February 3, 2019
“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”
This is a rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are not asked in order to be answered. They are asked in order to make you think. Yes, Jesus wants you to think! People use rhetorical questions all the time, especially teachers to their students. Rhetorical questions are a teaching tool. Jesus is a teacher. Even as waves pour into the boat, Jesus takes a moment to teach his disciples.
So, let us take a moment and think about Jesus’ rhetorical question. “Why are you afraid?” The answer seems obvious. Waves are swamping the boat in the middle of the lake. They are all going to drown and die. Why wouldn’t they be afraid? And now you see that Jesus’ rhetorical device is working. We’ve already asked ourselves another rhetorical question. Well, why shouldn’t they be afraid? Jesus answers this question by rebuking the wind and the sea and turning the great storm into a great calm. They shouldn’t be afraid, because they have Jesus in the boat with them.
So, back to Jesus’ original rhetorical question: “Why are you afraid?” It’s not because of the wind and waves exactly. Jesus will take care of that. Jesus himself answers his own rhetorical question when he says, “O you of little faith.” His disciples are afraid, because they have little faith.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech. Jesus aims to persuade his disciples with his rhetorical question. What is he trying to persuade them to do? To have greater faith in him. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples to trust in him! He is the Lord, who made the sea and dry land. Jesus himself controls the weather. No storm arises on any sea without Jesus’ permission. If Jesus is with you, you have no need to be afraid. This is what Jesus is teaching his disciples.
And this lesson applies beyond storm tossed boats. Jesus spoke at the end of the previous chapter as he concluded his Sermon on the Mount, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25) This means that if you hold to Jesus and his teaching, there is no power in heaven or earth or hell that will be able to harm you.
It is important that you have faith. St. James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:5-8) And Jesus himself says, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, ... even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and throne into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:21-22) So, it is clear that Jesus wants us to grow and increase in faith.
Yet, this lesson has been greatly perverted, especially by those known as prosperity gospel preachers. They teach that the reason you lack anything in this life is because of a lack of faith. “If you just increase in faith then all your problems will be solved. If you are sick, it is because you lack faith. If you have enough faith, you’ll get better. If you are poor, it is because you lack faith. If you just increase in faith, then you’ll be rich. If you are suffering from depression, it is because you lack faith. If you increase your faith then you’ll be happy again!” Faith is treated like some skill you must hone. And if you hone it well enough, you will become invincible.
But faith is not a superpower that will solve all your earthly problems. If this were true, we could attribute the sufferings of the saints and apostles to their lack of faith. But Abraham didn’t wait decades to have a son and die without inheriting any land, because of lack of faith. Neither was Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt for his lack of faith. The prophets and apostles weren’t stoned, crucified, and beheaded because they lacked faith. St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12, “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul didn’t suffer from this thorn in the flesh despite his prayers, because he lacked faith. Rather, God permitted this ailment to remain in order to keep Paul faithful!
Having a strong faith doesn’t mean that you are going to get rid of all your earthly problems. So, what does it mean to have a strong faith? To have a strong faith means that you trust in the Lord. This is different than having everything go well for you here on earth. Rather, having a strong faith means that you trust in the Lord even when you face difficult trials.
It is true that Jesus is the Lord of the universe. Through him all things were created and continue to hold together. But what is more is that out of God’s great love for you and desire to save you, he sent Christ Jesus to conquer death and hell for you. Jesus proves by calming the storm that he is the God, whom Jonah worshipped, who calmed the sea when he was thrown overboard. Yet, Jesus came to fulfill the sign of Jonah by himself being thrown over to death and resting in its belly for three days. Jesus calms the threats of death and hell against us by sacrificing himself; dying, so that we might live.
Through faith in Jesus Christ each of you has certainty of eternal life. For this reason, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can be victors over everything that troubles us, even if we lose our lives because of them. It is as Martin Luther wrote in his great Reformation hymn, “And take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Let these all be gone, They yet have nothing won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.” (TLH 262:4).
Now certainly your God and Savior, who created and runs the universe by his word and loves you enough to bear the burden of your sins on the cross certainly can and will rescue you from your temporal problems as well. He can heal you of cancer, get you a good paying job, take away your chronic pain, reconcile you with your brother with whom reconciliation seems impossible. All things are possible with God. And God wants you to pray and to believe that he will answer your prayers and do what you ask him to do! This is what he is saying when he invites you to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” King David also declares in Psalm 37, “I have been young, and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” God promises to take care of all your needs of body and soul!
But true faith is not measured by the perceived success rate of your prayers and having your earthly problems solved. True faith is measured by you trusting in God, even if he permits you to suffer, even to die. As the three men, who were threatened with death in the fiery furnace said, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)
Such faith is important, because Christians often suffer greater than those outside of the Christian Church. Martin Luther wrote that no boat on the sea was pummeled by the wind and the waves as much as the boat which held Jesus. Being a Christian invites persecution and hardship. It seems a lot easier outside of the Christian Church. And this is why it takes steadfast faith to remain a Christian, because although the ship won’t sink and the house won’t fall, the wind and the waves will still rush upon you.
If you have steadfast faith in Christ, you can endure any hardship. This is a fact. But what if you doubt whether Christ Jesus is in your boat with you; when you question whether you have built your house on the rock, and perhaps built it on the sand; when God himself seems to be against you and you are too ashamed on account of your sins to claim Jesus to be by your side? This is the work of a guilty conscience, when you examine your thoughts and deeds done in secret, when you have failed to love as Christ has taught you, when you have not behaved as a Christian. And you wonder, will Christ fight for me?
That is when it is all the more important to call out to God for Christ’s sake. Jesus came to save sinners. He rescues you from troubles that are your own fault. He doesn’t defend you against your enemies, because you are so good; not even because you have such a strong faith. Christ helps even those with a weak faith, as he did for his disciples on the lake. And he does this purely by grace!
The following phrase is repeated three times word for word in the Psalms, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5) Isn’t that great? What does Scripture teach you to do when your soul is in turmoil within you? Ask it a rhetorical question. Teach your soul a lesson. “Why are you cast down? Take time and think about that.” “Well, why shouldn’t I be cast down? I am hated by my friends. My life is a mess. And God seems far from me.” “You shouldn’t be cast down, because God is your salvation! Hope in him!”
Jesus wants you to have a strong faith. But he doesn’t convince you to have a strong faith by getting you to focus on yourself. Rather, he teaches you to have a strong faith by drawing you to focus on him and what he has done for you and promises to keep doing for you. It is Jesus who saves even those with little faith. Why are you afraid? Can’t you see that Jesus fights for you? Amen.