Mighty God, as we turn to your word may we be reminded of all you offer to us in faith through Christ our Lord. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Isaiah 40:27-31, NRSV
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
1 Peter 5:7, NRSV
7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
Matthew 14:22-33, NRSV
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
SERMON Wait for God
Wait for God. I think the true meaning here is waiting on God. Even when you know God is with you, you have to wait on God’s timing for what comes next. If you think about the Transfiguration story, it features classic figures who learned how to wait for God. Moses waited through many twists and turns including 40 years in the wilderness. Elijah waited through many ups and downs including 3 years of draught and 40 days in the wilderness. After his baptism Jesus spent 40 days waiting on God in the wilderness enduring the temptations of Satan. This Wednesday we enter the season of Lent, another 40 days that hints back to all three wilderness stories inviting us to practice the discipline of waiting on God, trusting that God is with us, but waiting on God’s timing for what comes next.
Perhaps as we practice waiting, we can reflect back on what we have been learning from John Ortberg’s treatment of Peter and Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14. It is another exercise in waiting on God.
Lesson One on Waiting: focus on Jesus and harbor hope.
If I compared water walking to a lot of extreme sports, I could easily agree with Ortberg’s skiing reference, “Don’t look down.” To focus on Jesus means don’t look down at the waves. Don’t look around at the wind. Don’t let your eyes settle on the storms of life. Don’t focus on the problem; focus on the God who is bigger than your problem. Through scripture, images, worship, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines keep your eyes and especially your mind fixed on Jesus. That is the source of your hope.
Ortberg writes that when Peter’s “focus was on the storm, his fear short-circuited God’s sustaining power.
“Hope got Peter out of the boat.
“Trust held him up.
“Fear sank him.
“Everything hinged on whether he was focused on the Savior or on the storm.” (Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, p. 155)
Hope is the impetus in many Bible stories. Hope led Abraham and Sarah to a new land and kept them going until they had their first child. Hope kept Joseph from giving up when he became a slave, when he was thrown in jail, when the famine struck. Hope kept Moses going back to Pharaoh to beg for the people’s release and kept him leading those stiff necked, stubborn people through forty years of wilderness. Hope sent David up against Goliath and Judah’s enemies and Saul’s jealousy and his own grief over many losses and even past his own sin. Hope gave Elijah the courage to stand up to Ahab and the prophets of Baal, and hope was rekindled seeking God when Elijah ran away from Jezebel. Hope, if only a small flame, kept a remnant of the exiles faithful, gave Daniel the courage to remain loyal to God and Esther the courage to defend her people, brought Ezra and Nehemiah back to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem’s walls, gave people the 400 year dream of God’s Anointed coming to save them.
Hope keeps us going when the task is difficult, the journey is long, the diagnosis is scary, the losses add up, and the storms of life batter against us. Hope gives us the courage to rebuild after a disaster, take on an injustice, endure our suffering, fight against disease and disability, search for answers, and remain faithful to the God in whom we trust.
Waiting on God means keeping our focus on Jesus while we hang on to hope.
Hope is the antidote to helplessness. I read about this study before. Martin Seligman was a psychology grad student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. He conducted an experiment with dogs in which they received random shocks. Nothing the dogs did stopped the shocks. They had no control over the random pain. Later they were moved to a set up where all they had to do was step over a low barrier to get away from the shock treatments. But the dogs never learned that simple tactic, because they had already learned helplessness. They had come to believe that nothing they could do would bring relief, so they stopped trying. They gave up. We humans behave in the same way. If we learn that kind of helplessness, especially when we are young, many will just give up and live without hope. This would be the opposite of the resiliency we’ve been talking about. (discussed by Ortberg on p. 158)
In contrast, Daniel Goleman writes about another study at the same university that focused instead on optimism. Freshmen were tested for optimism, and it was discovered that high optimism better predicted their academic performance than SATs or high school grades. “‘From the perspective of emotional intelligence, having hope means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks.’” (Quoted by Ortberg, p. 159)
Optimism is an aspect of hope. Psychologist Albert Bandura researched “self-efficacy, which is “strong confidence in one’s abilities.” It makes one “more likely to be resilient in the face of failure, to cope instead of fear.” (Ortberg, p. 160) But now add the faith factor. If you truly believe Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” and shift your thinking to God working through you not just for you, then you find what Ortberg calls “vital hope.” (p. 160)
Cognitive psychology is based on what we feed our minds and how that affects our behavior as well as our beliefs. Paul already knew this when he wrote in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” He also hinted at this in his letter to the Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Paul knew that renewing our minds and keeping them focused on positive messages would yield positive faithful results.
