Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 14)

Text: Matthew 14:22-32
Peter spoke up, “Lord if it is really you, order me to come out on the water to you.”  “Come!” answered Jesus.  So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water to Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid and started to sink down in the water.  “Save me, Lord!” he cried.
At once Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him and said, “What little faith you have!  Why did you doubt?” (vv 28-31).

In the middle of troubled waters

I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve watched the Shrek movies or parts of them with the younger members of our family.  The movies have been around for a while but still there is a fascination for the green ogre, Shrek, and Donkey who set out on a quest to rescue a fair maiden imprisoned in the tower of a castle that is guarded by a fire breathing dragon.  Between them and the castle there is a great chasm with red hot lava at the bottom.  The only way to get across is via a very flimsy swinging bridge. 

Donkey is definitely not going to walk across the bridge but Shrek says that he can do it as long as he doesn’t look down.  Donkey steps on to the bridge reminding himself not to look down, and feeling very bold and safe.  About halfway, one of the planks on the bridge gives way.  He stumbles … and in fear calls out, “Shrek, I’m looking down.   Aaah.  I’m goin’ to die”. And refuses to go any further and wants to go back.  Shrek swings the bridge and Donkey, still loudly proclaiming, “I’m going to die”, backs across the bridge in total fear until suddenly he finds, to his complete and utter amazement, he’s reached the other side.

The movie is funny but it characterises what happens in real life.  When doubt and fear grip our lives, we lose our focus, our sense of balance, and our confidence.

A bad experience can cause us to lose confidence and become fearful.
For example, you’re involved in a car accident, maybe you’ve got your kids in the car with you.  No-one is seriously hurt but your confidence is shot to pieces.  Fear takes control and it takes a long time before you feel confident enough to drive on the road again.

Someone once planted a seed of doubt in your mind about your ability and from that moment you have doubted your talent and not considered it worth pursuing.

Doubt.  It’s the breeding ground of fear and anxiety that makes us take our eyes off what is real and true and distorts reality.

That's what happened to Peter when his faith gave way to fear.

Let’s go back a bit.  In the early hours of the morning, far out on the lake the disciples find themselves in the middle of a fierce storm.  The churning water, the huge waves, the howling wind tossed their boat about and the disciples were straining every muscle as they tried to row against it.  The sea in Old Testament literature was a symbol of evil and to be out on the sea in a storm on a pitch black night was about the worst thing that could happen. The disciples are caught up in a situation that is chaotic, terrifying, hopeless, and evil! 

What makes things worse is this ghostlike figure walking across the stormy water towards them.  They are really scared!

Above the wind they hear a voice: ‘Take courage!  It is I.  Don’t be afraid!’  It's Jesus.  Jesus’ presence in the middle of the stormy sea – the symbol of chaotic evil – says a lot.  The words, “It is I” probably had a lot more meaning to Matthew’s readers than to us today because they would have made the connection between the man walking on the water and the God of the Old Testament, “The I am Who I am” who had complete control of the waters.  When the people of Israel were fearing for their lives, he parted the sea and led them across safely. Now the disciples see Jesus walk on the wildest of seas and he is in no danger.  He is more powerful than the worst evil.  This evil can’t harm him. He’s never far away from those who are caught up in evil and are afraid.

Just as he knew when the disciples were in trouble, he knows when we need his help.  When we are at our lowest – fearful, doubting and uncertain of what will happen next – he is there with his reassuring words, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Unlike the other Gospel writers, Matthew has something to add to this story.  He focuses on Peter who swings between faith and lack of faith again and again.  Peter is typically impulsive and has a strange request, “Tell me to come out of the water with you”. 

To believe that he could actually walk on water like Jesus is insane.  What was he thinking?  The storm is still raging, the sea is a very dangerous place – it’s a symbol of all that is evil, and to think that he, a mere mortal, could walk on such chaos – that’s just crazy.  I think the other disciples might have been surprised when Jesus simply answered, “Come!”  

Peter did.  He swung his legs over the side of the boat, then he took a few hesitant steps toward Jesus across the heaving surface and he was doing fine until he got scared and felt his feet sinking into the black waves below.  He went down like a stone.

Peter had accepted the risk of faith by answering Jesus’ call and climbing over the rim of the boat but his fear overwhelmed him when he felt the force of the wind and saw the size of the waves. He shifted his attention from the power of God in Jesus to his own limitations and fears. 

Don’t we see ourselves here in the sinking Peter?  I do?  So full of faith one minute and yet in the middle of a storm gurgling and spluttering. We can’t see our way out of it.  Everything seems to be too much. 
The trouble is too big. 
The sickness to overwhelming.
We know Jesus is more powerful than any evil that can come into our lives but somehow we’ve taken our eyes off him and focussed only on the size of the trouble around us.  Suddenly we’re overwhelmed.  Matthew says the waves “harassed” the little boat the disciples were in.  That’s exactly what the storm that overwhelms us does – it unrelentingly harasses us and we are worn down.

The waves “harassed” Peter but he managed to cry out, “Lord, save me.”  Without hesitation he knew who to call to and who could save him – not the other disciples, but Jesus.  And “immediately”, Matthew emphasises, Jesus reached out with a strong hand to catch him and haul him to the surface.  There he could walk across the waves, that would otherwise drown him, with Jesus by his side. 

It’s true Jesus commented to Peter, “You have such a little faith, why did you doubt that I would keep you safe?” but that didn’t stop Jesus immediately reaching out to give him a hand.  You see, this isn’t a story about the size of Peter’s faith, but how he used it. As he gurgled and spluttered in the wild seas he knew there was only one who could really help him and so he called out to Jesus “Lord, save me”.

Jesus reaches out to save us who are “of little faith”.  That is good news indeed, because like Peter, faith and doubt are all mixed up in us. 
One minute we are filled with faith and courage the next filled with fear and doubt. 
One moment we are being lifted up, the next we are sinking like stones in the wild seas of our life. 
One day we are so confident, trusting Jesus completely, the next we doubt his power to help us.
We obey and fear, we walk and sink, we believe and doubt.  It’s not like we do only one or the other, we do both.  Faith and fear-filled doubt live side by side in us.  We don’t like it, God doesn’t like.  We are this way because of the way sin has infected every part of us and our lives.

In the Bible, God promises that he would stand by us as we ride the wild waves and the turbulent seas of our life.  Our doubts and fears may paralyse us but he is always there to rescue us with his mighty arm. When we sink, as Peter did, as we all do, our Lord reaches out and catches us, he holds us with his mighty arm, he reassures us of his presence and help.  Why does he keep on rescuing us even though we are “of little faith”?  All I can say is that’s the way God is, full of grace and never-ending love.

We haven’t quite come to the end this story yet.  Remember, the storm is still raging all this time but when Jesus and Peter got into the boat, the storm finally stopped, and all the disciples worshipped Jesus.  They had been afraid; they had believed that chaos represented by the turblent sea was in control, but in the end Jesus had shown he was the one with authority over all things and he was the one who would not let down those whom he loved. In the middle of the storm, in the middle of all that was evil, when they thought that all was lost, they met God – his authority, his power and his love.  “Truly you are the Son of God!” they declared. 

In the middle of chaos, when even our faith is failing, may we listen to the voice and take hold of the hand that will guide us over every turbulence.  May we, like Peter, experience the peace that comes when Jesus takes control in the midst of the worst storm, and the stillness that fills our lives knowing the grace and love of the Son of God.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
10th August 2014

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