The End of Fear

Sermon by David Strain on Jan 26, 2014

John 6:16-21

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Now let me invite you please to take your copies of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to the gospel according to John, chapter 6.  John’s gospel chapter 6.  You will find that on page 891 if you’re reading from one of the church Bibles.  We’re going to be focusing our attention this morning on the words of verses 16 to 21.  Before we read them, I’m going to pray.  First let me give you just a little bit of context.  In the first fifteen verses we have the familiar account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  He has multiplied the five loaves and the two fishes and has fed the multitude.  Then in our passage, the disciples and Jesus make their way across the sea to Capernaum.  And the passage that follows from verse 22 and onwards, we have Jesus speaking to the crowds who finally catch back up with Him explaining the significance of the miracle that He has performed and identifying Himself as the Bread of Life, the One who gives life to all who feast on Him by faith.  

Now as we turn our attention to the reading of God’s Word let’s turn to the Lord Himself first in prayer.  Let us pray.

Our Father, we confess to You that our world is filled with such an array of competing voices, bewildering in their various directions.  We find ourselves dizzied and uncertain, afraid, filled sometimes with anxiety, not knowing which way to turn next, not knowing who to trust next, not knowing which voice to listen to.  How easily those voices drown out Your Word.  And so we pray for the fresh ministry of the Holy Spirit, that He would give us ears to hear what He says to His church from this portion of His holy and inerrant Word this Lord’s Day morning.  In Jesus’ name we ask it, amen.

Hear now the inerrant Word of Almighty God from John chapter 6 at verse 16:

“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum.  It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  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.  But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’  And they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

A Familiar Tale with a Particular Point

We have before us John’s account of an incident that is also recorded in Matthew’s gospel and in Mark’s gospel.  John’s retelling of these events is characterized by brief, terse, direct reporting.  Matthew and Mark give us more details - Matthew 14; Mark 6.  Matthew and Mark, for example, both tell us that it was Jesus’ idea, it was actually Jesus’ command, that the disciples leave Him behind and they go ahead of Him in the boat across the lake that night.  He retires to the hills, presumably to spend time in prayer and in meditation.  Matthew, in his account, focuses more on the reactions and experience of the disciples, particularly upon Peter.  Remember Peter?  As Jesus comes walking towards them in the boat Peter wants to get out of the boat and walk towards Him.  It doesn’t go so well for Peter but Matthew wants to highlight some of those issues and the disciples’ reactions and so on. 

But John’s retelling of this story is rather stripped down and barebones and terse because his concern is not to highlight the experience of the disciples particularly but to focus all of our attention on Jesus.  The story, notice, builds towards the climactic statement of verse 20 where Jesus identifies Himself to the disciples in the boat.  Our eyes are meant to linger there on Christ, to wrestle with who He really is and all that that should mean for us.  So it’s very tempting, especially for a preacher, to jump out of John back to Matthew and Mark for some extra help, for some extra data.  I think if we do that we miss part of the point.  John tells the story the way he does for a reason, so we want to attend to the way that John’s account has been preserved for us in these five terse, direct verses.  So taken on its own terms, verses 16 to 21 teach us two vital truths about Jesus, at least two truths about Jesus.  First, in 16 to 19, we are shown Jesus - the reason to fear.  The reason to fear.  Jesus - the reason to fear.  Then in 20 and 21, here is Jesus - the end of fear.  Jesus - the reason to fear, and Jesus - the end of fear.  

I. Jesus: The Reason to Fear

Let’s think about 16 to 19 first.  Here is Jesus - the reason to fear.  The disciples, John says, leave Jesus at the shore and they begin, probably late in the afternoon, to cross the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum.   Soon darkness has fallen and a storm overtakes their little boat.  The Sea of Galilee is about 600 feet below sea level and the wind will sweep over the mountains that surround it and through the ravines and whip up violent squalls across the lake, devastating to small craft on the water.  Even today, actually, when the winds whip up the storms on the Sea of Galilee, power boats are required to remain at dock; it’s too dangerous for them to venture out.  And it is one such storm that engulfs the disciples in their boat that night.  And we’re told here that fear grips them.  But notice carefully what causes their anxiety and fear.  It is not fear caused by the storm.  These are experienced fishermen.  They knew these waters well.  They know when a storm is dangerous and when it threatens their boat and when it does not and it wasn’t the storm that made them tremble that night.  No doubt it would have made me tremble but not these men.  These men knew what they were doing on that boat in that lake on that evening.  And yet they were afraid.  What made them tremble?  Not the storm; it was Jesus.

