God Forms Us Into Special People

It’s been a tough nine days to be a human being. A week ago Friday, we began to hear reports of a serious bus crash in Eastern Saskatchewan involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team bus. Eventually we learned that there were 14 fatalities and a fifteenth member of the team died the next day. On Sunday a very emotional vigil was held at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt. On Monday morning, we heard the news that two hockey players had been mixed up and one player thought to be dead was alive and another declared alive was actually dead. Wednesday brought more sad news as team trainer, Dayna Brons, succumbed to her injuries. The funerals began on Thursday when broadcaster Tyler Bieber was laid to rest. Three were held on Friday, another three on Saturday, and there are more funerals to come.

The Humboldt Broncos bus crash has touched some people because of their connection to hockey and others because of their ties to Saskatchewan, but it has touched all of us because we are human. These were young people, healthy and vibrant, with so much more life that they could have lived.       What hope is there for the human race when life is abruptly cut short for so many who are young and strong? All of us know that life is not supposed to be like this, but reality has shown us that it is. We can hide in our comfortable homes, or bury our minds in our fancy phones, but we cannot escape the fact that we human beings are mortal. Death has been woven into the fabric of every human life since our first parents stepped out of God’s grand design and decided to try living life on their own terms.

Boat in Storm by Jean-Pierre Brungs-36491-unsplash
Photo by Jean-Pierre Brungs on Unsplash

But God has never given up on the human race and through the gift of His Son, Jesus, God has changed our destiny so that we are not condemned by our faults and failures, so that death is no longer the end of life, and so God’s plan to renew and restore this broken world can begin and then eventually reach fulfillment.

We can see evidence of God’s plan in chapter six of the Gospel of John. One thing that is important to remember about this chapter of this biography is that all the events recorded here take place with Passover in the background. John tells us in verse 4, “The Jewish Passover Festival was near.” Passover was one of three great Jewish festivals and 2,000 years ago, when the Jewish Temple still stood in Jerusalem, every Jewish male was required to travel to Jerusalem for each of these three annual festivals and worship at the Temple.

Passover was important because it commemorated what was, up to that point, God’s greatest act of salvation in all human history when He brought an estimated 2.4 million Israelite slaves out of Egypt. Now Egypt was a world super power at that time.  God did this act of salvation by bending nature to His will, in other words, He did miracles such as turning the Nile River to blood and causing plagues of frogs, gnats, flies and other things. What God was doing as He did this was showing everyone that the false gods and all the power and the glory of Egypt meant nothing in comparison to the one true God.

Then God showed that He has power over life by sending a final plague of death for every firstborn male in Egypt, including humans and livestock. But God also provided protection from the Angel of Death who would come to claim his own. Each family would choose a Passover Lamb that would give up its life and its blood and everyone who marked their doorframes with its blood would be safe. The Angel of Death would see the blood, pass over their homes and they would be set free from their bondage in Egypt.

Note that it didn’t matter what nationality you were, or how good, wealthy, powerful or good-looking you were. None of those things would save you then. None of those things will save you now. All that mattered centuries ago on that one special night was whether one heard God’s message and then believed Him when He said that the blood of a lamb would save them.

That very night, the Israelites marched out of Egypt and as they left, they asked for and were given gold, silver and other items of great value. A world super power was brought to its knees. In one night, Egypt lost her workforce and her wealth.

God’s miracles did not end with the departure from Egypt. That large group of people needed a lot of food to survive, so God did an amazing feeding miracle where He regularly supplied a special food called manna for forty years so that the people would have enough food to eat during their time in the desert.

God also did some amazing miracles that involved water. He parted the water of the Red Sea to provide an escape for the Israelites from the Egyptian army that was pursuing them. Then God allowed that water to return to its normal place and swept away the enemies of His people. God also provided water from a rock at Horeb (see Exodus 17) because there was no other water source nearby and you cannot have life in the desert without water. When the Israelites sojourn in the desert came to an end, God parted the waters of the Jordan River during flood season to allow all those people to come safely into the land that He had promised to give to them.

Through all these miracles that God did—saving people from death through the blood of a lamb, giving life through water that makes a way where there is no way, and feeding hungry souls with bread that came down from heaven—through all these things God was not patching up human existence so it could continue going forward as it always had in the past. God was doing something new. God describes what He is up to through the prophet Isaiah. Here is a portion of chapter 49 from the book of Isaiah from the Message:

“And now,” God says,
this God who took me in hand
from the moment of birth to be his servant,
To bring Jacob back home to him,
to set a reunion for Israel—
What an honor for me in God’s eyes!
That God should be my strength!
He says, “But that’s not a big enough job for my servant—
just to recover the tribes of Jacob,
merely to round up the strays of Israel.
I’m setting you up as a light for the nations
so that my salvation becomes global!” (vv. 5-6)

God also says:

“When the time’s ripe, I answer you.
When victory’s due, I help you.
I form you and use you
to reconnect the people with me,
To put the land in order,
to resettle families on the ruined properties. (v. 8)

God had chosen for Himself a very particular group of very ordinary people and He was using the feeding miracles, the water miracles and the lamb miracle to form them into a very special people who would then be a light to the whole world, so that everyone could know that God has written a new ending for human life and now, the final chapter opens us to reveal to us a new world in which everyone has healing and wholeness, a home and peace.

