The Sea of Galilee is actually a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs. The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive for being the lowest freshwater lake on earth – its surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. And yet the Sea of Galilee is dangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky, perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus. They had gotten into a boat. All was calm, all was bright… and then comes the storm. With the wind and waves coming at them, the disciples are swamped by well-informed fear. Most of them fish on this lake for a living. They know this water and these storms.
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, and then a storm hits. There is so much to be afraid of in life when we are accosted by threats, whether they be familiar or foreign. These fears can seem so great and we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or privilege. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined, it does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives. Whatever the source of our fear, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned his lessons about fear from two sources, one being from the scriptures. The scriptures which he would have known – the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry, fear, and anxiousness: not to be. The psalmist says, “Do not fear, though the earth should change, the mountains tremble and shake in the heart of the sea, fear not.”[i] The prophet Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”[ii] Jesus knew his scriptures. Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people. I am talking about his own personal fear. We do not know specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life, and so he was acquainted with fear, undoubtedly. If you want to imagine what Jesus feared, use your own life as an example. Of what have you been afraid? Go back in memory to your earliest childhood, then your adolescence, then coming into your twenties and beyond. Why have you been afraid?
Were you afraid there would not be enough of something, or afraid there would be too much of something? Were you afraid because you might be included, or might be excluded? Were you afraid because you might be asked to speak, or afraid because, when you spoke, no one would listen, or no one would understand? Were you afraid because you might be left alone, or afraid because, once more, you might not be able to be alone? Were you afraid because of too much work, or afraid because there was no work, or no meaningful work? Were you afraid because you stood out, or afraid because you felt unnoticed, lost in the crowd, forgotten? Was there something about your appearance that left you invisible, or something about your appearance that made you stand out? Were you afraid because you were bullied, or that you faced prejudice or persecution, fearing for your life? Some of our fears are pathetic: tiny, tedious, embarrassing to even admit… and yet they a real. Our word “pathetic” from the Greek pathetos, which is a liability for suffering. We suffer with our fears. Which are the kinds of things Jesus must have been afraid of, because these are the kind of fears that visit us in life.
When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is not speaking clinically, nor is the source of his teaching primarily from observation but rather, this is revelation. He is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically. He had as much to be afraid of as you and I have experienced. Something slowly happened to Jesus. Something shifts in Jesus in the nearly 20 years between when he is age 12, presented in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when appears before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the Jordan River. These 20 years are often called Jesus’ “hidden years,” and we are not told where Jesus was or what he was doing. I am certain he was making peace with the terms of his life, and that included facing his own fears.
When Jesus finds his voice – and he is about 30 years old – he speaks a great deal about fear, worry, and anxiety: we need not be afraid, need not worry, need not be anxious. Why is that? Because of God’s powerful presence. Jesus had learned this himself in facing his own fears. He discovered he was not alone. He also discovered God’s provision. Going back to the gospel lesson appointed for today, I am certain that this is not Jesus’ first time on a boat on the Sea of Galilee. He grew up in Nazareth, near this lake. In his earlier years, he would have been as terrified in a storm as his disciples are now. Jesus is no longer afraid of storms. From this very shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus speaks aloud what we call “the Beatitudes.” We are hearing in the Beatitudes the conversion of Jesus’ fear. He is speaking the truth that he has discovered in his own life, which he shares with us. This is Jesus speaking autobiographically:
Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Blessed are the merciful…
Blessed are the pure in heart…
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Blessed are you when you are persecuted…”[iii]
Jesus speaks the Beatitudes, not because he thought it would helpful for us to know the assurance of God’s blessing and provision in the worst of times – which is true – but because he has learned to know this to be true in his own life. So will it be in ours. Jesus’ conviction why we need not be afraid has come from the conversion of his own fear. Nor need we be afraid.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm in life – and I presume that all of us have fear in some measure – this is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus will know every reason why we could be afraid because he’s been there. He assures us not to be afraid, and not to have anxiety because he is with us: his presence, his power, his provision. Jesus offers us this assurance because of what he came to know in his own life. For us, our fear can seem such an invasive impediment. For God, our fear turns a perfect storm into a channel of God’s presence, and power, and provision. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. There is so much for which we could be afraid in life. Jesus assures us: not to fear.
[i] Psalm 46:2-3.
[ii] Isaiah 41:10.
[iii] Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22.
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