Sermon: In the Boat and On the Shore

The Bible often prefers to show rather than tell. It is the difference between telling you I have a great jump shot and beating you one-on-one. One is telling, the other is showing. In our passage this morning, Jesus does a little telling and a little showing about what it means to be a disciple. It’s Matthew 8, beginning in verse 18. Matthew 8:18-34. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave order to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

And another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

But Jesus told him, “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

He replied, “You of little faith! Why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves and it was completely calm.

The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him.”

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. “What have you to do with us, Son of God?” they shouted, “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

Some distance from them, a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

He said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town, and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Our passage this morning has four snapshots of discipleship. The first two come in conversations with Jesus and serve to warn us to count the cost before following Jesus. The second two come through watching Jesus in the boat and on the shore. We will look at each of them in turn to get a deeper sense of what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus is surrounded by crowds and so he prepares to cross the lake known as the Sea of Galilee. As the boat is being prepared, two men come and talk to Jesus. We’ll call the first one the ‘Eager Disciple’ and the second one the ‘Cautious Disciple.’

The Eager Disciple comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” At first glance, this is the kind of parishioner every pastor would want. He is willing and able. He wants to learn and grow. He is already knowledgeable in the scriptures (It says he was a teacher of the law). You might even imagine that the Eager Disciple thought Jesus would be excited to have him, too. Grateful, even. Who wouldn’t want someone smart and excited who will go and do whatever you ask?

Jesus’ response was likely not what the Eager Disciple expected. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Not exactly an enthusiastic response. Jesus cautions the man that discipleship with Jesus will not be comfortable. Following Jesus ‘wherever he goes’ will include going ‘where’ there is no place to lay his head. Following Jesus would not be like learning from another teacher. It wouldn’t be a good experience to put on a resumé or something you could do for a while until something better comes along. Following Jesus will take a disciple out of a place of comfort and into a place of radical trust in Jesus. Jesus emphasizes the discomfort of following Jesus because despite the excitement of the Eager Disciple, Jesus knows he has yet to come to grips with what it will mean to follow.

Later, Jesus tells a parable of two men who enter the temple to pray. One, a righteous man, lifts up his head and thanks God that he is not like those sinners. The other, a tax collector, bows his head and asks for mercy. Jesus favors the humble, sinful man over the proud, righteous one. In reflecting on this passage, Eugene Peterson comments that many of us would rather have our churches filled with the righteous than with sinners. We would rather have the Eager Disciple. Perhaps, we should look, in ourselves and in others, for less eagerness and energy and more willingness to trust Jesus wherever he leads.

The second disciple is significantly less eager. In fact, this Cautious Disciple is looking for a way out. “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.” The exchange seems harsh. While Jesus’ response is strong, it is not as cruel as it first seems. The Cautious Disciples’ father is not lying dead somewhere. If he was, this man would already be with the family, sitting shiva for the seven days of mourning that were part of Jewish funerals. Instead, the father is very much alive. He may be elderly or in poor health, we don’t know, but he is alive. What the Cautious Disciple is asking is if he can go and live with his father until he dies, wait for his inheritance to come in, get his affairs in order, and then come and follow Jesus. It could be months or even years of delay in following Jesus. In essence, he wants to delay following Jesus until a time when it was more convenient in his life.

In the culture, it would have been a reasonable request. Family was, and is, important and many Jews considered burying one’s parents properly as one of the chief duties of a child. But Jesus demands ultimately loyalty. He calls urgently. Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead. To the would-be disciple waiting for the most convenient time to follow Jesus, Jesus says, “Today, now.” There will be no convenient time, no time when there won’t be cost. There will not always be a time in the future either, for those walking apart from Jesus Christ are spiritually dead even if they have breath in their lungs. Let the dead bury their own dead, you come and follow me. Today.

We do not know the responses of these two men. I like to think that Jesus’ gracious and personal responses took root. To the over-eager, but comfortable, disciple Jesus cautioned that discipleship would be an act of trust in the midst of discomfort. To the cautious disciple waiting for just the right time, Jesus said the time is now to come and follow the Messiah.

We do not know if these two men were among them, but we are told that Then Jesus got into the boat and his discipled followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

He replied, “You of little faith! Why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves and it was completely calm.

The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him.”

A storm threatens to kill them all and Jesus is sleeping. The disciples are panicking and Jesus is sleeping. Water is coming into the boat, threatening to sink it, and Jesus is sleeping. Finally they wake him up and, in their distress, are only able to say, what in Greek is three words, “Lord! Save! Dying!”

Jesus is not flattered. You of little faith! Why are you so afraid?

