Gospel Lesson: Matthew 14:22-33
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ 28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
O.K. I know this is going to sound a bit strange, but I want you to forget everything you’ve ever heard about our Gospel lesson for just a few minutes. Really, I do. I mean, I know some of you have heard this lesson preached on more than a few times. In my time here with you, this is actually the fourth time I’ve preached on it because of the three year lectionary cycle. And there is a reason I want you to forget about what has been preached. That reason is, nearly every time I have preached on this text, I’ve made it about what we are supposed to do. Nearly every sermon I have heard preached on this text does exactly that–it focuses on what we should do.
“Keep your eyes on Jesus even in the midst of the storms.”
“If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.”
“Don’t doubt, just believe.”
Did you hear the focus of all these points? Did you hear what is lifted up? It’s all about me and what I need to be doing. Forget that stuff for a few minutes. Forget those points as ends, and let’s look at this text and work our way through it. Let’s turn the focus away from ourselves and put the focus squarely where it needs to be: on Jesus.
Jesus had just fed the multitude on the hillside, and He was finally going to get some rest and recovery time to pray with His Heavenly Father. Jesus sent His disciples across the lake while He prayed. The disciples did exactly as Jesus commanded. They headed out, but they faced a rough night on the lake. The wind was against them, and they were struggling. Here’s where things get interesting.
Jesus walked across the lake and came upon them during the early morning hours. Now, for those of you who are skeptical about the laws of physics being broken, I want to point out two things. First off, do some reading about quantum physics and try to understand that there are no set laws which govern every situation anymore. Science works in terms of probability–not certainty. It is highly improbable that anyone can walk on water, but it is not impossible. Secondly, as C.S. Lewis would point out, if you are interested in Christianity, it’s important to work backward. Start with the resurrection and then work backward. I will be happy to point out why I believe the resurrection is an actual, historical event where Jesus truly was raised from the dead, but now is not the time for that. What can be said is this: if God can raise Jesus from the dead, then it is certainly possible for Jesus to walk on water. Which is exactly what the story says He does as He comes to the disciples.
As we would expect, the disciples are scared out of their wits. They are not idiots. They are familiar enough with the way the world works to know that no normal human being can walk on water in the middle of great wind and waves. They believe it is a ghost coming toward them, and when confronted with the paranormal, they cry out in fear. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same if a ghost suddenly appeared right here this morning! (Ooh, that reminds me of a joke...) The disciples are trembling in that little boat not sure of what to expect.
And Jesus speaks words of reassurance. “Take heart, have courage, it is me.”
In the midst of their fear, Jesus offers words of assurance. He offers words of comfort. He offers words of calm. Think about this for a moment as you reflect upon those times in your life when you have been fearful; when you have trembled at the thought of something you are facing; when you are uncertain or facing trials. How often have you heard the voice of Jesus, through the words of the Bible or through someone else tell you, “Take heart. Be courageous. I am here.” How often, in the midst of such things, does Jesus still remind us He is with us? Quite often, I believe. Quite often. Jesus continually offers us words of comfort in the midst of our storms.
However, how many of us are actually calmed by those words? Be honest. How many of you when you hear, “Everything is going to be okay. Jesus is with you,” immediately take a deep breath, lose all your fear, and find yourself at peace? I’m not seeing many hands, and if your hand is up, I’m tempted to call you out on that because the reality is hardly any of us lose our fear. Hardly any of us are totally at peace. I’m pointing the finger at myself here as well. I mean, classic example, when Dawna was pregnant with Kevin six years ago, outside I seemed pretty normal, but inside, I was a nervous wreck. I knew of all the things that could go wrong with a pregnancy, and I was worried about all of them. I gained quite a bit of weight during that time because of nervous eating. Did I know Jesus was with me? Sure. Did I know the pregnancy was an absolute gift from God? Yep to that one too. Did it stop me from being fearful? Not a chance. It was there. It’s there for most of us.
