Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 8:23-27
January 29, 2017
“The Captain of the Ship”
Jesus gets into a boat, and his disciples follow. Then a great storm arises. It must have been a really great storm. At least four of Jesus’ disciples are men who fished on this sea six days a week for years. They were familiar with the weather. They have been through storms before, and I’m certain that, being men who made a living with their hands and their back, they were not the type of men to show fear easily. But when they come to wake Jesus up, they cry like terrified children, they humiliate themselves: Lord, save us! We’re dying!
I’ve known Christian men who were dying. Men don’t want to admit fear of death and God’s judgment in front of another man even when death is imminent. Yet these fishermen in the boat cry out to Jesus in terror.
This must have been an incredible storm.
I am sure that you have had storms like this throughout your life, whether you are listening on the radio or here today. You may very well be in one right now. It may be that the doctor told you how many months he thinks you have left; it may be that the doctor isn’t sure what to tell you. Or it may not be a storm that threatens you with literal death, but it’s bad enough that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning, or it’s hard to bring yourself through the doors of the church.
Then there’s the storms the Church goes through, which is really what this story is getting at. The boat that holds Jesus and the disciples is a picture of the Church. Look up there, at the ceiling; it kind of looks like the bottom of a boat. That’s why the Latin word for the part of the church on your side of the altar rail is called the nave; it comes from the navis, which means “ship”, which is also where we get the word “navy”. The Church of Jesus is a little boat or an ark. It sails through the rough waters of this world, the storms of persecution, the flood of God’s judgment, the depths of death and hell, and lets those inside out on the dry land of the new creation. And Jesus is in this boat with us. We aren’t sailing ourselves to heaven. He is the Captain of the ark of the Holy Christian Church.
But the whole way on this voyage the boat is hit by storms. And throughout the 2000 years since Jesus ascended to the Father, the Church has cried out in desperation, feeling like the ship was sure to sink, and the Christians inside would perish.
Anyone who’s a member of this congregation and cares about it at all, for whatever reason, knows this feeling. This Gospel reading today is your story, isn’t it?
And if the Church sinks, it’s far worse than when storms hit us individually. We come to the Divine Service, to other Christians, to the pastor, to find help when the storms hit us privately. We rely on the Church to be there when our child is going astray, when we are laid low with illness—to tell us what God says; to correct us when we live or believe contrary to His Word, and above all to proclaim to us the forgiveness of sins in His name. We come to the Church when our father or mother, husband or wife has died. We bring the bodies of the people we love most so that the Church—or rather Jesus through the Church—will preach to us that our loved one will rise again.
But if the Church goes under, destroyed by persecution or twisted and mutated so that it no longer proclaims God’s Word—who will bring us the Gospel of Christ crucified? Who will tell us that it applies to us too? Who will forgive our sins in Jesus’ name? Who will baptize our children? Who will give us the body and blood of Jesus? And not only us: if the Church goes under the waves, who will proclaim the coming judgment of God and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus to the world that falsely believes it has God already, without Christ?
+Our storms at St. Peter are not unique or new
–when all of Europe was supposedly Christian, a false gospel of salvation by human effort made the true Gospel for all intents and purposes unknown, until 500 years ago God worked through Martin Luther to restore it
–Since then the devil has worked to almost extinguish the pure Gospel again through luxury and wealth, through doctrinal indifference.
+Yet very few Christians realized that this was a storm that threatened to destroy the Church; very few even realize it today. We are only starting to realize in our Church that true faith in Christ was being eaten away for a long time; we started to realize it because this congregation is almost underwater.
We aren’t the whole Church; but what is happening here is happening all around us.
+So we go to Jesus, like disciples:
And notice: when the disciples wake Jesus up, they don’t have quiet confidence, fearlessness. That’s what firm faith brings. Instead they have terror and fear that Jesus is just going to sleep while they drown.
Their prayer comes from fear more than from faith. It seems to express anger at Jesus—“How can you not care that we are going to die? What are you doing, still sleeping?”
