Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16)

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).

Take courage.  Don't be afraid

In the movie Shrek, the ogre, Shrek and the donkey 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 there is across a very flimsy looking swinging bridge. Donkey is definitely not going to walk across the bridge but Shrek says that he can do it as long as he doesnít 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 Ö and looks down. Fear takes control. He doubts his ability and the safety of the bridge. He refuses to go any further.

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

Iím sure you know what I mean.
One morning taking the kids to school in the car you have an accident. You and the kids receive only minor injuries but your confidence is shot to pieces. You fear for the safety of your children, your own safety, and it takes a long time before you feel confident enough to drive on the road again.
A woman has had a bad experience in her marriage. The man she once loved and trusted only abused her and beat her. Soon after her divorce she meets another man who is nice, gentle and caring. But because of her previous experience she canít bring herself to trust him.
You always wanted to be a lawyer but someone you trusted told you that you just didnít have what it takes to do the studies. From then on, you doubt your ability to do anything worthwhile.

Doubt. Itís 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. For a moment, he was walking on water, literally walking on water, then doubt seeped in, he became afraid, and he began to sink. I love this biblical story because Peter is so human, he is so like us. He is bold and willing to take risks on the one hand, and fearful and full of doubt on the other. He shows us what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt.

The disciples had left Jesus back on the other side of the lake for some peace and quiet and were making their way by boat across the lake. In the early hours of the morning, far out on the lake a fierce storm was tossing their boat about. Imagine the churning water, the huge waves crashing over the boat, the powerful head wind and the disciples in the middle of it all, straining every muscle as they tried to row against it. What an image of chaos, terror, hopelessness, and powerlessness!

Then coming across the turbulent water they see a figure moving towards them - the wind tearing at his clothes and the white caps lapping at his feet. These seasoned fishermen had seen many things out there on the lake, but they had never seen anything like this. There was only one possible explanation. No human can walk on water. "Itís a ghost!" they immediately thought.

Above the wind they hear a voice: ĎTake courage! It is I. Donít be afraid!í It's Jesus. Jesus had left the quiet of his hillside retreat and came across the turbulent lake to help the desperate and powerless disciples. At the point when they thought that there was nothing left for them but a watery grave, Jesus came to the rescue. He gives them a renewed hope and a sense that because of his presence there really isn't anything to be afraid of. Jesus is there with his calming words: "It is I. Don't be afraid!"

When life is battering us around and the wind is against us, too often we don't realise that Jesus is closer then we think. The circumstances, the fear and doubt block our view of him. Just when we think that the turmoil and strife in our life is just too much to bear, when we think that there is no one who can get us out of this mess, Jesus is never far away.

Just as he knew when the disciples were in trouble, he knows when we need his help. When we are at our lowest he is there with his reassuring words, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Peter was quick to see that it was Jesus and responded with a courageous challenge: "Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water." Thatís a strange request. He might have said, "Lord, if it is you, make this storm stop," or "Lord, if it is you, give each of us the strength of ten men so we can row to safety." But Peter wanted more than that. He wanted to believe that this was Jesus but he wanted proof. Jesus simply answered, "Come!"

Peter did. He stepped out of the boat and on to the water. One writer describes this moment like this,

"Peter swung his legs over the side of the boat and, while all the other disciples watched with their hearts beating in their mouths, he placed his feet on the surface of the water - the waves crashing against the side of the boat, the wind whipping his hair into his eyes - he put his feet flat on top of the water, took a huge, trembling breath, and stood up. Then he took a few hesitant steps toward Jesus across the heaving surface, like the first steps he ever took in his life, and he was doing fine until a gust of wind almost toppled him, and he got scared and felt his feet sinking into the black waves below and he went down like a stone."

Peter lost sight of the one who called him to venture out from the safety of the boat and gave him the power to fulfil what had been commanded. He accepted the risk of faith by answering Jesusí call and climbing over the rim of the boat but his doubt suddenly returned 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 and he started to sink like a rock.

But before he went down, he cried out, "Lord, save me." Jesus reached out a strong hand to catch him and haul him into the boat, wet and shivering. At least Peter had the good sense to call out for help when he needed it. Some of us would rather drown than admit we need help! We should notice that Matthew says Jesus immediately reached out to catch him. He didn't have to beg for help or wait until he was on the point of drowning.

It is true Jesus commented to Peter, "You have such a little faith, why did you doubt that I would keep you safe?" but that didnít stop Jesus immediately responding and reaching out to give him a hand. You see, this isnít a story about the size of Peterís faith, but how he used it. As he gurgled and spluttered in the wild seas he knew there was only one who could come to his rescue. There was only one who could save him even though he didnít deserve saving. He called out to Jesus "Lord, save me" and Jesus raised him to the surface and hauled him into the boat.

That is the good news in this story. Jesus reaches out to save us who are "of little faith", even as we sink in doubt and fear. 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 minute we are being lifted up, the next we are sinking like stones in the wild seas of our life.
One minute we are so confident, trusting Jesus completely, the next we doubt his power to help us.
Faith and doubt co-exist in us. We obey and fear, we walk and sink, we believe and doubt. Itís not like we do only one or the other, we do both. Faith and fear-filled doubt live side by side in us. We donít like it, God doesnít 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 thatís the way God is, full of grace and never-ending love.

It was this same powerful love that led Jesus to the cross. He died there to rescue us from the turmoil that sin causes in our lives. He died to give us forgiveness and bring us to the safety of his kingdom, and eventually the safety of eternal life in heaven.

I like the apostle Peter because in him I can see myself. All on fire for Jesus one moment - anxious, doubting and fearful the next. There are so many times in our lives when we live in storms of worries and upsets. The death-dealing waves, the white caps, the wind of worry distract us completely. We can think of nothing else. We are even distracted from looking at the One who has called us to follow him and to trust him in the midst of these storms. Our worries and fears make us forget about the One who is really in charge.

This brings me to my last point this morning. If we want to come face to face with Jesus, we often go away to some quiet, out of the way place far removed from the storms of life, we seek some quiet gentle place to gather our thoughts, to pray, to feel Jesus close to us. But there is another place where we can meet him face to face. We can expect to meet Jesus, to be brought to faith like Peter and the disciples - in the middle of a storm. Even when we think that we will drown in the turbulent storm of our life, even doubt God's presence, he is close by and is ready to give us his arm and lift us above the the wild waves.

In the middle of a storm, when even our faith is failing, letís listen for the voice of Jesus who says to us, ĎTake courage! It is I. Donít be afraid!í

** I have not used a text from the Revised Common Lectionary this week - this text and the message it gives is more suited to the needs of our congregation at this time.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
22nd August, 2004

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