An Invitation to the Impossible
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
August 7, 2011
Matthew 14: 22-33 (NIV)
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
32And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Any of us who have been around teenagers for any period of time know how difficult it is to keep them focused! In my days serving as a youth director, I couldn’t make it through at single Sunday School lesson or youth group program without have to say “Focus guys!” at least once; and usually more like five or six times. It’s just so easy to get distracted, for teenagers and for us. Teenagers tend to have trouble focusing because of friends or games or TV. For adults, the distractions are a bit more complicated. Nonetheless, staying focused on the right things is important for all of us, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
Last week, our lesson focused on the feeding of the 5,000, which happens just before the scene we heard recounted a few moments ago. The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a lesson about discipleship and our call as Christians to make sacrifices for other and for God, not excuses. The story of Jesus walking on water is a lesson about faith, and about staying focused on Christ in faith, even when things are not going all that well.
If you remember from last week, Jesus had just learned of John the Baptist’s death when he spent an entire day healing the sick, and then fed them all with just five loaves of bread and two fish when it was dinner time. Now that the day is over and the people have been fed and satisfied, Jesus finally finds that he has some time for the much-needed solitude he had been seeking earlier in the day. So Jesus sends the crowds away, he instructs the disciples to go ahead of him in the boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and then he escapes up the mountain to pray. After several hours, sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Jesus decides it’s time to catch up to the disciples. Or maybe the storm had rolled in and he got concerned about his friends and decided he needed to find them. Either way, the storm was roiling, the disciples were having quite a rough go of it, and in the midst of it all, Jesus does something God-like. He walks on water.
Now, the disciples were studied fisherman. They knew the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hand. They had surely ridden out storms before. But for some reason, this storm is worse, and the disciples are concerned, not to mention tired from trying to row through the strong winds. It’s no wonder that when they see some sort of figure heading toward them in the midst of this great maelstrom that, as Matthew tells us, they were “terrified”!
“‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.” That’s when Jesus speaks, immediately responding to the distress of the men in the boat. “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” What an amazing and wonderful word from our Lord. Isn’t this exactly what this world needs to hear? Isn’t this the word we need to hear? “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
So many people are so frightened today, terrified. People everywhere feel they are in way over their heads. The storms of life of raging, and where there should be joy, there is only fear. We’ve got plant managers struggling to make payroll in a down economy; parents with rebellious teenagers, marriages trying to survive, elderly folks trying to pay astronomical hospital bills out of tiny pension checks, working folks worrying about whether there will even be a pension when they retire. Indeed, modern life can be like a deep and stormy sea that threatens to swallow us whole. And certainly, we all need to hear the words of Christ over and over and over again as we set our faces to the wind: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
As Jesus’ words echo across the tossing waves, without hesitation, Peter responds. “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Peter tends to get a bad rap in a lot of ways. He’s impulsive, he takes risks. He acts first and thinks later. When it comes to this story, people say Peter didn’t have enough faith, that when he saw the waves and the wind, he began to sink. But what did it take for Peter to get out of that boat in the first place. In the midst of that crazy storm that had every one of the disciples scared, what did it take for Peter to step out of the boat? It took faith. He had to have faith in who Jesus Christ was in order to say to him, “Lord if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” But that’s exactly what Peter said; impulsively, without even thinking about it, in faith. And remember what Christ says about faith even the size of a mustard seed?
So Jesus tells Peter to “come” out into the raging waters. And “Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” Amazing, isn’t it? The rest of the disciples are hunkered down, staying low in the boat, their knuckles white from clinging to the sides of the boat. They’re not about to move, not with all this mess going on around them; the storms, the waves, the dark, the wind, the uncertainty. They couldn’t even seem to muster the little faith that Peter had, not even enough to stand up and take a look at the man coming towards them. Yet they had seen so much of Jesus’ power. They had heard his teachings, they had watched him heal people, they had just fed a crowd of “5,000 men besides women and children” with five loaves of bread and two fish that Jesus had blessed and broken. But they were still afraid.
Let’s put ourselves in that boat for a moment. Can you imagine yourself there? What are you doing? Are we more like Peter who ventured out toward Jesus without a moment’s hesitation, or are we more like the disciples hunkered down in the boat? And what about the world? Our world has learned so much, discovered so much, and yet still lacks the power to do many of the things that really matter. We have invented amazing machines for making war, but nobody has found one that will make peace. We can put a person on the moon, but we can’t put food in hungry stomachs. We can listen to the songs of the whales singing on the ocean floor, but we can’t hear the crying of human souls on the next street down.
And much of our world knows at least a little bit about Jesus. Some find him frightening. Others wish he’s go away and leave us alone. And even many who believe in him, like the disciples did, don’t know what to do with him.