When a ship has no captain, or the sailors don’t trust the captain and they think the ship is going to sink, all hell breaks loose. Sailors stop working together and letting the captain direct; they all start trying to save the ship as individuals, which is absolutely not going to work, or maybe they try to mutiny and set up a new captain. And when all these things become hopeless, people start grabbing something that floats and taking their chances in the sea. When no one listens to the captain anymore, the ship is doomed.
But Jesus is the captain of the ship of the Church; He will safely bring it through all storms into the eternal calm and peace of eternal life.
When Jesus gets up from sleeping, notice who He speaks to first—not the wind and the waves. Not to the thing the disciples think is the danger.
He speaks to them first, because the danger is not the storm. In our day, the danger is not the declining numbers in the Church, or declining bank accounts, declining prestige in our society.
The danger is within us—unbelief. That instead of Jesus, we trust in what we see and feel, in our own thoughts, in the wisdom of the world and the false religion pushed by the devil and the world.
Unbelief is the danger because it is idolatry: we think the storm is more powerful than God; we fear it more than God. The first commandment: You shall have no other gods—We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. The storm is more powerful than God, and we know better than God’s Word what is necessary to save ourselves or the Church.
So Jesus speaks first to the disciples, rebuking the storm in their hearts, the storm of unbelief and the cowardice that comes from it.
Why are you so cowardly, you of little faith?
Jesus understands why they are afraid. What He is telling them and us is that we don’t have anything to fear. Not if we have Him.
+Really? We have nothing to fear? Nothing. How can you say that, if the boat is about to sink and the disciples are going to perish?
Because Jesus rebukes the winds and the sea and there was a great calm. Not only does Jesus know how to steer the ship safely. He simply speaks and nature obeys. Who does that?
The answer is, only God does that. God was with the disciples in the boat, living with them, sharing their bread, sharing their storms, sharing their sins.
The prophet Jonah brought a great calm when he was thrown into the sea. The storm came because of Jonah’s rebellion against God, when Jonah ran away from the presence of God. It went away when the sailors handed over Jonah to certain death.
But God rescued Jonah from his rebellion and its punishment; from certain death, sending the fish, who vomited him onto dry land.
Jesus also brought great calm that lasts forever; He took on our rebellion against God as His own; He willingly was thrown into the boiling, angry flood of God’s wrath, making our sins His own and being nailed to the cross. Then He stepped out of the belly of death into the land of the living, having put our sins away forever. Now there is a great calm; peace with God.
That great peace comes rolling across the storms of this world to us from the eternal God in our flesh; not a temporary calm, like the one in Matthew 8, but an eternal one.
Jesus is the captain of the ship of the Church. He can be trusted to lead us safely through the storms of death and hell, because He has already gone through them and destroyed them.
Jesus will not fail to bring His church safely to land.
His Church includes the weak in faith.
But those who reject Jesus’ word are not Jesus’ Church; they are not in the boat where He is. They are mixed with the saints around the Word, but they don’t believe in Him. When storms come, they mutiny against Jesus, don’t listen to His Word. They try to take over the boat from Him, or jump overboard because they think it’s doomed.
Brothers, we are weak; we do this in spite of ourselves. But let us be comforted and listen to Jesus. He is worthy to be trusted. He isn’t a fool or a con artist. He tells us, “You have me in the boat in my preaching, in my pure doctrine, and my Sacraments. Hold on to me; you have nothing to fear.”
We have many sins, but He doesn’t cast away sinners who trust in Him, the Savior of sinners, the sin-bearer.
He will not let the floods overwhelm us or let His Church sink. Our traditions will perish, our will that contradicts the will of God will not be done. But Christ’s Church is more than that—it is the whole company of saints throughout the world, through time and eternity, who cling to Jesus alone.
It will never perish, and neither will those who trust Him. He cannot perish; He died, and He lives forevermore. And we who are baptized into Him have been joined with Him who joined Himself to us—we also have died and risen. The new creation that will appear on the last day has already begun in all who believe.
