A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on August 7, 2011.
Isaiah 43:1-7; Matthew 14:22-33
Many of you know that week before last Joani and I traveled to Costa Rica with three other couples to celebrate a very significant birthday (one with a zero in it!) for our wives. Costa Rica is breathtakingly beautiful, and we had a wonderful time. But the week also featured some clutch moments, some moments of truth when we struggled mightily with our fears.
For example, we decided to ride a zip line above the canopy of rain forest trees Costa Rica is so famous for. We zipped along a cable that at its maximum height is two and a half football fields above the ground. And we zipped at a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour.
(Slides of Joani and me: DSCN 1174; 1182). The moment of truth—stepping off the platform!
Then, my friend Mike Ford and I decided to prove our manhood once again by “canyoning” or “repelling” down the side of a mountain, at times through a waterfall. Again, the moment of truth came when we had to step out over a 165 foot drop, the first of five drops, and trust our harnesses to hold us up.
(Slides of me and woman—121; 292; 133)
Our moments of truth in Costa Rica came to mind this week as I pondered Peter’s moment of truth on a stormy Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago. When Peter stepped out of a boat buffeted by gale force winds in the dark of night to walk on water without the benefit of any harness or floatation device, he stepped into a defining moment of truth that people still talk about 2000 years later.
What happened that fateful night followed an impossibly long day. Burdened by a painful rejection in his hometown and the brutal death of his dear friend John the Baptist, Jesus tried to find some silence and solitude just to be with his pain and grief in the presence of God. So he climbed into a boat and pushed out far from shore.
But the crowds, hungry for more of his mind boggling miracles, tracked Jesus down and clamored for his attention. Jesus heard the uproar and “full of compassion” he abruptly ended his silent retreat and went ashore, spending hour after hour healing hundreds of people.
By the time Jesus finished healing, it was the dinner hour. The disciples were ready to be done with the masses and send them on their way hungry. Not Jesus. He was determined to feed the people, too. And he did. With five loaves of bread and two fish, he fed 5,000 men, as well as their wives and children.
By now it was growing dark. Jesus still wanted time alone with the Father. So immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
Notice Jesus so deeply desires silence and solitude and prayer that even though he is desperate for sleep he arranges to get time alone on the mountain with God. Jesus knows his sacred rhythm of time alone with God is the key to his ministry. And he refuses to be side tracked from this rhythm.
But there something else is going on here, too. Jesus “makes” (other translations read “compels”) his disciples get into their boat and go to the other side of the sea. Clearly this is strong language, and suggests that the disciples aren’t exactly thrilled to be taking a boat ride in the Sea of Galilee that night. Remember, several of the Twelve were fishermen, and probably all had some experience at sea. Maybe they could tell the weather was about to turn raw, and they wanted to remain on terra firma.
Why does Jesus insist they go? He could have asked the disciples to bed down for the night beside the sea while he climbed up the mountain by himself. Why must they go out into the deep?
We can’t know for sure. But maybe Jesus is deliberately planning a “growth opportunity” for the disciples by sending them out into the dangerous unknown where they will be way out of their comfort zones, unable to control what goes on around them.
One evidence for this theory is Jesus’ delay in responding to his disciples when they find themselves embroiled in a terrible storm at sea. Matthew tells us that by the time evening came (let’s say around 8:00 p.m.), the boat bearing the disciples was battered by the waves, and far from land, for the wind was against them.
But notice that Jesus did not respond until early in the morning. Actually, a better translation would be “until the fourth watch,” or between 3:00 – 6:00 a.m. In other words, Jesus deliberately delayed his response for seven or more hours. Did Jesus know his disciples had their hands full in this ferocious storm? Of course. Did Jesus use every moment of that time to pray? I’m sure he did. But did Jesus also have other reasons related to growing the faith of his disciples that caused him to delay? I’d put money on it.
By the way, if you find yourself these days in a storm of life where you feel overwhelmed and out of control, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are outside the will of God. On the contrary, the Lord may have you right where he wants you!
So early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. This water-walking, of course, is a stunning miracle! And even though the disciples have already watched Jesus do the impossible time after time, they freak out. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
Now to be fair to the disciples, the sky is still pitch black, and at first the disciples can’t get a good view of Jesus. But more importantly, people of that day believed the sea was the domain of demons and ghosts, and since the disciples had no category for people walking on water, that form they saw moving above water in the darkness must be a ghost. And they are understandably terrified.
