Let me ask you a question: What are you afraid of?
We have all heard the phrase “there is nothing to fear but fear itself,’” but I think we all know what it is like to legitimately fear something or someone. Fear comes in all shapes and sizes and affects people in different ways. It might just cause us stress or it leaves us breathless and in a panic attack. Because it causes reactions, fear even sells! That’s why there are haunted houses, scary movies, and why kids tell scary bed-time stories.
In general, though, fear is a God-given feeling because it motivates us either to advance and fight, to turn and run away, or to shrink down and hide (which all might be helpful responses depending on the situation). We have all seen those responses over the last couple months in others… and maybe even from ourselves, haven’t we? But whether our current pandemic incites fear in us or not, all of us fear something. Actually, here is a list of some of the most common fears that I found this week:
- Fear of spiders and snakes (although many species are no real threat)
- Fear of heights and flying (even though car crashes and getting hurt on the ground are more common)
- Fear of dogs (for some reason fear of cats doesn’t make the list)
- Social fears (such as being completely alone in a dangerous place, in a crowded room, being humiliated, and speaking in public)
- Fear of Germs and dirt (leading to compulsive hand-washing and avoiding potentially germ-y situations)
- Fear of thunder, lightning, and storms (causing people jump at the sound or hide under the covers)
Those are specific fears, but I think we could probably sum up most or all of them into some general categories like “fear of the unknown” or “fear of harm.” However it plays out, we all deal with fear of some kind.
We are starting off our message that way because this is exactly what the disciples were dealing with in John 6, which will be our text for today. In this story, they were specifically dealing with a common fear of storms, being left alone, of harm, and no doubt even death and drowning – until Jesus shows up.
Today is week 7 of our series called “Chasing the Son” where we have been talking about the miracles or signs by Jesus in the Gospel of John. As we study these signs, we are discovering more about Jesus’s nature and ability as well as what happens when we respond to God’s grace by believing in him and positioning our hearts to seek after Him. As Hebrews 11:6 (ESV) reads: “…for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”
Today is the second to last miracle – meaning after today we have one week and one miracle left that (I think you could argue) is the most incredible and most impossible miracle. So don’t miss next week’s message!
As we have said each week, while these signs were a fraction of what Jesus did, they were uniquely designed to confirm his message, illustrate who he was, and build the faith of those who saw them. When we read the Gospels, we see that Jesus was not subtle or secretive about who he was. In fact, with each sign he had a corresponding “I Am” statement that even more clearly explained who he was. For example, after he multiplied the bread and fish, he declared “I Am the Bread of Life.” Also with each statement he was testifying that he actually was God in the flesh, and the people around him knew that.
As a result, there was a growing crowd of people following Jesus to see what he would do or say next. The problem was, many of the people misunderstood Jesus’s mission and thought that he was there to become a physical king of an earthly kingdom and rescue them from human oppressors. Interestingly, some Christians still have a similar misunderstanding today. But Jesus (and the Gospel) is never about an earthly kingdom or worldly politics – it is about a spiritual kingdom and eternal business. Jesus did not come 2,000 years ago to flex his power, overrun the government, and demand service. Instead, he (for the most part) reserved his power, respected his government, and displayed his own service by humbly dying on a cross for the sins of the world. That won’t be the case the next time he comes, mind you, but it was the first time.
This all gives us a good understanding of why at the end of last week’s passage, when the crowd tried to grab Jesus and make him their earthly king, he dismissed himself from the crowd and (as John 6:15 says) “withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Then while Jesus was alone on the mountain praying, the crowds disbanded, the day turned to evening, and the disciples set sail to go back home for the night.
And that is the background and setting for out text today as we look at Jesus’s next miraculous sign and discover our main theme for today that: In the midst of our DISTRESS, Jesus gives us PEACE.
Let’s begin reading in John 6:16:
 When evening came, [as close as the Bible ever gets to “It was a dark and stormy night…”] his disciples went down to the sea [the Sea of Galilee],  got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.
The disciples were leaving the mountain side of Bethsaida (which means “house of fish”) and headed to Capernaum (which means “house of comfort”) where they had their home base of ministry to kick their feet up and eat their leftovers from the seafood buffet. Several of the disciples were skilled fishermen, so this short 5 mile trip across the edge of the Sea of Galilee would have been as common for them as us going to the store across town, getting in our car, and driving home (with 12 baskets of leftovers in the back seat).
