When our children were little, we loved reading Shel Silverstein poems together. They were funny and quirky and – I discovered – often very true.
One of my favourites is “Whatif”
Let me share it with you:
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don’t grow taller?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won’t bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!
(from A Light In The Attic, 1981, by Shel Silverstein, poet)
Maybe you know about the Whatifs too? And 3 am is their favourite time to dance inside my ear, I find.
It’s such an odd thing – Some fears are inexplicable and even silly. What if we discover little garter snakes in the garden? They don’t do any harm and actually can be good, but still – yuck- I wear closed shoes and gloves, just in case.
Sometimes our 3 am wakings are as silly as worrying about green hair growing on our chest or green garter snakes in the garden.
Other whatifs, though, are a good guard against real dangers. Last night the teenagers at our house went out to swim and came in five minutes later! It wasn’t that the water was too cold, – they saw lightening followed quickly by thunder and the “Whatif lightening strikes me” was a good thing to be afraid of!. We do well to have a healthy level of concern when we handle toxic chemicals or toxic relationships.
Sometimes, that clenching of our stomach, that cold sweat, can be a very reasonable response to real danger
That was the situation for the disciples – it was 3 am and their fear was real. The Sea of Galilee isn’t really much of a sea – you could put about 5 Galilees in Lake Nipissing!
Still, like our lake, it is rather shallow, and surrounded by hills that funnel the winds across the water and it can blow up into huge waves very quickly.
Just imagine yourself, in the pitch black night, rowing against the winds, far from shore. The waves are so big, and your boat is so small. It’s maybe 27 feet long and less than 8 feet wideso, with 12 of your best friends in it, you are pretty heavily loaded. Their aching hands can hardly hold the oars – they are shaking so badly. the sail is useless. And you are all frozen with spray and stiff with terror. The water is breaking over the low sides and gospel writer says the waves are ”tormenting” you.
And where is Jesus? Nowhere to be found! And why in the world did he compel – yes the writer tells us he COMPELLED – his friends to head out into what turned out to be a disaster. Especially when He seems to have known what would happen in the future.
Was the danger real? Absolutely! Were the “Whatifs” dancing in their ears – you bet – dancing and shouting “We are all going to die! The sea will swallow us all up”
And in the midst of that, they see a GHOST!
I mean, what else could that figure be? We might wonder – why didn’t they recognize Jesus? They knew him so well! But it was dark and cold and they were panicked. All that for sure, but I think there may be more -fear can blind us to the obvious and in a crisis, we don’t always think clearly. And then – there is this way that Jesus has of appearing where we don’t expect him, in ways we would never have predicted!
What is the first thing Jesus says to them? “Take heart, or Have courage!” What???????
Is he saying don’t be wimps? You are being silly- weak? – no way!
Don’t be afraid, because the danger isn’t real? It is!
Don’t be afraid because it doesn’t matter if you die? It does!
NO – He says, “it is I AM – Don’t be afraid.”
Now our text chooses to translate the original Greek to “ Take heart, it is I- do not be afraid” but perhaps a better sense of it might be the one that the disciples probably heard – “Take heart -it is I AM”
Remember when Moses encountered the burning bush in the desert? (Exodus 3:14). God was calling this failed prince/shepherd to go and free the people of Israel who were enslaved by the Egyptians – the most powerful nation in the world at that time. Moses was scared – lots of “Whatifs” immediately started a polka in his ears! He and God had quite a discussion! He asked God, “Well when I try and tell these folks they should follow you – what name will I tell them?” In short, he was asking – who shall I tell them you are? And God answered “tell them I AM sent you.” God shared this mysterious name with Moses and it was a holy name ever after.
So when Jesus ( who had, in the last 24 hours performed multiple miracles) called out, “ – Don’t be afraid because I AM is here,” hHe was saying I AM – the One who is stronger than the chaos of the waves, the one who is able to save you when salvation seems impossible, the One who is faithful, the One who is God.
I read recently that there are 365 Fear Not’s, or some form of that command in the Bible. Now I haven’t counted them for myself, or found them all, but the thought intrigued me. One FEAR NOT for every day of the year.
In my mind, I had always heard that phrase spoken as a rebuke, or as an expression of God’s disappointment. But when I read the number, that seemed like it wasn’t quite consistent with the nature of God I have come to know, so I have begun to search out those FEAR NOT statements. And I am so surprised!
I discovered that all the ones I explored so far have a “because” of some sort attached to them. What if we were to see our fears, the “whatifs” that plague us, as an invitation to discover something we might not know or expect about God, about ourselves – and about our relationship with him?
What if – it is 3 am and our child is suddenly terribly ill? What of my teenager is being – well – a teenager, or my adult child refuses to speak with me and I fear he never will again? What if my job disappears? Are those real fears – yes!
The question is not is the fear real, but rather – do I trust God? – the God who made the universe, the God who gave his very life for that child I am worried about, the God who called my child into being and engraved their name on his hands with the nails of the cross (see Isaiah 49:16) – can I trust that God to be faithful to do what is best – even if though he may have to bring that child through some painful things or call her home earlier than I would like? How deep is my trust? Oh – and how is my need to control, how are my words and actions contributing to the situation? Can I trust God to reveal this to me, to gently convict me of any sin I may have in this situation and am I willing to obey, to repent, if he does?
The world around us traffics in fear – fear used to control us, to get us to buy and hoard stuff in fear that we might not have enough, to act in certain ways and do certain things because if we don’t we won’t be liked or successful – to vote certain ways because if we don’t…. You name it.
