Saturday, August 9, 2008

We Sink--Jesus Saves!

Bethel and Our Savior’s Lutheran Churches, Dalton, MN
August 10, 2008
Pentecost 12/Matthew 14:22-33

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I have good new and bad news for you this morning.

First the good news: the presidential election is only 86 days away. Come November 4th we’ll be done with all this nasty business—the instant polls, the mudslinging, the charges and countercharges of flip-flopping and other “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Be of good cheer! This too shall pass.

Now the bad news: the presidential election is still a whole 86 days away! And even though some of us are sick of it already, we need to get over that. There are hundreds of millions of dollars that have been contributed to the candidates--and these dollars must be converted into clever TV ads, punchy radio ads, “gotcha” newspaper ads, intriguing Internet ads….every last dollar must be expended, every last debate and speech must be ended….and then finally on November 4th we will be free.

Have you noticed the lengths to which American politicians go to depict themselves in the most favorable light, at every turn? Have you observed how our candidates refuse—steadfastly refuse!--to admit any wrongdoing? Even their past histories, their bestselling hardcover campaign biographies, must be told in ways that always—always cast the candidate positively--an aura, even a halo around their heads?

No one, absolutely no one, wants to let their dirty laundry hang out--not even a tiny bit!--in an election campaign.

And in that regard, campaign literature—edited, sanitized, cleaned up after the fact—campaign literature is nothing like biblical literature.

One of the things that makes the Bible ring true, one of the reasons why I and many others find the Bible so compelling is that no one seems to have “scrubbed it up” after the fact. If campaign literature avoids hanging out the dirty linen….biblical literature seems to specialize in hanging out all sorts of dirty underwear, showing us our heroes at their worst, caught in the act, constantly making fools of themselves.

Take this familiar gospel story from Matthew 14, for example. It is, in the form it has come down to us, a product of the apostolic age. The apostles wrote it down, for goodness sake…

….so why, I ask, did the apostles leave in so much stuff that makes them look bad?

Take Peter, the prince of the apostles, the first among Jesus’ followers, the one who some believe was the first pope, the vicar of Christ on earth…..just look at Peter here in this text. Is this the kind of story Peter really wanted folks to keep telling about him?

Here in Matthew 14 we see Peter being Peter—rash, brash, given to snap judgments and reckless decisions. Peter sees Jesus walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee. Peter asks Jesus if he can try that too. (Where’d he get that idea, anyway?)

And then Peter has a go of it, Peter steps outside the boat and imitates Jesus, walking on the stormy sea for a moment. But when Peter “snaps to” and remembers what’s happening, when he realizes he’s walking on water in the midst of a violent storm, he grows fearful and begins to sink.

Peter, whose nickname meant “rock” starts to sink like one right here before the other disciples, right before Jesus, right before God and the whole host of heaven—Peter seems to fail and fail miserably, this test of discipleship.

And as if that weren’t all bad enough, Jesus hangs a new nickname around his neck. Jesus calls him not Peter the Rock, but rather Peter the oligopistos, Peter the ‘little-faith-one” not a very pretty picture, indeed!

Why oh why did the apostles remember this story, treasure it, keep retelling it down through the ages, right into our own time? Why preserve a story that makes one of its heroes look so bad?

Here’s why: because when Peter (or you or I for that matter)…when we look bad, when we are bad--when we are at our worst, Jesus is at his best.

This is the story of our lives, dear friends. Even as we live out our days as Christians, something is always dragging us down, pulling us under. We are forever sinking….sinking into the slime and ooze of our sins, our bad judgments, our fears and anxieties, our sorry mistakes. We are in each moment of our days in some dire straits, surrounded by reasons to be frightened….you and I every day are in peril of some sort….

…..and Jesus is forever rescuing us.

We sink, with Peter, and Jesus is right there, Johnny on the spot—our text says “immediately” (v. 31) Jesus is all over us, reaching out, reaching down to us and drawing us up out of the stormy waters that were about to overwhelm us.

There, right there, get that picture in your mind: this is what the life of faith is, in its essence. We sink, Jesus saves!

Is this how you want to think of the life of faith? Shouldn’t we be progressing, climbing, getting better, showing signs of improvement? Lots of Christians in this country love to talk about “living the victorious life”—isn’t that what faith is all about, putting our doubts behind us, forging onward and upward with Jesus?

Matthew 14 takes us to another place, though. It says to you and me: here is your life—get used to it. You will sink. You will be terrified. Doubt will sweep over you. And when that happens, immediately, right in that instant, Jesus will reach down and save you. Take a snapshot of that. That is the life of faith. We sin, we sink, and Jesus saves.

There are prettier, more attractive and compelling stories we could tell. But those stories would not be true—true to the life of faith. Those stories would miss something essential, some piece of bedrock in the life of faith.

Stories where you or I end up the hero—we love those stories and can tell them effortlessly. (Around the campfire I bet old Peter could tell a few stories like that, too!)

But the biblical story, the scriptural witness is more sober and realistic and transparent. The Bible presents stories like this from Matthew 14, in which human beings are anything but heroes and heroines, all so that God in Jesus Christ can be for us the only Hero, the only Rescuer, the only Savior par excellence.

So shall we become content with ourselves, content to be the sinners, the doubters that we are? Yes and no.

Yes, we best be realistic about the role of doubt in the life of faith. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses this term oligopistos (“little-faith-one”) five different times, always with reference to his followers, those who are at least beginning to believe in him. Jesus never calls a pagan or unbeliever a “little-faith-one.”

Most of our days here on earth, you and I will be (if we’re honest with ourselves) “little-faith-ones”….babies, infants, with just a smidgin of faith, not nearly as much faith as we wish we had, not nearly as much faith as God deserves from us. But remember what God can and does with just a smidgin of faith: the dash of salt, the pinch of yeast, the mustard seed that grows into a huge plant.

And yet, who among us will be content with being and staying a “little-faith-one?” We want more, we need more, we seek more faith, hope and love. I think that when Peter called out to Jesus there on the Sea of Galilee and pleaded “Lord, save me,” (v. 30) he wasn’t just trying to avoid drowning in H20. Peter was saying: “Save me from my fears, save me from my doubts, I’m drowning in anxiety here, Jesus—save me from all of that.”

And so also, you and I will always, in this world, in this life, want to have those same words on our lips. “Jesus, I’m in over my head. I don’t know where to turn. I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve exhausted all of my resources. I’m not even sure that YOU can get me out of this pickle. Save me!”

And as we utter those words, I ask you, are we still “little-faith-ones?” Or are words like those precisely, precisely the words of someone whose faith is maturing, expanding, right before our eyes, growing into a faith that clings to God and God alone, a trust that grasps Jesus and Jesus alone?

So is there such a thing as “living the victorious Christian life?”

Yes. And here’s what it looks like. You and I are trapped, anxious, sinking fast. And immediately Jesus reaches out to us, fishes us out of our desperation.

We sink. Jesus saves.

That, dear friends, is the victorious Christian life, in all its perplexity and all its glory.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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