Walking on the Water: A Sermon on Matthew 14: 22-32

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on August 2, 2020. To hear the author preach this sermon please follow this link. The sermon begins at 14:30 https://www.facebook.com/105243486193626/videos/1939632379494480/

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” (Matthew 14: 28-30)

Our Scripture lesson is a continuation from last week.  You will remember that Jesus had just learned that his cousin John the Baptist had been murdered by King Herod.  This was not only a grief to Jesus’ heart, but for him it was also a foreshadowing of his own fate. He recognized that even as John would be murdered for his message, so he would be crucified for his message.

Because he was so distraught, he needed some time to grieve and to pray. Therefore, he had tried to escape the crowd by slipping away into a boat and going off by himself.  But when Jesus came ashore he met a large and needy crowd.  Instead of attending to his own needs, Jesus attended to the needs of others.  He healed many and he fed all.

Now at the end of the day, he is ready to take care of himself.  The scripture says “he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.”   The Greek word for “made” is a very strong verb that is better translated as “forced” or “compelled.” I think the disciples probably objected to leaving Jesus by himself, but he didn’t give them a choice.  He needed some time alone so he made them get into the boat. Then he spent all night in prayer with his Father.

While Jesus spent his night in prayer, he sent his disciple into a chaotic storm.  The disciples spent their night rowing against a great head wind that kept knocking them off course. Towards morning there were still far from shore, worn out from physical exertion and facing a tough situation.  In verse 24 the scripture says, “the boat was battered by the waves and far from the shore.”  The Greek word for battered literally means tortured, tormented or harassed. And that does greater justice to their situation.

Richard Swanson, in his blog “Provoking the Gospel”, points out that in the earliest years of the Christian faith, a boat was used as a symbol of the church.  If this is the case, then “this is a story for a Church that is battered by the waves.” That certainly describes us in the year 2020.  It feels as though we have been rowing against a head wind, making no progress, and are battered by all the things going on around us.

Although Jesus had gone away, he had not forgotten his disciples.  Just before daybreak as the sky was beginning to lighten, Jesus came walking on the sea.  In Biblical thinking the sea is a symbol of chaos, a restless and destructive power that could break out at any time and overwhelm the world.  It is like a tsunami, that without any forewarning turns a calm bay into a churning wall of chaos and death. 

“But Jesus is the master of chaos, so masterful that he can stroll on the surface of chaos, easily and calmly.” (Swanson, op. cit.)  In the Old Testament, God is the only one who walks on water.  And so for Jesus to walk across the chaotic sea, is a hint at his divinity.  He is doing what only God can do.

When the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea they are terrified.  Interestingly, the disciples hadn’t been frightened up until this point.  Yes, they were battling the waves, but many of them were seasoned sailors who had weathered severe storms on other occasions.  Unlike the earlier story in chapter 8 of another storm on the sea, the boat is not filling with water and they are not in danger of sinking.  They are working hard, but they fully expect to row their way to safety. 

However, when just before dawn Jesus shows up in the pale twilight, barely visible to their eyes through the storm and the mist, they think he is a ghost.  The sea was not only a symbol of chaos but it was also thought to be the abode of ghosts and demons.  The sea, the disciples can handle, but the demonic and the irrational, not so much. And so they are terrified and cry out, “It’s a ghost!”

Again, this not unlike us.  When faced with trouble we buckle down, row harder and tough our way through it. But their often comes a final straw, an event that we can’t understand and that throws us into deep fear. “It’s hopeless” we say as we sink into despair

But our hopelessness is Jesus’ opportunity, because in their fear, Jesus reveals himself for who he truly is.  Jesus spoke from the place of chaos; Jesus spoke from the waves to reassure his disciples. He said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Now in Greek the phrase, “It is I,” is literally “I AM.” So a better translation of these verses would be, “Do not fear, the I AM is here.” 

“I AM” is a shortened version of the name Yahweh. When Moses met God at the burning bush and asked God for his name, God replied, “My name is Yahweh” which means, “I am that I am.” It is a statement of God’s eternity, of his self-sufficiency, of his incomprehensibility.

The shortened phrase “I am” as a name of God is used frequently in the book of Isaiah. For example,

  • (Isaiah 43:25)I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake
  • (Isaiah 46:4) Even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. 
  • (Isaiah 51:12) I, I am he who comforts you

So when Jesus tells the disciples, “I am,” he is revealing his divinity to them. In our storms, the chaotic points in our life are a chance for us to gain a deeper insight into the divinity, power, and compassion of our Savior.

Walking on water and claiming to be the “I Am” should have been enough to ease their fears, but Peter required more proof.  And so Peter says “Lord, IF it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 

Now whenever you address God with the word “IF,” you put yourself in a very bad place, because instead of trusting God, you are asking God to prove himself.   

Think about it: who else said, “IF” to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew? When Jesus met Satan on the Mount of Temptation, Satan said, “IF you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread (Matthew 4:3).”  At the trial of Jesus, the High Priest said, “IF you are the Christ, the Son of God, tell us (Matthews 26:63).”  And at the crucifixion, the crowds said, “IF you are the Son of God, come down from the cross (Matthew 27: 40)!”  

