“It Is I; Do Not Be Afraid”
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
God often appears when we are most afraid.
When Moses first met God, he was in the wilderness. He had just killed a slavemaster and was running away for his own life. His people were being brutally oppressed, killed and beat and mistreated, and attacked back home, and he was now an immigrant living in a strange new land. It was here in the land of Midian, in what is now modern Saudi Arabia, as a lowly shepherd, living off of the kindness and welcome of his new family, that God spoke to Moses.
As Moses approached Mt. Horeb, a bush was enflamed with fire, but was not being destroyed. Instead, the branches and leaves were impervious to the flames. And as he came closer to inspect, a voice spoke to him, calling him by name. “Moses! Moses! Here I am. I have heard the cry of my people.”
Moses, like most of us would be, was so terrified that he hid face. He couldn’t look at the Lord until God spoke of a plan for freedom and new life, a plan that would include Moses, a plan in which Moses would have to act with courage and strength and faith in God.
It was then that Moses asked, “What is your name God? When people ask who spoke to me and sent me to proclaim freedom, what should I say your name is?” And God said simply, “I AM WHO I AM.” Tell them, “I AM” has sent you.
With that meeting and with those words and with that name spoken out loud, God transformed ascared shepherd, a fugitive from his country, a foreigner in another land, a member of an enslaved nation was turned into a prophet, a liberator, and a voice of God’s love and protection. Tell them “I AM has sent you” is all it took.
Fast forward 1500 years. And instead of the vast desert of the Arabian Peninsula, God is now at work on a large freshwater lake. It is called the Sea of Galilee, and it is 13 miles long and eight miles wide. A group of 12 young men, fishermen and tax collectors and political zealots and wadnerers, are in a boat, trying to get to the other side of the lake. They, along with their teacher, have just fed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. They have seen water turned into wine, the lame stand up and walk, and the dying come back to fullness of life. But they don’t know what any of it means yet. And now they have a crowd of 5,000 after them, unsure of what the crowd will do. As they are fleeing across the lake to find some safety and peace, a huge storm comes up to meet them.
I grew up not too far from Lake Erie. And while it is a fresh water lake and pretty calm in the summer, as it gets into fall and winter, it can rage as much as the fiercest parts of the ocean. You can get waves over 20 feet high and winds as high as 70 mph. Even the strongest tankers have to take lots of care offeaseason.
The Sea of Galileeis not as big as any of the Great Lakes, but is still 13 miles long by eight miles wide. And storms come fast on the Sea of Galilee. Mountains lie just east of it, and when the wind blows west, the colder air from those mountains comes rushing down onto the warm air of the Mediterranean and the wind and waves can be life threatening in a matter of minutes.
That’s what the disciples were facing that day. A storm coming out of nowhere while they are still miles from shore. And then they see a figure coming to them. Not in a boat. Not swimming. But somehow, just as crazy and impossible as a bush burning but not being consumed, is a man walking on water. At first, they are terrified. This strom may kill them, and now this ghostly figure is coming their way. Is it good or bad, they don’t know. Until a voice speaks out to them. In most English translations these words are translated as “It is I; do not be afraid.” But the is “ego eimi.” Literally it means “I AM.” These 12 men see that their teacher, jesus is the one walking on water. But more than their teacher, for the first time, they get a glimpse that he is someone more. He is the great “I AM.” I Am is here, with you, in this storm. “I Am” has taken on flesh and bone, breath and life, and is with them right now in their time of fear and terror, leading them to shore. Leading them to a where they are going. Leading them to heal and witness, teach and love, share and forgive, strengthen and encourage, lives of daring challenge and miraculous transformations.
This isn’t the last time the disciples will be scared. This isn’t the last time they will question if they can make it. But each time, Christ reminds them they aren’t alone. Each time, Jesus tells them God will be there, whether it be the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit. And each time they will be strengthened and encouraged to go to a new place and tell the world about grace and new life.
As I read this passage this week, I think about those who find themselves on troubled waters. I think about the nine family members who died on a Duck Boat in Missouri, and the survivors who still find themselves in a midst of a storm. I think of migrants coming from Libya and Sudan and Egypt, like Moses and Israel trying to find a safe place to call home, crossing on any vessel they can find on the huge and wild and deadly Mediterranean Sea. I think of those who have are separated from loved ones, parents from children, and don’t when they will see each other again. I think of those who like the crowd chasing Jesus, are hungry and seeking something more in life but don’t know yet where to find it.
To all these and so many more, Jesus’ message today is to let us know the God who made the universe, the God who created us out of God’s image, the God who pours forth grace and mercy as freely as rain, is never far.” The Great I AM is here. Do not be afraid. You are not alone. I still have plans for you. And I will get you not just to safety, but to where I am calling you to go.”