When Terror Overwhelms

Morning Message – John Cline

John 6:16-21;  Matthew 14:10-14, 22-36

Scripture Reader – Gerry Mowatt

“Anatidaephobia is the fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you.” Anatidaephobia is a made-up fear, originating from the Far Side comic strip written and illustrated by Gary Larson. Its definition was accompanied by a comic illustration depicting a man alone in his office, while a duck watches him from across the street.

Project cartoon slide of anatidaephobia…

It is not a real phobia or fear. Some people missed Larson’s sense of humour, and the point he was trying to make that most people can be frightened into believing even the most ridiculous of things merely through the power of suggestion.

On a similar vein, I saw a four-photo meme on Facebook of four photos of young kids, aged about 10 years. Each of them was asked, “What scares you the most?” The first frame had a photo of a boy named Paul: “Werewolves!” The second photo was of a girl named Nina: “Sharks!” The third frame was of a boy named Dylan: “The unstoppable marching of time that is slowly guiding us all towards an inevitable death.” The fourth frame showed a photo of a girl named Catherine. What scared her most? She answered, “Dylan!”

365 times – once for each day of the calendar year – we are told in the Bible to “not fear”. But that “fearing not” is not a courage that we can simply dredge up through human willpower. No. It comes from knowing the Lord.. It is based upon the Lord. For example, in Psalm 91, we are told that if we take refuge in the Lord: You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day. (Psalm 91:5)

“Night terror” is a fierce foe for many. But so is “daytime fear” for many, a fear of something, of someone, which or who might do them harm or bring them grief. It can be a fear based on a real thing or an imagined foe. The disciples of Jesus experienced a very real and deep fear, as we will read today. First, though, some background for the events we are going to read might be helpful. It is simply this: Jesus was having a tough time before those fear-inducing events.

King Herod had John the Baptist beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl (the daughter of Herod’s wife Herodias), who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14:10-12)

John the Baptist was not only Jesus’ much-loved cousin, but he was also the necessary, much anticipated and prophesied “forerunner” who would announce when the Messiah had come and who the Messiah was, the Messiah being the one who would bring God’s kingdom and forgiveness to earth. When John’s ministry began, he didn’t know who the Messiah would be, only that his task was to prepare people’s hearts to meet the Messiah when he did come. One day, John the Baptist’s cousin, Jesus, came to John and to the group of his disciples ministering with him. John had an epiphany from God – at that moment – as to who the Messiah was. His cousin Jesus was the Messiah! John pointed to Jesus and said to his disciples: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

So, John was crucial to the levelling of the ground to prepare for Jesus’ ministry. His ministry lasted only a short while after he had revealed Jesus to be the Messiah, but he kept on preaching until King Herod Antipas had John arrested and thrown into prison. This was because John had publicly humiliated Herod and his wife Herodias by saying that Herod’s marriage to Herodias – who happened to be the wife of Herod’s brother, Philip – was sinful. To appease his humiliated and offended wife, Herod had John arrested, and then beheaded. When Jesus heard this news, he knew that he needed some private time alone with God, his heavenly Father. He decided to retreat by boat from where he and his disciples were, going further north to a remote area at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. The apostle Matthew writes: ‘When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.’ (Matthew 14:13)

Jesus needed time alone, but the crowds would not allow it. They wanted to see Jesus perform more of those miracles he had been

doing, which they knew were signs proving he was the Messiah.

‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”’ (Matthew 14:14-16)

A couple of weeks ago, we preached on what happened next: Jesus turned a young boy’s generous offer of his lunch of five loaves of barley bread and two fish into so much food that every one of the 5,000 present was fed, with food leftover. But that momentous day was not yet over! As the apostle John writes, ‘After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.’ (John 6:14,15)

So, think about that day for Jesus: First, he received the news that his beloved cousin and necessary forerunner John had been beheaded, then he tried to retreat to a spot alone with God but the people wouldn’t allow him to do so he had then had the emotional high of feeding five thousand and seeing his apostles faces as they saw this miracle, and, finally, he had to deal with people trying to make Him their earthly king. Exhausting! ‘Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.’ (Matthew 14:22,23a)

That word “immediately” here makes its first of three appearances. It implies decisiveness and urgency. Jesus really needed some “alone time” with his heavenly Father so he alerted the 5,000 or so in the crowd that (to put it crudely) show-time was over. We do the same sort of thing today, indicating an event is over by the main people existing first. So, Jesus did that by shooshing his apostles to their boat. What happened next, though, is when the fear-inducing events started.

‘When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where

they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum.

