Take Courage! It's Jesus!
A sermon based on Matthew 14:22-33
Sunday, August 31, 2014 – Pentecost 12A
Mark Twain and his wife visited the Holy Land. Twain, dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes and white Texas hat, asked a man in a rowboat about the cost of a trip on the Sea of Galilee. The boatman, who figured by his fancy clothes, that Twain must be a wealthy Texas oilman, announced, "It'll cost you $25 to take a ride on the Sea of Galilee." Mark Twain thanked the man and walked away with his wife and shouted loudly enough for the boatman to hear, "Now I know why Jesus walked!" J
Jesus did walk on the surface of the lake (And it wasn't frozen! That's an important point.), but he walked not to save some money. He walked on the water to be with his disciples. He walked on the water to teach his disciples. He walked on the water to save them from their fears and from their doubts. And when they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, there was nothing they couldn't do—they could walk on water. But when they looked away, that's when they began to sink. Here's the account as told by Matthew in Matthew 14:22-33…
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."
28 "Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."
29 "Come," he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!"
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?"
32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
Jesus had just finished feeding more than five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. And before the people could try to forcibly make him king, he sent them away. He sent his disciples away too, perhaps because he knew that they too would be tempted by the thought of making him an earthly king. But perhaps he just shooed everyone away because he wanted to finally have that time alone in prayer he sought earlier that day.
So Jesus went off by himself to pray. Perhaps he prayed about God's plan to allow John the Baptist to be killed. Perhaps he prayed for strength against the temptation to let the people make him king. He defeated satan when he brought that temptation forward once before, but satan doesn't give up so easily. No doubt he prayed for his disciples and for the crowd of thousands that they might realize Jesus already was a King in a much better way.
And when he was finally done with that alone time spent in prayer, it was already the fourth watch of the night, going on 3am! He went to find the disciples and found them in the middle of the lake fighting the wind and the waves.
Now the Sea of Galilee is about 13 miles long from north to south and about 8 miles wide. In comparison, Skilak Lake is 15 miles by 4 miles. The Sea of Galilee is 680 feet below sea level, surrounded by mountains, so, just like Skilak, when the winds curl up over the tops of the mountains they slap the surface of the water, get caught in that giant bowl of mountains, and swirl around, stirring things up in a hurry. The water can get very rough, very quickly. So they'd been rowing all night in conditions like that and had only made it 3 or 4 miles.
And then things got worse. No doubt tired and fatigued, the disciples now saw something that terrified them. There was a figure walking out on the surface of the water right for them. No doubt it was a ghost, they thought, coming to collect their souls. They weren't going to survive this storm. They were surely going to drown.
When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus comforted them. "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." And what a difference Jesus' words made! Peter was suddenly filled with a bold faith that cried out, "Lord, if it's you… tell me to come to you on the water."
And when Jesus granted permission—"Come."—Peter did it! He walked on the surface of the water! (And it wasn't even frozen! Again, that's an important point!) Now, just to be clear, it wasn't Peter's faith, but Jesus' power and Jesus' word that allowed Peter to walk on water with a firm foundation beneath his feet. But looking away separated him from Jesus' power.
Like the rolling waves, Peter's faith swelled from fear to faith when Jesus said "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." But just as quickly it sunk in a trough of fear when he took his eyes off Jesus. And Peter went down with his doubt.
You know, of all the miracles of Jesus' I think this is one of the most popular. And I think that's the case because we can so easily relate to Peter. One minute exhausted and terrified at what we see—in the bills, in the diagnosis, in the fighting, in the guilt and the shame. But then Jesus speaks and we're full of faith, rejoicing in God's words of comfort, ready to step out of the boat and do great things. But then we look around, we take our eyes off of Jesus, and again we sink back down.
Ah how much like the rolling waves our faith can rise and fall in such a short amount of time. And you know why, don't you? It's because we take our eyes off of Jesus—even if just for a moment! The Greek word that's translated as "doubt" here is literally "second-guessing."
