Islands

August 13, 2017

 

Based on 1 Kings 19.9-18 and Matthew 14.22-33

 

There is a group of volcanic islands in the South Pacific Ocean, so remote that they are even northeast of the Fiji Islands. 

Wallis, Futuna and Alofi Islands comprise French Polynesia.

They were settled primarily by Tongan expansionists about 1,000 years ago. 

And although territories of France for about 50 years, each island has its own culture, its own traditions and even its own king. 

The islands themselves are amazing — formed when volcanos erupted deep in the sea, leaving a heap of debris that eventually hardened and somehow vegetation grew and entire ecosystems flourished. 

If you were to visit these islands today, you would still see the practices of the ancient cultures — the drinking of kava, a mouth-numbing, grog-inducing beverage made from a native root; the men wear colorful wraps; you would see fire-walkers and some self-mutilation; and kings who don’t communicate directly, but have other people speak for them. 

Ancient traditions… 

But on Sunday morning, without fail, everyone — EVERYONE — goes to church. 

You see, the churches came with the Christian missionaries in the 1850s, and this brave group of Christ-followers would spread the Good News to the most remote places on the planet — Wallis and Futuna Islands notwithstanding… 

And I say brave because it wasn’t merely the voyage — it’s about 2,000 miles away from Australia, roughly the distance of sailing from New York to Venezuela in South America.

But also because among the traditions of these Oceana Islands peoples were practicing brutality, human sacrifice and cannibalism at the time of the missionaries’ visits. 

Missionaries didn’t conquer with weapons; they came with armed only with Bibles. 

It took amazing faith!

But when the missionaries arrived, the Gospel was welcomed, and those violent traditions ended, almost immediately upon hearing the teachings of Jesus Christ. 

The kings describe it, saying that all stopped when the missionaries said no more killing people. 

Today, Wallis and Futuna islands have some of the friendliest, loving and welcoming people in the world. 

In fact, their cultures now dictate that they love you “from the bottom of their hearts.”

They give thanks for your visiting them.

That’s hospitality. 

 

Elijah

Imagine the great faith that it took for these native islanders to change their violent ways.

To hear the Gospel and trust in a God they never new and couldn’t see. 

And the faith of the missionaries, too! 

To sail 2,000 miles in the South Pacific to visit an idol-worshipping  people known for their ferocity. 

The entire proposition would be one of fear!

But isn’t this where God steps in? 

In our first reading today in 1 Kings, we see the great prophet Elijah, who has single-handedly been taking on idol worshippers, false prophets and kings and queens to do God’s work. 

Fresh off destroying great temples to false gods, Elijah earns a death warrant from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel for killing 450 of her prophets all by himself. 

And out of fear that his life is over, he hides in a cave. 

And it is here, we see in verse 9 in kings that God asks the great prophet, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah knows his history.

He knows what happens to God’s prophets. 

They are all killed. 

And even in this, the Promised Land, the Israelites have turned away from God and started worshipping idols.

And now they are going to kill Elijah because he is a prophet of the One True God, not the idols. 

All that he has done, and all that God has asked him to do was for nothing, Elijah believes. 

And he wants to check out. 

He is afraid, and he lacks faith. 

Even after all that he’s seen, and all that he’s done for God, he lacks faith that God will still be there for him!.

Elijah believes all this time, he has been an island — one person in a sea of change and tumult.

Standing alone. 

 

Peter

In so many ways, Peter is a lot like Elijah, too. 

Peter, who is called the Rock for his steadfastness in Christ.

Peter, who tries to defend and protect Jesus. 

Peter is the one who draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the guards when they come to arrest Jesus moments before his crucifixion. 

And Peter, who in our reading today, sees Jesus walking on water and is the first to ask him if he can, too. 

Last week, we saw how Jesus fed the multitudes with just five loaves of bread and two fish. 

He gave thanks, blessed the bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples to distribute to those gathered at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus had compassion for them.

Imagine you’re Peter in that moment. 

Jesus hands you a loaf of bread. 

And wondering what is happening, you begin breaking the bread and giving it to the people. 

And as you're breaking the bread, the loaf just never ends. 

It never runs out. 

Eventually, everyone is full.

That bread — this miracle — passes through your very own hands. 

If you don’t believe by now that Jesus is God, I’m not sure what it would take. 

But after everyone is fed, Jesus sends them back home and tells the apostles to take the boat and cross the lake, and Jesus goes up onto the mountain to finally be alone and pray. 

We read that some time later, he sees that a storm has come up, and his friends in the boat are in danger. 

And Matthew tells us in Verse 25 that Jesus “came walking toward them on the sea.”

Remember, Jesus is fresh off an incredible miracle of feeding all those people with barely nothing. 

The apostles also have seen how Jesus has healed people from incurable illnesses, blindness and immobility just by touching them. 

And now they see Jesus walking across the Sea of Galilee, and they experience fear.

Matthew says they were “terrified.”

They think it’s a ghost, and they cry out in fear. 

Jesus says “Don’t be afraid. It is I.”

In the Aramaic, that translates to I AM — what God calls God’s self in Exodus. 

And Peter stands right up and asks Jesus if he can walk on water with him. 

He hops out, and he’s standing there on the water, but what happens?

Verse 30: He goes from elation to fear. He notices the strong wind and the waves, and reality — so he thinks — slaps him in the face, and he immediately begins to sink. 

