Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Epiphany 4)

Matthew 8:23-27; Romans 13:8-10; Jonah 1:1-17

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
You might be surprised to learn that the U.S. Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” is even in our hymnal. In fact, in just a little bit, our choir is going to sing it during the collection of our offering. It is a most fitting and appropriate hymn corresponding to today’s Gospel theme concerning Jesus manifesting His glory as the LORD of heaven and earth and of wind, sky, land, and sea. Hundreds and thousands of miles out to sea, at the mercy of tempestuous winds and perilous oceans and seas, truly our sailor soldiers know and respect the terrible power and the mighty forces that nature can inflict upon those who travel upon the sea. Indeed, William Whiting, the author of the hymn’s text, attributes the creation and control of such insurmountable powers and forces to God our Eternal Father. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, apparently there are no atheists “in peril on the sea” either. For, it is God the Father “whose arm hath bound the restless wave, who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep.” And, it was God the Son “whose voice the waters heard and hushed their raging at [His] Word.” And, it was God the Holy Spirit “who didst brood upon the chaos dark and rude, and bid its angry tumult cease, and give, for wild confusion, peace.”
Thus, what our Lord Jesus Christ manifested when He calmed the storm and the raging seas that threatened and terrified His disciples was that He is the LORD God in human flesh, in their midst, still defining and limiting, controlling and using the forces of nature for His own purposes and for the good of His people whom He loves. Even when it appeared that He was unaware, asleep, and impotent, Jesus is the God who is present and LORD of heaven and earth and of wind, sky, land, sea, and all of creation. While the disciples were overcome with fear and despair, believing that they were perishing, the LORD was in control working all things, even evil things, for the good of those whom He has called according to His purpose.
It is all too easy to become fearful, anxious, and despairing when the storms of life come crashing upon you and you feel as if you are perishing. In such times when your health is at risk, when finances are meager, when your children rebel and curse you, when the news media continually report of terrorism, murder, natural disasters, and war, it is all too easy to believe that God is not present, that He cannot help, that He doesn’t care, or that He isn’t even real. However, this is but the weakness of your flesh and your faith, which your all too real enemy, Satan, delights to use against you to lead you into unbelief, hopelessness, and despair. In your fear, he tempts you to trust only in your own strength and wisdom, to be your own god and savior, or to despair of these and to surrender to hopelessness and perish. Only consider the rash and foolish decisions that you have made under fear, anxiety, and despair. What good has come of them in the past? And, when you have trusted in the LORD, has He not provided, often in ways you never could have expected? Truly, your LORD is with you even when you do not see Him. He is awake, aware, in control, and directing all things in heaven and earth for your benefit and good, even when He appears to be sleeping. “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Jesus’ disciples were fearful and despairing even while Jesus Himself was physically with them in their boat. But, how much more is your Lord Jesus with you all the time? Has He not promised you that, in your Holy Baptism, He “is with you always, to the end of the age?”
