Keeping our focus

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Last week a terrible thing happened with our Atlanta Braves. Mike Soroka, by far our best young pitcher, went down on a fluke play and tore the Achilles tendon in his heel. He required surgery and is out for the entire remainder of this already crazy, Covid-shortened Major League Baseball season of 2020.

Brian Snitker, our manager, and Freddie Freeman, our All-Star first baseman and team spokesman, were interviewed about what that would mean and how that would impact the team and the rest of the season. I’ll paraphrase these interviews.

“Is that, in reality, the ‘end’ of the season for the team?” asked one sports writer. “How will the team respond to such a significant loss?” asked another.

Both Snitker and Freddie remained calm and secure and answered with words such as these. “We know in our business that you can’t focus on a loss like this and get distracted by all the possible bad scenarios which could result. No, the only thing to do is focus on the players we have and the games we have to play. If we keep our focus in that right place, then we expect good results for the team and for this season.”

Keeping our focus in the right place even in the face of formidable distractions was the theme for many of us Christians this past Sunday. We once again encountered the story, specifically as told by St. Matthew in the 14th chapter of his gospel account, of Jesus walking on water to bring rescue and safety to his disciples as they were being tossed violently in their little fishing boat by a storm which was driving wind into their faces and surging waves into their boat.

As Matthew tells it, the disciples see Jesus coming, but first think it’s a ghost, which would make the storm even worse. But when the disciples see it’s Jesus, they seem to regain their faith, and Peter even asks Jesus if he could come out and walk to Jesus on the water, too. Jesus bids him come. Peter almost gets to Jesus, but he loses his focus on his Master and begins to sink in total fear.

Jesus reaches out His strong hand and pulls Peter back up to safety. Even though Jesus says, “O you of little faith,” His power and His love for Peter show through and the storm subsides.

I am always intrigued by questions that go like this, “Why did Matthew include this story in his account of the life of Jesus?” And, “What was going on in the lives of his ‘audience’ at the time they would have received his (Matthew’s) gospel?”

Matthew’s audience was the Jewish Christian community about fifty years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, so about the year 85 A.D. They were in a tough spot.

As followers of Jesus, believing Him to be the Messiah that was rejected by the majority of Jews, even probably many of their own family, these Jewish Christians would have been ostracized by their families, as well as persecuted by the Roman oppression.

They were surely struggling to keep their focus on their faith in Jesus, and keep from totally caving in to their doubts and fears. They were surely wondering, amidst the distractions of their problems and persecutions, if they could trust Jesus to be truly present with them to give them help and hope.

Now, Matthew could have just wanted to tell them that Jesus did a lot of “miraculous” things back in His days on earth. “Hey, He even walked on water. Ta-dah!” But how much “real-time-help” could that have been for these Christians who were fighting their great current battle between focus on faith and focus on doubt. Surely there was more to this than just a grand-stand story of “long ago and far away.”

The best Biblical scholars seem to all help us see that the miracles of Christ as recounted in Scripture are much more than just a splash in the past tense. Rather, the miracles of Jesus reveal who He is and what He does on an on-going and continuing basis throughout time and with His people in all times and in all places.

So, Matthew tells his audience that what Jesus did that day, actually coming to His disciples to rescue, restore, comfort, protect, and provide for them in their time of need, is exactly what Jesus still does over and over again. He always provides His presence and peace even in the conditions of “wind in His people’s faces and waves in His people’s boats.” No human situation or circumstance is without Him coming to His people. Even if the “storm still rages,” Jesus is with His people providing for their true and ultimate needs.

Jesus and His disciples. Jesus and the Jewish Christians of the first century. Now, what about us?

No doubt we experience, and are even now experiencing in many ways, the “wind in our faces and the waves in our boats,” which cause us to have a crisis of “focus,” as well.

Our storms and distractions “only” include a world-wide virus pandemic, civil unrest, racial tensions, political nastiness, devastating natural disasters, dilemmas within schools and educational systems about when and how to get back to learning for a new school year, and hundreds of other national and global problems.

Our storms and distractions “only” include divisive strife on multiple issues even within the span of Christianity and The Kingdom of God.

Our storms and distractions “only” include suffocating personal problems, growing brokenness in marriages and families, the pressure of raising children, the pressure of caring for elderly parents, the pressure of being a young person of faith in a world pushing faith to the far edges of society, diagnoses of dangerous diseases, and “you finish the list” with the realities of the storms and distractions of your own life.

So, what’s the message and the Truth? It is the same for us as it has always been and will always be. Jesus is faithful. Jesus is trustworthy. Jesus keeps His promises. Jesus “shows up and stays with” His people in and through every possible storm and distraction we could ever possibly encounter.

Even when we get distracted and lose our focus on Jesus, He reaches to us with His Strong Hand of Help and Hope. And we are again empowered by the Holy Spirit of Christ to regain and keep our focus on Him, and Him alone. We believe that. We trust that. We “bet our life” on that.

I believe our Braves will keep their focus in the right spot for the rest of this crazy season, and be alright. I believe we will keep our focus in the right spot, on Jesus, and we will be even better than alright. It’ll be the best thing we’ll ever do.

The beloved Gospel hymn says it well, “Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! Oh for grace to trust Him more.” Amen!

[Kollmeyer is Pastor Emeritus at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. Follow Pastor Scott Ness and the on-going ministry of this church at www.princeofpeacefayette.org. Kollmeyer is also now serving as part-time Interim Pastor at Word of God Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg, www.woglutheran.org.]