Walking on Water
WALKING ON WATER
MATTHEW 14: 22-33
What if? That is the question I have always be obsessed with. What if this happened? What if I made this decision instead of that decision? Recently, I found the opiate for my obsession with what if questions in the youtube channel alternative history hub. This youtube channel theorizes what the world would be like if certain historical events had gone differently or if certain fictional scenarios were true. Alternate history scenarios include what if the Roman Empire never fell? What if the South won the Civil War? What if the NAZI’s World War 2? What if Godzilla were real? What if Dragons were real? And what if aliens actually invaded Earth like they did in the movie Independence Day? I really got hooked on this channel. I spent a lot of hours one weekend recently going through every scenario they had. Because the question of what could have been, well it is pretty addictive.
I think Peter would empathize with me in this passage. Things were going well. I mean he was walking on water, I would call that a success. But then he saw the wind and the thought probably came to mind, “why in the world did I get out of that boat? What would have happened if I had just stayed in that boat?” Fear gripped his heart and he began to sink. But Jesus grabs him and says, “O you of little faith why did you doubt?” We’ve heard this story many times before. But I believe the Lord is speaking a Word for us today through this passage.
Chapter 14 of the Gospel of Matthew is a rough time for Jesus. At the beginning of the Chapter his cousin and friend John the Baptist is beheaded by King Herod. Apparently, this grieved Jesus because he withdrew to be by himself. But he found no peace. For the hurting crowds found him. Because Jesus has a heart of eternal love he healed their sick and then performed one of the greatest miracles of the Bible, the feeding of the 5,000. With five loaves and two fishes Jesus fed 5,000 men and even more women and children. There is no indication that this was some kind of trick of compassion. That the crowds actually had food with them and by Jesus sharing some of his food that opened people’s hearts to share their food. There simply wasn’t enough. But because the people were hungry to hear the Word of God Jesus met their physical needs as well. Through grace God provided. Through grace there was more than enough.
Every church, that has been around for any long period of time, has experienced the provision of the Lord. Over the 150 year history of Pierceton Presbyterian Church there have been times of plenty and times of want. But there has always been enough. But just because the Lord provides doesn’t mean we don’t get tired. Even, Jesus, apparently, got tired. He put his disciples in a boat, dismissed the crowds, and went to a mountain to be alone. He had lost a dear friend, his cousin John the Baptist. And he hadn’t had time to grieve. The Gospel of John also suggests that the crowd was so impressed by the feeding miracle that they wanted to make Jesus King. But that wasn’t why Jesus came to be made an earthy king. Jesus was tired. People were treating him like a magician, like a King who would fix all their problems. They had lost sight of why he had come to give them eternal life and life abundant. So Jesus called a time out. He sent the disciples on without him. They were fisherman. They were familiar with the Sea of Galilee. He thought at the very least they could handle navigating a large lake that they had navigated for most of their lives. What happens next can be described into five parts.
- The disciples get stuck
- Jesus reveals himself to the disciples when they are stuck
- Peter becomes willing and Jesus calls Peter
- Peter has doubt.
- The disciples praise Jesus without fully understanding who his is.
First, we see that the disciples get stuck. Notice how this boat incident differs from the last one. The last time they were in a storm, Jesus was with them in the boat, though he was asleep. And they were legitimately afraid for their lives. The waves were about to kill them. It was a crisis situation. And Jesus calmed the raging sea. The disciples were pretty amazed by this. They asked, “ what sort of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Here we are in a different situation. The text suggest to us that this is not a life threatening situation. This is not a crisis. In fact, the boat the disciples were on had gotten a good distance from the shore. But they did it with their own strength. For the scripture tells us that the wind was against them. The Greek word for against here is where we get our modern word to “terrorize”. Often in scripture this word is translated as to stir up or to trouble. The sense of the word is a general sense of anxiety and torment. To put it in lay man’s terms perhaps one could say that the wind was messing with the disciples, mocking the disciples, torturing the disciples. Despite their best efforts the disciples were left in the middle of nowhere at around three to four o’clock in the morning. Perhaps the dawn was just beginning to break. But they could not see the land behind them. Nor could they see the land ahead of them. They were stuck, bewildered, and tired. These experienced fisherman were not afraid for their lives like last time. They were just frustrated and ready to give up.
Many churches feel that tiredness and that terror. Despite all our effort, despite all our years of service, we find ourselves stuck, not knowing where to go. Our scripture today tell us that this is because we have been operating under our own strength. Notice, the disciples spent all night rowing against the wind. Jesus spent all night praying. We have come to confuse business with ministry. We have come to confuse doing good things with doing God things. We have lost the sense of where the Holy Spirit is blowing. For if we follow His leading than ministry we will find becomes easy. Instead, we go up against the winds of the world, thinking that will power alone will overcome it. But instead we find ourselves stuck and tormented. Jesus tells us that our time could be better spent praying for direction than working against the wind.