In contrast, Jonah was not afraid that the LORD was not with Him, but he, in fact, believed that the LORD was indeed with him. For, the LORD had commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach His Word to the wicked and unrepentant people there. But, Jonah didn’t want to go, not because he feared the Ninevites, but because he believed that the LORD would indeed convert the people of Nineveh through his preaching, and he didn’t want such notoriously wicked people to repent and to be saved. And so, Jonah fled from his calling and from the presence of the LORD. He bought a ticket on the first ship he could find to Tarshish, fleeing from the presence of the LORD. Then, the LORD commanded the wind and the sea to threaten the ship and its sailors so that they each cried out to their own gods – Indeed, there are no atheists in peril on the seas. As the sailors desperately threw their cargo overboard in order to stabilize the ship, Jonah hid himself in the bowels of the ship in fear of the LORD and fell fast asleep. As the storm raged on and continued to threaten the ship, the captain came to Jonah and demanded that he wake up, arise, and pray to his god that they would not perish. And, when the captain learned that Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, he and his crew threw Jonah overboard as Jonah himself had directed them, for he knew that it was the LORD who had brought the forces of wind and wave upon the ship because of his willful disobedience. When they cast Jonah into the sea, immediately the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD and they offered sacrifices to the God of Jonah, “and the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Now, only consider the number of variables the LORD controlled and manipulated in order that His will would be accomplished and that unbelievers would be turned in repentance and believe. The LORD sent the wind and the waves to threaten the ship and her crew. The LORD caused the lot to fall upon Jonah. The LORD caused Jonah to be thrown overboard. And the LORD caused a great fish to swallow him whole and to deliver him to Nineveh, where the LORD had commanded Jonah to go and preach in the first place. So it is that Jonah is set in direct contradiction to Jesus. Earlier that same day Jesus had healed a Jewish leper and the servant of a Roman Centurion, whom we heard about in last Sunday’s Gospel Lesson. After that, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and countless others who were sick or oppressed by demons. Though He is true God, Jesus is also true man, and so Jesus was exhausted, according to His humanity, and He slept in the bow of the boat in the presence of His disciples. However, even when He appears to be sleeping, the LORD is awake and active upholding heaven and earth and the laws of nature and all things. When the storm came upon them and the seas began to threaten, the disciples cried out to Jesus in faith mixed with fear, despair, and unbelief. Yet, still they cried out to Jesus. They had faith, even if it was little faith. And, though He was tired and exhausted, Jesus rebuked the wind and the sea and brought about a great calm both upon the forces of nature and within the hearts and minds of His disciples. Whereas Jonah was thrown overboard into the tumultuous and churning sea and spent three days in the belly of a great fish, so Jesus was thrown into Satan’s jaws and died for you. Jesus spent three days in the belly of the earth and emerged victorious over sin, death, and Satan, your victor guaranteeing you life through and forever after your death. The grave could not hold Him, and neither cannot it hold you.
Whether the storms come from the LORD or from Satan doesn’t really matter, for the LORD is in control. In the case of Jonah, it is clear that the LORD brought the storm to bear upon the ship and its crew. However, in the case of Jesus and His disciples, it may well have been Satan who afflicted them by wind and wave. What you must remember is that the devil is God’s devil. Satan cannot tempt, harm, afflict, or kill unless the LORD permits Him to do so. In this way, the LORD works all things, even evil things, even the works of the devil, for the good of those whom He has called according to His purpose. For the LORD is the LORD of all His creation: Heaven and earth, wind, sky, and sea, beasts, men, angels, the devil and his demons. There is no thing and no one that is not under His power and control.
When you are tempted to cower in fear, hopelessness, and despair at what is befalling you and the world, and when you are tempted to flee from the presence of the LORD and His will, remember that He is awake and active, upholding heaven and earth and the laws of nature and all things for you, His beloved. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” That one, mind you, is not the devil, but it is the LORD alone who made you and who sustains your life. Truly, not even a sparrow can fall to the ground apart from the will of the LORD, and you, whose every hair upon your head He has numbered, are of much greater value to your Eternal Father than are the sparrows. Your LORD will not reject you because of your weak faith, but He is gracious and merciful towards you, He will hear and answer your prayer, sometimes “Yes,” sometimes “No,” and often “Later,” as He strengthens you in your faith that you may persevere through whatever storms you might face, even through death, unto life never-ending in Jesus Christ.
God permits storms and trials to come upon you, but He also rescues you in them so that you may see clearly His protection. Jesus’ kingdom, His Church, is strengthened and grows by sorrow and trial as by these the LORD calls you to turn your attention away from yourself and back towards Him. The LORD uses storms and trials to perfect your faith and to strengthen your weak and little faith. Your Lord is present with you always, even if unseen or seemingly inactive and asleep. He is in this place, this boat, this ship, this ark, His Church, commanding the natural elements of Word and Water, Bread and Wine to serve you, to absolve you, to strengthen you, to equip you and to send you. Do not be afraid. Your LORD, Your God, is present to save you.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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