They would have done this hundreds of times. It was getting dark, but the water was calm, and there was nothing to fear. Or so they thought. Let’s read:
 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.
Matthew’s account of this story (in Matthew 14) words it like this: they were “beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.”
I don’t think I even need to ask if you know what that feels like, because we all know what it is like to be coasting along, things are going pretty good, we’re just living life, and “boom!” (or “whoosh!”) – the wind changes direction and pushes against us, the waves pick up and beat against us, the sea gets rough, and the storm comes out of nowhere and tosses us around.
Maybe you got laid off from a job that you thought was secure, a relationship is in ruins that you thought was going well, you got injured or sick, an unexpected bill hits your savings, a pandemic keeps you from seeing the people you love (right?) – there is no shortage of examples because we have all experienced that moment when the sky goes from clear to cloudy, the sunshine turns to lightning strikes, and the storm takes over our life.
My dad called me on Friday this week. He told me that when he was driving home from work on Thursday, while he was waiting at a red light, time seemed to freeze while he noticed the driver side of his car start bending in and the glass breaking because a dump truck had left its lane and ran into his car – eventually pushing it over 200 feet and demolishing it in the process. I’ll spare you all the unbelievable details, but the result was my dad coming home from the emergency room two hours later in a hospital gown and no problems except bad road rash (and a bruised big toe).
I tell you that because he was just on his way home, it was a nice afternoon, everything seemed fine, and then in a moment his life could have been over if not for the grace and intervention of God. That was his story this week, but we all have our own stories, don’t we? And whether the storms that we have gone through are a big deal to anyone else or not, we all know what fear feels like.
And that is what the disciples felt when the storm hit them. Look at the next part:
 When they had rowed about three or four miles…
Let me stop here and fill in a few details to help us understand the situation.
First, remember that their trip was only about 5 miles, meaning they were not far from where they were going, but too far from where they left to turn back. Secondly, Matthew’s account tells us that they were in the “fourth watch of the night” (Matthew 14:25) which was the final three-hour period before morning. That means that a trip that should have taken them less than an hour had now taken them 9 hours. But at this point they might as well have been 100 miles away because the storm was so rough and the night was so dark, that they were stuck in the middle of it.
The whole outcome of Jesus’s ministry on Earth (his 12 apostles) were in this boat, and they are being overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion, giving up, and dying in this storm. What started off as confidence in their ability moved to fear of their situation. And where was Jesus? Nowhere to be found. He was still off praying on the mountain.
Now be honest: what would you be thinking if you were in that boat? Maybe you would wonder if Jesus even cared? Why he would leave you alone like this? Why this short journey was so hard? Or if this is it – this is how it ends.
Thankfully that wasn’t the end for the disciples! Let’s keep reading:
 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened.
As if it was possible to be more frightened, when they saw this figure coming toward them they thought it was a ghost and cried out in terror. They were probably thinking, “first the darkness, then the storm, now it’s the grim reaper coming for us!” If it seems odd that they thought it was a ghost, remember that it was dark and stormy – meaning that either this figure on the water was somehow illuminated on its own or they could only see it when the lightning struck. Oh yeah, and people do not walk on water! What else could it be?
Moses could only walk through the water after God parted it, but Jesus walked on top of it! This was a powerful, visible demonstration of Jesus’s sovereignty.
Then Jesus, seeing their situation, understanding their storm, and knowing their fears, calls out to them. John writes:
 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
This is such an important verse in this story (really in all of Scripture). In fact, this phrase “do not be afraid” or “fear not” is the most commonly repeated command of God in the Bible. Why? Because fear often keeps us from moving forward in God’s calling more than anything else. Sometimes it motivates us to pursue and fight for the wrong things, sometimes it drives us to run away from God’s plan, or sometimes fear captivates and paralyzes us from moving at all – we hide in passivity. But we can also utilize our God-given feeling of fear to point us in the one direction that it was designed to point us: toward Christ!
