1 Kings 19:9-18 – …and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
Psalm 85:8-13 –
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
Romans 10:5-15 – The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Matthew 14:22-33 – Jesus walks on water. 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 worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Prayer of the Day
O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. I wait for | you, O LORD;
in your word | is my hope. Alleluia. (Ps. 130:5)
If You Want to Walk on Water, First You Have to Get Out of the Boat
In Matthew 14, two miracles occur immediately in the wake of the death of John the Baptist. First, there is the feeding of the five thousand, which we treated last week. Then we have Jesus walking on the water, a curious story. Keep in mind that Jesus calmed the sea back in Matthew 8.
You may recall that, after hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus got into a boat and headed across the lake to be by himself (Matthew 14:13). The crowds, however, figured out where he was going and followed him to the place where he eventually presided over a mass feeding.
Now Jesus sends the disciples back across the lake and dismisses the crowd. He finally gets his alone time, heading up the mountain to pray. Just like Moses does, Hauerwas notes (Exodus 32:30-34). By evening, he is alone on the mountain. One can dwell on this a bit. If Jesus needs down time, don’t all Christian leaders? We dare not engage in constant decisive action without sufficient time for reflection. Action needs to be informed by prayerful reflection.
In the middle of the night, Jesus comes to the disciples, still in their boat, walking on the water. David Garland (Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary) reminds us of what many of the translations leave out. The Greek in 14:25 literally says that Jesus comes to them on the fourth watch of the night (tetartay de phulakay tays nuktos). For this society, night begins at 6 p.m. Each watch is three hours, so the fourth and final watch is 3:00-6:00 a.m. It is also the time that God’s salvation comes. The Lord rescues the city of God at the break of day, in Psalm 46:5. I believe this story tracks closely the salvation from the raging waters spoken of in Psalm 46, an awesome choice for the Psalm of the day.
Garland also reminds us that what most translations render “far from the land,” regarding the position of the boat, is actually “some stadia.” A stadia, from which we get our word “stadium,” was a foot race about 1/8 of a Roman mile, a bit over 600 feet (200 yards or two U.S. football fields). So, let’s say “some” means three, or better, four. Four stadia would be half a mile out to sea. It’s a decent distance.
They are terrified. “People do not walk on water,” Hauerwas reminds us in Matthew, The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, though the modern reader will not need the reminder. Of course, the disciples assume it must be a ghost.
One might take this opportunity to talk about theophanies. In my three decades as a pastor, I have heard many amazing stories from parishioners. People have mystical experiences, but they don’t want to be thought of as weird, so they rarely tell them to casual listeners. I don’t have explanations for what I’ve heard, and they’ve seen. Visitations by dead relatives, crime victims, or divine messengers. I listen carefully and move quickly to interpretation. What does this mystical experience you have had mean for you? Obviously, if someone presents as mentally ill, or prone to paranoid hallucinations, we would seek medical help. But, as any pastor will tell you, often these experiences are recounted by otherwise average folks, who are as surprised as anyone and trying to understand their own experience. It helps, in a positivistic philosophical world, for the preacher to acknowledge that people have mystical experiences. Be prepared for some appointments if you open that door.
When they freak out, shouting for fear, Jesus responds, “It is I,” or more precisely, “I am” (ego eimi, in the Greek).
The preacher will, of course, recognize Matthew’s choice of words for Jesus’ self-disclosure. “I am,” is the response God gives, when Moses’ asks God what to say to Pharaoh. “Who shall I say sent me?” God responds, “I am.” God says, “Tell them, ‘I am’ sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:14)
The Israelites were not a seafaring people. Their literature is filled with a sense of fear and respect for the sea. That the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea was a big deal. Hauerwas points out Psalm 77:19, which might make a better Psalm for this Sunday than the appointed texts: “You walked through the sea; you passed through the surging waters, but left no footprints.” I AM provides food, freedom, and a way through the raging waters of life.
Then, “Do not be afraid,” (mei phobeisthay).
An even better possibility from Psalms is Psalm 46:
God is our strong refuge;
A sure help in time of trouble.
We will not be afraid,
Though the mountains quake in the heart of the sea
Though its waters roar and foam!
But the story does not end here. Peter asks to come out on the water as well. Jesus gives a single-word response: Elthay. “Come.”
Peter does walk on water (only in Matthew’s gospel), but when a strong wind comes along, he starts to sink. “Save me!” he cries out. Jesus reaches to him and pulls him up. He then calls Peter what often used to be translated “O ye of little faith.” It is actually a one-word name: Oligopiste, “Little-faith-one.” “Why do you doubt?”
Jesus seems to be insulting Peter for his lack of faith, but we need only think back one chapter to the text we read on July 30. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a mighty bush. And in three chapters, we will read that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains.
Garland asks, “If this is a story about discipleship, what is the lesson?” (Reading Matthew, p. 159 of 274). Are followers of Jesus to go out and learn how to walk on water? Shall we go out and walk on the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Houston, Lake Conroe, Lake Pontchartrain? If the boat is the church as many ancient Bible interpreters agreed, don’t disciples belong in the boat? Perhaps the message is that Jesus should be the focus, not the church.
Or, the subtle message here may be, if you lose sight of Jesus you’re likely to sink down. Many of us have found this to be true in our lives. It is faith that buoys us up. In times of grief and sorrow, when the going gets rough, it is a deep-seated trust of God that puts things in perspective, bringing peace and comfort.
When life gets difficult, the seas of life get choppy, it is normal to be afraid. Courage is not a lack of fear. It is moving forward in spite of our fear. Keeping our sights set on Jesus is a way forward. This may be a confusing statement to someone who has not put Christ at the center of things before. The preacher will have to bring it to life. Christ, our relationship with God, Jesus’ way of being in the world – these become our compass in life when skies are gray and threatening.
Peter may have little faith, like many of us, but he has enough faith to get out of the boat. I love the title of John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat. There are some awesome sermon illustrations in that book as well. You could download this book in the next couple of minutes and find some inspiring ideas.
What listener in your assembly will not identify with Peter, his desire, his fear, his doubt, his hope? People, congregations, communities, and even nations can be driven by fear. We are not our best when we are afraid. John reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). He may have a little faith, but keep in mind that Jesus’ nicknames Simon, “Peter,” “Rocky.” The Rock.” Peter is the original Rock, not Sylvester Stallone or Dwayne Johnson.
David Garland takes an alternate view. He sees Peter’s step out of the boat as a bit impetuous and self-aggrandizing. “Jesus does not promise to deliver [us] from the storm, but through the storm. The disciple’s task is therefore to stay in the boat worshipping and confessing, not attempting the sensational.”
Our text ends with, “Those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Surely you are the Son of God.’” We are only half way through Matthew’s gospel, and the disciples have already grasped who Jesus is and are worshipping him. These words convey Matthew’s purpose in telling the story. The event is meant to reveal who Jesus is, as should a good sermon.