all was lost—at three o’clock in the morning Jesus got into the boat with the disciples and the wind and the waves just ceased. Peace—it was so peaceful. That’s what the Elder said.
Somewhere I have heard that Scott Fitzgerald once said, “In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” I think the Disciples would understand those words. There they were alone in the middle of a storm, in a tiny, tiny boat and they were so vulnerable.
Ever had a three o’clock in the morning experience or nightmare? Something scary, something beyond your control, something that could just sweep you away. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve rowed your boat like those fisherman until your arms have ached and the wind was against you and you were exhausted. All your resources were depleted and a depression just descended on you like a fog. Or maybe it was not a depression as much as it was fear. Three times in this story the fear is mentioned. 1) Terrified in vs. 26; 2) When they thought they saw a ghost they cried out in fear—vs. 26; 3) And in verse 27 Jesus tells them: “Be not afraid.”
If we had time this morning and we had the courage I would ask you to stand and name your fear. What’s your three o’clock in the morning? Money. Worried about the Stock Market, the Dow. Banks closing. All these thousands and thousands of home foreclosures. Wondering you’ll have enough to take you all the way to the finish line? Maybe it’s health. Cancer—which we all dread. Maybe Alzheimer’s. I just had a friend that spent $2500 on a test to see if she was in the beginning stages. She didn’t have it at all. Maybe just afraid of winding up in some Nursing Home…or just getting old. Maybe you don’t worry about yourself but you worry about the kids. Grown-up children more than little ones. I heard someone say the other day: “You think they are trouble when they’re little. Just wait until they are grown—you’ll see.” Maybe you worry about some child’s divorce and living on a shoestring as a single parent with your grandchildren shuffled back and forth and back and forth. One Christmas we helped our daughter and her two girls put up the Christmas tree. And as we put the ornaments on the tree our little seven-year-old said: “Oh Mama, I wished you and Daddy wasn’t divorced.” Maybe it’s being young and seeing life stretch out there and not wanting to come back all broken or in a box from Iraq or Afghanistan. What is your three o’clock in the morning? Iraq or Iran or terrorism. OR just watching the 6:30 news and looking out a world where values are so twisted. We could go on and on. But everybody—everybody has some three o’clock in the morning.
Those little house churches in the first century told this story over and over of the stormy sea and Jesus walking on the water. It was about a dark and stormy night when they learned they were not alone. Somebody sent me a quote the other day. A Carmelite Nun, Jessica Powers, wrote it in a poem. And this is what she wrote: “I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge: Someone is hidden in this dark with me.”
And if I understand the gospel at all it says that at three o’clock some dark night we need to remember this story. The waves were choppy. And sometimes in rowing against the wind it was just too much. And it looked like the boat would sink. And at 3:00 o’clock in the morning Jesus comes. And what did he say. What he says over and over in the Scriptures: “Be not afraid.” Someone is in this dark with us.
You may not know the name Horatio Spafford. He was a successful Chicago lawyer and a close friend of D.L. Moody the great Evangelist. In 1873 because his wife was suffering from exhaustion, her Doctor suggested a vacation. So Spafford arranged for his wife, himself and his four daughters to travel to Europe for a month. At the last minute he had in stay in Chicago and he would follow them in a few days. So they boarded the S.S. Ville du Havre in November of 1873. On November 22 the ship hit an English ship, the Lochearn and sank within twelve minutes. All four of the Spafford daughters were lost at sea. Only the Mother survived. And when she landed in Cardiff, Wales on December 1 she cabled her husband the sad news: “I am the only one left.” He left immediately to meet his wife with a heavy heart. And his ship approached that awful place where his family’s ship had gone down and taken his daughters, he sat down that night. I wonder if it was three o’clock? He sat down and wrote the words we have all come to know. They have been sung at funerals and other sacred occasions since that time. I think they have stood the test of time because they speak to our hearts:
“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”
So you see it is understandable that the early church, in a hard time would tell this story for comfort and strength again and again. We tell it now because it is our story too. Whatever three o’clock in the morning comes the waves may come high and the water may be cold and the night may be very dark—but Jesus comes and he says to us what he said to them: “Take heart, it is I, be not afraid.” It’s three o’clock in the morning and someone is in this dark with us. Thanks Be to God!