By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.’ (John 6:16,17)

Nighttime terror with its darkness and shadows was about to seize the apostles. To add to that unease for the apostles was the realization that Jesus had not yet arrived. What were they to do? After discussing the situation and mulling things over, they set out in the boat. But, ‘A strong wind was blowing, and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.’ (John 6:18-21)

There’s the second appearance of the word, “immediately”. “Immediately” upon accepting Jesus into their boat, the storm ceased and their fears were dispersed. The key was, in a fascinating piece of terminology, John writes, that happened once the apostles “were willing to take him into the boat”.

Once upon a time in the past, the Edmonton Journal newspaper published weekly Saturday columns written by selected pastors. One well-known theological liberal here in the city wrote a column on this “Jesus-walking-on-the-water” passage, claiming that Jesus never walked on the water at all, but rather he had been merely walking in a shallow, sandy, and reedy part of the Sea of Galilee. That pastor also contended that a sudden storm coming up so quickly was highly unlikely. Critics of his column were many and they quickly responded, pointing out that clearly the writer had never been to the Sea of Galilee. If he had, he would know that there are no shallow, sandy, and reedy areas at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is surrounded by high hills and the sharp downward thrust of those hills continues past the surface of the water so that the lake is instantly deep if you were to step into it. As well, readers pointed out that because of those high hills, the lake acts as a funnel for winds, it is like a wind tunnel, and when the winds come upon the lake, they pick up speed and furious storms quickly arise there as a result. One of my conclusions from all that is that if a person is going to smugly assert something controversial, they had first better know a thing or two concerning the area they are writing about! In any case, the apostles Matthew and John were the ones who wrote the Gospel books bearing their names and they knew the Sea of Galilee area. Besides which, they were eyewitnesses of what had happened. Who is more believable? A man writing from the comfort of his home in Edmonton or the writers who went through the experience and lived to tell the tale? Matthew and John and the other 10 apostles had been in deep trouble, rowing all night, making little headway against the storm. They had feared for their lives. But then Jesus came calmly walking on the water out to them and everything changed “immediately” upon their welcoming of him into their boat. I believe Matthew and John’s accounts!

For a moment now, we need to take a look at what Jesus meant when he said to his apostles, “It is I.” We have seen in this sermon series through the Gospel of John that there were seven different times in his Gospel when Jesus attached the words “I AM” to a descriptor about himself. “I AM the light of the world”, “I AM the gate that leads to safety”, “I AM the vine that gives life”, etc. We had six excellent devotionals by members of our congregation, plus I preached on one of those “I AM” statements way back in the Christmas season so we know them well.

The origin of the “I AM” phrase had been 1,400 years earlier in the Sinai Peninsula when God told Moses to go back to Egypt and rescue His people from their slavery in that land. “But” said Moses”, “when the people ask me who sent me, what should I tell them?” Moses knew that the Israelites, after 400 years of slavery in Egypt, were polytheists, worshipping many Egyptians small-g gods, such as the god of the Nile, the god of the storm, the god of darkness, the god of locusts, etc. Each of the famous ten plagues was a taking down by God of Egyptian gods. In any case, to Moses, God’s answer was, “There is no other like me. Tell them, I AM who I AM, YHWH”. So, when Jesus said, “It is I,” the Greek construction of this phrase is “ego emi” (which is literally translated “I AM”), Jesus was really saying that he was God Incarnate on earth, the great “I AM,” YHWH God.

Who but God incarnate on earth, could have power over raging storms and a dangerous sea. When we are going through storms in our lives, Jesus will be there with us. We may not have him send the storm away, for reasons not quite known to us, but consider this teaching from Scripture, ‘The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.’ (Isaiah 57:1,2)

The key is that the Lord brings peace to humans through His presence with them. Jesus’ presence “immediately” brought calm to the storm and will bring peace to all who “welcome him into the boat” that is their life. With the apostles, staring into the darkness, and shouting encouragement to one another as the storm surged all around them, what did they see but what appeared to be a ghost walking on the water towards them. They were terrified but then Jesus said, “ego emi”, “I AM”, “it is I”. “Don’t be afraid”. What a statement for us to ponder on: “It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Now, what we just read was John’s account of that event, but let’s go back to Matthew’s account for in it, an interesting thing happens. After Jesus’ said, “It is I. Don’t be afraid” and before the apostles welcomed him into the boat, a miracle occurred. Matthew writes, ‘Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:23b-33)

When the famed 18th century English explorer and navigator Captain James Cook became the first European to “discover” the Hawaiian Islands, he was believed by the awed Hawaiians to be a god. They treated him like he was divine, and afforded him all the perks that came with being a god. Captain James Cook did nothing to discourage that incorrect perception. In fact, he embraced it. However, when it was time for him to leave Hawaii, he and his crew set out into the Pacific Ocean, only to have a fierce storm meet them. Cook and his crew were forced back to the big island (now known as ‘Hawaii’), seeking shelter from the storm. But when he landed there and told the natives why he had returned, the Hawaiians were stunned for they knew that no real god would be hindered by any storm. They felt betrayed and, in a fury, killed Captain James Cook for pretending to be a god. You can still go to that spot of his killing today!

