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Monday, August 29, 2011

From Fear to Prayer

What’s your biggest fear? You probably don’t want to think about. Thinking about it gives it the opportunity to rise up in your life. Fear renders us powerless, paralyzed.

I think today, as a parent of young kids, most of my fears have to do with them. I fear bad things happening to them. But, my home life is mostly lived at their level. I don’t need to fear the things that scare a 9-year-old. I have different perspective.

Things were different when I was 23. I was in the National Guard. We were only weekend warriors and back then, national guardsmen weren’t often called to actual combat duty. But, with the rise of Operation Desert Shield in Iraq in 1992, and the Desert Storm, the possibility of mobilization was there. So we trained with some seriousness.

One of the things infantrymen did was rappel. Either out of a helicopter or out of building, we’d lower ourselves down a rope and into battle. I never rappelled in an actual training exercise, but we practiced on the training tower and one side had no wall, just a skid that simulated a helicopter skid. You drop into open air.

I had many successful rappels. But on one occasion, I let the height of the tower get into my head, and I was just shaking. Well, you can’t do that. Infantrymen are full of machismo. You’re supposed to be a tough guy up there, and I’m shaking like a leaf, and the lieutenant running the tower can see my fear. I am just praying the other privates down on the ground aren’t as aware of it because I don’t want to hear their ribbing afterwards. In my head, I am cursing myself at my fear, but I cannot shake it.

Do you ever have fears like that? It’s not comfortable, but bring to mind your fears. What produces anxiety or dread? It could heights or speaking in public, or maybe swimming in deep water. Some people are deathly afraid of dogs. Perhaps your fear is not a phobia, but something else. Maybe you fear unemployment. Many in our church have had to face the threat of joblessness or the reality of it. The bills add up to a number that far exceeds what’s coming in and the savings are depleting fast. It can be scary.

Maybe your fear is disease – cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease or something else. You fear getting a life-threatening disease, or fear has a hold of you because you’ve been diagnosed.

Fear is real and is a force in life. Some fears are foreboding – the dark clouds of a storm rolling in slowly, unstoppable. Some fears are immediate – a prowler is behind the house and you’re home alone. Your heart begins pounding and you feel like you cannot move, like your body weighs 500 lbs. Fear must be dealt with.

Can fear lead us to prayer? Can prayer prepare us for fear?

In Matthew 14, Jesus is alone in the mountains, praying. What’s he saying to God? We don’t know. All Matthew gives us is that Jesus was alone in the mountains in prayer while the disciples were in a boat at sea. I am glad we don’t know the conversation Jesus had with his Heavenly Father that night. That should remain between the Father and the Son. I firmly believe those prayer sessions prepared Jesus as much I believe prayer prepares us for what comes in life. Jesus was mobbed by people who needed healing; Jesus confronted emissaries of Satan, demons from Hell; and Jesus did some serious sparring with the best legal minds in Israel. He needed special spiritual preparation and his prayer time was crucial.

While we don’t face the same trials he did, we come up against obstacles in life, we are tested in life, and we are tempted. To over come the impediments, pass the tests, and resist the invitations of Satan and turn away friends who would entice us into sin, we need to be ready. Prayer is where we prepare for what comes in life. Jesus sets the example by making it a priority to be alone with God.

Meanwhile the disciples were on the sea, and they sailed into a storm and the storm whipped up their fears. Pastor and author John Kilinger says his friends took a boat ride on the Sea Galilee. This was probably in the 1980’s, nearly 2000 years after the events of Jesus’ life. When they left the port, the skies were sunny, but once they were out to sea, a storm blew in. It was so violent, the people in the boat were hurled about, from one side of the boat to the other. The frantic captain radioed to have helicopters ready in case of a capsizing.[i]

The disciples had no radios and there were no helicopters to call. Yeah, they were terrified. They thought this was it. And there he was, a ghost of storms past, a sailor who had ridden the water before them and sunk down to the murky depths. This specter from the grave was coming to call them, an angel of death. And he did call, but not to tell them this was the end.

“Take heart, it is I,” Jesus said (14:27). At that moment, the storm did not let up one bit. The boat was still being tossed by angry waves. Thunder roared threats from the sky, and lightning crashed with intimidating fierceness. Could the disciples get beyond the calamity around them and beyond their fears of the sea and fears of demons? Could they see Jesus in the storm? Fears are real and powerful. In the middle of our fear, can we see Jesus and hear him?

I read about Texas Ranger and Major Baseballer Josh Hamelton. He’s the reigning American League Most Valuable Player. Last year he had 100 runs batted in, 32 home runs, and his average was .359. If he had not missed 30 or so games, he might have threatened to lead in each of those categories, the Triple Crown. If you don’t know baseball, the Triple Crown happens about once every 50 years.

As you might guess, Hamelton was a phenom right out of high school, but he was originally drafted by Texas. He was drafted by Tampa. In minors, he got injured. So he was alone, extremely young, a millionaire and with time on his hands.

He started hanging out at a tattoo parlor which led to partying which led to alcohol and a cocaine addiction. The 6’ 4”, 230-lb stud withered away to 180 lbs, a shell of a man living from one fix to the next. He was out of the game for 4 years.