Empty Fear

I was reading the other day a story about a man called Clinton Boisvert.  When the article was written, Boisvert was a student of fine art in New York and he had produced a very provocative piece of work in December 2002.  New Yorkers are still very much on edge after the first anniversary of 9/11 and Boisvert, quite deliberately, places about three dozen Federal Express boxes in the heavily trafficked Union Square subway station during the morning rush hour.  Each was spray painted black with the word, “fear,” written on it.  At first, in the hustle and bustle of the subway station, no one took much notice, but eventually these strange boxes were identified, the police were called, then the bomb squad came, the trains were stopped on the tracks, the subway station was closed, commuters poured out onto the street - worried, inconvenienced, annoyed - every precaution was taken, bomb disposal robots sent in, and all of it was in vain, of course because these were empty boxes.  Boisvert, you’ll be glad to know, was charged with reckless endangerment and public disorder offenses at the end of his fine art production.  But what struck me about those boxes are how, like so many of our fears, they really are, in the end they’re empty.  

No Reason for Fear

Here’s the irony that John’s story highlights for us - while we run scared from fear boxes that pose no real threat, we never think to tremble in the presence of Jesus.  Look at the story.  It’s dark; the sea is rough.  The storm is raging.  The boat’s in the middle of the lake, the widest part of the lake in all likelihood, and then through the darkness, John says, Jesus comes, walking on the sea coming near the boat.  The word for “walking” there commentators tell us highlights the effortlessness with which He comes to them.  He was, we might say, strolling over the waves, unperturbed, totally at ease.  It was eerie, uncanny and totally beyond the experience and expertise of the disciples.  Boats, they knew, the Sea of Galilee, they knew, storms and winds and waves, they knew, but here is Jesus coming to them in a manner for which they simply had no categories.  

Back in verse 15, after the feeding of the five thousand, we learn that the crowds want to seize Jesus and make Him king by force.  Then later in verse 26, the next morning as Jesus interacts with the crowds and they finally catch up with Jesus and the disciples, Jesus puts His finger on their real motives.  He says, “You seek Me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  They want Him, in other words, because they can use Him.  This is a Jesus who gives them stuff, a useful Jesus who supplies needs and offers quick fixes to life’s dilemmas.  “I’ll take that Jesus,” is what they’re saying.  But that night in the boat, Jesus reveals Himself to His disciples in an altogether different light.  He shows Himself to be untamable and terrifying.  No one’s puppet.  Never subject to the whim and appetites of the crowds.  Here’s the Jesus of whom Psalm 77 speaks.  Psalm 77 really is reflecting on the Exodus story, a theme that we’ll come back to in a few moments.  And yet here, it seems also redolent of this moment as Jesus comes walking through the storm to the disciples.  

Psalm 77:  

“When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side.  The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook.  Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”

Real Reason for Fear

Here is a Jesus to make us tremble - the God-Man who rules the elements, who rides upon the storm and walks over the waves.  Here is the Lord.  Not a Jesus whose only role is to fuel our comfort but a Jesus who commands our utter submission and awe.  Do you have room in your Christianity for a Jesus like that?  The disciples, I think, quite unintentionally I’m sure, had the balance right that night in the boat.  It was not the storm they were afraid of but Jesus made them tremble.  Something is wrong, brothers and sisters, when we find ourselves quaking at empty fear boxes around every turn in life’s road while Jesus never makes us tremble.  We’ve gotten things out of proportion, haven’t we?  The elements make us fear, the storm makes us fear, tomorrow makes us fear, but have we forgotten that we live in the grip of the Lord to whom the elements answer, who commands the storm, who governs tomorrow?  Jesus - the grounds of fear, a reason to fear, to tremble before Him, the Lord.

