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"Rescue from the Sea"

Matthew 14:22-33

Rev. Alan Taylor

Pentecost 9, Proper 14, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Aug 10, 2014 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The disciples found themselves in quite a predicament.  Wanting to protect them from the bread king mentality of the crowds He had just fed, Jesus had them get into a boat to row to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  It wasn’t an uncommon thing for them to do.  In fact, skilled at the task as they were, they could usually make it across in about 3 hours, which would have put them back on dry ground by about 7 or 8 in the evening. 

In this case, however, what was common, soon became uncommon, even frightening.  A storm had come up and no matter how fiercely they rowed they weren’t getting anywhere.  When Jesus came to help them it was the “fourth watch of the night,” about 3 or 4 in the morning.  In a very real sense, they were spinning their paddles and getting nowhere.

Compounding the problem was the apostle’s mindset regarding tempests at sea.  In the ancient world the tempest represented the chaos and the utter uncertainty of life and of the world.  There was even a notion that evil lurked within the tempest.  It’s little wonder then that when they saw Jesus walking on the water they thought He was a ghost. 

The whole scenario though, while seemingly chaotic, uncertain and frightening, had actually been orchestrated by God.  God was testing the disciple’s faith.  God does that sometimes, you know.  He tests your faith, not, mind you, to weaken it, but to strengthen it and to purify it. 

Not wanting to leave the disciples in fear, Jesus immediately spoke to them. “Take heart (He said); it is I.  Do not be afraid.” That is always the first word from Jesus when chaos and uncertainty seem to be winning the day.  “Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid.” The promise, spoken literally to the apostle’s, is implied to you through all the promises God has made to you. “If God is for you, who can be against you?” If God is your Mighty Fortress, the Valiant One who fights for you, who, or, what can defeat you!?  “I am with you always, Jesus says, even to the very end of the age.” So, “take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid.”

As you know, fears and worries come in all sorts of sizes and shapes.  Some people worry about big things, world events and global disasters.  Others worry about more personal things, family crises and so forth.  And, of course, some people worry about virtually everything.  Pushed to their extreme, worries and doubts can get out of hand.  Some, for instance, worry that they may not even exist, that they are nothing more than a character in someone else’s dream.  Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, considered such a horrible possibility and he resolved the dilemma with his now famous saying, “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am.”

Now, not to go all- philosophical on you, but in a Christian sense, there is a similar consolation when you struggle with doubt and fear, or, with being afraid because you have so many doubts.  “You doubt, therefore you believe.” In other words, doubt doesn’t exist where there is no faith because if you don’t believe something to be true or real, then you have nothing to doubt. 

I offer that little philosophical tidbit because it can be of some comfort when you are plagued and troubled by your own doubts.  After all, when you and I doubt, we soon begin to worry that our doubt is evidence that we’ve lost our faith.  Nothing, frankly, could be farther from the truth.  You doubt, precisely because you believe!

One day at the seminary a professor posed a question to us students.  Luther, he said, was sitting in his study when a young pastor came into the room with his head drooped low.  He was obviously distraught over something.  Luther asked him what was wrong.  He said, “I feel so ashamed.  Sometimes I have trouble believing the very things I preach.”

The professor asked us what sort of council we would give to the young preacher, were he to have come to us instead of Luther.  Just about unanimously we said he should probably find another calling.  I mean, a man in the ministry who sometimes doubts what he preaches didn’t seem like a good thing. 

After we had spilled our sanctimonious reasons as to why the young man didn’t belong in the ministry, the professor said, “do you know what Luther said to the young pastor?” Luther, he said, “raised his head and with a big smile on his face, he said to the young man, ‘thanks be to God!  I thought I was the only one!’”

While I don’t mean to encourage doubt, or, even to trivialize it, the fact is, we all have our doubts.  Doubt is part of the human condition.  That said, “doubt is always in vain and left unchecked it can be quite dangerous.” When Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, he was filled with faith.  He reasoned that if Jesus’ commanded him to do it, he could do it.  That’s how faith works, isn’t it?  If God commands it, it’s done!  If He says you are forgiven, you are forgiven!  If He says bread and wine are His body and blood, they are His body and blood.  If He says water and the word bring you new life, then water and the word bring you new life!  Faith believes that what God says!

When Jesus commanded Peter to walk on the water, he walked on the water!  Unfortunately, moments later, Peter said, “wait a minute.  What am I doing?  I’m walking on water!” “People, you know, don’t walk on water.  Especially water like this!  It’s roaring and foaming!  It’s eerie and maybe filled with all sorts of evils.  What am I doing?  Why didn’t I stay in the boat where I belong?”

In a matter of seconds Peter began to believe what he saw and experienced, over and above what God promised.  It’s hard for us to fault him for his little faith because we’re quite often in the same boat, so to speak.  We tend to believe and trust what our eyes see and experience over what God promises.

Finally, in desperation, Peter did what a person of faith does.  He looked to the One in whom His faith resided, Jesus, the author and perfecter of his faith.  And He called out to Him, “Jesus save me.” “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I’d like to go back for a minute to the tempest at sea as an image of chaos and uncertainty.  There is another image wrapped up in this whole story, the image of the boat and the church.  It isn’t by accident that, when Peter began to sink, due to his doubts and fears, Jesus picked him up and put him back in the boat.  I mean, He could have set him safely, but all alone, on the shore on the other side.  But, He didn’t.  He picked him up and put him back in the boat with the other disciples. 

It is also important to note that Jesus’ presence in the boat calmed the storm and the disciples then acknowledged who He is and worshiped Him while they were in the boat.  The boat became, as it was in the days of Noah, a safe haven, a place of salvation and certainty in the midst of a world of chaos and uncertainty. 

St. Augustine, a 4th century church father, equated to the wood of the boat to the wood of the cross on which Jesus saved, not just Peter, but the whole world.  The wood of the cross, said Augustine, “is like the wood of the boat.  Jesus shows us that he himself is the way to the homeland, but "there is no way to cross over to the homeland unless you are carried by the wood."” Peter, though he did so in faithful exuberance, really should have never gotten out of the boat!

Folks, we are in the boat now!  Out there is a tempest of chaos and uncertainty.  In here is the living presence of Christ.  Jesus comes to you here in order to go with you there.  Day by day you cry out “Lord, save me,” and He does just that.  His arms stretched out, His hands pierced and bloodied, He grasps hold of you and He shelters you. 

“Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep;

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea!”

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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