Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
Many summers ago, my family vacationed with my in-laws at the beach. We rented a condo, and we arrived at the place before check-in time. So our rooms weren’t ready. Housekeeping was still there. So for a while we hung out in the parking lot, waiting… But then the girls had a great idea: there was a swimming pool next to the condo, so wouldn’t it be fun if the kids passed the time in the pool while we waited to check in?
So after getting all the kids into swimsuits and slathering them with sunscreen, my daughter, Elisa, who was no more than three or four at the time, along with all her cousins, jumped in the pool. Now I should mention here that I was the responsible adult who was supervising the kids, along with my brother-in-law. The women were dealing with checking us in. And moments after Elisa, my three- or four-year-old, jumped into the deep end, this question crossed my mind: “Does Elisa know how to swim? Wait! Elisa doesn’t know how to swim!” So I jumped in after her—in my street clothes—in order to rescue her from drowning!
See, I forgot—momentarily—that I needed to put those floatie things on her arms before she jumped in. It was probably only a split second before I realized my mistake, but it seemed much longer than that! Scary!
But of course Elisa was fine. I’m her father, after all. I wasn’t going to let her drown. I was going to protect her and keep her safe.
So here’s the question the disciples should have asked themselves in the midst of their storm—and it’s a question I want us present-day disciples to wrestle with in this sermon: If God is our loving heavenly Father—and his Son Jesus loves us and has proven that he has miraculous power—can we trust God to keep us safe in the midst of the many storms in our lives?
After all, look at verse 22: “Immediately he”—that is, Jesus—“made the disciples get into the boat to go before him to the other side.” Jesus made the disciples do this. This was Jesus’ idea—even though he was going to stay behind, dismiss the crowd of five thousand-plus—which he had just miraculously fed with five loaves of bread and two small fish—he was going to dismiss them and pray while the disciples sailed across the lake.
Here’s a question: Was Jesus just a lousy meteorologist? I mean, it’s true he’s already proven to these disciples that he knows the future, that he can read people’s thoughts, and that he obviously can work miracles—he just did one, after all—but did Jesus not anticipate that in making the disciples “go before him to the other side,” the disciples were going to get into this terrible, life-threatening storm? Did this storm catch Jesus by surprise?
Of course not! Jesus knew, even if the disciples didn’t know, that he was sending them into a storm. If that’s the case, the only thing we can conclude is that he was sending them there… for a good reason. Right?
Last week, I said that the best thing we can do when we are afraid is to what? To remind ourselves of God’s promises to us. And the disciples needed to do that, too, by the way. Look at verse 22 again: “he made the disciples get into the boat and”—do what? “Sail out to the middle of the lake, get caught up in a storm, and drown”? No! That’s not what Jesus told them. He told them to “go before him to the other side!” Jesus implies, therefore, that the disciples are actually going to make it to the other side. And Jesus will be with them there. So the disciples need to trust that Jesus is telling the truth, and he will keep his promise!
Of course, when we’re facing the storms of life, as these disciples were, we have a hard time trusting that Jesus is telling us the truth. In part because we think that if we’re doing God’s will—if we are in God’s will—then we think we won’t have to go through storms in the first place! “I mean, sure, maybe God will rescue us from the storm once we’re in it, but if we had done this differently, or if we had done that—or if we had avoided that other thing—if we had as much faith as we we supposed to have, if we didn’t sin, then we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
But today’s scripture tells us otherwise: The disciples were in this storm not because they did something wrong but because they did something right! They obeyed Jesus! They were doing God’s will! Yet they were in this life-threatening storm in spite of that fact!
Recently, I’ve been reading and journaling my way through the Book of Exodus—having not read it in a few years. And do you remember when God called Moses out of the burning bush and told him that God was going to use him to lead his people Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land? Ten times Moses and his brother Aaron went to Pharaoh with God’s demand—“let my people go so they can worship me”—let them go or else there will be deadly serious consequences. God sent ten plagues on Egypt, each one progressively more frightening. Blood in the water, frogs everywhere, locusts, deadly hail… among other things. And before long, the Pharaoh would almost repent: “Moses, tell the Lord to take this plague away from us, and I’ll let your people go!” And Moses would pray. God would take the plague away. Then Pharaoh would change his mind and refuse to do what Moses demanded. And the cycle repeated until the Passover, when God struck down the firstborn in every Egyptian household.