Second, we see that sometimes we grow to hate this time of waiting. This time when nothing seems to work and all our great ideas don’t pan out. Eugene Peterson, in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, talks about this as a time of confinement. It is during these times of waiting, these times of frustration, that we learn to stop, we learn our limits, and we learn to depend on God. And it is during these times of apparent stagnation, that our scripture tells us that the Lord can appear to us. In this text the disciples cry out in fear, not from the waves, as they did before back in Matthew Chapter 8 , but at Jesus himself because they think he is a ghost. They think that he is something evil that has come to add to their torment. In the twilight they do not recognize their Lord as he approaches. And who would blame them for thinking that Jesus was a ghost. Have you ever seen anyone Walk on Water? Today we are familiar with the story. But to the disciples it would be utterly new and terrifying. For the Hebrew people the water always represented a place of chaos, a place of disorder. We are told in Genesis that the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep and brought order out of chaos, form out of formlessness , light out of darkness. In Exodus we see that it was the Lord that divided the Red Sea and helped the Israelites escape from Pharaoh. The sea always was an obstacle for the Hebrew people. A place that could swallow them whole.
So when Jesus came walking across the water the divine overtones would not be lost on the disciples. And Jesus tells them, “be not afraid it is I.” The Greek could better be translated, “Be not afraid I AM.” The phrase evokes the divine name revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush, “I am who I am. I am who I will be.” Here is the one who made the sea. Standing over the sea, proclaiming that he is the one who was, and is, and is to come. The one who made the sea, the earth, the sky, and everything in it. Jesus appears in this moment, when we are waiting, when we are frustrated, when we think God has abandoned us. The question is will we recognize him or will we be afraid of him?
Third, we hear the call. A call always starts with a question within us. And that question is this, “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” This is really the test for Peter. Because he knew that Jesus was about training his disciples. Empowering them to do the same sort of ministry he did. That is what they had been learning since Jesus called them to leave their nets promising that he would make them fishers of people. And Jesus says, “Come.” We hear the call in our lives. That sense that we are meant for something more. And we follow that voice hoping that God will enable us to do what we cannot do on our own. How do we know what God is calling us to do? First we must believe that He still speaks and we can hear His voice. Because if we don’t believe that we can hear the Lord, if we don’t believe he has a purpose for our lives and for our churches, we will never be able to make it across the waves, we will sink in the ocean and in the chaos. Nancy Berber, author of Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment, says there are three components to hearing God’s call for our lives willingness, attentiveness, and responsiveness (Berber, 6). And here we see that Peter has two of the three down. After, the initial shock he is attentive to God’s voice and he responds to God’s voice. And at first he is willing.
But our fourth point is that Peter didn’t stay that way. As we learned at the beginning of the sermon he asked that perennial question, “what if?” In other words he doubted. The word for doubt here means, “taking two stances”. In this context the image almost suggests that Peter was doing well, he was doing the impossible, he was walking on water, but he saw the wind blowing, and what he did was that he looked back. Indeed, the language suggests that he stopped and looked both ways. He looked both at Jesus and at the boat. And he couldn’t decide which way to go. When the Bible talks about doubt it isn’t talking about our debates about whether God exists and if Jesus is God, those are givens for the writers of scripture. The question is far more practical. The question is more about is God faithful in our lives? Can we trust Him? Peter’s willingness was what got him out of the boat. He started out willing but then he became afraid and he couldn’t decide which way to go. What was Peter afraid of? Jesus was right there. Why did he look back? What are we afraid of? Why do we look back?
As Berber argues in her book Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment fundamentally we are all afraid of three basic things and these fears affects our willingness. We are afraid of losing control, we are afraid of change, and we are afraid that God is not really there (pg 31). And isn’t that what is happening in our lives and in this passage? Once Peter stepped out of that boat he literally stepped into uncharted waters. He had no control over the sea. And talk about change, no surface on the face of this earth changes more than water. And the disciples had already demonstrated that they doubted if Jesus was real. The book of James tells us that God is more than willing to give us wisdom but we can not receive that wisdom if we are double minded ( James 1:7). In 2 Timothy 1:6-7 Paul tells his disciple Timothy, “ I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self control.” Is that the type of Spirit that we as a local church and as the church Universal operate in? A Spirit of power, love, and self control? So often it seems we have one of these but not all of these characteristics. It seems to me this scripture is telling us that we don’t have power, love, and self control, because we are afraid to step out of the boat. And if we step out of the boat our focus is divided because we are looking both at Jesus and where we used to be. And we can’t do both.
Finally, Jesus shows us that in our doubt he is faithful to rescue us, even when we have little faith. The response of the disciples, after he rescues Peter and calms the sea, is different than it was with the last boat incident. With the last storm which almost killed them they said, “who in the world is this guy?” But with this storm they fall down and worship him declaring, “Truly you are the Son of God.” But as many scholars have pointed out there understanding of Jesus is incomplete. For they haven’t accepted that part of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is that he must suffer. That his mission isn’t all about walking on water and calming the sea. And part of our identity, as followers of Christ is that we shall suffer as well, that the world will reject us, and we must rejoice in our suffering. In our lives, we make the best decisions we can, believing that the Lord speaks in the darkness and the light. Whether we feel like are walking on water or trapped at the bottom of the ocean the key is to have a willing heart. The key is to hear the voice of the Lord, to believe he is our Good shepherd and he still speaks to us, and once we hear to follow, and once we follow not to turn back.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen