A Lighthouse in the Storm

Two weeks ago, when Denny and I took a few days off, we drove north to Lake Superior, to what’s known in Minnesota simply as the “North Shore.” If we had to choose a favorite place on the planet, this would probably be it. We rented a cottage on the lake near Two Harbors, and each of the four mornings that we spent there, I got up early, turned on the fireplace, got my Bible and sat in a chair in front of the windows overlooking the water. I watched the sun rise over the lake; sometimes I’d see ships in the distance. It was quiet and incredibly peaceful.

But as we were driving up, my daughter Emily called me and when I told her where we were going, she told me about the big storm that had occurred just a few days earlier. October 10 was a very rainy day in Iowa and much of Minnesota. On Lake Superior, however, as often happens, especially at this time of year, a huge storm blew up. Winds up to 86 mph blew over the lake and waves more than 20 feet high crashed against the rocky coast, causing more than $18 million in damage to the Duluth harbor.

A few miles up the coast from Duluth a lighthouse sits on a rock 130 feet above the water. The picture on the front of your bulletin is this lighthouse at Split Rock. Emily said that she’d seen pictures on the evening news of waves so high during that storm that the spray flying up reached the top of the lighthouse.

Lake Superior, you probably know, is the largest freshwater lake in the world—and it’s often called one of the most dangerous pieces of water in the world. Because these storms often come up without warning, especially at this time of the year. Yesterday was the anniversary of the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank during a sudden storm on November 10, 1975; the entire crew was lost. The event was memorialized by Gordon Lightfoot in his song called The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald that was a huge hit. The Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship traveling on Lake Superior at that time and, like the Titanic, no one thought it would ever go down.

Ship traffic is heavy on Lake Superior, as the Duluth harbor is one of the leading cargo ports in North America. So when a November storm back in 1905 wrecked 20 ships and caused 116 deaths, the state knew that something had to be done. They commissioned the building of the lighthouse known as Split Rock.

The lighthouse was completed in 1910 and the light shone continuously out over the water—officially it was visible for 22 miles, but it has been reported that, under the right weather conditions, it can be seen 45 miles away in the Apostle Islands. There are 350 ships lying in the deep waters of Lake Superior, more than half of which have never been located. But not a single ship went down in the dangerous North Shore region of the lake following the completion of Split Rock Lighthouse.

Denny and I visited the lighthouse; we also visited Gooseberry Falls State Park, a place where we camped almost every summer with our children as they were growing up. There are no sandy beaches on the North Shore of Lake Superior; you need to go to the Michigan side of the lake to find those. No, the Minnesota side of this lake that the Indians called Gitchee-Gumee is wild and dangerous. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, the shoreline is covered with huge rocks, often jutting out far above the water. Children—and often grownups, too—love to climb on them, to run along the top of them. We would watch our children closely, however, because the lake is deep and very cold even in summer; if a child were to fall in, chances are good that they would not survive.

We never turned on the TV in our cottage, but as we were driving we heard about bombs being mailed to former presidents and other government officials. We heard about angry mobs chasing down people just because they don’t agree with them politically. We heard about people shooting other people. We heard about political attacks by both parties as the upcoming election drew closer.

And as I sat looking out at this beautiful lake on those quiet and peaceful mornings, as I saw huge ships in the distance, I pictured our nation as a ship being tossed about in a Lake Superior autumn gale, struggling with storm winds that seem to be increasing by the minute. And our boat, though huge, is being tossed about like the Edmund Fitzgerald was back in 1975. The sky is growing ever darker; the strength of the sailors is failing. And in the midst of all this, we realize that there’s something or someone on the boat with us that wasn’t there before. And as a huge wave washes over our boat, someone screams: Stranger in this boat, who are you?

And the answer comes: I am Fear. All hope is lost. Fear is in the boat.

As Americans, we’ve been used to feeling safe. Powerful. If there was fear, it was fear of us.

Somehow we’ve lost that feeling of safety. People are afraid. Afraid of people who show up unexpectedly with guns in their hands, ready to kill anyone in their path. Afraid that elections are rigged or the results somehow manipulated. Afraid that our health insurance won’t be sufficient if we discover cancer or heart disease or Parkinsons or Alzheimers is a reality for us. Afraid that if the wrong people are elected we might lose our religious freedom. Afraid that the immigration issue might not be resolved the way we think it should be.

