One of the most interesting aspects of today’s text is that Jesus sent his disciples into this frightening storm, one in which their little boat was battered by wind and waves. What about the storms of life that we face? Do we believe that the Lord may send us into them for a reason? Do we believe that the Lord has something to teach us to make us better people and more faithful disciples? If so—if we learn to see God’s hand in the challenges we face—won’t that help us face them with greater courage and strength?
Sermon Text: Matthew 14:22-33
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
I took my kids to see Monsters University last week. It’s a prequel to Monsters, Inc. The premise is that monsters are real but mostly harmless. They live in another dimension. But the really scary monsters get to cross over into our world and frighten little children as they lay in bed trying to sleep. The movie tells the story of a monster named Mike Wazowski and his monster-friends in college. They want to earn a degree in “scaring,” so they can become professional scarers. To be accepted into “scare” school, however, Mike and his fraternity of misfit monsters has to win a scare competition against other monsters in the school. And to everyone’s surprise, his team makes it to the final round of the competition… And it all comes down to Mike. If Mike scores really well on a “scare simulator,” his team will win.
The problem is, despite Mike’s best efforts, he’s just not very scary. He’s too cute, too small, too unintimidating to be scary. Yet somehow he scores off the charts on the simulator. His team wins. He finds out later, however, that his friend Sulley rigged the machine so that Mike couldn’t fail.
When we read today’s scripture about Peter walking on water, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that if only we had enough faith in Jesus, then our life would be rigged so that we couldn’t fail. “After all,” we preachers sometimes say, “if only Peter hadn’t doubted or taken his eyes off Jesus or let himself become frightened by the wind and waves, he could have simply walked across the lake to dry land, to shelter, to safety. And if Peter could do that, then so could we! If only we had enough faith…”
And we begin to imagine that if only we had enough faith, well… maybe we couldn’t walk on water like Peter, but at least we wouldn’t have to struggle so much. We wouldn’t continue to get into these difficult situations. Life wouldn’t be so hard so often. If only we had enough faith…
But that can’t be the lesson that Jesus wants us to take away from this scripture—unless we imagine that Jesus himself didn’t have enough faith! Because Jesus’ own life was a constant struggle—even in today’s scripture. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus has just gotten word that his friend, cousin, and colleague in ministry, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod Antipas. Which was not only a terrible personal loss for Jesus but also a sober reminder of the threats and dangers that awaited Jesus in his own future. And how does Jesus respond to this crisis? In verse 13, Matthew writes, “When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
In other words, Jesus responds to this crisis the way that he wants all of us to respond to any crisis: he prayed. Then his prayers get interrupted by multitudes of people who follow him from around the lake. He ends up miraculously feeding them with five loaves and two fish and then, at the beginning of today’s text, he’s back at prayer. That’s why he sends the disciples away: so he can spend time alone with his heavenly Father.
Now think about that: If Jesus is so in tune with God that he has the power to heal the sick, give eyesight to the blind, make the lame walk, drive out demons, and miraculously feed thousands with only five loaves and two fish—not to mention to preach with such great authority—we might be tempted to imagine that Jesus had some high-speed wireless, broadband connection to his Father and could skip the basic and mundane spiritual disciplines like prayer, which so easily elude us in the midst of our busy schedules. But no, like the rest of us, Jesus had to rely on the hard work of prayer in order to be successful in ministry and in life—it’s as simple as that. And as difficult as that. Because I don’t know about you, but I find prayer to be very difficult.
For one thing, prayer requires the faith to believe that we’re not wasting our valuable time by doing it. After all, the time we spend in prayer is time away from working at our jobs, paying the bills, feeding the kids, enjoying our hobbies, or getting the sleep that we so desperately need. And who’s going to know if we don’t pray—except for God, of course? There’s a quote that’s often attributed to John Wesley. I don’t know if he said it, but he should have, because it’s a really good quote. He said, “Each morning I spend an hour in prayer, except when I’m really busy. Then I spend two hours in prayer.” You see the point, right?
At the end of my sermon last week, I talked a little bit about the mission of our church—Hampton United Methodist—and asked, “Will we be successful in our mission?” And I said, “Of course we will. Because it isn’t our plan that we’re following; it’s God’s plan. God will make sure his plan will succeed.” And I wholeheartedly believe that, but I probably should say a little more: first we need to discern what that plan is through prayer. And then we follow it. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore,” Jesus says… what does he say? “Therefore, go get to work! Therefore get busy doing something.” “Therefore go out into the fields right now and start picking that fruit.” No! He says, “Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” In other words, before you go and do something, pray about it first.
Me—I’m more of a do-something-first-then-pray-about-it-later kind of guy!
Another hard thing about prayer is that the easier life is for us, the harder it is for us to pray! Again, this is another way in which I am not like Jesus. After all, if my ministry were enjoying such great success that I had miraculously fed over 5,000 men, women, and children, and I was so popular that all these crowds were following me, I would hardly feel any need to pray! Because I become complacent about prayer when things are going well. Sometimes the best spiritual medicine for me is for a good crisis to come along and remind me again of my utter and complete dependence on God. I don’t like this about me, and I wish I weren’t this way, but the truth is, sometimes I need to struggle and suffer and be made to feel uncomfortable because it forces me to my knees again; it forces me to trust in God the way I ought to.