Afraid? Of course they were afraid! The boat was sinking, the storm was raging. Everything was falling apart and they were going under. What should they have done?

Mom is in the hospital again. Our children aren’t worshipping the LORD. My career might be over. What else am I supposed to do, Jesus?

Though the storm was raging outside, Jesus was fast asleep in the boat. Perhaps the courageous thing would not have been to fight with all your might against the storm, but to do as Jesus did. It is counter-intuitive, but at times, the most faithful action we can take is to sleep in the bottom of the boat. Jesus isn’t asleep because he is overwhelmed or doesn’t care. He sleeps because he trusts his heavenly Father even in the midst of the storm. Sleep is a posture of trust. If the Eager Disciple was on that boat, he would have learned just what Jesus meant when he said, The foxes have dens and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. But even in the boat, even in the storm, Jesus displays courageous trust in the protection of the living God.

What would it look like for you to trust God wherever you are right now? Maybe there is faithful work to be done, but perhaps there are times where being faithful means not running around like everything depends on us, but trusting that God truly does have even the storms in the palm of his hand.

Thankfully, though Jesus is not entirely impressed with their faith, he does not tell them to shape up before he will save them. Jesus speaks a word and calms the storm. The men are amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him.” Jesus saves them as they are, even as he calls for deeper faith.

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. Jesus travelled across the lake into the far country. The region of the Gadarenes was Gentile country. It was pagan territory. It was a place of spiritual and moral darkness. The disciples follow Jesus into the darkness, into the land of chaos. After surviving the chaos of the storm on the lake, they now encounter the chaos of the soul on the shore.

Two men, possessed by demons, approach Jesus. These demons had given these men such violent power that no one could come near them. Yet, at the presence of Jesus, these demons shudder. “What have you to do with us, Son of God?” they shouted, “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” The demons knew that Jesus’ final victory would mean their destruction, but they thought that in the mean time, they had free reign, especially in the wild, pagan land of the Gadarenes.

A large herd of pigs is feeding nearby and the demons beg Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Calmly, Jesus says one word, “Go” and the demons are cast out of the two men, enter the pigs, rush down the steep bank and drown in the lake. The language suggests that it was not just the pigs that died in the water, but the demons as well.

What a powerful act of God. Two men living in bondage to demons are set free. One little word from Jesus felled demons and broke their spiritual chains. Jesus entered the darkness and the darkness fled before him.

But the people of the Gadarenes were not so happy. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town, and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.

Two men were set free, but the towns people were more concerned about the loss of the pigs. Two men were healed, but in their minds, they were counting dollars and cents. Some of you are probably tallying in your head what losing a whole pig barn would cost.

Jesus valued two lives more than a herd of pigs. Jesus valued human life over even a significant loss of money or possessions. Two men were now free. When confronted with Jesus’ value for human life, the people of the town asked him to leave. They wanted no part of it. They would rather stay with the world’s values, where possessions mean more than people, money more than lives.

If we follow Jesus, we can expect to find ourselves at times on the lake and at times on the shore. We can expect to find ourselves in the midst of storms, where everything in our body is telling us to panic, yet Jesus is on the boat. We can even rest in the middle of the storm because we know that Jesus is in the boat with us.

We can expect to find ourselves sent into the region of the Gadarenes. Following Jesus who is the light will mean walking toward the darkness, toward the chaos. It will mean valuing human life as Jesus did, choosing kingdom values over the world’s values, and occasionally being rejected for it. It will mean standing in the darkness and proclaiming that the light has dawned, even if we are then asked to leave.

But it will also mean seeing Jesus set people free. It will mean watching the darkness flee and demons shudder at the presence and power of Jesus Christ.

In a few minutes, we will have the opportunity to publicly acknowledge the call of God upon the lives of two men in our congregation. Having already been ordained to serve, Lee and Bob will be installed into the offices of elder and deacon. I am not sure whether they are more Eager Disciples or Cautious Disciples today, but I know that they, like the rest of us, will find themselves in the boat and on the shore as they follow Christ. As a church there will certainly be storms ahead, that will demand of us fearless trust in our Lord Jesus Christ. Lee, Bob, may Christ build in you that faithful trust in him. As a church, we are called out of the comfort and convenience of our four walls and to move toward the darkness, knowing that Christ goes ahead of us. Lee, Bob, I pray that you would have passion, perseverance, and hope as you move toward the dark places in this world proclaiming the light of Christ.

Whether Eager or Cautious, today is the day to follow Jesus. The journey will not always be comfortable, but our Lord Jesus Christ will go with us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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