But think about it: Moses was doing precisely what God called him to do; Moses was clearly doing God’s will; he was clearly in God’s will. Yet by all outward appearances Moses still failed nine times out of ten in his mission to free Israel from slavery.
My point is, just because we answer the Lord’s call to get on the boat and sail out on the water doesn’t mean we’re in for smooth sailing. On the contrary… Besides, doesn’t Jesus do some of his best work in our lives when we’re afraid, when we’re desperate, when we are far outside of our comfort zones?
He does for me… One of the best things I’ve done in ministry, after all—indeed, one of the best things I’ve done in my life—was to go to Kenya, in East Africa, on two different trips. Kenya is a place where our United Methodist Church is growing explosively. We simply can’t start churches fast enough there; we can’t train and equip pastors fast enough there. So on two occasions I went to Nakuru, Kenya, to teach church history, United Methodist theology, church doctrine and liturgy to a group of highly effective, very enthusiastic, Bible-loving, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled pastors who couldn’t begin to afford a seminary education on their own. So these classes I taught were a small step in the direction of a seminary education.
My friend and seminary classmate Leslie was the one who told me about this opportunity. She called me out of the blue one day and told me that the large church where she worked was paying for her to go and teach these classes in Kenya. She was leaving later that month, but her church was sponsoring another trip later in the year. She said, “I think you should consider doing it, Brent. In fact I’ll recommend that the church send you next time… because you’re so brilliant.”
And of course I agreed with her… So she signed me up! I was scheduled to go.
When I called her later to ask her how her trip went, she said, “Brent, I have never been more afraid in my life! I thought I was going to die.”
I mean, in fairness to Leslie, Kenya is a desperately poor third-world country by our standards. Life is pretty rugged there. But she described a few experiences that made her feel deeply uncomfortable… afraid… even afraid for her life. She had a panic attack. Not to mention she was afraid of getting sick from eating or drinking the wrong thing—or getting malaria or other diseases.
“It was so bad,” she told me, “that I worried that I would never see my kids again!”
Then she said, in almost the next breath—and I’m not exaggerating—“By the way, I’ve got your airline ticket, and you’re scheduled to leave in a few months.” Gulp!
Of course I was thinking, “I don’t want to go now! I don’t want to die!” I told you last week I’m a chicken! But it was too late to back out of it at that point!
So I was afraid… To make matters worse, I went to get all my vaccines and prescriptions before the trip at Emory Midtown hospital in Atlanta. The doctor talked to me about yellow fever. He said, “There aren’t any active cases of yellow fever right now in Kenya, but there are in neighboring Somalia. So let’s go ahead and give you that yellow fever shot, if you don’t mind.” “Are there any possible side effects?” I asked. “Oh, sure,” the doctor said. “It’s a live-virus vaccine, so there’s a chance you’ll contract yellow fever from the shot itself.”
Well, I’ve told you before that I’m a hypochondriac… so the moment he said that, in my mind, I’m thinking, “Just go ahead and reserve my hospital room right now, because I’m gonna get yellow fever!”
But I didn’t… And Leslie’s experience was not at all my experience. I’m not exaggerating when I say that those two trips were among the best things I’ve ever done in life! And they wouldn’t have happened at all if I had simply stayed in my comfort zone—and avoided all these things that make me afraid!
Look at verse 26: “But when the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the sea, they were terrified and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear.”
One pastor puts it like this: “Jesus often comes to us disguised as the thing we’re afraid of.” Jesus often comes to us disguised as the thing we’re afraid of. Isn’t that wonderful? Here the disciples were, terrified of what they thought was a ghost, of all things! It turned out to be Jesus all along.
Jesus often comes to us disguised as the thing we’re afraid of. Jesus came to me in Kenya. See, my experience there wasn’t great because of me. I mean, I hope I did a pretty good job teaching and all. But the experience was great because of what Jesus did for me! He used this experience—this thing I was so afraid of—to enable me to depend on him more, to trust in him more, to love him more, to fall more deeply in love with him… to grow closer to him! I experienced Jesus in Kenya like I had never experienced him before!