Lord, merciful and gracious God, because only those enjoy the goodness of Your house and are citizens of Your kingdom who were built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone, and because You bless with grace only those who walk in Your light, therefore I pray You: Let Your word create it that here and there there is a crowd that hears the voice of Christ and listens to Your Word, that is everywhere one and holds to the commandments of God and the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. By Your Word may the believing community grow and increase more and more, and the chariots of God be many thousands of thousands, which enter the gates of righteousness to live in Your house, and therefore depart from unrighteousness, serving You alone in holiness and righteousness, as is pleasing to You. O Lord Jesus Christ, You who are the author and perfecter of faith, and mighty in the assembly of the saints, rule through Your inward grace in the hearts of men, so that they are converted to You. Give to Your thunder, that is, to the preaching of Your Word, power. Let it succeed in that for which You send it. Enlighten and strengthen the hearts of men that they may not cut themselves off from your congregation, but rather would rejoice in the midst of the throng where Your Word and Holy Sacraments are repeated and distributed pure and unfalsified. Even if it is a little flock, a poor, weak people, exposed to the elements and finding comfort almost nowhere in the world, still Your little flock shall not fear, because it is Your good pleasure to give it the kingdom of Your glory, and there to take away the reproach of the people, and to draw all those that have remained with you in Your trials, that they should eat and drink at Your table in Your kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Do not give rejoicing to the devil, who is the enemy of You and Your Word, who wherever He can causes offense so that Your Word may not be heard and believed. Glorify Your name, that many souls be added to the number of the elect, which live in Your house and praise You there forever. Amen.
Georg Schimmer, Pastor at Wittenberg (1652-1695), Biblical Soul-Jewel.
In Evangelische Lutherische Gebets-Schatz
YORBA LINDA — Walk into Mark Hanson’s church and nobody will greet you. The guys hanging around the foyer might even make fun of what you’re wearing, or your haircut. A sign over the entrance reads, “Grab a seat in the back and shut up. Nobody cares what you think.”
Welcome to Jerk Church.
“You know these guys,” says Hanson, the pastor and founder. “They sit with their arms folded the whole time, leave during the altar call, criticize the pastor, snort when other people state their opinions and never create lasting bonds of friendship. Their wives are always really stressed. Bingo — that’s my mission field.”
Two years ago, Hanson noticed a “growing population of total jerks” in his community that nobody was reaching with the gospel.
“They’re like white noise, filler — they’re everywhere but nobody sees them,” Hanson says. “They are trapped in their own jerk-dom. My heart went out to them.”
Hanson left a position at a larger church to plant a church aimed at this population. He played around with names like “Church for Guys,” but ended up going straight to the heart of the matter.
“I want pure jerks — the guy who cuts in and out of traffic on the highway, the guy who knows everything at the party, the guy who’s upset about politics, the guy who doesn’t know when to stick a sock in it,” Hanson says. “That’s my tribe.”
Attendance spiked when Hanson informed local churches that he was looking for “grumpy husbands and skeptics.” Some churches started recommending certain guys switch congregations. Others gave their men a choice: marriage counseling or six months attending Jerk Church. Most men chose the latter.
Hanson has designed sermons and church literature to “shut guys up before they can start.”
A prominent, attractive display in the foyer showcases every major objection to Christianity ever conceived, and invites men to read the original works before “ranting.”
“It demonstrates that I’m not afraid of their little arguments,” Hanson says. “They come in thinking their opinions are original. When they realize they are thousands of years old, they get real quiet. Nothing shuts up a jerk like being exposed as a follower.”
Hanson also knew the men would complain about everything, so he prepared answers in advance. When guys grouse about the volume of the music, too loud or too soft, Hanson tells them, “Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re getting old and your brain can’t handle it anymore.”
When they say the seats are uncomfortable, he invites them to “lose the extra 35-pound hog carcass you’re carrying around your midsection.”
On a recent Sunday, Hanson greeted them from the pulpit with, “Look at this roomful of former hotshots who became grumpy old men. Why are you here? Did your recliners break? Is your wife sick of you, big man? Or did you just lose your fishing pole and you’re too poor to buy a new one?”
Foyer conversation is argumentative. When guys aren’t poking holes in each others’ theories they stand around waiting for someone to say something so they can critique it. Now and then someone storms off to the restroom while the others snort and mock him.
Water baptism services are far from normal. A man named Darrell was baptized recently. Hanson prodded him to give his testimony.
“I’m doing this to shut up my mother-in-law,” Darrell said.