II. Jesus: The End of Fear

Then secondly, look with me at verses 20 and 21.  If coming to them through the storm gave them reasons to tremble, His words to them as He climbs into the boat show us Jesus - the end of fear.  They are quaking as He comes close with the wind and the rains swirling around them.  The vortex of the storm parts as Jesus comes through the darkness and the waves flatten themselves to make a path for His feet.  And they are dumbfounded; they have no words.  And then Jesus speaks.  “It is I; don’t be scared.”  Words of reassurance and comfort and tenderness and understanding.  And immediately they have the desired effect - fear is gone; in its place comes gladness, John says.  They were glad.  The storm, it seems, immediately becomes calm and they swiftly are able to arrive at a safe haven.  

John, however, in his retelling of this story has been building up to this moment.  More is going on merely in verse 20 than a self-identification by Jesus.  This is the climax of the story and John wants us to see a depth to these words that the disciples almost certainly did not themselves grasp so much later.  And here again, I think the context helps us see part of John’s point.  When Jesus reaches Capernaum the next morning, He teaches the crowds the real significance of the miracle of feeding the five thousand and in verse 3 the crowds declare, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  Sorry - verse 31.  And Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven but My Father who gives you the bread from heaven.  For the bread from God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  And then He adds, “I am the bread of life.”  So the context for understanding all of this is the Exodus story and God’s delivering His people from slavery in Egypt and leading them by Moses through the wilderness, providing for them and bringing them safe to the land of promise.  And that means that we probably ought to be alert for similar themes in verses 16 to 21 as well.  There is, perhaps, an echo, for example, of the crossing of the Red Sea when Jesus marched across the Sea of Galilee.  That seems to be echoed in Psalm 77 in the portion of Scripture that we read there about the Lord’s way through the sea and His footprints being lost and unseen.

The Great I AM

When you read the climactic statement of verse 20 in light of that Exodus motif I think that John’s agenda begins to become clear at last.  As He arrives at the boat, Jesus tells the disciples, “It is I,” which in Greek is the simple declaration, “Ego Eimi, - I am.”  And if you have read through John’s gospel, again and again those words appear on the lips of Jesus with profound significance.  They are the Greek translation of the divine name.  Exodus chapter 3 - God meets Moses, Moses asks, “What shall I tell the people is Your name?” and God tells him, “Tell them, ‘I AM,’ has sent me to you.”  Yahweh, I AM, is the name of the Lord.  And on that occasion we’re told that Moses was overcome with fear.  He hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.  Later on, when Israel meet with God in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, the Lord displays His glory and proclaims His name, “The Lord - I AM” and the mountain trembles and the people are terrified in the presence of the great I AM.  When the prophet, Isaiah, saw the Lord in the temple in the sixth chapter of his prophecy, he cried out in despair, “Woe to me!  I am undone!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord, I AM, the Lord of hosts.”  Throughout the history of God’s dealing with His people, the presence of the great I AM strikes fear into the hearts of all whom repent.  Unmediated glory, unmediated holiness, unmediated majesty - when it meets human finitude and sin puts us in the dust.  It puts us in the dust. 

And so here in John 6, as Jesus comes through the night and through the storm and over the waves as Yahweh, the great I AM, “the Lord,” as Nahum 1:3 puts it, “the Lord whose way is in the whirlwind and the storm and the clouds are the dust of his feet,” as Jesus comes close to them we ought to be braced for impact, right?  We expect an explosive reaction.  But look what happens.  His presence doesn’t put them in the dust of despair as it did the disciples, as it did the prophet Isaiah or as it did the children of Israel in the wilderness, filling them with terror at Sinai.  No, no.  This time Jesus says to the disciples, “I AM; do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.”  This is, after all, why Jesus came - so that sinners like me and like you might meet God in Him and the terror of unmediated glory might be replaced with the comfort and gladness of His delivering, saving grace, and mercy.  In Jesus, God comes to us not in stunning displays of power, not shaking the mountains and blocking out the sun.  In Jesus, God comes to us united forever to human nature that we might know Him and draw near Him, at last coming close to the great I AM and call Him, Abba Father.