Oh, we know the promises of Jesus. We've experienced his peace. We've even done great things by his power! But then a new challenge arises. And we wonder, "What about this time? This time will he let me sink? Will he save me? Will he really work all things for my good? I mean, just look at the waves this time! Look at the obstacles that stand in my way! Just look at the mess I've made of things this time!" And we second-guess that Jesus cares about us or that he has the power to do anything about it. And for second-guessing his love for us, for taking our eyes off of Jesus… well, quite frankly, we deserve to sink.
As Peter's feet and ankles and shins and knees and thighs were getting cold and wet, he did the right thing: He prayed to Jesus. And someone once put it well when he said, "Short prayers are long enough." "Lord, save me!" is all he cried. But what a beautiful prayer it was! And Jesus heard and answered: "Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him."
Of course, a simple word from Jesus would have been enough to lift Peter out of the water and send him soaring through the sky and gently back onto the boat. But Jesus wanted Peter to feel his love in a real, tangible way. So he took him by hand and helped him back to the boat. "And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down." And John adds that another miracle took place saying, "immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading." (John 6:21)
And Jesus saved Peter from sinking and his disciples from the storm. But that wasn't the greatest salvation he provided for them that day. Greater still was how he saved them from their doubts and from their fears. Like the rolling waves, Peter's faith went from fear to faith, from faith back to fear, but now again from fear back to faith. And all the others with him. "Truly you are the Son of God," they declared. And with all certainty of who he was, with doubts driven from their minds, they worshiped him.
And Jesus offers and gives us that same salvation today! He removes our doubts and fears with the assurance of who he is. He walked on water! He enabled Peter to do the same! "Truly [he is] the Son of God!"
You know it's true. But sometimes we're tempted to look away from him and his Word and look at what we see. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world were crying out, "Look at me! Look at me!" There are so many things seeking your attention. The TV cries "Look at me!" The smart phone dings, "Look at me!" The pile of bills cries, "Look at me!" Your own sin scream, "Look at me!" And they can all distract us from where we should be looking: at Jesus.
But don't fall for it. You know you'll just sink again. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and you'll stay afloat! Even more, you'll walk on water!
When you look at your finances and see bills and debts greater than your income and get that sinking feeling, quit looking at what you see, but look to Jesus who promises, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" (Matthew 6:26) And take courage! It's Jesus. Don't be afraid.
When you look at your failing health or read the diagnosis of a loved one and get that sinking feeling, quit looking at what you see, but look to Jesus who promises, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28) And take courage! It's Jesus. Don't be afraid.
When you look at your struggling relationships and the problems you face every day and get that sinking feeling, quit looking at what you see, but look at Jesus who promises, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5) And take courage! It's Jesus. Don't be afraid.
And when you look at the mess you've made of your life with your own sin, when you feel the guilt and the shame of what you've done, when you really get that sinking feeling, quit looking at what you see, but look to Jesus who promises, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9) Take courage! It's Jesus! "Truly [he is] the Son of God!" And as such, his death on the cross was surely enough to pay for all of your sin. His resurrection guarantees it! So don't be afraid.
Keep your eyes on him. Keep your eyes in the Word. And when your faith starts to tremble, cry out, "Lord, save me." And take heart! It's Jesus! Truly he is the Son of God! Truly he is your Savior—from your sin, from death, from hell, and from that sinking feeling. If Jesus told you to walk on water, there's no doubt: you could do it. But Jesus does tell you to take heart, to be of good cheer, to not be afraid, to quit doubting but believe. And you can do it. His Word and his promises give you power. Take heart, dear friends! It's Jesus!
A little girl was walking across an icy sidewalk and slipped and fell down. Not wanting to fall again, she grabbed her dad's hand and held on tight. But when he feet went out from under her, she also lost her grip and let go of daddy's hand and fell on the ice again. She got back up and said, "Daddy, why don't you hold my hand instead me holding yours?" The next time she slipped, her dad held on. He caught her and she swing from his arm with a laugh.
Whenever you get that sinking feeling, don't rely on your strength, but pray, "Lord, save me." Pray, "Jesus, you hold my hand instead me holding yours." And he will. And take courage! It's Jesus! Don't be afraid! Your sins are forgiven! He is with you! And he makes you strong enough to "step out of the boat," and do great things for him and with him. Take courage! It's Jesus! Don't be afraid. In his name, dear friends, Amen.