One night, he woke in a trailer surrounded by passed out junkies. He did not know where he was. He made his way to his grandmother’s house, but with an ultimatum. Get right with God and quit drugs or get out. His goals were simple, but impossibly difficult. He needed to turn back to God, fix his marriage, and leave drugs and alcohol behind. Rehabbing his life, he found his way into a youth baseball academy in Florida. There he did janitorial work, but also took his turns in the batting cage and it was clear he could still hit. The Tampa Rays gave him one more chance, and a couple of trades and a couple of years later, he was MVP with the Rangers.

In his story, something jumps out at me. Hamelton had become a Christian in his teens, but he didn’t develop a prayer life. He believed, but then the success and subsequent fall into drugs took him far from God. When his grandmother both took him and confronted him, he, for the first time, began to pray. I wonder if anyone here has been a Christians for a long, maybe years, but has never developed a prayer life. You believe, but don’t talk to God and listen to God and lean on God in tough times. You don’t rely on God when facing your fears.

Josh Hamelton continues in the middle of a brew, roaring cauldron. His recovery and journey of faith has not taken him out of the storm. When Jesus walked to the disciples on the water, the storm didn’t stop. The very thing that produced their fears did not go away. The storm was still there. They were still way out to sea. But now, they realized Jesus was with them in the storm.

Major league baseball players have groupies – some autograph seekers, but also many attractive young women who would love to hook up with a millionaire athlete. They play 82 road games in a dozen cities around the country. Temptations are everywhere. When Hamelton is on the road, he has to have the minibar from his hotel room and the television turned off. His addiction so potent that he cannot carry any cash on him; he might use it on drugs. Last year, he not only one the MVP. He led the Rangers to the World Series. Winning the American League, the team would celebrate as champions do – with Champaign flowing. He could not be around that. He’s got a believing wife, a team chaplain, teammates who are Christians – they all come together as the presence of Christ guiding this superstar, this fragile, broken human through the storm, past his fears. And he prays.[ii]

What difference will prayer make when I am confronted by my worse fears?

Jesus walked on the water in the storm to the disciples. Verse 24 says they were battered by the waves. The Greek word ‘battered’ also means ‘tortured.’ Fear and torture go together to break a person and they were broken. But he said to them, “Take heart, it is I.” The Greek is ‘ego eimi.’ “I am.” Matthew’s readers would immediately see that this is what God said when Moses asked God’s name. God appeared in the burning bush, and Moses wanted to know God’s name. God said, “I am.” Jesus said, “I am.”

Lest we make this sound too simple, remember one disciple needed more. Lord if it is you,” said Peter, “Command me to come to you on the water” (v. 28). Jesus did not make a big deal of the fact that he had already said, “I Am,” and that now Peter wanted more proof. Jesus did not scold Peter’s skepticism in the storm. Faith is hard to hold onto especially when the world around us – sin, Satan, temptation, death – conspires to make us forget God and reject Jesus. I don’t know if the 11 disciples in the boat were more faithful because they accepted it when Jesus said, “I Am;” or, if Peter was more faithful because he stepped. I suppose we could read it either way. Jesus showed up in the middle of their fears, in the middle of their storm, and He will show up in the middle of our fears and the middle of our storm because he loves us.

“Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” “Come.” Peter walked on water. He then came to the startling realization that Jesus was with him, but the storm wasn’t over. Feeling the gale force winds, he took his eyes off Jesus and sunk like the rock that he was. “Lord, save me,” he cried, and Matthew tells us Jesus immediately pulled him out of the water. Once they were on the boat, the disciples all worshiped him, which is the appropriate thing to do when one is with God.

Sometimes God plucks us out of the disaster, but sometimes God uses the disaster to do His work in us. Note that I did not say God causes the disaster – the car accident or the hurricane or the cancer or the divorce. I steadfastly do not believe God brings calamity just to make a point. I think God is always trying to grow us and love us, but sometimes we don’t pay attention until everything else is taken away or our fears are so pronounces everything else moves to the background.

Fear drove Peter to pray, “Lord, save me.” Fear led the baseball player to become a praying Christian. I am not sure what your fears are or how they impact your life. I am sure you have fears. I am sure your fears have an affect on you – we all have them and each one of us is impacted.

This morning I want us to hear the Gospel writer Matthew. He’s written his Gospel to help churches and to bolster the faith of believers. He wants us to meet Jesus. He wrote so we will hear Jesus say to us, in our trembling hearts, in our struggles, anxieties, and doubts, ““Take heart.” Jesus is saying to you and to me right now, “Take heart, I am here. I love you. I will walk with you.” Our fears are here too. The things that get to us are still on the prowl. But Jesus is walking alongside, carrying us when need be. And if we hear, “Take heart, I am here,” and upon hearing it, if we pray, Jesus will begin going to work in us. We’ll become people who are made new. And we won’t see the storm in the same way. We’ll see, but with Jesus coloring our vision, we’ll realize He is bigger than the storm and with Him, we have perfect Hope.


[i] Kilinger, Preaching the New Millennium (1999, Abingdon Press), p.133.

[ii] D. Reed, “Super Natural,” Christianity Today, June 2011, p.34-36.

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