We will come back to that in a minute, but for now know that is what Jesus does in this passage. He walks up to the boat and…
 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, [and when they did, the wind and storm ceased] and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:16–21, ESV)
I’m not sure that an actual teleportation took place (although that would be awesome). Instead I think now that the storm had passed and the sea was calm, they realized how close they actually were to the other side and they finished the trip quickly. As a result, Matthew 14:33 says, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This brings us to the end of the story and recognizing the main point that the presence of Jesus brought peace into their dark, wild storm, helping them realize even more that he was no man or prophet, but THE Son of God. Or for us today: In the midst of our DISTRESS, Jesus gives us PEACE.
With that in mind, I want to take the few minutes we have left and bring out three implications from this text to our lives today.
The first one is this:
1. God is always there, even when we cannot see him.
Jesus’s physical presence in this story reminds us of the spiritual presence of God. Because even though Jesus was not physically in the boat for the first 9 hours, somehow from up high on the mountain, miles away, through the darkness and the storm, he saw them and came to them when they needed him the most. We do not know how long he was actually walking on the water, we just know when he chose to reveal himself. And then when he DID show up, they were still afraid because they did not know it was him!
That is why the first thing that Jesus said to his disciples was “It is I” or in the Greek “egō eimi” – which can be translated, “I Am.” Jesus was not announcing that he wasn’t a ghost, he was self-identifying once again that he was God.
And as wonderful as Jesus’s physical presence on the Earth was, as he said in John 16, it was to his followers’ “advantage” that he went away so the “Helper” or the Holy Spirit could come. And that same Holy Spirit abides in the life of believers today, showing us our sin, leading us to righteousness, teaching us truth, glorifying the Father, and comforting our hearts (John 16:4-15).
That means that even though we cannot sense his presence, when we are on the mountaintop, Jesus says “I Am.” When we are down in the valley, Jesus says, “I Am.” When we are sailing along on the calm sea or in the midst of the violent storm, fighting and fearing for our life, Jesus says, “I Am”! God is there.
When we recognize his presence, realize his nearness, and worship him for it, there is a peace that “passes all understanding” that guards our hearts (Philippians 4). Like the prophet Isaiah declared many years before this story: “For you have been a stronghold to the poor… [and] needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat” (Isaiah 25:4).
But not only is God always there, we need to know that:
2. God does not keep us from the storm, he helps us get through it.
Never believe the lie that God has a pain and storm-free life planned for us. If he did, then he never would have let the the disciples go through this storm. Instead, God allows to work and endure the storms of life because he, who knows our hearts, wants us to know how weak we truly are against a storm and how sovereign he is over it.
Jesus also allowed them to be in the storm to illustrate that the Christian life, is difficult and requires work. We are not saved by works, but we are saved to work. Just like physical fitness requires working out our bodies, in Philippians 2 Paul tells believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I heard a pastor friend this week say that there are lessons that pain teaches us that we will never learn any other way.
One day we will look back at our storm we are fighting against consider it a “light momentary affliction“ as Paul called it in 2 Corinthians 4. He goes on to say: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18, ESV)
Don’t give up, keep working, and keep fighting – we’re almost there. Too many have given up already. God is going through the storm with us. And lastly…
3. God wants to use our fears to drive us to faith in him.
There is a reason that we fear what we do. Maybe we got bit by a dog as a child and now we fear dogs or we watched a scary movie that made us afraid of clowns. But whether it is real or it is in our heads, some things in life that cause us distress, which means suffering, pain, grief, worry, anxiety, and peril.
But Jesus did not JUST tell his Apostles: “do not be afraid”… he gave them a reason by saying, “It is I” or “I Am.” He was not belittling their fear, he was telling them to turn their fear around and focus it on him in faith. Why? Because He alone can calm the winds, still the storms, and bring peace. Jesus commanded them to do something that only he can truly command because he is he only one that can claim what he claimed. They discovered that the presence of Jesus in their boat brought the complete, serene, peace of God.
In the midst of whatever it is that brings us distress, Jesus is still the only one who can still the storm and bring travelers safely home. Maybe we are facing a storm because God wants to use our fear to drive us to faith in Him. So today: turn your eyes upon Jesus, invite his presence into your life, bring him into your boat, put your trust in him, and allow his peace to fill your heart.
In the midst of our DISTRESS, Jesus gives us PEACE.
Let’s reflect on the words of this Psalm:
“Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders. (Psalm 107:23-32, ESV)”