Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, August 2, 2020
Most of us at some time in our life have walked on the water. That it happened to be water that was frozen into ice is merely a scientific detail. That we first ensured that the thickness of the ice was of a consistency to support our weight is testimony to our own common sense. Yet I can still say, with full assurance of conviction, that we do - under certain circumstances - possess water walking faith.
Now if that's all there was to our lives; rational generalizations that led to confident, overcoming faith, life would be a breeze. Things are not that simple. There are other forces at work. There is fear as well as faith. Our bible story today shows how fear and faith can often get mixed up together.
One thing that the Hebrew people were really afraid of was the sea. For the Hebrews the sea was an image of chaos. It was a place where unpredictable things took place. Nobody knew what scary monsters lived in its depths. In the book of Revelation heaven is described as a place without sea. That's how much the Hebrews disliked the sea! We still use the expression when life gets a little crazy of being “All at sea.” Images of shipwreck, like that of the so called unsinkable Titanic, remind us that the oceans are a dangerous place where people lose their lives.
Matthew's gospel gives us the story of the disciples being all at sea, all alone, when a great storm blows up. A big storm and a little boat meant one thing - big trouble. They are doing everything they can to take control of the situation. Some of them were seasoned fishermen and had a degree of expertise in this area. But it's getting worse!
You can almost picture the scene. Matthew the tax collector, white as a sheet, huddled in a corner saying his prayers. Judas, in charge of the moneybag, huddling it close to himself, so that if they did go down, he'd take the money with him. Peter running around shouting orders at everybody. "James, pull that sail in, Andrew start bailing that water out the back.. John.. you're looking a bit green there.. uh, oh, stay out of John's way a minute...Philip, steer into the waves or this thing will go over.."
Peter had a lot of faith. He had faith in his fellow crew mates. He had faith that they hadn't left everything behind to follow Jesus to end their days, as the song in Bedknobs and Broomsticks says, "Bobbing along on the bottom of the beautiful briny sea." If the storm wasn't enough, then things start to get really scary.
In the midst of the wind and waves, the disciples start to point and stare! "Looks like somebody’s walking this way. How can that be? We're nowhere near the land! What's going on? I don't like this!" Hear how Matthew describes the disciple’s reaction.
"When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. (Matthew 14:26-27).
The first reaction of the disciples to Jesus coming to them, is not faith, but fear. And fear causes us to do the stupidest things. Fear causes us to make the wrong decisions. Fear blocks out the voice of reason. Peter was very afraid. He hated not to be the one in control.
So there's Jesus, on His way to be with the disciples, telling them not to be afraid, in control of things. Is Peter content to listen to what Jesus was saying? "Don't be afraid" The rest of the disciples seem content to do so. Not Peter. He has to put things to the test. " Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to You on the water."
The story of Peter reaching out to Jesus and taking a few steps on the water has traditionally been seen as an example of what you can do if only you have enough faith. I tend to think of it a different way. If Peter had really been faithful he would never have got out of the boat! If Peter really had faith he would have stayed where he was.
Getting out of a little boat in the middle of a big storm when help was immanently arriving strikes me as stupid. If Peter had been coming from a position of faith, he would have accepted the assurance of Christ, to ‘be not afraid,’ and waited in the boat till Jesus was on board. There's a children's chorus that says, "With Jesus in the boat we can smile at the storm, smile at the storm, smile at the storm." It's not so easy to smile at the storm when you've just jumped out of the boat.
God, in God's mercy, is incredibly indulgent. If, by allowing us to do something stupid, God can teach us something important about our faith, God takes that opportunity. When Peter challenges Jesus to prove Himself; by giving Peter the power to be a water walker, Peter is taught an important lesson. Rather than playing God and taking matters into his own hands, he had to learn to wait for God's promises to take effect.
There's some background to this. In the mythology of other religious traditions and in that of the Hebrews, only One had power over the wind and waves; only One could triumph over the power of the deep... and that One was God. Such a miracle was a sign of Divine Presence. Only God could part the Red Sea, hold back its waters for the Israelites to pass safely through. Only God had the power.
