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The Sermon Today, Matthew 14:22-33
July 27, 2008
Have No Fear
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 toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, 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.” 28Peter 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 toward 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.”
What a great story! This is one of those stories that has everything—danger, drama, heroism, failure, redemption—and lots of places for us to insert ourselves into the story. In other words, there’s plenty of room for all of us to sit in this boat. The question is, do we stay in the boat, or do we jump out?
Before we start with the story, let’s take a little time to paint the background. Like most Bible stories, we have to spend some time exploring the world of the participants before we can start to really get a handle on the nuances of what was really happening here.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves about some of the basic physical facts of the story. Before it even begins, everyone involved is exhausted. Jesus has been teaching crowds of people all day. This is not your basic one, or even two, hour church service, but non-stop teaching and healing that lasted long enough for the people to start to feel faint from hunger. They were so drained, in fact, that even if they had wanted to leave, the disciples were concerned that they wouldn’t even make it to the nearest village to obtain food, much less make it all the way to their homes. And if all these people had showed up at once, any normal village wouldn’t have enough food available to feed them and then what would happen. The last thing they wanted was for Jesus to be seen as responsible for setting off food riots
And if the people listening were this exhausted, how must Jesus and the disciples have felt? While Jesus was teaching and healing, the disciples were stuck with all the hassles of crowd management—crying kids, cranky adults, hygiene, heat, shade, water, complaints, requests, keeping people in line, negotiating disputes, you name it. Jesus, we know, had been exhausted before he started so you can imagine how he felt at the end of the day. He had come to this deserted place in the first place to get away from the crowds and recharge his batteries.
Then there had come the miraculous feeding of the crowd, which had stirred things up even more and made it more difficult to convince people to leave. Finally, finally, they had gotten everyone on the road home, they had picked up all the trash and they could finally take a break. I imagine that all the disciples wanted to do was sit on rocks and stare at each other. Jesus, however, was so tired that he couldn’t even do that. All he wanted was to be totally alone, just him and God.
So, he made his reluctant disciples climb into their boat, grab the oars or the sails, and head back across the Sea of Galilee. Some translations call this body of water a lake, but it’s important to the story to understand that, as lakes go, this is a really big one. It’s about 11 miles long, and about 8 miles across at its widest point. Unlike the lakes we have here in Oklahoma, it is big enough that, when standing on the shore, you can’t see across to the other side. So crossing the lake was no small proposition.
I don’t know how the disciples thought he was going to catch up to them. Maybe get a ride from another boat down the road, maybe they were planning to come back and get him the next day. All we know for sure is that he didn’t go with them that night.
And that’s another thing. Most of us don’t remember, or have ever known, what really dark nights are like. When was the last time you were outside and so far away from civilization that there was no glow from a nearby city reflecting up on the horizon? I’ve only been in a place like that once or twice in my life, and always it was out in the middle of the ocean. I never knew what dark nights were like or how many stars there were in the night sky until those nights. But for Jesus and the disciples, that’s what night meant. And dark was coming on when Jesus sent them out.
There’s one more thing that we need to know to really get an good handle on this story. It is that in the ancient world, large bodies of water were really scary places. They were the very symbol of complete and total chaos. When God had brought order to every part of the world, the oceans were still chaotic. In their world view, every place outside a city or village was a place of danger. There were dangerous animals and dangerous people in the wilderness. That’s why so many people assumed that John the Baptist was just a little bit crazy to live there by choice, because no one in their right mind would. If you were alone, and something happened, you probably died. There was no way to call for help, and too few people around to think you would be found in time. And, of all these dangerous, isolated, places, seas were the most dangerous, the most isolated, the most chaotic. They were literally regarded as places where anything could happen, and none of it was good.
So, these tired, hungry, nervous disciples set sail, at night, across the sea, with no instruments, without the one who they depended on for protection and guidance, off they go into the unknown. And then the storm comes up. Have you ever had one of those days? I’m sure the disciples certainly felt like this was one of those nights.