A recent poll showed that the greatest fear among American people is fear of government corruption. Next in line is health care, followed by pollution, not having enough money, high medical bills, world war, global warming, and North Korea.

We are in the midst of fearful and turbulent times. As the dark waves seem to batter us from all sides, many Americans—including Christian Americans—fear what the future might hold.

Fear is in the boat. It’s in our own lives. It’s in this church—fear of what might happen tomorrow or the day after.  

Fear fills us with loneliness, hopelessness, desperation. It drives our decisions and actions and causes us to do things we could never have imagined we would do. Like getting so angry with a friend or family member over a political issue that we stop talking to them.

Fear eats away at our insides until our resistance and strength are spent and we break down. It eats away at the ties that bind us to God and to others, and when in a time of need we reach for those ties, they break and we sink back into ourselves, helpless and even more despairing than before.

Everyone is looking for a savior. Many of us hoped salvation would come in the election last week.

And because our fear has become so enormous, so powerful, even many of us who are Christian have forgotten—we already have a Savior.

Fear has so polluted our thinking and distorted our judgment that distrust, hatred, and selfishness have separated us from our neighbor and our family—and, most importantly, from our Creator. Fear has grown so large that we have forgotten what it is that unifies us: faith, trust, love.

Fear takes away our humanity—because this is not what the creature made by God looks like.

Today is Veterans Day, the day that we remember all those who have served in the military. Most of our World War II veterans are gone, including both of my parents. But those veterans who fought in Europe during the second world war saw what fear did to Germany. They saw how the German people allowed fear to erode their humanity, turning trust in God to trust in a maniac, from love of neighbor to holocaust and war.

Fear doesn’t discriminate; it knows no boundaries of time or place.

We’re in a boat riding rough waters—we wonder if we’ll survive.

But brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid. We have nothing to fear—because we’re not alone in the boat.

Matthew 8:23-27 “When Jesus got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but Jesus was asleep. And they went and woke Him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And He said to them,’ Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then He rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey Him?’”

When all hope vanishes, when fear enters the boat, when we’ve forgotten that Christ is right there with us, when we think we’re perishing, it’s as if the heavenly hosts cry out to remind us, “Christ is in the boat.”

When the disciples remembered that Christ was in the boat with them, when they cried out to Him,  immediately the waves subsided. The sea became calm and the boat rested quietly on the water.

Because Christ was in the boat.

Have we forgotten that the disciples’ story is our story, too?

Have we forgotten that the certain knowledge that “Christ is in the boat” is our salvation, too? Because it seems, strangely enough, as if we’re at sea once again, on a voyage without faith, without hope, overwhelmed, in chains, in bondage, paralyzed by fear; we have lost heart, have lost the joy of living.

Have we forgotten that our purpose is to be the lighthouse that shines the light on Jesus—the only one who can save?

Perhaps we’ve forgotten because for so long so many of us have listened to and believed TV preachers who promise that life for Christians will be filled only with good things. Promised that God will protect us from pain and trouble and suffering. Nowhere, however, do we find that message in the Bible. In fact Scripture is clear that we who believe in and follow Jesus are not exempt from the storms of life: in fact, it often seems that trouble targets us more than anyone else.

Because when Jesus is in the boat, storms always come up. The world tries with all its evil powers to get hold of Him, to destroy Him along with His disciples; the prince of this world, Satan, hates Jesus and rises up against Him at every opportunity. We know this. We have only to read the Bible, to look at Christians who have gone before us, to realize that safety in this world is never promised to those who follow Jesus. Quite the opposite.

This is why God gave us His Word. This is why Jesus placed such a high priority during His lifetime on gathering and discipling a group of people who would be the start of His Church. We may be surprised every day by the things that happen in our world—but God is never surprised. He’s known forever everything that would ever happen in this world. And He knew before He created the world that in 21st century Iowa we would desperately need the Church—the church, where we would hear the voice of Jesus calling to us, saying, “I am in your boat.”

Because when we can’t hear Him, we listen to other voices: voices telling us there is no hope, no way out. Voices telling us to place our hope in men, in revolutions, or in ourselves.

Many pinned their hope on last week’s election. If we just elected the right people … if people just make the right choice. If only everyone would agree with me.

The results came in and almost no one was happy. Many are fearful. The storm seems to be increasing–overwhelming waves just keep crashing all around us. The media is already talking about two years from now. Maybe we’ll get it right then, maybe we’ll elect the right people. Maybe then the country can come together, can stop arguing, can stop killing people.

