Ein Gev kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at about
2:30 AM on Jan. 16, 2013
March 9-10, 2013
Many of you know that I had the opportunity in January to spend two weeks in Israel and the West Bank with a group from Luther Seminary. While we were there, we spent 3 nights in a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is really just a big lake—about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. We were able to take a boat ride across the lake one morning, and it was just incredible. The sun was out, there was just a hint of a breeze, and the water was peaceful as we crossed from where we had been staying to the town of Migdal, which in the Bible was called Magdala and was the home of Mary Magdalene. You simply could not ask for better weather that day.
That night, however, my roommate woke me up at about 2:30 in the morning. “Matt,” he said. “It’s a windstorm. On the Sea of Galilee.”
We’re seminarians. We get excited about stuff like that.
And sure enough, I could hear the wind beating against the little cabin we were staying in. I grabbed my camera and walked outside, into some of the fiercest wind I’ve ever been in. There was no rain, but the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by these high ridges, and sometimes when the conditions are just right the wind will sweep over them with a fury and down into the valley where the lake is. The branches on the palm trees were blowing straight sideways, and you could see the water on the lake was incredibly choppy. I took a few pictures and went back to bed. In the morning when I got up at 6, it was still going. After getting ready for the day, I had some extra time before I had to join the rest of the group for breakfast, so I walked down to the lakeshore and took this video:
Talk about bringing Scripture to life.
Today’s gospel lesson takes place immediately after what we read about last week, the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus had performed this incredible sign, and the people were so amazed that John 6:15 says they were ready to take him and make him king by force. Jesus had gotten away and gone to the mountain because that’s not what he was about. That’s not what he was there to do. He was a king, but not the kind of king the crowd wanted him to be. And so eventually, when evening comes and the crowds had all gone away, we come to the beginning of today’s reading where the disciples decide it’s time to go. What’s interesting here is that Jesus still isn’t with them. They’re on their own—but they’re pretty much on their home turf. They know this part of Galilee really well, they know the lake, and they’re not far from Capernaum, which was Peter, Andrew, James, and John’s hometown.
The second half of Verse 17, where the author tells us that “it was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them,” at first looks almost like a throwaway line, a description to help us envision the setting. But there are a couple of very important details in there that the author gives us, details that aren’t just descriptions of the scene, but theological claims. The first is that it was now dark. The theme of light vs. dark is huge in the gospel according to John. If you turn back and look at the first chapter of John, Jesus is described as the light of the world. In John 1:5 we have that beautifully powerful verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The Holden Evening Prayer service on Wednesdays during Lent begin by quoting that verse as we sing, “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.” Jesus as the light shining in the darkness continues all throughout John, and so what we have in verse 17 of today’s reading takes on additional meaning. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. In this gospel account, darkness always represents bad things—death, or ignorance, or fear, or separation. So it’s dark, and why is that important? Because Jesus had not yet come to them.
And then a windstorm comes up.
Not when they’re safely on shore like I was in January, but when they’re in their boat, 3 or 4 miles out on the lake. And as I experienced, there’s no telling how long a storm like that might last. It’s not as though you can just hunker down and tell yourself, “well, this will probably be over in just a few minutes.” So there they are, trapped in a boat in the middle of a lake with the wind blowing and the waves growing and with the darkness surrounding them. And they cannot see Jesus anywhere.
Does any of that sound vaguely familiar to you? Does any of that sound like a time in your own life? Have you ever been trapped, with things swirling all around you, feeling out of control, with darkness surrounding you, with the waves getting higher and higher and you just want to cry out, “Where are you, Jesus? Where are you, God? Where are you, Holy Spirit? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe there are circumstances in your life that are completely beyond your control, and you’re just being carried along on the choppy waves not knowing where the shoreline is in the darkness. Maybe you’ve done something or said something…sinned in thought, word, and deed by what you have done and by what you have left undone. And now you’re in so far, in so deep over your head that you just don’t know if you’ll ever make it safely to shore again.
My friends, the good news of the gospel is that in the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us.
In John, there is no calming of the storm, which is honestly something I appreciate, because if you remember what Pastor Tobi has been saying, what we refer to as miracles in the other gospels, John refers to as signs. And a sign is something with a purpose, something that points to a greater truth. The sign here in John isn’t that Jesus calms our storms, and I’m so glad that’s not the lesson I’m supposed to take away from it. Because sometimes there is no calming of the storms in our lives, is there? Sometimes there is no easy fix, no savior standing up in the boat and commanding all the circumstances of our lives, “Peace, be still!” In those times, we don’t have to worry that we’re doing faith wrong, we don’t have to wonder if Jesus has just decided that we need to flounder, we don’t have to believe that because Jesus hasn’t fixed it all that we’ve somehow not measured up to God’s standard or that God simply doesn’t care.
The sign we’re given in John is that Jesus comes to us. Jesus comes alongside us. In the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us. Even in the middle of the raging wind, even though it involves what should be impossible—walking on water—Jesus will not leave us alone. Jesus is present beside us, and like the disciples, we can be assured that even in the midst of the storm, he will accompany us through it all and to the shore.
And it’s not up to us to come to him. The disciples don’t have to row to where Jesus is. They don’t have to figure out how to get to where he is standing—Jesus comes to them. Jesus walks across the raging water to come to where they are. And Jesus comes to you, too. In the storm of your sin, in the wind and the waves of your life whatever they may be, Jesus comes to you. It’s not up to you to make it happen. You have been called by name through the waters of baptism. Jesus comes to you and for you in the bread and in the wine of Holy Communion. Jesus promises to be beside you all the way to the shore. That is the promise of the cross. That is the promise of the empty tomb.
We are never promised that there will be no storms in our lives. In fact, as those who Jesus has called to take up our cross and follow him, we know that those storms are part of what it means to live as a broken, sinful people in an imperfect world. But because we are people of the cross, we know as well that the brokenness, the storms, are exactly where we expect to find God…or to be more precise, where we expect God to find us.
In verse 20, our translation has Jesus saying, “It is I, do not be afraid.” In the original Greek, it is simply ego eimi, I AM. “I AM. Do not be afraid.” I AM is the name God calls himself when speaking to Moses in the burning bush all the way back in Exodus. “Tell Pharaoh I AM is the one who sent you.”
We’ve already talked about one distinctive feature of John—the importance of light and dark. Another distinctive feature of John is that Jesus makes these I AM statements 23 different times, using the Greek ego eimi. This isn’t just a simple word choice. It’s a powerful claim. John is reminding us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is God incarnate. Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, light of the world, is one with the all-powerful I AM who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the freedom of the promised land. The same all-powerful I AM will go on to defeat death on the cross, leading us all out of our own slavery to sin and into the freedom of God’s promised kingdom—and not only heaven, but also the kingdom that comes on earth as it is in heaven when we are free to live not just for ourselves but for our neighbor.
In the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us. Not wind, not water, not even the cross nor even death itself stops Jesus from coming alongside us and telling us, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with my cross forever. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Now go. Go love one another, as I have loved you. By this all will know that you are my disciples.”
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church