Pentecost 10A Sermon, 9 August 2020 Matthew 14: 22-36
A Stormy Assurance
January last year: out on the Sea of Galilee, and a storm suddenly blew up. And did it surely BLOW!! Today’s gospel story became very real for me there and then!
It’s night and the disciples are battling against fierce winds in the middle of the treacherous Sea of Galilee. Jesus has sent them on ahead, leaving him behind on shore –he’s ‘peopled out’ by the crowds, and is taking time out to pray by himself. It’s his second attempt in 24 hours to find a quiet time – the crowds had followed him, and after a day spent teaching and healing, he’d ended up feeding all 5,000+ of them.
Out on the sea, it is dark, menacing and the disciple’s boat is battered by the waves. Then to their horror they see something… out there… in the dark and deep water. A ghost! And then they hear his voice –Jesus’ voice - call to them… “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” We read the translation as, “It is I”, but in the original, back then, the disciples would have heard: “I AM”: the divine name.
Impetuous Peter, not convinced, responds – “If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come”. He climbs out of the boat, takes a few steps, and sinks.
After a sound work-out on miracles last week, I want to keep this week’s sermon simple. There is, however, a number of encouragements and challenges in the whole story. I’ll be brief with these, before bringing this back to us, in our lives in 2020.
You could dwell on these aspects during the week:
* We get a glimpse of Matthew’s community, some 50-60 years after Jesus’ death, in this story – for them, boat at sea was a symbol for the church. For that community, it was a time of stormy seas. They’d reached out to Gentiles, which led to ostracism and a severing from the synagogue, torment and oppression for the believers. They’re afraid; they’re uncertain of their future and their safety. Where was Christ in the midst of all this? They need the reassurance of God-in-Christ's presence with them.
* Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him, in a boat; leaving them to battle alone in the dark until “early in the morning”, which people of that time would hear as the “fourth -the early morning – watch”. This was the very time when God had liberated the fleeing Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh, going before them and leading them across the water. This would have been meaningful and comforting to Matthew’s community.
* When the disciples first see Jesus they think he is a ghost. They don’t recognise him; and they’re terrified –they’re far more frightened of a ghost than the wild waters. Do we always recognise Jesus when we’re in the thick of trouble, despair, stormy seas? And if our hearts and minds and spirits aren’t tuned into expecting him to be with us, when he does appear, in whatever guise, we don’t recognise him or his voice. We could well see or hear anything but Christ in the circumstances.
* We might be terrified of both stormy seas, ghosts, and the threat of untimely death, like the disciples: What we might think we see and hear are those dire and dismal spectres of catastrophe. The psychologists even use the word “catastrophising” – making catastrophes in our head, constructing the worst possible scenarios and outcomes in our minds.
* Peter symbolises every Christian disciple. In the darkness and storms of life, he believed in the presence of Christ, yet his faith wavered and he wanted proof.
* Jesus said to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Is Jesus highlighting Peter’s lack of faith, or his impetuousness, or his uncertainty that was seeking assurance? When Jesus had said “Come” to Peter, perhaps what we’re seeing is Jesus accepting 2 Peter (and us) at his actual level of faith and personal growth, in order to lead him through this experience and further reflection, to a deeper and clearer faith.
* Most of us here have no doubt been exposed to the explanation that it is about Peter’s leap of faith, and that his faith allowed him to walk on water as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. Eyes off Jesus; eyes on big waves and kerplunk...down he goes. He can’t do it on his own (true!). But let’s move past any exhortations of this being about “needing more faith” and the like: with the often resultant confusion and guilt that arises in people when they try and try and try to build their faith, and those adverse things of life just don’t go away.
* Something else we might do when faced with the storm: we might put on rose-coloured glasses so that we don’t even see the turbulent waves; and so we snuggle down comfortably –“all is well; no problems; let’s keep things as they are.” It’s not faith to not see, or to pretend there’s no problems. That’s called denial; with possibly a lurking resistance to change.
What about for us? How might this story might speak to us as we negotiate the stormy seas of our own lives, whether Covid 19, life-threatening illnesses or relationship heart-breaks? For all we know, or fear, Jesus is asleep up there on the mountain, miles away, nowhere in sight. Not really caring, not really bothered, not really present.
In the struggles and uncertainties of life, it seems natural for us to seek signs of God’s presence. Yet the true Christian challenge is to believe the presence of God precisely when it is least discernible. Faith is seeing the reality of the circumstances, and daring to believe in the face of all evidence, that God is with us on the boat. What’s more, God empowers us to believe against the odds – we might feel we can’t hold on, but God “reaches out his hand and catches us”.
So let’s take the very central core of this story: Jesus is with us, no matter what!
In our life storms, we might see and hear nothing but the raw elemental forces raging against us; we might feel such emotional, spiritual and physical upheaval that we can’t see or feel or think past the havoc, but God-in-Christ is with us! Peace –and worship - is possible even in the midst of chaos, lockdown and isolation. I, for one, need that assurance that we all look for and need at troubled times, that we’re not alone, God-in-Christ is with us.
God is always there, sometimes to encourage us to overcome our fears, sometimes sending us out ahead, and sometimes reaching out to grab hold of us in forgiveness, mercy, comfort, grace, and love.
The Lord be with you.