Sermons That Work

Do You Believe…, Proper 14 (A) – 1999

August 08, 1999

Do you believe in Santa Claus?
How about the Easter Bunny?
The Tooth Fairy?

Children do. They have tremendous, unquestioning faith. If they are told that Santa exists, they will believe, and their belief will be reinforced year after year by the presents under the tree, In the case of the Easter Bunny, the eggs in a basket every year are the reinforcement. Where the Tooth Fairyis concerned, that dollar appearing mysteriously under the pillow, replacing the lost tooth, will reinforce belief. Even when they are old enough to suspect that the person who ate the cookies and milk on Christmas Eve was really dear old Dad, they are reluctant not to believe for fear that the presents may stop appearing. In their developing minds, they grasp for the reality of things hoped for and therefore trust in persons, or rabbits, or fairies they cannot see.

That is what faith is, the surety of things hoped for, the certainty of things unseen.

To a child, faith is limited by an immature view of the world. A child cannot comprehend that the gifts hoped for and received, are really the manifestation of the love of God as shown through the love of parents. But as a child matures, his or her faith matures. In fact, for most of us faith is an ever-changing part of our psyche. As people of faith, we anticipate it will grow, and it generally does. However, that growth is not steady and all too often is limited by a finite world-view unable to totally comprehend our infinite God.

We have two stories of faith in today’s readings. The first is of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to evade God by escaping to Spain. He didn’t make it. Then we have impetuous Peter whose faith was, more often than not, in need of water wings.

Jonah was a Jew. He had a deep and abiding faith in God. He also had an attitude problem. As a Jew he was sure Yahweh was the God of the Hebrews alone, and not the universal creator we know him to be. Jonah therefore looked down on foreigners. So when God told him to go up into Syria and tell the people of Nineveh to repent, he was so upset he went to the port of Joppa, boarded a boat for Spain, and hoped to sail beyond God’s reach.

It didn’t quite happen that way. God hurled up a very impressive storm. Jonah realized it was because of his disobedience, so he told the ship’s crew to throw him overboard, accepting his impending death as God’s final judgment for his disobedience. But God had other plans for Jonah. He sent a big fish which swallowed Jonah up. Even from the belly of that fish, Jonah’s faith was such that he was able to praise Yahweh as the God of his salvation.

Assuming Jonah had learned his lesson, God then instructed the great fish (a whale, actually) to disgorge Jonah onto dry land. While Jonah was still drying off, God again instructed Jonah to go and prophesy in Nineveh. This time he went, bolstering his ego with the delusion that they wouldn’t repent and God would destroy them, an end Jonah desperately wanted. But the entire city repented-even down to the last cow, which was dressed in sackcloth and ashes. When God rescinded his judgment on Nineveh, Jonah exploded and demanded that God take his life.

I could say that finally they all lived happily ever after, but that was not true. Only the Ninevites did. To the bitter end, Jonah tried to contradict God. While his faith in God never wavered, Jonah’s finite world-view limited his comprehension of the infinite power, love, and forgiveness of our God.

Peter’s faith, at best, wavered. In fact during Jesus’ earthly ministry, it waffled all over the place. It was rash. It was impetuous. When he saw Jesus walking on the water, Peter was not sure who was actually doing that amazing thing. He yelled out, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Jesus replied, “Come!” Peter immediately began walking across the sea, but lost heart in the face of the wind and waves. He began to sink, so Jesus reached out his hand and saved him.

Such actions were common with Peter. Remember his confession. Jesus was walking with the disciples and asked, “Who do men say that I am?” “Some say Moses, or Elijah, or John the Baptist.”

“But who do you say that I am?”

Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

Jesus responds, “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah [Peter’s Hebrew name], for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Jesus then said he was going to Jerusalem where he would be arrested, tortured, and killed; then in three days he would rise from the grave.

Peter blurted out, “God forbid, Lord. I shall never let that happen to you.”

To which Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to

Who had the stronger faith, Jonah or Peter? Probably Jonah did. His faith never wavered, even in the belly of that great fish. But Peter had an insight into something which Jonah totally lacked-a glimpse into the infinite power and love of our God. And that stood Peter well. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, which buttressed Peter’s faith just as Jesus’ hand had supported him on the water, Peter was able to step out in faith and preach the Gospel without fear, even though a martyr’s death was ever before him.

What does all this mean to us? Most of us have the wavering faith of Peter. That’s OK. The church was built by legions of people over the centuries, all in need of water wings. We are the architects of the new millennium. Thankfully we have something that Jonah, and even Peter, never had. Through the lens of the Resurrection, we have the assurance of the infinite power, love, and forgiveness of our God. We know that every time we step out of the boat, Jesus’ hand will be there to keep us afloat.

So, let’s take a walk.

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Christopher Sikkema


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