By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 9, 2020
Matthew 14:22–33 (ESV)
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
I want us to take a moment to remember last week. Last Sunday we met Jesus just after he had heard about the despicable demise of his cousin. I believe that this report affected Jesus greatly within his human nature. We can debate the omniscience of Jesus, or the all-knowing aspect of the divinity of Christ, but when we merely focus on the divinity of Christ, we miss something important. Yes, Jesus knew everything about the report prior to speaking with John’s disciples, but how did Jesus respond within his humanity?
All too often we neglect the humanity of Christ. We do this because we know the weakness of human nature, and how can an all-powerful God place himself within human weakness. This puts a barrier within our relationship with Christ. Jesus is God with us, but we see God only, not us or humanity. So, we place Christ above all, and we look to saintly humans to assist us to Christ, and in our contemporary era we find heroes to champion our battles. We miss the point of Emmanuel, God with us, Christ came to take on our humanity. He came to perfect our humanity for us in his vicarious life.
Jesus knows our emotions because he experienced them. Jesus knows what it feels like to be completely disgusted by the ruling class. He knows the feeling of injustice. He is aware of the emotional responses of being misunderstood. Jesus knows the heart wrenching pain of betrayal. Do we, in our imagination or understanding of Jesus, ever allow him to exhibit emotions? Jesus has emotions. He got in a boat in last Sunday’s passage to cross to the other side of the sea, so he could find a place away from the crowd. He did this because his human nature required him to process those emotions in a healthy way.
The crowd did not recognize Jesus’s sabbath. In all of their adherence to the legal demands of the Laws of Moses, the crowd did not recognize that the sabbath was a time to release the emotional baggage and spiritual we all carry so we can reengage the world with renewed passion. The crowd followed Jesus, they followed him for many potential reasons. Maybe they followed out of a desire for healing, maybe the followed because they wanted to hear what he would have to say about the death of the Baptist, it might even been out in that isolated place to challenge Jesus to a debate over the legality of John’s death. We do not know exactly why the crowd followed Jesus, all we really know is that it was a massive crowd, and that Jesus had compassion for them.
Jesus in an emotional state of mourning, looked out on the crowd and instead of feeling overwhelmed or exhausted he felt compassion. This compassion led him to action. He began to talk with those that gathered, he listened, and in some cases, he healed their diseases. He spent the entire day that he had set aside to rest and pray, ministering to an undisciplined mob. This group did not deserve Jesus’s grace, they did not earn his favor. If we were at that place with Jesus in the boat looking at the crowd, we would more likely be annoyed than compassionate. I say this because of human weakness. It takes great strength to live empathetic lives. To recognize where we might be wrong and adjust accordingly with compassion requires great emotional and spiritual strength. To expend the energy to consider life from a different perspective requires us to learn what life might be like on the other side or our known experiences. That struggle is at the heart of cultural struggle we are facing within our nation today. Have you considered the various perspectives?
The day drew on, and evening came and the disciples became concerned that the crowds would not be able to buy food, so they encouraged Jesus to send them away, but Jesus turned that around on them. The disciples saw a need, and they prayed, because taking our concerns to God is prayer and they took that concern to Jesus. They prayed Lord send these people to the surrounding villages so they can find food, but the answer to that prayer was, “you feed them.” And we all know the story, they gave Jesus five loaves and two fish and over 5000 people ate their fill, with twelve baskets of leftovers remaining.
This is where we pick up in today’s passage. Jesus has not yet fully allowed himself to embrace the spirit in prayer because the undisciplined crowd interrupted his plans. His compassion and empathy required him to act, but his human emotions remain. Jesus made the disciples get in the boat to cross the sea, while he dismissed the crowd. And Jesus remained in that isolated place completely alone. While Jesus was praying, the disciples sailed away. They had moved far into the sea, and the winds were blowing against them, so they were struggling. They are out on that water fighting the waves and the wind making every effort to get that boat safely to the other side.
We can understand the disciples, they are so much like us. Some of them speak before they speak, some are political ideologs, some once worked in a business other regard as despicable, and some are power seekers hoping to use their connections to curry influence and favor. They have a reputation and they work hard for what they have. These men have been sent out; they are sent out into this sea by what they perceive to be divine orders, so they are obedient. Yet, while they are faithfully following those orders, they face struggles. Sometimes while we do the right things, we face obstacles.