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity.  Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.”  In Jesus, God comes to us that we might know Him.  That’s what John himself says in John chapter 1 and verse 18.  “No one has ever seen God but the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”  In Jesus, the unknowable I AM comes to us that we might know Him - a Man in whom we can rest our trust knowing that He understands, One who was touched with the feeling of our infirmities, One who is not unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, One upon whom everyone here can rest for hope and for peace in a world filled with nameless fears.  

A Jesus worth Trusting

The great paradox of the Christian life is that the presence of Jesus, the Lord, ought to make us tremble.  He is the high and exalted One, infinite in His holiness and majesty and purity and might.  We are weak, finite sinners; we ought to tremble.  That was the message of verses 16 to 19.  The presence of Jesus ought to make us tremble, but if we know this Jesus is with us in love and grace, nothing else ought to make us tremble.  The presence of Jesus ought to make us tremble but if He is with us nothing else can.  Clement of Alexandria beautifully put it this way.  He said, “Christ turns all our sunsets into dawns.”  Christ turns all our sunsets into dawns.  When Jesus is with us, when we rest on Him, we can begin to take ourselves in hand, can’t we, and speak to ourselves in the wonderful words of Catharine von Schlegel’s beautiful hymn.  You can begin to say to yourself, “Be still, my soul, your God will undertake, to guide the future as He has the past.  Your hope, your confidence, let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul, the waves and winds still know His voice, who ruled them while He dwelt below.”  Jesus, who can walk across the waves, should make us tremble.  But only a Jesus like this is worth trusting. 

A Tyranny of Fear shattered by the Great I AM 

Perhaps we live under the tyranny of so many fear boxes in our lives because our view of Jesus is far too small.  He is the great I AM made flesh, the “God who moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.  Who plants His footsteps in the seas and rides upon the storm.”  The disciples, that night, understood, didn’t they, that Jesus loved them and cared for them.  They had, as it were, they’d strayed out of sight of Him.  They left Him at the shore.  Here, they know as He comes to them, however far they have wandered, they have never wandered out of His sight.  Like Job, remember Job?  “When I turn to the right hand He is not there and to the left, I cannot find Him.  But He knows the way that I take, and though He test me I will come forth as gold.”  You can never, beloved in Christ, you can never stray beyond the sight nor the grip of the grace of Jesus Christ.  And He brings them safe to the far shore.  The disciples understood two things about Jesus that night - they understood that He was the Lord, sovereign over the elements, and they understood that this sovereign Lord loved them and it dispelled their fear and replaced it with gladness.  

We have a greater demonstration of those truths, don’t we?  Remember that night in the Garden of Gethsemane?  The soldiers, the armed mob, came to Him and they came looking and asking, “Who’s Jesus?”  And He steps forward and He said again to them, “Ego Eimi - I AM.”  And the soldiers, to a man, fell to the ground.  It flattened them with the majesty of His person revealed.  He’s the sovereign Lord and yet, because He loves us, He was bound and tried and tortured and crucified.  He is the sovereign Lord who loves us, who gave Himself for us.  He rules over all things and He bleeds to make us His.  What fear have you that trusting Him cannot dispel it?  Do you perhaps need to repent of too small a view of Jesus and far too big a view of your circumstances?  Have you lost sight of His sovereignty so that you rarely ever tremble before Him?  And have you lost sight of His love and kindness and grace that you now find it hard to trust Him?  The Lord Jesus, this morning, is calling you to look again to the One who rides over the storm and who comes to you and says, “I AM.  Stop being scared.  Trust Me.”

Let’s pray together.

O Lord our God, we bow before You and we confess how easily we are filled with fear, how large our circumstances loom, and how small Jesus easily becomes in our own eyes.  Forgive us, have mercy on us, and enable us to tremble before the Lord, and as we do so to remember and learn the truth that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that trembling before Him means we need never tremble before anything or anyone else.  And give us grace to receive His mercy, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Take your hymnals now in hand please and turn with me as we continue our service of worship to hymn number 691, “It Is Well With My Soul.”  

And now may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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