How different from what happened with Jesus and his apostles. They were eyewitnesses of those miracles of Jesus walking on the water, seeing that he welcomed Peter to walk on the water like he was, and then saving Peter and calming the storm. As a result, they knew who he was and so they said, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

I need to point out, though, that this recognition of who Jesus was and their being able to proclaim, “Truly you are the Son of God!” happened in the third year of them being with Jesus. For three years, they had seen his many miraculous signs and thus had eventually come to know who he was. But, in the first year of Jesus’ ministry among them, they did not know. As proof of that, let’s look at a similar storm event that happened in the first year Jesus spent with his apostles. In this event, Jesus had only recently called the twelve to be his apostles, and he had just explained to them what the cost would be if they agreed to follow him. We read this: ‘Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”’ (Matthew 8:23-27)

Did you note the difference in the apostles’ responses? In the first year of spending time with Jesus, they didn’t know him well and asked one another after he calmed the storm, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” But, by year three, having by then seen various miraculous signs Jesus had done and having thus come to a deeper knowledge of who he was. So, by then, they could say, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

So, there are 3 take-aways to point out from these passages:

First, concerning the appearances of the word “immediately”. There is an urgency in Jesus coming to you to save you and protect you. He will come to you and reach out his hand for you to hold.

Second, concerning the apostles’ proclamation to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God”, spending time with Jesus is the only way to come to that knowledge. You will not reach that knowledge by merely reading about Jesus or hearing sermons about him.

Third, concerning coming to that knowledge; once you have that knowledge, it produces courage and gives clarity to all of life for you.

Shortly after that second storm-on-the-sea event, Jesus took the apostles to the most fear-inducing place in the land, to a city 40 kilometers north of the Sea of Galilee, to Caesarea Philippi. In Old Testament times, this had been land belonging to the tribe of Dan, one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Their capital city they also named “Dan”. It was the place where the evil King Jeroboam had built “high places”, altars and shrines to the small-g gods Baal, Ashtorah, and it was a place where children were sacrificed on an altar to the god Molech. Fear and darkness and superstition ruled the place. After the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., Greeks moved into that area, and they converted those altars and shrines into a religious center for the worship of their god of fertility, Pan. They renamed the city of Dan to Panias/Banias in Pan’s honour. The Greeks believed that the waters which flowed from the cave at the base of Mount Hermon every spring was a river coming from the underworld, from Hades. Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in that area, would have a springtime snow melt where the water went into crevasses high up on the mountain and then came out of a cave at the base. The Greeks believed that every fall season, Pan and his demons would enter the cave and ride that river to Hades, and then, in the spring, ride that river back out, emerging to bring fertility and life. The Greeks literally called that place “the gates of Hades”. Shrine prostitutes were present, and people paid to have sex with them in order for the women to get impregnated and the land fertilized. It was a fearful, terrifying place which you can still go to, if you want to see it.

Project map showing Caesarea Philippi…

When the Greek empire faded and the Roman Empire took over the Ancient Near East, and the family of King Herod the Great was given the right to rule Israel (though they were not full-blooded Jews) King Herod the Great’s son, Philip (who I mentioned earlier had been the first husband of Herodias), renamed the city of Panias after himself, thus Caesarea Philippi. Though no Jews worshipped there any longer, it was still considered to be a fearful and disgusting place for Jews to go to. It was believed to be a place of demonic activity. Jesus thus shook up his apostles by taking them there, but this was a kind of “graduation ceremony”, to quote Dr. Ray Vander Laan. He didn’t take them there during their first year of being his apostles, during that time when they wondered, “What kind of man is this that even the winds and the waves obey him?” No! But he did take them there once they could know that they had no reason to fear as long as he was with them. If was only after they said to him, “Truly you are the Son of God” that Jesus felt they were ready to go to the scariest place in the land. Remembering that Jesus commonly referred to himself in the third person as the “Son of Man”, whenever he was talking about his actions as the Messiah, the Son of Man being the Messiah-to-come prophesied about in Daniel 7, let us read what happened at “the gates of Hades”, the most frightening place Jesus could take them to: ‘When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”’ (Matt. 16:13-19)

The apostles, and Peter was the one who spoke it out – all credit to him – now knew who Jesus was and, as a result, they had no reason to fear. And Jesus taught them, because of the authority that came to them by being his followers and knowing who he is, not even “the gates of Hades” could persevere against them. Jesus’ words are still true for us today. “It is I. Don’t be afraid!”, he says to us. Take his outstretched hand, welcome him into the boat that is your life, and be at peace for “immediately”, Jesus the Son of God will come to you. Amen!

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