Perhaps, just perhaps this is why Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk toward you.” Now, Peter isn’t a fool. Peter knows very well the rabbinical tradition of early Judaism. Peter knows that a rabbi expects his students to imitate him, and Peter is throwing out a perfectly good challenge to Jesus. Peter is asking for a sign. We are not all that different. I mean, how many of us when we think we understand what we are supposed to do say, “O.K., Lord, if you really want me to do this, give me a sign. Show me in some sort of way that this is the right thing for me.” When I was in the midst of discerning whether or not to come to Cat Spring years ago, I did exactly this. I was like, “O.K. God, if this is where you need me to be, I’ve got to have a fenced in yard on that parsonage. Will the folks do it?” Y’all did. “O.K. God, if this is where you want me to be, I need to make at least this much money.” That’s what it was. And it all kept falling into place. Each time I tested the Lord, He gave me the sign. Through it, I was reassured. Perhaps this is exactly why Peter speaks up. He needs that reassurance. Jesus says, “Come.”
Now, here is where things get interesting because Peter steps out of the boat. By all indications, he is actually able to walk on the water for several steps. But then things go haywire. With the wind and the waves making their presence known, Peter starts to sink.
How many times does this happen to us? I mean, really. If you claim to follow Jesus, how many times have you heard His commands and tried to follow it? How many times have you ventured out and found some success? How many times have you said, “Well, this following Jesus stuff is okay. I can manage it.”? Only after a few steps you suddenly find yourself overwhelmed?
• Oh, I know I am supposed to love my neighbor, but he is spreading rumors about me.
• Oh, I know I am supposed to give to everyone who begs, but they are taking advantage of my good nature.
• Oh, I know I am supposed to stop looking at another person with lust, but that woman is very attractive.
• Oh, I know I am supposed to love God more than money, but I keep thinking about all the stuff I can now buy.
And it continues. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that even though Jesus commands it, we know we will not be able to fully follow it. We know we fall short of doing what Jesus wants us to do. And when we truly confront this about ourselves, the words of that old Gospel Hymn hit us right where we live:
I was sinking deep in sin, far from that peaceful shore
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more
Yes. If we had to follow Jesus commands, we couldn’t do it. We can’t do it. If we are supposed to get out of the boat, we will sink. If we try to do what Jesus tells us to do and work out our own salvation, we will flounder. The wind and the waves are too great. But it’s not about us. That’s the good news. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. Let me finish off the words to that hymn: Love Lifted Me:
But the Master of the sea, heard my despairing cry
From the waters lifted me, now safe, safe am I
You see, it’s all about Jesus. It’s all about Him and what He does. When I am terrified, He offers His voice of calm. When I don’t heed that voice and I try to make it on my own; when I try to follow His commands and I flounder knowing I cannot accomplish them, Jesus reaches out to me and pulls me up.
And this incident with Peter and the disciples on that boat is just a foretaste of the ultimate saving power of Jesus Christ. Jesus lifting Peter out of the water is just a foretaste of the time when Jesus would face the ultimate storm; face the ultimate time of despair; face the ultimate penalty for sin so that He could lift the world out of darkness and despair and bring them to safety.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.
On the cross, Jesus faced the separation from God that we deserved. On the cross, Jesus faced that ultimate storm brought about by our failure to do what God called us to do. On the cross, Jesus said, “You can’t be completely courageous; you can’t completely follow my commands. If you venture out onto the water, you will sink. You cannot save yourself, so I will save you. I will put you back in the boat. I will reconcile you unto my Father. You are a failure, but by my actions, you are accepted.”
You see, it’s all about Jesus. It’s all about His actions. We are constantly afraid. We are constantly trying to test God and justify ourselves. We are constantly sinking, and Jesus is constantly reaching out, lifting us up, and reassuring us. He is constantly telling us, “Stop trying to justify yourself. Stop trying to find your assurance in what people say about you or your accomplishments. I’ve already taken care of it all. You might never accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but because of what I have done, you are on good terms with your Heavenly Father. We love you. Do not doubt this. Trust it. Trust it with your entire being. And you will know peace in the midst of the storm.” Amen.