Just like these disciples in today’s scripture experienced Jesus like they never had before! If you have your Bibles, and you should, look at verse 27: Jesus tells the frightened disciples, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” New Testament translators have a hard time translating those words. What Jesus literally says is, “Take heart; I am. Do not be afraid.” I am… In Greek, ego eimi. Jesus says this of himself elsewhere in the New Testament. It’s the divine name; the name for God in the Old Testament… as in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
Jesus is revealing something about himself to the disciples: He is God in the flesh. And how do we know that these disciples got the message? Look now at verse 33: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” These disciples were faithful Jews. They wouldn’t dare worship human beings. And even in the Book of Revelation, on two occasions, the apostle John falls at an angel’s feet and starts worshiping, and the angel says, “You can’t do that! I’m just a creature like you!” So the disciples wouldn’t have worshiped Jesus unless they believed he was God. And Jesus wouldn’t have received their worship… unless he was God.
Suddenly this storm didn’t seem quite so scary and tempestuous and life-threatening. After all, God is in charge of this storm; God created the laws of physics which the wind and waves obey; he could merely give the word and bring the storm to an immediate end. And now this same God is somehow walking toward the disciples… and is now he’s on board the boat.
Do you think this experience brought the disciples closer to Jesus than they were before? Of course it did! And it happened because of this storm.
Because let’s face it: nothing brings us closer to Jesus than a good storm in our life, right?
In fact, Peter prayed that he would be closer to Jesus through this storm. And you may say, “Peter? He didn’t pray for anything!” Oh, yes, he did! Twice! In today’s scripture he literally asks Jesus to do two things for him. Asking Jesus to do something is prayer, after all. His first prayer is in verse 28: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Command me to come to you.
Peter sometimes gets criticized for being impulsive and… asking for something kind of frivolous here. Like, “Hey, Jesus! I want to walk on water like you! That is so cool! That looks more fun than jet-skiing. Let me do that!” But that’s not what Peter asks for. His prayer is not, “Let me walk on water like you!” His prayer is, “Let me be closer to you”… and Jesus says “yes” to his prayer.
Indeed, I believe that Jesus says “yes” to a prayer like that every time we pray it! And notice that even in failing and sinking Peter grew closer to Jesus. He was closer to Jesus when Jesus picked him up in his arms and rescued him from drowning than he was before he started to sink! So through this storm, Jesus answered Peter’s prayer and brought Peter closer to him.
I’m reading a book right now by a fearless evangelist from New Zealand named Ray Comfort. The book is excellent so far. But in it, Comfort complains about how contemporary preachers have watered down the gospel; they avoid talking about difficult topics like sin and hell; and instead make the gospel all about what Jesus can do for you… how he can make your life better… how he can make you happy… and how God has a wonderful plan for your life.
What about those early Christian martyrs, he asks, who were fed to the lions—what about Christian martyrs today? There are more Christians dying for their faith today than at any point in history. With all that in mind, maybe we’re exaggerating or over-selling God’s “wonderful plan” at the expense of the cost of discipleship?
And as I was reading these words, I felt convicted: Uh-oh, I thought. I preach that God has a wonderful plan for our lives. I preach that Jesus can make us happy in a lasting sort of way. I preach that Jesus can satisfy the deepest longings of our soul like nothing or no one else… I’ve experienced that happiness…
Of course, I also preach a lot about sin and hell, but still…
Have I overemphasized happiness and joy and satisfaction in Christ? Am I off balance?
No, I don’t think so… Because the deep and lasting happiness that God wants to give us—which comes only through a personal relationship with Christ, made possible by his atoning death on the cross—is not happiness on our terms. If it were, it would be insane to talk about God sending “storms” in our lives, which often cause pain and suffering. Because we think that storms are incompatible with happiness… They disrupt our happiness… Happiness, as we define it, is smooth sailing… Happiness is the absence of storms.
That’s what the world teaches. But that’s wrong: God’s Word says that deep and lasting happiness is knowing Jesus. And that knowing Jesus is the very best thing in the world. So God wants to give us more of the best thing there is—more of Jesus; he wants us to grow closer to him; he wants us to know him better. That’s our life’s greatest treasure!
Therefore, if God’s plan for our lives includes sending us storms from time to time, in order that through them we can have more of Jesus, then God’s plan truly is… wonderful.
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Philippians 3:8.