An entirely different tack

Scriptures: Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

The story here in Matthew is one of the best-known miracles of Jesus, being contained in three of the Gospels. A couple of commentators have called it “the most useless of the miracles” because they didn’t see it as having practical impact like the healings and the feedings, and it was for the disciples alone, rather than the crowds.

Others argue its importance not only for the dramatic nature of it, but because it has impacted our very language itself. “Walking on water” is a phrase that has become imbedded in our modern idiom, and has been around through the centuries with the same essential meaning. It means to be perceived as perfect in performance, untouchable in skill, and miraculous in achievement.

Theologically, this passage contains one of the more important declarations of Jesus as God. God has always had control over the chaos of the waters, from Genesis 1 through to today. Jesus shows his control as he walks on the water when it is storm-tossed and at its most dangerous, in stopping the weather once he gets in the boat, and in His declaration to the disciples when they fear He is a ghost.

Most translation have Jesus say “It is I,” but the Greek ego eimi is the same as is used for the name of God. Essentially he said “Take heart; I AM.” He tells them exactly who he is, and at the end of the passage they worshiped him as the Son of God.

Commentators split when talking about Peter, and I appreciate what the liturgist had to say about not knowing whether it was doubt, or faith, or just Peter opening his mouth without thinking once again. Some say it shows his great faith, which then faltered under the distraction and oppression of the storm once he was out there on the sea.

Some say it shows his doubt and lack of faith. After all, Peter says “Lord, if it you” or “Lord, since it is you” (depending on the translation). Both phrases are asking Jesus to prove himself. You know the last time that he was asked to prove himself, in the Gospels, before that? It was in his temptation, and it was Satan who said that, “if you are the Son of God” or “since you are the Son of God.”

Both are essentially asking Jesus for a personal miracle. Both, you might say, are Peter showing off his special relationship with Christ. And it backfires, of course, as does all the other times he tries to tell Jesus what he should do, or what will happen.

But I want to take a different tack today. I want to look at the other disciples, and their part in the story today. Let’s try to get a glimpse of the way the wind was blowing for them.

Our passage starts by saying “Immediately Jesus constrained them to get in a boat and go on ahead to the other side.” So we know it was right after something (which we will get to shortly), and that Jesus was serious. To constrain his disciples, he didn’t just make a request.

He used his authority as a Jewish rabbi to make them do something whether they liked it or not. Remember that in the Jewish culture, if you declared yourself a disciple of a particular teacher, he could ask you to do anything short of tying his sandals, which was a task reserved for slaves alone.

So Jesus sends the disciples off while he deals with the crowd. Contextually, this is just after the feeding of the five thousand. So we know a major thing just happened. Why not celebrate? You have all that food left over; and Jesus loved a good party. Why not have an extended time of fellowship, instead of sending the disciples away?

Well, Jesus was tired after all that – or so he told his disciples. He wanted to get away to pray, and apparently he didn’t want the others with Him. Now, he did this occasionally, so it wasn’t that unusual a request, though they must have wondered how he was going to get rid of the ten to fifteen thousand people following him around.

I mean, they had just tried to escape by boat previously, and the people followed them along the shore until Jesus finally had compassion upon them and came back in to feed their minds and then their bodies. What was different this time?

We know from one of the other Gospels that the crowds were talking about making Jesus king, and marching on the city of Jerusalem. One of their most cherished traditions about the Messiah was that he would come and liberate them from their oppression – and they took that to mean the Romans. Even the disciples labored under this mistaken impression after the resurrection up to the ascension. So the crowds were all ready for armed revolt, which was not in Jesus’ plan.

Jesus sent the disciples away to help them get away from a temptation that could lead to their downfall – and eventually did, for Judas. People get confused sometimes about the Bible’s instructions. We try to resist temptation, and flee the devil. To me that is like a (currently) sober alcoholic going into a bar – and I don’t mean for sushi. They want to “prove” themselves by going into the lion’s den so to speak.

Well, there are times when God has shut the mouths of the lions, but most of the time, it just means a fast lunch for the big cats. At best, it is foolhardy; at worst, we can call it plain stupid. The Bible tells us to flee temptation. Don’t put yourself in the situation where you can get nailed like that. Resist the devil, though, and he must flee, it says in James 4. Call upon the authority of Christ.

So when the devil is oppressing you, and trying to discourage you, and make you think you could never be chosen as a child of God, then you can call upon the mighty name of Jesus for help and victory. You trust – not in yourself – but in the love and power of God Himself to save you and help you remain whole.

So this is why he sent the disciples away. Let’s go back to the story now. So Jesus remains after sending the disciples away, and takes care of the crowd. It doesn’t tell us whether he somehow sends them away, or gives them all the slip like he has done in the past, especially in Luke.

But he does it, and he goes off to a mountaintop to pray. This was how he recharged, and it never ceases to amaze me how few of us take our cue from him. I am as guilty of it as any. We are always happy to take a few minutes and pray for others in an intercessory manner, or even to ask for help ourselves, but not to simply spend time with God – kneeling in His presence, and being renewed by His Spirit. But that is the subject of yet another sermon at another time.

Jesus spends some time recharging while the disciples are out on the Sea of Galilee. It was apparently rough waters even before the storm, because the Gospel of John talks about how they rowed three to four miles because the “wind was contrary.” That means they were rowing against the wind, and against the waves.