“Anything else, you wuss?” Hanson said.
“Nah, just do it,” Darrell said.
Darrell came up from the water looking annoyed, snatched a towel from someone’s hands and exited the tank. Amid a smattering of applause one man yelled, “Loser!”
“You’re the loser!” Darrell yelled back.
A cautious sense of camaraderie has emerged among the men. If a guy acts up during the service, other guys muscle him into a “time out” room which Hanson has labeled “Nursing Mothers” to humiliate them.
“I don’t need ushers. The guys patrol themselves,” Hanson says. “They know when to make each other feel like a big baby.”
Hanson fills the church schedule with events that don’t actually exist.
“Men’s breakfast at 7 a.m. on Saturday? No guy in our church would attend that,” he says. “I announce it just so they feel good about skipping something.”
Services often don’t end in prayer. Rather, Hanson just says, “I’m done. I’m not even praying for you guys today. Get out of here. Go on.”
“I want them to know I love them, but not so much that I’m a sucker,” he says. “My life would actually be more pleasant without them. I don’t hide that.”
The church web site reaches out to wives of jerks and offers a script for them to read to their husbands: “Honey, you’re a jerk. Nobody can stand to be around you. But I have a place for you …”
Jerk Church strictly enforces a “No wives” policy.
“Having a wife around gives them an audience for their stupid, critical observations,” says Hanson. “I want plain, unadulterated jerks with no place to hide and no one to listen to them.”
In their heart of hearts he says jerks just want someone to push back.
“They know they’re not right all the time. They want someone to let them know why,” Hanson says.
Guys admit they attend because Hanson “gets” them.
“He knows I’m a cantankerous, moody old b****** but he loves me anyway,” says one man shrugging. “Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll go from jerk to recovering jerk. Don’t tell my wife.”
Today I looked at Pr. Fiene’s facebook page where he linked to the article I copied yesterday, and a bunch of pastors chimed in saying they knew exactly what this guy was talking about. Then Pr. Harold Senkbeil–the man who preached at my ordination–chimed in with a gem.
I repost it particularly for burdened pastors and for any members of my congregation who may read these things.
Harold L. Senkbeil We need to hear this. The comfortable world we have known for far too long is collapsing everywhere. The church cannot hitch her wagon to the star of the prevailing spirit of the age; she needs to be both trans-cultural and counter cultural in a world that has lost its heart. Yet if congregations appear dead or dying, there still is hope. We serve a God who raises the dead, and His Word never returns to Him void. From the collapse of the late antique world came the age of faith – which was not without its own idols. Faithfulness and courage are twin ingredients in mission. We are “given” men, not “driven.” As this brother points out, we can’t whip people into repentance, but God Himself accomplishes it by His Spirit. …that in these grey and latter days there may be those whose song is praise, each life a high doxology unto the Holy Trinity.
Jerry Kliner My first parish was very much like this… They really wanted to “close”… They were too tired, but also too possessive. Like the obsessed man who cries “If “I” can’t have her, no one else will either!” they struggled for control even against Jesus. They would, quite literally, rather the congregation cease than give up even a modicum of control. In the end, I had to shake the proverbial dust from my feet and move on. But I will forever be “their Pastor” and still grieve for that parish…even nine years later.
- Burying a Church…from “The High Mid Life” (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
Some pastor sent this to my friend Pr. Fiene, and I’m linking to it and copying it here. I can relate to the writer. Almost too much. It’s good to know that my pastoral experience is not unique.
Burying a Church
Almighty, eternal, merciful God and Father of our beloved Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! We see and feel how it goes for Your Church in this life—what kind of success she has, and how she is plagued in so many ways by the devil and the world. Therefore we pray You, for the sake of Your only-begotten Son, first that You would comfort and strengthen our hearts with Your Holy Spirit, so that we would not be overwhelmed by many great dangers still lying in wait for us. Secondly, we pray that You would also not hinder all the designs and plots of the enemy, but instead with Your faithful and wonderful deliverance make known, declare, and demonstrate, that You provide for the Church, govern her, defend, preserve, and save her; You who live and reign, one eternal God, God Father, God Son, God Holy Ghost, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen.
Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546)