Background: This is the funeral I conducted for my next door neighbor. He and I talked about the gospel on several occasions, but I have no confidence that he ever trusted in Christ. I struggled over what I should preach, until I remember a conversation we had over a sermon I had written on Luke chapter 8, faith and the stilling of the storm. I used this as my text.
Joe knew well that I was a preacher. He loved to tell me "preacher jokes" and I liked to hear them and laugh with him. Joe was not a member of our church. Our church, in Joe's words, was the church he would attend if he ever went to church. On one occasion I took a collection of some of my sermon manuscripts to Joe to pass on to his son. Joe read at least one of those sermons. It was a sermon on faith. Some time later, Joe came over to see what progress I was making on a particularly difficult automotive project--one that had drug on for months. I was discouraged. Joe, in his own unique way told me, with a twinkle in his eye, that he had recently read my sermon on faith and then suggested that this was probably what I needed to practice. Of course, he was right.
This is a very sad occasion for me, but I think Joe's words to me that day are appropriate here, too. This is a time for faith. And so I would like to share with you some words from the Bible which give us a basis for the faith which can enable us to find comfort and hope at the time of sorrow and death. I wish to share with the lesson which Joe read and of which he reminded me. If there is ever a time when faith is necessary, it is at a time when we must come face to face with death, and with the loss of one we love. Let us look then at this brief account which is found in the Gospel of Luke:
Luke 8:22-25 One day Jesus said to his disciples, "Let's go over to the other side of the lake." So they got into a boat and set out. 23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. 24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, "Master, Master, we're going to drown!" He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 "Where is your faith?" he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, "Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him."
Jesus was in the boat with His disciples, heading for the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Suddenly, a storm swept across that lake, known also as the Sea of Galilee. The disciples, some of whom were seasoned sailors, were terrified. They had weathered many storms, but they were convinced on this occasion that they were finished. Frantically, the disciples tried to keep the boat afloat, but it was no use. The water was coming in faster than they could bail it out. While the disciples desperately sought to save themselves, Jesus slept. They were irritated, and finally awakened Jesus. They told Him, "We're going to drown!" Undaunted, Jesus spoke to the winds and the sea and they were instantly calmed.
There are three dramatic changes that Luke records in this short text. The first is the change from storm to stillness, in but a moment of time. This was surely a miracle. It was a miracle to still any storm, but it was a greater miracle to still one instantly, so that the waves and the wind suddenly ceased, making the sea like glass.
The second change is that which took place in the outlook of the disciples toward their circumstances. They were initially frightened, panic stricken, thinking only of themselves and of what seemed to be imminent death. Inwardly, they were as troubled as the sea. And suddenly, they were stilled in their souls.
The third change in the disciples is their change in attitude toward Jesus. While the text cannot convey the tone of voice of the disciples, I think we can surmise that they were initially perturbed with Jesus. Here they were, in grave danger, trying as best they could to bail out the water and to keep the ship afloat, and there Jesus was, in the stern of the boat, sound asleep, aloof to their plight, and uninvolved. I think that whoever spoke to Jesus spoke with irritation in his voice. I think that someone may well have shaken Him to arouse Him, and probably not too gently. Their initial attitude toward Jesus was agitation. And suddenly this, too, changed. In the same time it took for the storm to be calmed, the disciples, who were once overcome with worry, fell to their knees in worship. And rather than being mad at Him for not acting as they did, they marveled among themselves as to who He really was.
Jesus very quickly exposed the problem, and the solution. Their problem was fear, and the solution was faith. Jesus rebuked His disciples for their fear and for their lack of faith? Why? I think that the answer is simple and very relevant. The disciples were fearful because their focus was on what was going on around them. There was a storm, and the waters were coming over the side of their ship. They were about to go under. All of this was true. But what they had not taken into account was even more important, and that was Who it was who was with them in that storm. When Jesus stilled that storm, the disciples were reminded once again of something which was evident throughout the life of Jesus, something which He Himself claimed -- He was no ordinary man; He was the Son of God.
