The Text Says:
Today’s scripture passage is a familiar story from the Gospel of Matthew that sadly is not taken seriously by modern folks. Jesus’ disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee when a storm suddenly blew up. Their boat was tossed about and in danger of capsizing. Suddenly he was with them in their hour of need to allow their faith to overcome their fear. Matthew’s point is when the winds are contrary, when life is a struggle, when the hour is darkest, Jesus is there to help with our decisions, our temptations, and our sorrows. No one has to struggle alone, for Christ comes to us in the storms of life, hands outstretched to save: with his calming voice bidding us to “be of good courage and be not afraid.”
The Preacher Says:
The thought of Jesus getting tired might be a little too human to suit some folks. But Matthew has no problem with it. He describes an experience the disciples had with Jesus telling them to take a boat trip ahead of him to the other side of theGalilee. Perhaps he wanted time to be alone, to get a respite from the demands of the needy crowds. Or he might’ve felt the need for distance because they misunderstood him. They had bigger things in mind for him with an underlying agenda. After he fed the multitude, there arose a movement — to get Jesus to run for king in the next election.
There are few things that can diminish a leader so quickly as “undeserved popularity.” But anybody who can feed “5000 people on a boy’s sack lunch” beats food stamps any day! Who wouldn’t want to be a king? Well Jesus didn’t. He could have, but he wouldn’t allow himself to get drafted into power politics. His disciples would be squabbling over divisive issues that would only hinder their universal mission.
After they launched the boat, Jesus climbed the mountain to pray. Checking in with God is always a good thing to do when something big is going on. Something was going on with his disciples out on the lake. As they’re making their way to the other side of the Galilee, they weren’t making any headway. The wind was against them; waves were swelling, and water’s pouring into the vessel. Some of them quit rowing and started bailing when they realized they weren’t gonna make it. And to make matters worse, it was midnight, when the imagination plays tricks with your fears.
When we lived at the Avalon I was walking home late at night after a monthly council meeting and took a shortcut thru the parking lot. It was empty, except for two hooded Asians, one of whom approached me gesticulating and it put me on guard. It was apparent that he wanted something from me. “Tai chi! Tai Chi!” I thought he wanted to have a Judo fight! I said “Sorry, I’m not interested and kept going. When I reached the sidewalk, a man who’d apparently encountered them said “He wanted to use your cell phone to call a taxi.” Ah Tai chi! Now if it had been daylight…
Between three and six am, the darkest hour, Jesus shows up walking on the sea! Now folks have made light of that. And I’ll admit this isn’t something that comes along every day. But that’s not the point. The point is only God can walk on water. And we’re not God. Defying gravity in the scriptures is reserved for God, who stills the storms, and parts the seas; whose spirit hovers over the deep. This is what God does.
Showing up to show off was way too shallow for a guy like Jesus. The point is not to work magic. The point is the ancient’s faulty world view. They believed the depths of the sea was a place of evil. They were afraid of sinking because monsters lurked down below. Leviathan and Behemoth were down there in the water. Demons down below! And here comes Jesus walking on the water! Matthew wanted his church to believe that there’s no earthly power, or storm, wind, or wave too big for God. There’s no monstrous evil God can’t master. Now the disciples didn’t believe that yet.
But Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on the water is not to be understood as a miracle. Jesus has more interest in them than entertaining them with some fancy trick. “Take heart, it’s me.” Literally, “Take heart, I am.” That is God’s name! And that’s the point. God comes to those in danger so they need not be afraid. Isn’t that great? But they can’t believe it. It’s too true to be good. Peter goes “It’s a ghost!” From a distance, no doubt he seemed like a ghost. Blame it on midnight! Shame on the moon!
Darkness exaggerates everything. But I know lots of folks who refuse to believe in Jesus. And he’s still out there as a ghost-like something. But that’s fear and unbelief talking. Jesus wants to hear faith say something. That’s when Simon Peter tried to get in on the stunt: “If you are you, command me to come on the water too.” As usual Peter missed the point. He thought something like this belongs in the category of a miracle. So he’s OK with dipping his toe into the world of faith.
Do you remember where we heard these words the first time? “If you are the son of God.” It was in the desert and not on the water when Jesus was tested by the devil. Matthew puts these same words in Peter’s mouth on the sea, that the tempter used in the wilderness. Both were testing Jesus’ identity. And a little while later, Jesus ties them together when he said to Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan!’ There you go again! It’s not up to us to go around walking on water. It’s up to us to believe Jesus is not a ghost. Peter hasn’t yet got to the point where he could say: “I’d rather be drowning with you than crowned by anybody else.”
But testing God will get you nowhere every time. Or will it? In 1967 when I was struggling over the decision to quit a good job and move back to college to prepare for the ministry I tested God. I wanted to be sure God wanted me to do what I was about to do. So when I was invited to preach in a country church in North Carolina, I made an arrangement with God “If you’re calling me to preach, let some body get saved tonight. If nobody comes forward, then we’ll just stay put. And keep our jobs and our new house and cars.”