Notice how Jesus responds to their terror. Immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
No delay this time. Jesus speaks quickly and authoritatively. In fact, when he says, “It is I,” he is deliberately identifying himself with God of the Old Testament who referred to himself as I am who I am.
As intimidated as they were of the sea, the ancient Israelites believed that God not only created the waters of the earth, but ruled over those waters as well. In Psalm 77, the Psalmist writes,
(God), your way was through the sea,
Your path through the mighty waters;
Yet your footprints were unseen (v. 19).
Moses may have walked through a sea, but only God can walk on water, leaving footprints unseen. And now Jesus, the Son of God, is following in his Father’s footsteps.
This same sovereign, water-walking God speaks through his prophet Isaiah to the Israelites who have been defeated by the Babylonians and now live in terrifying exile:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers; they shall not overwhelm you…
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I gave Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.
Now, hundreds of years later, as Jesus approaches the disciples that stormy night, he is saying in so many words. “Fear not. These stormy waters will not drown you. Because I am here, and I am the Lord your God. And I love you.”
Had the disciples read the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah before that night? We don’t know. And even if they had they might not have remembered these passages in the heat of the moment. We do know that when Jesus appears the disciples are initially too paralyzed to respond—except Peter. As usual, Peter is ready to act, even if it gets him in trouble.
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” says Peter. By now, the disciples are probably thinking Peter has lost his mind. He has just offered to walk on stormy waters at night to meet a ghost.
Jesus says to Peter, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. This is the moment of truth for Peter. No safety harness. No floatation device. Just faith. And he passes with flying colors…at first.
But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened (repeat slide of frightened woman), and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Now Peter is treating Jesus like the Holy One of Israel, the Savior that he is.
Again, Jesus does not delay. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” When they got into the boat the wind ceased. And those in the boat (including Peter, of course) worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!”
Now, for the longest time I felt like Jesus was too hard on Peter in this episode. After all, Peter musters more courage in the moment than I would have. Suppose the guides in Costa Rica had said, “Forget about wearing a safety harness. We know you are a Christian. In fact, we’ve heard you are a pastor. Step out over the edge of the canyon in faith and trust God to hold you up.” I would have probably said something smart like “After you” and walked away.
Peter actually takes that step out over the edge and for a few exhilarating moments walks on water. Yes, his fear gets the better of him and he eventually sinks like a rock. But shouldn’t he get some credit for at least trying?
Here is another case where it actually helps to know Greek. When Jesus asks Peter, “why did you doubt?” Matthew uses a Greek word for doubt (distazo) that appears only twice in the New Testament—here and in Matthew 28:17, where we read a description of how the disciples responded the first time they met the resurrected Christ—When they saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
The literal meaning of distazo is to vacillate. Notice that Jesus did not chastise Peter for having no faith. That’s because Peter had faith, even enough faith to respond to Jesus’ command to walk on water. Peter’s problem was he had lots of faith and lots of doubt. In other words, he had a divided mind and heart. That division of mind and heart and soul was Peter’s problem.
And that division of mind and heart and soul is my problem. And it’s your problem, too. And because of our chronic vacillation between faith and doubt, we too lose our focus on Jesus, and we too sink into the waters of fear and desperation.
So we hear that the stock market tumbles more than 500 points in one day. And we start to sink. And we hear that a respected debt ratings company has downgraded American debt for the first time in history. And we sink still further.
And the problem is not just that we, like Peter, doubt Jesus’ power. We, like Peter, also doubt Jesus’ love. Jesus didn’t just save Peter and the disciples because he could. He saved them because they were precious in his sight, and he loved them.
My friends, I cannot stand before you today and declare that Jesus will protect you from all the storms of life, because he won’t. He may even cause a few! But I can tell you that when you give your life to him, and rest your soul in him, he will save you. He may not give what you want—more cash, more job security, better health—but he will give you what you need—more spiritual growth, more peace, and ultimately eternal life.
Jesus won’t just lift you from the stormy waters because he can. He will save you because you are honored, precious in his sight, and he loves you.