There is a very important truth imbedded in these few verses, which, if we understand and live by it, will transform our lives and our outlook on life. Put simply, the truth is this: WE NEED NOT FEAR WHAT GOES ON AROUND US WHEN GOD IS WITH US
Simple, isn't it? Once the disciples understood that it was the Son of God who was with them in the boat, it did not matter how bad the storm was. He who created the land and the seas was in that ship. As the apostle Paul would later put it, "IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO [OR WHAT] IS AGAINST US?" (Romans 8:31)
Applied more specifically to the circumstances of the disciples in that stormy sea, and to our own, we could say this: WE NEED NOT FEAR DEATH WHEN WE KNOW THAT GOD IS WITH US
Throughout the Bible I find passage after passage where those who have faith in God find confidence and assurance in knowing that God was with them in life, and that they would eternally be with Him after death. Notice these examples:
Psalm 16:7-11 I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. 8 I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, 10 because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. 11 You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 73:21-28 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Joe's death confronts us with two distressing realities. The first is the loss of his friendship, of his absence from us. There is a great sense of loss in this for me, and I believe for you as well. Thus, we grieve because of this sense of loss. The second reality is that of death itself. Joe's death reminds us of our own destiny, and that this life is short and uncertain. We know that some day our time will come. Death is for us, an enemy, a foe, and also a certainty.
Yet in spite of the fact that death is normally the occasion for fear (after all, the disciples were afraid in the storm because they thought they were going to die), David can write in the 23rd Psalm that even when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death he will fear no evil. How can this be? He tells us. It is because he is assured that God is with him. The valley of the shadow of death is the most frightening thing life holds, and yet for David it held no fear because of his faith in God, and specifically that when he passed through that valley, God would be with him. Put in nautical terms, in terms of those disciples who were frightened in that boat in the midst of the storm, we need not fear the storm when the Master is with us in the ship.
It is a certainty of the presence of God with us that is the basis for our fear, and is the solution to our fears. This is a truth found throughout the Bible. And that is why these words of our Lord Jesus are most assuring to those who know Him: "I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU" (Hebrews 13:5, quoting from Deuteronomy 31:6 and Joshua 1:5).
There is a problem, however, and that is that men are separated from God by sin. The presence of God is the basis for our faith, and it calms our fears. But we are all sinners, and our sins separate us from God. Not only can a Holy God not dwell among sinners, but we who are sinners will flee from God, just as Adam hid from God after his sin (cf. Genesis 3:7-10). Peter, in another account when he realized the greatness of the Lord who was in the ship, besought the Lord to "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8). The apostle Paul, in Romans chapter three, reminds us that we are all sinners, who have turned away from God and who are not seeking Him. Again, Paul writes that we are born in a state of opposition to God (Ephesians 2:1-3).
If man's sin is that which separates him from God, it is also that condition which drew the heart of God toward men. While we do not seek God, God has sought us. God came to the earth in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. He came, as He often said, to save sinners. He came to draw men to God who were fleeing from Him. When Jesus died on the cross of Calvary, He suffered the punishment we deserve, He suffered the separation from God that is the result of sin. That is why Jesus cried out from the cross, "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?" (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46).
The problem of sin and of separation from God was solved on the cross of Calvary. All we must do is to acknowledge our sin, our separation from God, and our need of the Savior. Once we have trusted in the Lord Jesus, then we can be assured that God is with us, as His name "Immanuel" indicates (cf. Matthew 1:23).
You and I stand, as it were, looking on into the valley of the shadow of death this afternoon, shaken by its reality by the death of our friend, Joe Johnson. We can, like the disciples and David, fear no evil, if we but know that God is with us. And the presence of God with us is that which Jesus provided and offers to all who will but believe in Him. May each of you have the comfort that David found in the presence of God.
We are facing one of the storms of life. And we all know that we shall die, too, perhaps not today, but someday. Man has devised many ways of dealing with the fear of death, but the Bible gives us but one way. Some look at the storms of life and hope that things will get better. There are few of such people today, for their is little basis for optimism. Joe and I frequently talked of the miserable condition our world is in. There are others who try to look within themselves for hope, but this, too, is ultimately futile. God's way is not to look without, or to look within, for hope, but to look to the Lord Jesus Christ. When God is with us, there is no need to fear anything, including death.
Joe was right to remind me of my need for faith. I need fear no evil when God is with me, no matter how bad my circumstances may be. God is near all those who have placed their faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. My prayer is that you, perhaps for the first time, may experience the nearness of God, especially at this time of sorrow.
Heavenly Father, I thank you for Joe, for his friendship, and for the many fond memories which I have of him. I thank you for the comfort of knowing that the time of Joe's death was not just "his time", but that it was "Your time" for him. I thank you for knowing that our times are in your hands. I pray that each of those of us here who mourn Joe's loss will find comfort and hope by experiencing Your presence, so that the fear of death may never again grip us. We ask this in the name of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who endured the separation from You that we deserve, so that we may, like David, be able to say, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." In Jesus name we pray. Amen.