So I went up there and “rattled the rafters” pretty good and sat down. When the invitation hymn started I was very observant, searching for any movement in the audience. After four stanzas of “Just as I am” and nobody came. I looked up to heaven and said, “OK. I reckon that’s that.” But the preacher, who knew nothing about my pact said “Something tells me to sing one more verse before we close.” And Holy Jesus! A blonde lady in a red dress and high heels came running down the aisle in tears! And put an exclamation point on it. And that’s one reason I’m here. But that was then. Now I know you don’t test God.
All that pop stuff about Peter walking on the water, then takes his eyes off Jesus and sinks. That’s not the point. The point is Peter tested God because he had no faith. He wants proof. Those who don’t believe can never get enough proof. And those who do believe need no proof. So Jesus got into the boat and the storm died down and the disciples bowed in worship.
Matthew thought this story was something his church needed to hear. Not just them, but all of God’s people need to hear it. All who find ourselves on the sea with the blizzards bearing down on us, trying to make it by ourselves. That’s been the church more often than not. The disciples were not alone but they were trying to do it themselves and getting nowhere. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
Most modern folks don’t take this story seriously. I hear people cracking jokes about it. We used to believe it back in Sunday School days, but who believes they can literally walk on water anymore? We might as well fill a garbage bag with all the things we’re too sophisticated to believe nowadays. And then ask ourselves, what do I believe? Paul said, “When I was a child I spoke like a child. But when I became a man I put away childish things.” Of course we grow up. We’re not kids anymore. Nobody believes real demons live down in the deep water. That’s mythology, not biblical truth. Nobody thinks if their boat sinks they’ll run into any demons down below. There may be sharks, but not demons!
So where are the demons, if they’re not in the water? I don’t even know that there are demons. But I know where the fear and unbelief is. Those are today’s demon. And they’re not in the ocean. They’re in us. You know what jealousy is. It’s the fear of the loss of love. Why are people greedy? It’s their fear of insecurity. Not having enough. Why do students cheat in school? They’re afraid of failure. Why do our leaders lie? To get re-elected and protect their reputations.
Everywhere you go people are tweeting and texting. Even while driving. To make sure somebody’s still out there. What so scary about being by ourselves? A hurricane hits and the power goes off. There goes the heat and the TV and the computer. Now what are we gonna do? Have a meaningful conversation with somebody? Ewwww!
When we were youngsters on summer nights, after supper Mom would say “Let’s go outside and lay on a blanket and…look at the moon. And hunt for shooting stars with bright tails. There goes one!” Social media can’t do that. What do we see today? People wearing their thumbs out playing games in front of a screen, go from party to party, to keep from being depressed. Those are our demons! And they’re just as real as ol’ Leviathan. Nah I don’t believe there are demons in the water. But I wish they were in the water. One of our members spoke to me in the Fellowship Hall after I preached on “to what shall we liken this generation.” He was at the Cracker Barrel and noticed a family with four kids being seated at the big round table.
He watched all six of them thumbing their mobile-phones with heads down. The only time they raised their heads was to order. They even celled while eating! What are they afraid of? Yeah I wish the demons were in the water. But Jesus can walk on the water.
Matthew is telling us, without God, we’re not gonna make it to shore. But if we trust God instead of testing him, “we’ll be more than conquerors…and neither death nor life, nor rulers nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, (nor kinfolks), nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Gracious Lord, We understand the disciples. When Jesus left them out in the boat, to go up on the mountain to pray sometimes we too are out to sea and the weather doesn’t look good. And sometimes we’re more afraid of you than the storms! Still, you keep coming to us in the midst of them. As Jesus interrupted his praying to encourage his beleaguered disciples, minister to us in this worship according to our varied needs. Some of us come with special burdens that won’t go away; far too heavy to be carried around alone. So we feel the release of sharing them with Thee in this sanctuary.
We offer prayers for our world, maxed‑out with fear and unbelief. The skyrocketing costs just to get by anymore, people losing their jobs and families losing their homes. The stress and strain of living, where up is down and down is up, and all the “isms” still thrive. And our yearning for a messiah to fix it for us has lent itself to an insane gullibility, where it seems like people will believe anything, if only because they want it to be true.
Always, there are those who are grieving the toughest of all pains…losing someone they love. Encourage us in this hour, that we may stand with those who suffer. Give us shoulders, broad enough to care for the broken. Spirits tempered with humility, so we don’t feel the need to be superior. Souls big enough to believe there is no power on earth or beyond that you can stand up to Thee.
Come to us Lord Jesus, when the winds are against us and we know we’re getting nowhere. Remind us in this worship that you are near to help us overcome life’s tempests. Because you bring calm to the storms, like the disciples, we too bow the knee in worship. Through Christ our Lord.