a sermon on Matthew 14:22-33 for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on August 7, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It was not a good night for the disciples to be out on the lake alone. They were expert boaters, many of them – after all, Jesus had called several of them to put aside their nets while fishing – but in this storm, they needed every set of hands they could get, including Jesus. But on this night, Jesus had sent them on ahead to the other side of the lake, planning to meet up with them the next morning after a little private retreat for prayer on the mountain, leaving them alone to struggle against the elements on the lake. The wind was against them, the waves were strong from the storm, the boat was taking a beating, and everything looked bleak. An extra set of hands would have helped, not to mention Jesus’ generally calming presence, but when they called out for him, he wasn’t even on the boat but rather off on his own praying.
Does all this sound familiar? I’m not talking about how this was the first text I ever preached on for the congregation here exactly six years ago today – I’m talking about how it sure seems pretty common for us to suffer through similar storms. The storms of life are rough – the waves batter us, the wind pushes us farther out from the land that we know, and sky keeps getting darker and darker. But like the disciples we could probably handle things if it were just the storms battering us. We not only face the wind and the waves – we seem to be so alone as we face them. Right when we need help the most, people don’t seem to show up. When times are tough, no one answers the phone or responds to our emails. Just when we are looking to others to fill in some of the gaps, we find that they are off on vacation or taking care of something that they have deemed more important or even off praying!
In the middle of the storm, just when things seemed to be at their worst, Jesus finished his time of prayer and decided to meet up with the disciples on the boat. He took the easiest and simplest route to join them – he walked out to the boat on the lake. This did absolutely nothing to ease the disciples’ fears and uncertainties amidst the storm – in fact, they just freaked out all the more because it just isn’t normal to see a man walking on water! When he saw all this, Jesus tried to calm their fears with simple words: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Still, Peter needed more proof that it was actually him, so he asked Jesus to have him come out on the water to meet him. So at Jesus’ instruction, Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water – the water that only minutes before had been the source of all their fear and uncertainty was now supporting Peter’s full weight, and he had no reason to be afraid. But then he realized what was going on. He thought about exactly what was happening. This lifelong fisherman was walking on water in the middle of a storm that had him and his friends scared to death, and the wind and the waves finally overwhelmed his sense of Jesus’ presence. Peter began to sink and cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Jesus scooped him up like a divine lifeguard, then chided him for losing his footing: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Then as Jesus got into the boat with Peter, the wind and the waves calmed down, and they could do nothing but watch in amazement and worship Jesus because of his amazing signs and wonders beyond their understanding.
Just as happened with the disciples, Jesus often shows up unexpectedly in the midst of the storms of our lives, too. When things get weird and uncertain, something happens to ease our minds and open our hearts to a new way. When need a way out of a time that just seems to be getting worse and worse, something or someone unexpected shows up to change it all for the better. When the wind and the waves batter us and we just need a break, an unexpected visitor comes to calm things down a bit – even if we end up a bit scared of it all at first. But we also get overconfident and overzealous sometimes, wanting to show off what we have learned, hoping to get assurance that this new way that God opens for us will be safe and good and permanent, desiring to feel God’s presence a little more closely than is healthy for us. We end up back out amidst the wind and the waves again, feeling unsafe and uncertain all the more, questioning and doubting what we were up to in the first place, sinking amidst the storms of life, looking for God’s comfort and presence all over again. Still Jesus picks us up and helps us into the boat – then joins us there himself. We might get asked a little about what we were thinking, but that’s only out of the greatest imaginable love – not a critical, dismissive question rooted in fearfulness but an honest query of wonder about how we could ever doubt God’s amazing care and love for us.
So just when the disciples least expected it – and just when they needed it most – Jesus showed up, transforming their uncertainty into hope, their fear into new life, their doubt into confidence, and their despair into joy. May Jesus show up for us, too, today and always. Amen.