Then God placed His chosen people on the crossroads of the ancient world so that every polytheistic pagan world power that passed through the Promised Land would learn that there is one group of people who worshiped one God who offers hope and salvation for all.

As amazing as God’s salvation story is so far, it is only the prequel. Because God’s special people were the fertile ground from which God brought forth the One—the single, solitary person who do all that ancient Israel did and so much more. The miracles of the ancient past—the Lamb, the water and the bread—all point forward to the Special One that God promised, the Messiah. And this Messiah would also do miracles—miracles involving bread, water and a lamb—and the miracles that the Messiah would do would link to those in the ancient past and show that He is the ultimate light of the world who saves from death, gives freedom from bondage, and feeds and nourishes our hungry and thirsty souls.

The passage that we are looking at today is the water miracle of John 6. Just prior to this, Jesus proved that He was the Messiah by doing a feeding miracle when He fed 15,000 people with five small loaves of bread and two fish. Then Jesus sent His twelve closest followers home by boat across the Sea of Galilee while He went up into the hills to pray. He was probably exhausted by all that happened that day, and He was likely also dealing with personal grief over the recent news that His cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by King Herod. Once again, evil had risen up in this broken world and had its own way. In times of grief, there is no better place to be than alone with our heavenly Father.

The Sea of Galilee is actually a lake and it is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. Set in the Rift Valley and surrounded by high hills, powerful windstorms can quickly develop over the lake and the disciples were caught in one of these windstorms after they left the shore. The lake is 23 km from north to south and 11 km from east to west, so when the disciples managed to travel 5 or 6 kms after several hours of hard rowing against the wind, they were in the middle of the lake where the wind would have been the strongest, the waves the highest and the water was the deepest.

Then they saw Jesus walking on the water coming toward them. As fearful as they were before because of the storm, they were more terrified now because seeing a ghost back then was thought to be a sign of impending doom, and that is what they thought they saw when they were looking at Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the storm.

But then Jesus calmed their fear-filled hearts with these words, “It’s me. It’s all right. Don’t be afraid.” Those words that have been translated as “It’s me” or “It is I” in some translations are the same words that God spoke to Moses from the burning bush when He told Moses His name. “I Am” was the way that God identified Himself, and it is fitting that “I am” should be God’s name because God is the source and sustainer of all existence.

So when Jesus said to His followers “It is I. Don’t be afraid” He was not only saying “It’s me.” He was also saying, “I’m God. You don’t have to be afraid when the storms of life threaten to overwhelm you. I am the Great I AM. I have the power to give life, I have the power to set free, I have the power to protect and provide, and you are forever safe with Me. You don’t have to worry when storms come upon you because I am always with you.”

Then and only then, were the disciples willing to invite Jesus into their boat. Sometimes we are just like those disciples. We have to be terrified before we invite Jesus into our lives or into the situation that we are facing.

Now I could end the sermon here and say, “Have a nice day!” But there is more to God’s salvation story. For each and every one of you is part of another group of ordinary people that God has gathered. And that group of people is called the Church.

God has saved you from death and set you free from bondage through the blood of another Lamb, the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the whole world. That Lamb of God is Jesus, who died on the cross to set us free from our bondage to sin. Jesus rose from the dead and He uses the water miracle of Holy Baptism to give you a new life with Him that will last forever. Jesus nourishes you in that new life through the feeding miracle of Holy Communion, a sacred meal in which Jesus gives us His Body and His blood along with the bread and the wine.

Imagine what it would be like if every person in the world knew Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and then, when tragedies like this happen everyone would have the sure and certain hope of resurrection life through Jesus! God has a plan for making that happen and that plan is you. Our heavenly Father is forming you into a special people called the Church so you can be a light for the whole world that points to Jesus and says, “Yes, there is pain and suffering and toil and death now. But there is a Lamb that protects from death, there is water that gives life and there is bread that satisfies when nothing else will.” Jesus has saved you for more than yourself. Jesus has saved you for the world. And you rest in Jesus and let Him live His life through you, you will become a mirror that reflects Jesus’ love into a broken and hurting world.

You and I are just like every other human being in the world, we live, we grieve, we suffer, and we die. But because of Jesus, we are also a special people, unlike others in the world. For we have hope in times like these and that makes all the difference. For we believe what is written in 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.” Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on April 15, 2018. It is based on John 6:16-24.)

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