Professor Mark Hoffman notes,

When Peter says, “If it is you…”, he is joining the company of Satan (4:3, 6), the high priest (26:63), and the mockers at the cross (27:40) who all put the exact same challenge to Jesus. In each case, just like Peter, they want Jesus to do something in order to verify his identity. This is not a good thing [and I would add, it will not end well].

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman, “Working Preacher,” August 7, 2011, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4541

The word “IF” is almost always a manipulative word.  A child who says, “If you love me,” hopes to play on parental insecurities in order to get their own way.

By the same token, the word “IF” comes from a place of doubt, not trust.  We only ask proof from those we don’t trust.  But by this point in the story, Peter has had more than enough reason to trust Jesus.  Even in this situation on the sea, Jesus had demonstrated who was by walking on the sea and by giving Peter his word, “It is I, the great I AM.” But instead of choosing to believe that word, Peter put it to the test and demanded that Jesus prove himself.  If Peter was motivated by doubt from the get go, is it any wonder that he eventually succumbed to his doubts when he tried to walk on the water? 

But Jesus is willing to let Peter learn to trust him the hard way.  I think that Jesus shook his head and with a bemused smile on his face said, “Come on, Peter.”  And Peter, whose name means “Rock,” climbed over the edge of the boat, took a couple of steps, and sank like a rock.  All he could do is cry out, “Lord, save me!” And the Lord saved him.

When he pulled Peter from the water, Jesus said, “Why did you doubt?”

What was Peter doubting? Most times people will tell you that Peter was doubting his ability to walk on the water. But I think that Jesus was really asking, “Why did you doubt me? Why did you need to make me prove myself?” That’s why Peter was bound to sink, not because he doubted his himself but he doubted his Lord’s identity. He would have done better to trust Jesus from the get go and take Jesus at his word.

Richard Swanson in his blog, “Provoking the Gospel,” asks two questions about this passage.  Why did Jesus walk on the water?  And why did Peter want to walk on the water. 

Swanson suggests that Jesus walks on the water to show that he is the master over chaos.  That there is nothing in this broken world that is beyond his control.  For he is the divine Son of God, the wave walker and the Great I am.

But Peter, why did Peter want to walk on the water? Swanson says,

Maybe he wanted to be the best water walker among the disciples.  It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that followers of Jesus argued about who was the bestest disciple.

Or maybe he wanted to have control over chaos. [It wasn’t enough for Jesus to have control over chaos. Peter wanted to have the same control over chaos.]

Human beings do not have control over chaos, though we spend a great deal of time and energy searching for such control.  And sometimes our search has yielded helpful results.  The polio vaccine, antibiotics, even aqueducts and railroads and airplanes, all give human beings a stability and control over life that historically we did not have.

Richard Swanson, “Provoking the Gospel.” https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/08/07/a-provocation-tenth-sunday-after-pentecost-august-13-2017-matthew-1422-33/

And that’s fine as far as it goes.  But when our need to control overwhelms our ability to trust, we will be in trouble, just as Peter was.  They are many things that are beyond our control and then the only faithful response is not to say, “IF it is you.” The only faithful response is to cry out, “Lord, save me.”

Swanson continues,

Notice that the storm does not cease when Jesus saves Peter.  The storm ceases when Jesus gets into the boat, which seems to have been his destination in the first place.

Maybe if Peter had stayed at his oar and kept rowing, the storm would have stopped sooner.

In the real world, what we mostly need is people who keep on rowing [and keep on trusting.]  Maybe that was Jesus’ point when he told Peter to get out of the boat.  Maybe Jesus knew that Peter would see the wind and sink.  At that moment, Jesus had the opportunity to decisively demonstrate his identity: “Lord, save me,” cries Peter.  And Jesus saved him.  That is his essential act, then and now. [He is the Savior.]

Richard Swanson, op. cit.

Often when you hear a sermon on this passage, you will hear someone talk about the importance of faith.  Preachers will suggest that if Peter had only kept his eyes on Jesus he would have been able to walk on the water.  They will suggest that if you have enough faith then you will be able to get through any trouble that you face.  However, I don’t have that kind of faith (Do you?), and neither did Peter, nor could he have had it. We need something more than just our faith to cling to. We need a Savior.

You see this isn’t a story about Peter’s faith or lack of it. As I said before, Jesus wasn’t asking Peter, “Why did you doubt your ability to walk on water?” He was asking, “Why did you doubt who I am?” When Peter got of out of the boat, he got a sharp lesson in trusting Jesus when he speaks. His little faith was not in his ability, his little faith was in Jesus.

This story is about Jesus, the Savior.  Jesus is the master of the waves that roll.  Jesus is the one who will save your soul. What is required is not faith in your ability to walk on water, even if it is faith that God is going to help you walk on water.  No, what is required is to cry out, “Lord, save me.”  For when you get tired of walking on the waves, when you can’t keep your head above water and start sinking, Jesus will be there to lift you up.

At the end of the story the disciples got down on their knees, worshiped Jesus and said, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” And that is where we end our story as well—worshiping Jesus, the Savior, the Son of God.

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