By asking to walk on the water for himself, Peter, from his position of fear, was saying, "The only way out of this bad situation is if you let me play god for a while, let me walk on the water.... then I will believe." Jesus actually calls Peter to get out of the boat, and play god. And for a few steps, it looks like a miracle. But as soon as Peter realizes his foolishness, glug, glug, glug glug.
The question this passage poses is not "Do we have enough faith to walk on water?" The challenge is, "Do we have enough faith to stay in the boat, knowing that Jesus is coming to help, trusting in His voice that promises us peace, believing that those who wait upon the Lord shall be saved?"
If our faith were measured by our ability to do such things as walk on the water, turn water into wine and raise the dead then we would be in deep trouble. Faith is not a quantity but a quality. Faith is about the quality of relationship we have with God. Faith is holding onto the belief, that despite the chaotic circumstances surrounding our lives, God’s word is living and active and heading in our direction.
Get the wrong idea about faith and it can land you in deep water. Ask Peter. Making like we are gods and we can solve all our problems for ourselves is not going to carry us through. Pretty soon the chaos will have us submerged back into our fears.
We must allow Jesus time to come walking into our storms. He has promised to be with us. Believe that promise. "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Take the time for Him to walk into your storm. Take the time to let him sit in your boat. The prophet Isaiah says, "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
Our passage finishes by telling us what happened once Jesus and the now much humbled the rather wet Peter became when once back on board. “When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped Him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (14:32-33)
The restoring of calm led to a sense of worship and an affirmation of faith. Faith generates faith. Every situation that we work through with God prepares us for the next situation that comes our way. On the other hand, fear commits us to inappropriate actions, blocks out the comforting words of Christ, and fools us into believing we can save ourselves.
We can be so foolish. Like Peter we think we can play God. Like Peter, so often we don’t hear nor believe the promises of Jesus Christ. The storms we are going through and the fears we wrestle with, block out the words. So we get over the side, take a few steps and then find ourselves sinking... out of our depth, worse off than we were before.
It was then that Jesus held out His hand to Peter. And Peter grasped the hand of Jesus and was saved. Maybe our situation isn’t that of Peter. But we are all capable of being knocked hopelessly out of depth by the storms life brings our way.
Don’t be fearful, be faithful. Jesus is reaching out to us.
Let us take His hand and get back in the boat.
Let us learn from our own and others mistakes.
Let us not be people motivated by fear, but those who walk by faith.
Remember the ice. In the right situation we can all walk on water!
The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.
Prayer - “Faith or Fear?”
Lord, the storms of life come to us all. And at times we think we are going to be overwhelmed. In our confusion we make a variety of responses, varying from trying to take it on all alone to acting in inappropriate ways that are more of a panic reaction than a helpful solution.
We recall those of our fellowship or family who are passing through the storms at the current time. Those being challenged through illness or recovery. Those who travel fearfully through the valley of the shadow of death. Those who have lost their way or are seeking for purpose. Those facing the particular problems that the passing of the years have brought their way.
Bless us when we are in our comfort zones, but save us from clinging to them when we need to be open to the changes that are Your will for us. When You call us to venture into new areas, help us look for the blessings You are leading us into. We know we can trust You to guide us all through life, but especially in the midst of change.
We are mindful of the many blessings around us, and pray for those who help keep our selves and our communities safe. We pray for those in the caring professions through whose talents and gifts we find healing. We pray for those involved in research and are seeking to find solutions to illnesses that are yet to find a cure, in particular in reaction to the current pandemic.
We offer prayer for those in political office, at local, national and international level. The task of government is a high calling and the responsibilities placed on those whose decisions effect the quality of life for many others is a weighty one. May they know Your guidance and Presence.
In particular we pray for those places of conflict, all those nations were turmoil and disruption are the norm. We pray for this nation as the problem of continuing racial discrimination within society is addressed. Remind us that there can be no peace without justice. Likewise we lift up leaders of nations that are stalked by disaster and famine, often caught between a rock and a hard place. May compassion achieve what politics cannot fix.
In this we pray for Your church, called to show the compassion of Christ to all people in all places. We offer to You those prayers we find impossible to put into words, but which rest heavily upon our hearts. All our prayers we make in Jesus name. And now join in that prayer He has taught us...
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory for ever. AMEN.