How many of you have rowed a boat? How many of you have used the rowing machine in a fitness place? How many of you have paddled a canoe? (Those are actually different, and we’re going to touch on that.) It is a pretty exhausting exercise, rowing.

Yet they were rowing up through the fourth watch of the night (that means 3 am-6 am). So if they left in the evening, as dusk was falling, that means they’ve been rowing for at least seven to eight hours, trying to get across to the other side. I bet they were pretty tired, even taking turns.

It could also be some of them couldn’t swim. That’s something that we don’t relate to. Swimming is generally considered a survival skill. But it was amazing, in history, how many people who lived on the shores of oceans and lakes, and even were sailors, couldn’t swim. I’m not sure if that speaks of great courage or great ignorance, but some of them probably couldn’t swim.

Even when you can swim, the kind of sudden storm that can come up over Lake Gennesaret (which is another name for the Sea of Galilee) can overwhelm even a good swimmer. So we have fear on top of tiredness.

And let’s not forget the darkness, and the lack of visibility ocean spray and mist can cause. All in all, it was a bad place to be – four miles out from you-aren’t-sure-where, rowing against the wind and waves of the world, unable to see clearly where your goal is even, and facing an overwhelming situation.

Let me ask you, does this sound familiar? Have you ever been in a situation like that? I want to point out what the disciples were doing during that situation, and maybe we can learn something from them.

First of all, they listened to Jesus. You might say “well, they didn’t have a choice!”, but there is always a choice. They chose to follow Jesus after he chose them in initially. Unlike so many others, they truly wanted to learn from Him, follow Him, and emulate Him.

They weren’t following the sideshow of the miracles, or even the heady sense of power from knowing they were chosen by God. When he spoke, they listened. They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but they were being true to their call.

Secondly, they were still rowing. Again, you might say “No choice! If they didn’t they would drown!” And you might be right. But it had been a long night, and they hadn’t gotten very far, and they were still going.

They were tired, but they kept pushing themselves onward. They were scared, but they kept moving forward. They endured through the hard time, continuing to follow Jesus’ directions even when they had no idea whether they would survive it. That takes a commitment, that sometimes I wonder if it is lacking in the modern-day church, particularly here in the U.S. where things have been easy for so long.

The third thing that I want to mention about those disciples is that rowing – unlike paddling – requires you to have your back towards the direction you are going. If it is a short distance, and you have a good landmark, you can key off that, and even succeed by yourself.

But i a case like the one in this story, and so often in real life, you have to trust the spotter to direct you. You success depends on their sight and accuracy. It is a team effort. You cannot do it on your own, usually. Even the ones who weren’t fishermen or sailors by trade still had a role to play, and their efforts were crucial – however unpolished and awkward.

Fourthly, they weren’t sure they saw Jesus, even once he was there. Like many of us, when being tossed and turned by the world and events, we sometimes aren’t certain of which way to go, or where Jesus is. Instead, we need to do something they did – listen.

You see, they did recognize his voice. Peter expressed the doubts that many of them no doubt felt, but it was the situation, not the person. They couldn’t believe that Jesus would actually be there in that dark tempest, walking along like he ruled even there – except, of course, that he did.

And they had the privilege of witnessing the power of God as the Creator Himself being exercised. Healing miracles are cool, and full of powerful emotion; but there were others – prophets, and even charlatans – who could do that.

But there are two things Jesus did that no other person of power – not even those acting on behalf of God – could do. He forgave sins, and he had mastery over the elements. Only God Himself could do that. And knowing that, the disciples then did their last thing I will speak of today, which is, they worshiped him.

They recognized his essential nature in that moment, and they worshiped him. The storm calmed and the wind stopped. They even arrived (according to other Gospels) immediately at the other shore! But the disciples didn’t seem to care. Fear fell away. Exhaustion became exaltation. Anger and frustration turned to joy, and peace.

And they fell on their knees and praised God, praising the one who had saved them once again. The one they could depend on, even in the most terrible of storms, to come out to meet them where they were, and calm the raging seas within and about them.

Now that wasn’t the end of their story. And they didn’t seem to remember this lesson later on. They made more mistakes, and more misjudgments, and had more doubts. But they remained faithful to Christ to the end.

They loved Jesus even in their most depressing time when they thought he was gone forever. Right after He had died on the cross to cleanse them and all of us from our sin. Right after he who had no sin became sin for us just so we could be saved. That love that they had was strengthened once they knew the fullness of the truth – that Jesus was raised from the dead to give us new life, and make us new creatures in him, and to reconcile us with the Father!

Once the Spirit came at Pentecost, all doubt fled, and all fear was gone. They knew who they were, whose they were, and what they had been called to do. To share the good news of the Gospel, and the love of Jesus, with others. To witness to the power of God to heal and to save.

You know, that part hasn’t changed. We understand the resurrection. We have the Spirit within us. We know the love God has for us as His chosen children of promise. We have a hope that cannot be taken away, if we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And we are to share that message, that hope, and that love with others. Like the disciples, we are called to obey, and to endure. To keep on keepin’ on, even when the storms hit, trusting the Spirit as our spotter to always point us to Jesus.

And our reward will be to one day worship Him forever. To enjoy His presence – forever. And to give Him glory for the great things He has done – forever. May we achieve God’s purpose for us, and reflect His love to all.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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