On a very practical level we do this with the images and messages we keep around us. We do this when we choose not to watch certain shows or read certain materials. We do this when we put limits on how much bad news we listen to, so that it does not saturate our brains with discouragement. We do this when we protect ourselves with healthy boundaries rather than allow negativity to drag us down. We focus on the positive and on faith when we carry a cross in our pocket, memorize scripture, say thanks for our food or the beauty of creation, enjoy a healthy laugh, share fond memories with a friend or family member, look at pictures that bring us joy, listen to good music, go for a walk or a drive in pleasant surroundings.
If you want to stay healthy in body, mind, and spirit, practice habits that lead to vital hope!
Lesson Two: Learn to live at God’s pace, rather than demanding God live at yours.
From Isaiah 40, “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.” Ortberg is right when he says that “Waiting is the hardest work of hope.” (p. 177) But waiting is our task as believers. The Old Testament urges 43 times “Wait on the Lord.”
Psychologist M. Scott Peck wrote about “enduring delayed gratification.” As a society, and I know for myself personally, we have often become addicted to convenience. We are an impatient people. But this has led to health issues, environmental concerns, financial challenges, and entitlement attitudes. If you just consider that we expect to get where we want to go by car rather than walking so that it takes less time, we have already determined to get less exercise, pollute the environment, add a major payment to our monthly budget, and left ourselves vulnerable to potential road rage. I may be exaggerating to make a point, but I am not telling an untruth.
There can be advantages to delaying gratification, by which Peck means a “process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. [In his opinion] It is the only decent way to live.” (Quoted by Ortberg on p. 178)
Delayed gratification is a learned process as we manage our behavior and wait rather than rush. Goleman puts it this way, “’At the heart of emotional intelligence is the ability to delay gratification and not live at the mercy of impulse.’” (Quoted by Ortberg on p. 178) If you think about it, the spiritual discipline of fasting often associated with Lent is a practice of delaying gratification. It has spiritual as well as emotional benefits.
Stanford University tested the benefits of delayed gratification putting four-year olds in a room with marshmallows. They were told they could have two marshmallows if they waited until the leader returned or they could have one marshmallow right away. Tracked over twenty years, the ones who waited were “more socially competent, better able to cope with stress, …less likely to give up under pressure” and scored significantly higher on their SATs. The “marshmallow-grabbers” tended to be more stubborn, indecisive, and more likely to be frustrated or resentful. (discussed by Ortberg on p. 179)
Hope is healthy waiting. It means delaying gratification while trusting God’s timing. Ortberg reminds his readers that “God is never desperate…God’s voice is never frantic.” (p. 180) Desperate thoughts are not coming from God, so don’t give in to them. Instead, go back to lesson one and focus on Jesus while you wait on God’s timing with hope.
Lesson Three: Don’t downsize God!
One of my favorite conversations as a babysitter in college was with Stevie who was 5 at the time. He knew me from church, so he asked me “How big is God?” I remember we decided God is bigger than a truck and bigger than the house and bigger than what ever else Stevie asked me. I know God has to be bigger than my imagination and bigger than the universe beyond my imagination. I still like the concept that we all live within the mind of God.
When we face a problem that overwhelms us, perhaps we are only facing it in our own wisdom and strength. Ortberg suggests then “that our God is too small” if we “are not absolutely convinced that we are in the hands of a fully-competent, all-knowing, ever-present God.” (p. 192) In theological lingo the Church has made those exact claims that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, big words we can easily ignore, but God invites us to stake our lives on them. The Church also teaches that God is omnificent which means that God created everything, hence my somewhat poetic expression that we all exist within the creative mind of God.
