(Photo: Inishbofin Ferry, July 2014)
Sermon for Sunday 10th August, 2014.
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
As we look at the gospel reading this morning, many of us (if we are honest) will find ourselves identifying with the disciples in the boat. If you think about it, it is a picture of much of the church in our part of the world today. As we look beyond the confines of the boat, we are intimidated by the height of the waves and the strength of the wind. The world is in such a mess, with seemingly endless numbers of spiritually starving people all around us, and the world beyond appears to be nothing but war and rumours of war, disease and disaster, with countless numbers of innocent men, women and children caught up in it all. “It’s much better to say in the boat”, we say to ourselves, “where it is safe, where it is dry and where we can hide from the oceans of need all around us”.
I have a memory from when I was about five or six years old of watching an episode of Dr. Who on TV – there I was, eyes glued to the old black-and-white television when all of a sudden a scary screaming monster type thing came on to the screen and I was terrified. I got up and ran around to the back of the sofa, occasionally peering over the top to see if it had gone away and then ducking for cover once more. My mother then came in to the room and told me not to be afraid, it was just a man dressed up in a silly costume and it was nothing to be frightened of. I didn’t need to hide behind the sofa any more after that.
But staying in the boat, or hiding behind the sofa or just keeping ourselves busy with church activity is not where the Lord wants us to be. He does not want us to live in fear, He wants us to trust Him, He even wants us to get out of the boat…
The reading starts off with the Lord Jesus telling the disciples to head out in the boat and go over to the other side of the lake whilst he goes up the mountain by himself to pray. Did the disciples know that their master and friend was going to pray? I’m not sure, but if they did, then perhaps they didn’t need to fear what was going to happen next. The same is of course true for us. In Hebrews 7:25, the Bible gives us the wonderful promise that Jesus prays for those who come to God through Him. Isn’t it a very special thing, to know that Jesus prays for us?
So whilst Jesus is alone on the mountain, the disciples are making their way across the lake, but a storm has arisen, the boat is being battered by the wind and the waves and they are far from the shore. It’s quite a contrast don’t you think? Picture the serenity of Jesus in the place of prayer up on the mountain and then in the distance out on the water are the disciples, being lashed, buffeted and bashed by the waves and the wind which are coming hard against them. Remember that a number of the disciples are experienced professional fishermen, they have encountered many storms before, but this is a bad one. The disciples are in a state of panic and in fear of losing their lives and yet they were in fact perfectly safe, Jesus was praying not only for Himself but also for them and He very soon would come to them. How many times have we been in a state of anxiety and fear only to realise later that God was with us all along, looking after us, holding and protecting us?
In verse 25 it says “In the early morning he came walking towards them on the lake”. In the original it says “In the fourth watch of the night”, which is between 3 am to 6 am. So the disciples had been battling the storm most of the night, and they were no doubt by this time not only frightened, but exhausted. The waves were still large and the wind still strong and there had been no let up. But Jesus comes to them ‘actually walking on the rising and falling waves’ (Hendriksen). ‘The disciples must discover that they have a Saviour who is able not only to still the storm but even to use it as His pathway’ (Ibid.) Initially they don’t realise that it is Jesus coming to them across the water, in the dim light and overcome with fear they cry out ‘It is a ghost!’ But now close to them Jesus says:
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Beautiful words, words that give us strength and comfort to this day. If we look at the literal translation of what Jesus says, it is even more powerful, He says: “Take heart, I AM”. When Jesus says ‘I AM’, it is very significant, because this is the name for God in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14). Jesus is telling the disciples, and us, that He is the great ‘I AM’, so there is no need to fear. In whatever situations you are in today, this is a huge reassurance to your heart that Jesus is in control.
(Photo: “Jesus walking on the Water”, Stained-glass window, Church of the Ascension, Timoleague)
I think Peter is just such a great, larger-than-life character. He sometimes gets criticised for being a loud mouth who always seems to put his foot in it, but what we learn from him is that it is much better to do something and fail whilst trying, than to do nothing at all. It is much better to get out of the boat and sink and be saved than to never take the step of faith at all. Peter wants to be wherever Jesus is, even if that means doing something that is impossible, something that contradicts the laws of physics, such as walking on water. Of course it was Jesus who created water in the first place, it was He who determined the laws of physics and nature, He is Lord over all He has created and it is subject to Him in every way.
Peter has enough faith and enough courage to step out of the boat, which at this time is still being buffeted about. To begin with it all goes well, he is actually walking on the water towards Jesus. But the initial wonder of what he is doing evaporates as Peter takes his eyes of Jesus and notices the strong wind. In so doing his faith is replaced by fear and he begins to sink. Turning back to Jesus he cries out “Lord, save me!” Jesus’ response is immediate, He reaches out and catches hold of him. Perhaps it is then as the two of them are walking back to the boat that Jesus says: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ In other words, Peter should have taken to heart that He was in Christ’s presence, and he should not therefore have been afraid.
Perhaps some of us can relate to Peter, yes we have faith, but mixed in with that faith is fear and doubt (Wright). It can seem that what Jesus has asked us to do is impossible, whether that is being a witness for Him in the home, in school or in the workplace; whether that is being involved in ministry of some kind to those in the church or to those outside; whether it is in helping those around us or helping those in far away places. It can all seem, at times, overwhelming. If like Peter we look at the wind and the waves we will conclude that what God has asked us to do is impossible. All we have to do though is keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, in prayer, in His Word, in worship and praise and as we go out into the world. Spending time with Him is key so that not only will we know what He wants us to do, but we will have the power, energy, strength and faith to do that which He asks of us.
As Peter and Jesus get back into the boat all is calm, the wind stops and the disciples cry out now not in fear, but in worship, saying to Jesus ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ Worship is of utmost importance.
One of my favourite books of recent years is John Ortberg’s “If you want to walk on water You’ve got to get out of the boat.” He writes: “When human beings get out of the boat, they are never quite the same. Their worship is never quite the same. Their world is never quite the same. Whatever the results, whether they sink or swim, something will have changed… Jesus is not finished yet. He is still looking for people who will dare to trust Him. He is still looking for people who will refuse to allow fear to have the final word. He is still looking for people who refuse to be deterred by failure … Just remember one thing: If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.”
Let’s pray: Lord, we ask that You would give us courage to get up and to step out and to follow You and Your will and plan for our lives, now and always … Amen.
- William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Matthew, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1989
- John Ortberg “If you want to walk on water You’ve got to get out of the boat.”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001
- Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, SPCK, London, 2004
 John Ortberg “If you want to walk on water You’ve got to get out of the boat.”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001, p.202