And he cries out, “Lord, save me!”

Isn’t it ironic that after all that Peter has seen. 

How Peter has witnesses Jesus’s healings, held the miracle of the bread in his own hands and even stood on the sea that he is still afraid?

And all Jesus says is “Why did you doubt?”

Like Elijah in the cave, Peter does the same thing as the prophet. 

He forgets his connection to God, and he, instead, looks to his own self.

And Elijah and Peter are afraid. 

Like an island. Dependent on no one. 

 

We need a savior

It’s not a stretch to believe that some days, we are so connected to the Spirit that we feel invincible —

That we can take on all that God asks us to, knocking over idols like Elijah and walking on water like Peter.

But so many other times, we are the opposite. 

Even after witnessing all the amazing things God has done in our lives, we hole up in our caves. 

We begin to sink. 

We feel like failures.

You know, sometimes I leave this sanctuary, and I am on such a spiritual high. 

And I think of all the times God has just shown up for me, and helped me get through some really uncomfortable or painful moments. 

Even moments when I’m not sure of what to say, and every time — every time — God is there to give me the right words at the right time. 

But then, an hour later, I see something disturbing in the news, or even in our own community or church, and I feel disheartened. 

Do you know the feeling?

I sometimes ask, “God, why is it that every time I take a step forward — when I feel like I’m making some headway in this world in spreading your love — but then something happens, and it seems like I’m taking two or more steps back?”

Like Elijah, it’s so disheartening.

Like Peter, I begin to sink. 

And none of us are any different, are we?

In those setbacks, we aren’t seeing the whole picture. 

We’re not seeing the terrain from God’s vantage point. 

And we lose our faith. 

As humans — and as Christians — we ride these highs and lows. 

And sometimes, it even feels like we have more lows than highs.

Or that our lowest lows are more intense than our highest highs. 

But that’s not really true. 

It only seems that way because our faith wanes. 

Think of this faith as a life vest. 

When you have it on, you know you’re safe.

But take it off, and you begin to lose that confidence. 

Sure, you may be able to stay afloat for a while. 

But eventually, you’ll sink. 

You can’t do it alone. 

 

Plot it

There’s a great practice — a discipline, even — that each of us can, and should, do that will restore faith and get us walking on the waves again. 

It’s simple. 

You take a sheet of paper, and you draw a timeline horizontally in half. 

Above the line, you list all the great things that happened in your life in order: promotions, marriage, births of children, vacations, great experiences…

And the more intense those experiences, the higher you rank them on your timeline, say 1 through 10, 10 being the best. 

Then you write down where God was in those moments.

Easy, right ?

But then you do the opposite below the timeline. 

You also rank the bad things that have happened in your life:

Deaths, divorce, getting fired from a job, health issues…

Again, 1 through 10, but 10 being the worst. 

And this is the hard part: You write down where God was in those moments, too. 

That takes some soul-searching. 

But in most of those moments, if you really search your heart, you will see where God was in those moments, too. 

And even the good that came from them. 

Elijah was looking for God in the storms — in the wind and fire and earthquakes. 

These were the negative plots on Elijah’s timeline. 

But it took Elijah to be silent, and to truly search for God, for Elijah to see how God was working in his life. 

It wasn’t God in the storm. It was the still, small voice. 

And it was no different for Peter, either. 

There he was in the storm — at first, he was walking on water because he saw what Jesus was doing and what Jesus had done. 

Again, Peter held the miracle in his very own hands when he gave the bread to the hungry. 

These were some very good things on his timeline. 

But then he saw the bad things on his timeline, too.

He saw the waves and the storm, and he heard the wind, and that was all he saw. 

He stopped seeing that Jesus was right there with him. 

And it was because of Jesus that he had, seconds earlier, been walking on the water toward Jesus. 

And so, focusing only on the negative events, his faith slipped, he slips that life vest, and he began to sink. 

He didn’t see where Christ was in that moment. 

Islands

I wonder what the missionaries felt like when they dropped anchor, got into their rowboats, navigated through treacherous reefs and stood on the beach facing hundreds of natives known for their savagery on Wallis and Futuna Islands in the 1800s.

Without being connected to Christ, their timelines might have had some very negative plots on them — if they lived to record them. 

But they were able rid the islands from their idols and show the people the One, True God. 

And they were able to walk on water that day. 

And they were able to record positive plots on their timelines. 

They didn’t succumb to fear and sank, because they trusted God. 

They never lost sight of Jesus.

And this is the important part:

Like islands, can we do any of this on our own?

No. 

On our own, we cannot change attitudes, let alone change the world. 

So many of us tried that all of our lives with no success. 

But, as Peter shows us, we don’t have to be these incredibly faithful saints. 

We will be weak sometimes. 

We will feel defeated even. 

We might even want to give up. 

But this is the very reason why we need a savior. 

And if we can say that, “Lord I Need You,” then we will understand that Jesus will never leave our side.

Jesus will never abandon us. 

Ever. 

We will have highs, and we will have lows. 

But if we search our hearts, we will always be able to see Christ. 

And we always will be able to see what God has done in those moments. 

And we always will be able to stand solidly in faith knowing that God will continue to be with us and continue to do amazing things in our lives.

We don’t have to go it alone.

We’re not islands, and God never intended us to be. 

Even when we feel like Elijah or Peter, we can rest assuredly knowing that God is always there with us. 

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