Is this true for you?
I believe it was true for the disciples in today’s scripture. That’s why Jesus sent them out in the boat, out into the wind, out onto the stormy sea, in the first place. Was it cruel of Jesus to do that? To send them directly into a life-threatening storm—to send them into a place of fear and doubt and struggle? Doesn’t Jesus want us disciples to be safe and secure and comfortable and free from pain?
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis ponders this question. He speaks from personal experience and writes,
I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down… Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times.”
In other words, the frame of mind in which he realizes that his “true good is in another world and [his] only real treasure is Christ.”
But Lewis goes on to say that he can’t sustain this right frame of mind for very long. Nearly the moment the crisis passes, he says he’s “like a puppy when the hated bath is over—I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.”
Don’t get me wrong: God isn’t the author of evil—the devil does that just fine. And the tribulations that we face don’t always come to us directly from God. But you better believe that God sees fit to use tribulation, to use the pain, suffering, and heartache that comes along in life if by doing so he can re-shape us into the people that he wants us to be. I don’t know whether Jesus miraculously caused this storm, but he was happy to send his disciples out into it! Because they had something to learn from this experience!
So the next time you’re going through a tough time in your life, find the courage to ask yourself, “What do I need to learn from this experience?” More importantly, “What does God need to teach me through this experience? How is God using this experience to shape me, to mold me, to make me, into a better person and a more faithful disciple—no matter how reluctant I am to be re-shaped by God?” I promise that the storms of your life will become easier to endure when you see God’s hand in them—when you realize, as the disciples did in today’s scripture, that the Lord not only hasn’t abandoned you to the storm, to fend for yourself as your tiny ship is battered by wind and waves, but is actively bringing good out of the storm.
Do you think Peter, for example, learned something about trusting Jesus in the midst of his frightening walk on water, something he didn’t know before? Do you think he was a better disciple after his near-death experience of doubt and failure? Of course he was!
One of the most formative experiences of my Christian life happened to me last September, when I went to Kenya for the first time on a mission trip. It wasn’t just any mission trip—I was going to teach Wesleyan theology and doctrine and church history to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors there. Our United Methodist Church is growing explosively in that part of the world. We can’t start churches fast enough. We can’t train and equip pastors there fast enough. So I was going to be part of that training effort. Normally, I feel some insecurity about mission trips because they often involve building stuff, and I’m not very handy. But a mission trip in which I teach theology? That’s right up my alley! So I signed up.
Turns out my friend and seminary classmate Leslie went on the trip the year before I did. So I called her up, anxious to find out how it went. “Oh my gosh, Brent. It was so horrible and frightening. I will never go back again!” In fact, she visited a slum there, and people were crowding around her group, and at one time she even feared for her life.
Her words shook me up, I’ll be honest. I guess now is the point in the story at which I tell you that I’m ever-so-slightly a hypochondriac—and a worrywart and a bit chicken in general. Well, there are all these weird diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid. Rabid dogs wandering the streets. Water-borne illnesses, food-borne illnesses. And it’s a very long flight—and I worry about that a little. Then there are all these safety and security concerns—not to mention political instability. I’m all for serving the Lord, but I don’t want to die while doing it. Never mind Jesus’ words about taking up your cross, and losing your life in order to save your life—surely Jesus didn’t mean all that literally.
But what could I do now? I was already signed up to go. More importantly, I knew that God was calling me to go. So I thought, “Even if this trip kills me, I know I’m supposed to go.”
I shared these concerns with some Christian friends, one of whom told me: “Brent, the world is a dangerous place. You could die in a traffic accident on the way home from work today, or you could die serving the Lord in Africa. Which would you rather do?”
While his words didn’t exactly comfort me, they made sense. And I talked to the missionaries who lived there, who put my mind at ease. And I talked to a doctor who specialized in third-world travel, and he put my mind at ease. I had nothing to worry about. But it wasn’t just my irrational fear of dying: it was fear of failure. What do I know about teaching in Kenya? What do I know about their culture? Sure, I can teach middle- and upper middle-class white people from the suburbs of Atlanta, but c’mon! This is Africa! What if they don’t like me there? What if they don’t get my jokes? What if my words don’t translate? What if I fail? Why can’t I just stay inside my boat—which is comfortable and safe and familiar? I know what I’m doing inside this boat. Why take the risk of stepping outside of it—onto this stormy sea?
Well, one good reason we take the risk to step outside our safe, comfortable, and familiar boat is because life is usually better when we do!
Brothers and sisters, going to Kenya was simply one of the greatest experiences in my life. I fell in love with the country. The many faithful Christians I met there helped teach me how to be a Christian—and I thought I went there to teach them something! Ha! There have been a handful of times in my life in which I knew—I just knew—that I was exactly where God wanted me to be, doing exactly what God wanted me to do. That was Kenya for me! When I stood up to teach these pastors there, all my fears and insecurities vanished. The Holy Spirit just took over! I was O.K. Jesus was taking care of me!
And just think: I would have missed out on the experience if I stayed inside my comfortable and safe and familiar boat.
Peter asked, “Lord if it really is you…” And Jesus proved himself to Peter.
Brothers and sisters, let Jesus prove himself to you! Step out of the boat. The water’s fine!