So as you face a gigantic Goliath sized challenge, you need to face it not wearing oversized armor as Saul had suggested to David, but with the same oversized faith and trust that David had backed with the memories, as David did, of every other time God has been there for you, seen you through a difficulty, or what you have witnessed God do for others in your life. You go forward in the confidence that God is bigger than your problem.
As one poster words it,
“God is bigger than:
Your eating disorder.
Your self harm.
… (image found online)
You can add any other problem into that list: your debt, your sin, your humiliation, your frustration, etc. God is bigger than any problem you face.
As I’ve said many times, that doesn’t mean you will never have problems. You will. It doesn’t mean God will miraculously resolve them overnight. Usually God won’t. But God is big enough to help you get through them. God won’t send you out to fight your giants alone, and if you are wounded God will nurse you back to health. If you need comfort, God will hold you. If you need guidance God will lead you. God is bigger than your problems and big enough to meet all your needs.
Going back to our Gospel story, this of course means that God is bigger than any storm. What is an appropriate response when you experience God’s greatness? The disciples instinctively did this, when Peter and Jesus “got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” When God proves yet again that God is bigger than your problems, the appropriate response is worship.
Why? Does God need our worship? No. Our God is not that ego-centric though we humans often are. God created us with a capacity and indeed a craving for worship, because we need it. First, Ortberg says, “something in our spirits demands to express the joy we receive.” (p. 195) Second, we “need to worship because without it [we] lose a sense of wonder and gratitude and plod through life with blinders on… [we give into our] natural tendency toward self-reliance and stubborn independence.” (p. 196) Third, when we worship, we rehearse all the ways God has already blessed God’s people and blessed us. We reinforce the positive memories, reconnect our relationship with God, and reestablish a healthy trust in God. When we worship, our faith grows; it is nourished and strengthened, so it can thrive.
When we fail to worship our faith withers and is left dry. Ortberg notes the human condition of mindlessness. It’s a common psychological state when the body is present, but the mind has drifted off somewhere else. (Ortberg, p. 199) We talk about it in other terms around here when our memory is faulty, or we can’t think through something, or it feels like our brain stayed home instead of coming to the office with us. Between fatigue and distractions and other common maladies, our minds lose focus. That’s how I see mindlessness. When we lose focus from God, mindlessness leaves our faith dry and withered. The way to revive it is worship.
Others talk about mindfulness. You can practice being mindful of what is going on around you. You can practice being mindful of God’s presence with you. Mindfulness can bring your focus back in line. True worship helps you be mindful of God. Deb, Bonnie, Karla and I got this when we did the initial study of God Sightings. In addition to focusing on God by reading through the entire Bible in a couple of years and discussing it, we also had the practice of mindfulness. Each time we met, we had the opportunity to share our God sightings, and this led to paying more attention to where God is at work in our daily lives. I highly recommend this practice! Being mindful of our God sightings helps us remember just how big our God really is.
We call Mary’s hymn of praise, the Magnificat. That’s a good reminder that worship magnifies God. It helps us see that God is bigger. When the disciples caught that glimpse of God at work in the storm and Jesus’ interactions with Peter, they worshipped him. As they magnified God with their worship, they added that experience to a treasure chest in their minds of just how great and how trustworthy our God really is.
Let me conclude this series with a few sentences at the end of Ortberg’s book, “Jesus is not finished yet. He is still looking for people who will dare to trust him. He is still looking for people who will refuse to allow fear to have the final word. He is still looking for people who refuse to be deterred by failure. He is still passing by…This is your chance of a lifetime…Just remember this, if you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.” (pp. 202-203)
Our current series for Jan. 12 - Feb. 23, 2020 is based on Rev. John Ortberg's book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get out of the Boat. This is a great book if you are stuck in a rut and wondering about the possibilities of a new adventure OR if you are facing some stormy challenges in your life and need to move forward. You'll find the gist of it here in these messages.