President Trump said, prior to last week’s election, that Evangelicals were “one election away from losing everything.”

But if an election can cause us to lose everything, then what exactly is it that we have in the first place?

Surely we can be grateful when our elected officials uphold religious freedom. But do we worship or serve at the pleasure of any administration?

Or do we serve at the pleasure of Jesus Christ? Because it’s not when we’re fined or even imprisoned for refusing to follow a law that goes against our faith that we lose everything—it’s not even when we’re fed to the lions that we lose everything.

It’s when we preach another gospel that we lose everything.

Right here, in the middle of this fearful world in which we live, is a place that is meant for all time, a place that has a strange and peculiar task that the world will never understand—the task of being a lighthouse for Jesus Christ, the hope of the world. Right here, we have the body of Christ, created for just such a time as this. Created by Jesus to be the lighthouse in our storm of fears, shining the light into the world that will guide us away from the rocks and point us to Jesus.

Jesus, who’s with us in the boat. Jesus who keeps calling out to us, “Don’t be afraid. Fear is overcome. In this world you are afraid, but be comforted—because I have conquered the world!”

Jesus is in the boat with us. When we’re overwhelmed with fear, our tendency is to isolate ourselves. And the devil has even made us fearful of church—because people have been gunned down while worshiping God in churches. But the call of Jesus to His church is never isolation. It’s to come together, especially when we don’t feel safe. Especially when our world is in turmoil. To come together, if necessary to suffer together, to make our way together with Christ, looking always to Him who is with us in the boat.

To allow Him to remind us that, no matter what’s happening, His will is being done. To remind us that throughout all of human history, He has never abandoned or forsaken His people.

To remember that it was God who brought the Israelite people safely out of Egypt. To remember that all they had to do was follow the Lord’s instructions. To remind us that even Pharaoh with his powerful army, was unable to stop them.

To remember that King Solomon, the man to whom God gave the gift of wisdom, was unable to build a kingdom without problems, a kingdom that endured—almost immediately after Solomon’s death, the kingdom fell apart and was soon divided.

To remember Pilate, who thought that he was in charge, who thought that Jesus should fear him and his authority. Who had no idea what Jesus was talking about when He said that if would never have been delivered over to the Jews if it had not been His will.

To remember that James and John wanted to call down judgment on a village that rejected their message, but “Jesus turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54-55).

We have something far better than any earthly kingdom. Something that no elected leaders will ever be able to provide. We have the Body of Christ. When our faith is weak, the church reminds us that it’s not our strength that carries us through, but the strength of our Savior. When we fall into despair and begin to think that God has left us or that He doesn’t care about what’s happening our lives, it’s here in the church that we’re reminded of the cross of Jesus Christ. Reminded that Jesus went to the cross because of His great love for us. Reminded that in His greatest time of trouble, when He hung on that cross, God did not abandon Him. And because we know this, we can be certain that God will never abandon us either.

It is here that we’re reminded, that we can remind one another, that we don’t need to be afraid—we have hope. A certain hope, a hope that we pray every time we gather: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

A hope that promises that Thy will is being done even now—even when we can’t see it.

It is here that we’re reminded of God’s good purpose for our lives, of His love for His children, and His power to overcome fear and evil. It is here that we hear the truth that we so often don’t want to hear but so desperately need.

It is the church that is called to be the lighthouse in the storms of life. Because we are the only place that those who are lost, who are in danger of falling out of the boat and drowning in the sea of fear, can hear truth.

The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Because when fear hits, it is the Bible, the gospel, the church, the faith, that remind us that Jesus is in the boat.

But when Jesus gave authority to the church, it was to make disciples, not citizens; to proclaim the gospel, not political opinions; to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not in the name of American or a political party; and to teach everything that He delivered, not our own personal or political priorities.

And He promised that His presence in the boat with us was something that the world can never take away.

And so if a lighthouse built high above Lake Superior can be totally successful is bringing people to safety during even the most powerful storms, should a church founded by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to shine the light of Jesus into the world expect to be any less successful?

Should we not continually be asking, as did His first disciples, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Asking and remembering. Remembering that we are never alone, but that this mighty and powerful Lord and Savior is with us every single minute—that we need never fear.

And may we never stop pointing our light directly at Him in this desperate world.

Let us pray.