Now it is late at night. It says that it is the fourth watch of the night. In the Roman culture they break the night into basically three-hour parts, or watchers beginning from approximately 6 PM to 6 AM. The first watch would end around 9 PM, the end of the second watch would be midnight. If they left in the evening then they would have begun their journey somewhere in the first watch, and now it is the fourth watch somewhere between 3-6 AM. I have worked night shifts, and I know how it might feel to be struggling and working through the night. And if you had just finished dealing with a massive crowd just hours before the stress would only intensify.
They are fighting the wind and the waves for nine hours, and they were already tired when the started. And they look behind them and see something coming toward them. I used to laugh when I read the words of the disciples in this passage. They see something and these grown men cry out, “It’s a ghost!” And they are terrified. I do not laugh at them anymore, because I get it. These men are sleep deprived, and when our bodies do not have enough rest our mind can really play tricks on us. I personally have never seen a ghost, but after being up for twenty or so hours working with little rest a strange shadow can cause the adrenaline to begin pulsing through my body. Why do you think Matthew tells us these things? Why does one of the people on that boat admit that they were terrified and thought they saw a ghost in the middle of the sea? They want us to know that they were not perfect.
We get this idea in our minds that we must be perfect before we can be acceptable in the eyes of God. We often believe that we must do all the right things and act a certain way before God will love us. Matthew said to the early church by writing this, that he sat on a boat terrified of a ghost, that he a grown man cried out in fear clinging to an oar as the waves crashed around him. He cried in fear, yet we regard him as a saint. In fact, in ancient Christian art, Matthew is symbolized as a man with wings often holding a book. The book, which represents the gospel he wrote, is what distinguishes Matthew from the icons of angels. This man that we often see in art as this angelic witness of Christ, testified in the very book he holds in the artistic representations, that he was terrified.
How many times do we hear people say they cannot come to church because they do not have their life in order yet? How many times do we feel we need to do something to make ourselves feel acceptable at a meeting for worship? The fact of the matter is that we are often like Matthew and the other apostles of Christ, people around us see us as perfect saints that have every aspect of our lives in order, but in reality we are terrified.
Jesus, after spending nine hours in prayer walks across the water and he calls out to them, “take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Again, I laugh while reading this. Every time I read this, the theme song from mighty mouse comes to mind. “Here I come to save the day!” (And, yes, I am old enough to know who mighty mouse is.) But I want us to take a step back, Jesus had just spent nine hours in prayer. Again, Jesus spent nine hours in prayer. The disciples are terrified, the storm is raging around them, waves are crashing, and the wind is against them. They look out over the water and they cry like children and say a ghost! And Jesus calmly walks across the water after spending nine hours in pray, calling out to them to take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.
For nine hours the Disciples struggled, while Jesus prayed. For nine hours the disciples allowed terror to build in their bodies as the outside world came crashing in on them, while Jesus prayed. For nine hours the disciples struggled in themselves, while Jesus rested in the spiritual arms of his Father. The disciples were crying, and Jesus encourages them take heart.
Then one of the disciples swallows hard and takes a deep breath and calls out to this specter on the water, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” I want us to sit with this for a moment. Did Peter know what he was saying? Did he consider what might happen if the perceived ghost spoke back to him? Again, I want us to recognize this for what it is. This is a prayer. When Peter is speaking to Jesus, he is talking to God with us. And Matthew by including this incident in the Gospel account, he is teaching us through their personal testimonies.
Just like Gideon of the Book of Judges in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, putting out a fleece, Peter is praying. “If this is really you God, command me to take the next step.” I am not an advocate of the whole putting out a fleece method of prayer, but I want us to understand that this is an evolving relationship. We are watching the disciples move from frightened men into the bold saints we now regard them as. Their lives and our own lives have similarities. When we face the unknowns of the world, we might appear to be bold women and men of faith, but the reality is that our hearts are racing, and our palms are sweating. Peter calls out to Christ, “We are terrified in this boat, we do not even know if we will make it to the other side, and you are freaking us out. But if it is really you just tell me.”