How long they struggled against the winds and the waves, no one knows. Certainly long enough that now they were soaking wet, shivering with cold and completely convinced they were probably going to die. Some may have been rowing, because certainly the sails were down by now, some may have been bailing water, some may have just been sitting there in despair. We know that they had been on the water for several hours, at least, because Jesus came walking toward them across the water during the fourth watch—or sometime between 3 and 6 in the morning. In other words, they were at the end of their rope. Have you ever noticed how often we have to get to the end of our rope before we can let go and let God help us? It’s like we refuse to let go as long as we have resources and options of our own available.
Anyway, here they all are, on the tip end of their last bare nerve and someone says, “It’s a ghost, or a demon!” Now they are convinced that they are truly done for. Out here in the middle of the most evil place on earth, it could only be an evil spirit coming to get them. And then they hear the voice that they know so well. It’s Jesus. Or at least it sounds like Jesus. What if it’s an imitation? A fake? A clever trick by the evil one to get them to let down their guard. When you’re verging on hysteria, anything seems possible.
So Peter speaks up, “Lord, if it is you…”
I love Peter. We get the most complete picture of him in Matthew—almost like Matthew got many of these stories from Peter himself. Who else would dare tell such stories about the great Peter, leader of the infant church? But I can hear Peter saying, “Go ahead, write it all down, just like it happened. Don’t pull any punches. I’ve got plenty of flaws, although too many people don’t remember that these days. Don’t pretty it up, just tell the whole story.
Peter, so impetuous, so transparent. I think he appeals to us so much because he is such a real character. He always jumped in to everything feet first, is it any surprise that he did so here? We’ve already talked about how the goal of a rabbi’s disciples was to be exactly like him, well this was certainly Peter’s chance. This was his chance to be just like Jesus. Now it’s a little risky, so he asks permission first. Do you want me to do this Lord? Do you believe I can do this? And I imagine that Jesus paused for a minute, and then said, “Sure, come on.”
So Peter jumps, he lands, and he doesn’t sink! One step, then another, then another. Hey, this is great! I’m walking on the water!
So what made Peter start looking around? Maybe a giant thunderclap or bolt of lightening? Whatever it was, he suddenly realizes where he is? Have you ever done that? Started something and then, about halfway into it, realized exactly what you were doing? Suddenly you realize that maybe you can’t really pull this off. Maybe this is too big. That’s what Peter thought, and when he thought that, when he started focusing on his own abilities, it began to overwhelm him.
Fortunately, Peter is sometimes smarter than we are. As soon as he started to sink, he didn’t try to learn to swim, he didn’t panic, he didn’t try to suck it up and put a good face on it. He just turned to Jesus. “Help me!” You know, Anne Lamott speaks often of her two favorite prayers, “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Not a bad prayer vocabulary, and certainly both of those were Peter’s favorites that day.
And Jesus responded, and reached out, and picked him up. Yes, Jesus did chastise Peter, but I think it might have been pretty gently. Yes, Peter doubted—not Christ but himself. But even with that doubt, Jesus still reached out and pulled him out of the soup. He didn’t hold it against him. He didn’t say, “If I pull you out, how will you learn to swim?” He didn’t say, “OK, but you’re off the island.” He just pulled him up and brought him to the boat, where the others still waited. Safely. In the boat.
You know, all my life I’ve heard this story told, and all my life, Peter comes out as some sort of doofus for not making it all the way. But more and more I admire Peter. Especially these days, when our little corner of the world is safer than it has ever been, and yet all that seems to do is make us more fearful. Because our lives are stable, we fear uncertainty. Because we have plenty, we fear loss. Because our lives are secure, we fear risk. So we stay in the boat.
But not Peter. All he had was Jesus, and that was enough. That was enough for him to risk everything to do the impossible. Yes, Peter didn’t make it all the way, but dear Lord, please make us all more like Peter.
In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer—The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
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