Into this culture of fear, Jesus says – have courage –
not because you are strong but because I am,
not because you know the future, but because I do,
not because you are not ever in danger, but because I am your shield. (Genesis 15:1)
Don’t be afraid even when you are growing older
and your body won’t do what your mind tells it to any more,
and you are afraid to die or be sick before you do –
because I AM life eternal and your everlasting home will be with me.
That’s all very well to say, Rev. Marie – but what about when it is a cold 3 am and the “Whatif’s” shout so loudly I can’t hear the whispers of my faith?
What if like Peter – my faith is small? What if it is not enough?
Well let’s think about that! When Peter sees the “”Ghost”,
the first thing he does is check out whether the figure he is seeing is really Jesus – wise thing to do!
Anybody who has been on social media knows how easily our identities can be hacked – and wrong assumptions about who Jesus is can hack into how we identify God’s work (That’s why Bible reading and study and prayer are so important – Peter knew the sound of Jesus’ voice! It is in prayer and scripture we learn to discern the authentic voice of God)
Peter’s faith may have been small – but it was enough to get him out of the boat! It was enough to give him the amazing experience of walking on water. Was he afraid, even as he set out? I bet he was. He did it anyway
Then natural fear of the waves and wind overwhelmed him, and he must have felt so alone! We can identify with that too, can’t we?
When the storms of grief surround us,
when our job or our health or our marriages or families are threatened,
when we are ashamed,
we can feel isolated, even in a crowd.
With the wind whipping his hair into his eyes,
soaked to the skin and his feet on water instead of dry land –
Peter looked back to the boat
and ahead to Jesus
and I suspect they both felt very far away!
He took his eyes of Jesus and he began to sink like the stone his name typified.
But Jesus didn’t abandon him to drown.
He reached down
And Peter didn’t insist on trying to dog paddle his way out of trouble all on his own.
He called out “Lord save me”! and grasped the hand Jesus reached down to him.
The strong hand of Jesus grabbed his hand and pulled him out.
Then Jesus returned with him to the boat
– to the community of those who had even less faith
– and he calmed the storm for all of them!
He didn’t leave Peter, shivering and soaked out in the middle of the sea but returned him to the community, who dragged him over the gunnels into the now safe boat.
And He didn’t even abandon the ones who stayed in the boat wondering if their friend was crazy and wishing they had his courage.
Jesus got in the boat with them all. And they were moved to worship
We can see Jesus’ question “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” as a rebuke, I guess and for many years I did.
Now, knowing Jesus better, I hear it said gently and even with a wry smile – “You know better than this my friend – live it!”
It’s an invitation to live what we believe.
Remember that Jesus said previously
– that even faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains – if that faith is in him.
IT is the great I AM that is powerful
– and it is the one in whom we decide to trust – not how strong we are – that matters.
How we live in the storms of our lives is, in part, how we share the Good news of the gospel – as Paul says in our Romans reading – we believe with our hearts, and we confess with our mouths as we give glory to God, and our way of being shouts to a frightened world that there is good news. That there is hope in the night-time of our fears.
The reality is that there will be storms in all our lives – it is not negotiable!
Sometimes we will worry ourselves sick over things that never end up happening, or that are frankly silly.
Sometimes we will blunder into big waves by our own stupidity or willfulness,
sometimes storms will come because our world is a chaotic place full of real danger
and yes -– and sometimes, because the mission of sharing God’s good news with the world will require us heading right into the waves,
Jesus may actually send us into a storm.
We will feel like the waves are so big, and our boats are so small.
Yet in the midst of our storms we can hear God’s invitation to trust
– and our willingness to trust, even in the midst of our fear – to live in the storm, will not be wasted.
One commentator said this
” When Jesus begins walking towards the boat, the disciples are terrified. At the end of the story, when they’re all back on the boat, and the wind has ceased, they worship Jesus. Between their fear and worship is one disciple’s risk and security in the arms of grace. The trust and risk of one follower of Jesus has an effect on the whole community of followers. Individuals who risk boldly and move toward the call of Jesus can make a difference in the lives of other believers.” (emphasis mine)
Remember it is in Matthew 17:20 that Jesus commends faith the size of a mustard seed!
So “little faith” is not necessarily a rebuke?
“Peter had only a little faith, but nobody else got out of the boat. A little faith may be all that is needed to transform a story that starts in terror into a story that ends in worship”
In the midst of our storms – -these two things are true –
First – in every situation, Jesus says to us “fear not”
and we can hear that as a rebuke
or an invitation from our loving God to trust in the cold at 3 o’clock am of our fear,
to say I choose to offer this little mustard seed of faith
and put our trembling hand in his
and allow him to pull us out of the abyss of our misery,
to carry us back into the community of faith where our friends can haul us back into the boat
and the great I AM can calm the storm
We are able to do this, because the great I AM
– the One who tamed the Sea of Galilee in the darkness of a cold and windy 3 am
and carried a dozen frightened men safely to the other shore,
the great I AM who hovered over the original waters of chaos and called the earth into being and order,
The I AM who spoke to a failed leader, hiding in the desert and revealed himself in a burning bush, enabling him to lead a nation from slavery to freedom
– that great I AM who, for love of us died and rose again – is faithful and loves us still and is able to carry us to the other side.
That great I AM is the answer to the “Whatifs” of our lives.
That great I AM, says, “Fear not, reach out your hand to me and learn who I AM as we walk together from chaos to peace. From dark to light and from fear to trust.