Scripture: Matthew 14:22-32
Sermon Title: Stepping Out on Faith
The disciples are in a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake that sits below sea-level. They last saw Jesus when they left him on the shore, at his request. This narrative account comes right on the heels of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. In fact, the disciples were probably still brushing away bread crumbs and picking stray fish bones off their clothes. Verse 22 says, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him.”
It’s maybe a little too early here to digress, but I think it’s important to understand why Jesus was so intent on having some alone time. It’s not my main point of today’s sermon, but it is a valuable lesson in and of itself. If we back up a few verses, we read that Jesus has recently received news of the death of John the Baptist, who was be-headed by Herod. Upon hearing the news, Jesus had attempted then to withdraw to a solitary place to be alone. Unfortunately for him, the crowds followed him and pressed in on him. Being who he is, as verse 14 states, he “had compassion on them and healed their sick.” This is the crowd of 5000 that ultimately is miraculously fed. So, after meeting the crowd’s needs by healing and feeding them, Jesus again attempts to withdraw from everyone, including the disciples, for some quiet time of reflection and prayer. He was grieving the loss of his relative and friend. Jesus knew the value and need of the occasional down-time and periods of personal renewal and spiritual refreshment that comes in that one-on-one time spent in prayer with the Father. Note, he didn’t ignore the needs of those around him; he tended to the flock first. But, when the opportunity arose he withdrew himself to a quiet place. I hope all of you will remember to do the same occasionally. It seems the pace of life grows ever more hectic so we have to remind ourselves to be still and let God rejuvenate us. Don’t fret over the quality of your prayers. Be honest. Tell God what’s on your heart. And don’t be afraid to be silent and let him talk.
So, let’s get back to the disciples in the boat. They are in the middle of the lake with winds and waves whipping around them. The scripture tells us it’s about the fourth watch – so it’s somewhere between 3 am and 6 am in the morning. They look out and see someone approaching the boat and walking on the water. They cry out in fear thinking it’s a ghost. Can’t say I blame them. If I was out on Lake Norman or Lake Hickory at that time of morning, I would be terrified as well. They didn’t even entertain the thought it was Jesus until he spoke to them. They didn’t expect to see him there. They weren’t looking for him. Do we ever make that mistake? Do we ever slack off and lose our vigilance in looking for Jesus?
What happens next with Peter would be easy to file away as a failure. After all, Peter ends up all wet and depending on Jesus to save him. Once they establish it is Jesus walking towards them, Peter says “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” I wonder what in the world possessed him to do such a thing as that. Remember, Peter is a fisherman with vast experience on this particular body of water. He knows how dangerous these waters can be, especially when the waves are high. Doubtless, he has seen a few men perish here in the Sea of Galilee. Why would he leave a perfectly fine sea-worthy craft to step out into perilous waters? Simple, he felt an all-consuming desire to be as close to Jesus as possible. And he didn’t care what potential hazards stood in his way to get there. Winds. Water. Waves. It didn’t matter. What mattered was getting to Jesus. Imagine how Jesus felt at this point to see one of his disciples this eager to walk with him side by side, even if that walk consisted of barefoot surfing at five o’clock in the morning. It must have thrilled his soul and brought him immense joy. You too can bring such joy to Jesus still today. Like Peter, you just have to say, “No matter what else is pressing in on me and despite whatever threats and obstacles are in my pathway; I want to be as close to Jesus as possible.” That’s what Jesus desires the most – a close relationship of being side by side with his followers.
So, we know the compelling force that got Peter out of the boat; his desire to be close to Jesus. But, what gave him the courage to think he could defy the laws of nature? That too is simple, it’s because he saw Jesus do it. He’s been traveling with Jesus, witnessing the miracles he has performed, hearing his teaching. “If Jesus can do it, I can do it,” Peter thought; which is exactly what Jesus was looking for in his followers. When Jesus called his disciples he said, “Come, follow me.” He didn’t say, “Come, serve me.” He wasn’t picking personal aides and assistants who were there to make his life easier. He didn’t say, “Here John, you carry my extra sandals; James, you’re in charge of my belts for my robe; and Andrew, you just have to make sure I’m always standing in the best light with my good side facing the people.” Jesus didn’t want servants doing things for him, he wanted disciples, students, friends, doing things with him. He was always pushing them to do more then they even dreamed they were capable of doing. Think back to the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples had suggested Jesus send the crowd away so they could find something to eat. Jesus said, “You feed them.” They had the power within them to do ultimately what Jesus did for them, blessing a small amount and multiplying it. The point is he gave them the opportunity to rise to the occasion and do it themselves.
Peter has now seen an opportunity to rise to the occasion and show Jesus that he’s learning the lessons; that he’s ready to tap into the power source and do and be what Jesus is. That’s what gave him the courage to do what he did by stepping out on faith and not just trusting, but expecting, to be able to walk on water. Are we that courageous today? Are we watching and following Jesus close enough to build up our sense of what we can do? Are we ready to step out on faith trusting and expecting to be able to draw on that power source to enable us to do what needs to be done?
I mentioned earlier that some could see this encounter here as a failure. For all of our talk about Peter’s commitment, courage, and faith this story ends with Peter sinking in the water, calling out to the Lord for help whereby Jesus takes him by the hand and saves him from drowning. What happened to cause the downturn of events? Verse 30 says, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and began to sink.” His focus shifted from Jesus to the wind. By worrying about the danger around him instead of keeping his eyes and mind on Jesus, he gave the power back to the outside forces instead of drawing on Jesus’ power. Yet, I still don’t count this episode as a total failure. Why? First and foremost, he got out of the boat. He took a step of faith. I don’t think stepping out on faith in Jesus can ever be called a failure. In fact, I think this moment was instead a powerful and important teaching moment that empowered Peter to face something even more trying later on.
Flash forward to Jesus on the eve of his Crucifixion. He tells the disciples they will fall away and abandon him. Peter, bold and brash as he always was, refutes this. “Everyone else might – but I won’t.” Yet, Jesus tells him before the rooster crows you will deny me three times. Of course, that’s exactly how it played out. Imagine how Peter felt when he heard the rooster crow and realized he had let Jesus down. How do you feel when you realize you’ve done something awful? You know that sinking feeling you get in your gut? I imagine that’s what Peter experienced. I can also imagine that as he felt that sinking feeling in his stomach he flashed back and was reminded of how it felt when he was sinking in the water. He also would have remembered how Jesus took him by the hand and pulled him up out of the waves that threatened to engulf him. As he stood there awash in waves of guilt for denying Jesus, he probably once again felt Jesus reaching out to him and saving him from his feelings of despair. Remembering Jesus’ ability and willingness to pull him back after having temporarily taken his focus and faith off him, enabled and encouraged Peter to pick himself up and continue his journey with Jesus.
Today, right now, Jesus is asking you to step out on faith in and for him. It may be a small task. It may be a large task. But, there is something that he wants you to get up and out of your boat to do. He wants you out in the water with him. He wants to push you to do more than you think you are capable of doing. Is there a chance you might start sinking like Peter? Yes, especially if you take your eyes off Jesus. But, the good news is Jesus will be right there waiting to help you back in the boat. Use that experience as a teaching moment – a lesson to be learned. Life is full of opportunities to climb out of the boat and to walk with Jesus. Some excursions you’ll walk safely and confidently all the way to the shoreline. Some may be a little less successful. But, today be bold and brash like Peter. Be committed and courageous and test the waters. You don’t know what you can do until you step out and try.