Jesus, I imagine is probably laughing at them a bit. He knows their hearts. He knows that at any moment they would be willing to do anything that he would ask, even though they are terrified to take the step. He knows this, but they do not. Twenty years ago, I was in a place just like this. I was a young dad, that had a son out of wed lock. I was part of a church that encouraged me even though they knew what my life was. And I had just filled out an application to be considered as a summer missionary in Ukraine. I said a prayer like Peter’s. I wrote letter asking for support, knowing that if I were to go on this journey, I would need to get a passport, and $5000 in less than three months. I remember sitting at the dinning room table with my mom, looking at stacks of envelopes, and listening to my mom telling me that we cannot do this ourselves so if God wants you to do this we have to trust that he will provide. We prayed and the next morning I took those letters to the post office. And I continued to go to school and work. A few days later, on of my bosses called me into his office and I saw one of my letters sitting on his desk. I knew that he was not of the same expression of faith as I, but he asked me to sit down and he asked me what I would be doing while I was over in Ukraine. So, I told him, I really do not know, but the plan is to teach English classes and share my faith in Jesus with student in Ukraine. And to my amazement he looked at me and said ok and he wrote a check and gave it to me. I left the office and each one of the men that I worked with did the same. Later that week I got letter after letter from my lawyer, dentist, doctor, former schoolteachers each giving support. When it came time to send the money in to purchase the tickets God had provided not only the $5000, I needed but $6000. And that summer a small-town farm boy was in a plane flying to the other side of the world to live for three months in the second largest city in Ukraine.
Peter prayed, “If it is you command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replied, “Come.” And Peter was faced with a dilemma, what should he do now? The ghost just called his bluff. Eleven sets of eyes were looking at him, and now he had to remove the foot from his mouth and use it to walk. Imagine Peter walking to the side of the boat, which was lurching upon the waves. He pulled his legs over the side and with his eyes focused on the man walking in front of him, Peter took a step, and another. We do not know how many steps Peter took, but it was enough to claim that he walked. Just imagine that.
Imagine Peter laughing as he took another step. And then he looked back behind him, at the eleven sets of eyes he could feel looking at his back, and just as he took another step his foot sunk beneath the surface and he fell forward and into the water. Have you been there? I was on a plane flying to Ukraine, I felt empowered and on fire for Christ, but when we landed in Kiev, we were informed that we were the ones that were going to do the teaching. My footing faltered. Those that really know me, know that I am most comfortable in the background. I would rather encourage someone else and not speak myself. When they told us that we were going to do the teaching I felt sick. How would I be of any help when I barely spoke? I had enough faith to get on the plane, but did I have enough to speak?
This story that Matthew included in his gospel is a testimony of faith and prayer. Peter had faith enough to take the step even though he was terrified, but once he was out there and vulnerable, he sunk beneath the waves. And he gasps out, “Lord Save Me!” That summer twenty years ago, Jesus called me out onto the waves. I took the steps and fell beneath the water. Yet, that summer I began to talk. I taught English classes, I shared the story of my life (which I did not think was that impressive) and when an opportunity was given to lead a bible study for our group, I oddly volunteered. And for twenty years I have been on a journey that has led me here. I am a pastor that does not talk. I am a farm boy living in a city. I am a sinner changed by Christ. And I am often under the water.
Jesus spent nine hours in prayer, and after that he calmly walked across the storm raged waves to meet up with his friends. We again focus on the miraculous, but often forget the ordinary when we read this story. Jesus did this only after he prayed, just like when he fed the undisciplined crowd. Peter did what he did only after and because of prayer. But often the chaos of the world can distract us from what is most important, and we begin to turn our eyes away. We begin to look around us instead of focusing on the goal set before us, and we sink. We begin to cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” And Jesus reaches out his hand and say, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I want us to look at the image on the screen. I love this picture because it is so real. We are all like Peter, we boldly take a few steps and then we take a plunge. But I want us to look at the face of Christ. He is not looking at us in judgement, but he is smiling and reaching his hand out to us. He is not condemning us for our doubt but commending us for taking a few steps. And is encouraging us to stay focused. The world around us might be amid a storm, but where are our eyes? Are we focused on the raging storm or are we focused on Christ who walks above it? Jesus is calling us to join him on a journey, he is calling us to follow him, and to take on his life and lifestyle. He is calling us to participate in his holy rhythm or worship, prayer, and service to others.
Look again at that picture because that picture is often our story. But to others they might see you as the one reaching out the hand while they are struggling beneath the waves. So often those we meet do not see God with us, until we show God within us. As we enter this time of Holy expectancy, I pray that we will be able to take a step back from the raging storms around us, so that we can see Christ. Not just Christ with us, but Christ with those sitting next to us, and with the people we meet throughout this week.