"A Water-Top Jesus Journey" – Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.
When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
You might be familiar with today’s gospel story by many different titles: "Jesus calms the storm," "Jesus walks on water," "Peter walks on water," "Peter fails to walk on water," etc. This morning I invite you to think about this as the story about Jesus who miraculously appears in the midst of fear.
Fear of the sea was a prevalent phobia in the first-century middle east. There were no swim lessons at the YMCA; no coast guard speeding to rescue ships in distress; no posted signs warning of the absence of lifeguards or the dangers of rip currents; nor was there a team of action alert weather forecasters warning of the next disruptive sea storm. The sea was a place of provision and destruction, life and death.
The first century audience would hear the storyteller speak about a boat being battered by strong waves and feel the same sense of dread and foreboding as we feel when we pick up a Steven King novel or listen to a story by a campfire told by someone holding a flashlight casting ominous shadows onto the storyteller’s face.
This gospel story is a story about fear – how it affects us and how it does not overshadow the ways and promises of God.
In order get in the right mindset, I encourage you to think of an experience in your life where you felt terrified. Recall an experience in your life where the talons of fear took hold of your heart. Perhaps it was a diagnosis, an accident, being let go by your employer, being let go by a loved one, a near-death experience, losing someone you loved, or stepping into something completely unknown.
My moment of greatest fear was almost three years ago, when my youngest son endured his first seizure. It happened without warning. One minute I was coaching my oldest son’s soccer team, with my perfectly healthy youngest son watching on the sidelines; the next minute I heard people yelling my name.
A crowd had formed around my son as he had fallen from his chair. He was lying on the ground, convulsing, and turning blue. I had never witnessed anything like it; I had no way to be prepared for it; I had no understanding of what was happening; and I have never felt so helpless. I thought I was watching my son die.
I found a medical article quite helpful in explaining what is going on neurologically when one feels fear. Essentially, the amygdala activates a series of physiological systems but the “brain basically shuts down as the body prepares for action. The cerebral cortex, the brain's center for reasoning and judgment, is the area that becomes impaired when the amygdala senses fear. The ability to think and reason decreases as time goes on, so thinking about the next best move in a crisis can be a hard thing to do. Some people even experience feelings of time slowing down, tunnel vision, or feeling like what is happening is not real. These dissociative symptoms can make it hard to stay grounded and logical in a dangerous situation.”
We now have the medical insight to verify something people have anecdotally known for centuries: When you’re scared you can’t think straight.
One of the important truths in a gospel story like today’s is that God comes to us when we’re scared and when we can’t think straight.
Whatever sense of fear the disciples were feeling on that boat battered by the waves, their fear actually intensified when Jesus came to them. Jesus was doing something so unprecedented, so unnatural, so unbelievable, that they couldn’t even recognize him at first. After all, they were so scared they couldn't think straight.
The disciples cry out in fear and a sound cuts through the roaring of wind and wave – the voice of Jesus saying, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” With this sentence Jesus makes it clear that God remains present with us in the midst of fear.
I don’t believe Jesus is making light of their predicament or their fears. He’s not saying, “I can’t believe you scardy cats let a couple big waves rattle you.” Instead, he’s saying, “I understand that you are afraid but right now you are not thinking straight. Take some deep breaths, keep your eyes on me, I am coming to you.”
Peter responds with something you could interpret as faithful confidence or the irrational action of someone with a compromised cerebral cortex. He asks Jesus to command him to go to Jesus. Jesus obliges. Peter takes one step onto the choppy water – the very thing he is most afraid of. Then goes the other foot. Each step lands firmly on the water without sinking.
Despite a successful beginning to his water-top journey to Jesus, a strong gust of wind once again ignites Peter’s amygdala and it asserts control, convincing him that his fear of the wind and water is more real than his dry ankles; more real than the Jesus whom he has nearly reached. His mind is once again compromised by fear and he begins to doubt himself and sink.
This story is both a promise and a warning. The two-fold promise is that God is with us in our fear and equips us for incredible acts of faith. The warning is to be aware of the fact that when we’re scared our brains are hard-wired to look for solutions anywhere but the God who is present in our suffering.
Recall again that life experience I asked you to think of earlier. Was God present in that experience of fear?
If you were able to feel God’s presence, I am grateful along with you. You witnessed something truly remarkable; something which hopefully gave you hope and peace.
If you were unable to feel God’s presence, I lament with you and I know how you feel. In my moment of pure terror around my son’s seizure I did not bother looking for God. It was only through hindsight that I recognized God’s presence:
- in the crowd that was praying for my son;
- in my wife who, thanks to medical training, knew what was happening and responded with decisive action;
- in the presence of my parents who happened to be in town that day and were able to be with Nolan and provide a sense of normalcy while we rushed his brother to the hospital;
- and, of course, in the care of the first responders and emergency room staff.
My hope is that this amazing story from Matthew’s gospel convicts you to learn enough about yourself to know when you are operating out of a sense of fear. There is nothing wrong with feeling fear; however, the problem comes when we pretend that the fear is the most logical and accurate response and allow our fear to call the shots, ignoring God’s promises that remain within our field of vision.
This is not an abstract issue. Over the past few weeks pastors from Dallas to Indianapolis have pronounced God’s blessings on the potential action of our President launching a pre-emptive nuclear weapon strikes on the people of North Korea. This is just the latest example of Christ-followers affixing a self-righteous label on their fear-based assumptions.
The White House is not looking to me for theological advice. They have their own echo chamber for that purpose. And, truth be told, maybe you don’t think a pastor should have anything to say about the possibility of nuclear annihilation nor anything else that falls under the realm of “politics.” Regardless, know that as a Christ-follower others are looking to you to teach them the ways of truth, peace, hope, and love. And these things are impossible to manifest if your attitudes and decisions are rooted in fear rather than faith.
I’m not telling you to avoid being afraid; that’s impossible. I am, however, praying that you would understand the difference between fear and faith. One has the potential to destroy this world. The other has the potential to save it. When we are afraid, the ways of peace and love look as absurd and unrealistic as a man walking on water. And yet, this man beckons us to step into the heart of our fear and be with him. May we be so courageous.