Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
In today’s sermon I want to make three points about today’s scripture: Number one, the meaning of the miracle… Number two, Peter is our role model… And number three, “God is in his office at the end of your rope”…
But first: the meaning of the miracle…
Jesus never performs miracles just for the sake of doing something supernatural; he always uses miracles to communicate something about himself, about who he is, what he came into the world to accomplish… That’s why Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” in John’s gospel: they point to some truth about Jesus and his gospel.
But if that’s the case, what truth does Jesus’ miracle of “walking on water” point to?
Some of you will recall Exodus chapter 3, when God calls Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. Moses doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t feel qualified to do it. And he offers God many objections about why he isn’t the best man for the job, one of which is, he doesn’t even know God’s name. Exodus 3, verse 13:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
And God answers Moses. He gives Moses his name in verse 14. It’s “I am who I am,” or simply “I am”: God tells Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’” In fact, in the Old Testament, when you see the words “the Lord”—and Lord is in all capital letters—that’s the proper name for God, “Yahweh,” and it’s a form of the words, “I am.”
“I am” represents the name of God.
In the gospels, Jesus uses this divine name, “I am”… for himself. In John 8:58, for instance, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” And in the very next verse, John tells us that the Pharisees picked up stones to stone him—because they rightly understood that Jesus was saying that he is God. Naturally, these Pharisees didn’t believe that Jesus was God, so, from their perspective, he was committing blasphemy… so he was guilty of a capital crime!
Now… with all that in mind, consider verse 27 of today’s scripture. These terrified disciples see what they think must be a ghost walking toward them—not knowing it was Jesus… at least until Jesus speaks the words in verse 27: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” “It is I” is the English translation of the Greek words ego eimi… which literally mean, you guessed it… “I am.” Jesus literally says, “Take heart; I am. Do not be afraid.”
So the main purpose of Jesus’ miracle of walking on water is to reveal to his disciples that he is God… and that he is symbolically acting out God’s words to Israel in Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…” So, God says, “Fear not.”
And that’s Point Number One: This miracle means that Jesus is God, that God is with us on whatever stormy sea we find ourselves, and therefore… we don’t need to be afraid.
Point Number Two: Peter—surprise, surprise—is our role model…
You may be surprised to learn that some Bible commentators criticize Peter’s words and actions here. They say, “Peter is asking to perform a frivolous, completely unnecessary miracle. He should have stayed in the boat along with the rest of the disciples. This is just another example of Peter’s impulsiveness,” they say. “I mean, there Peter goes again: always speaking, or acting, without thinking things through… Peter is so impulsive.”
But you know what I say about that?
I say, “If this is what ‘impulsive’ looks like, I wish I could be impulsive in the exact same way as Peter!”
Because, after all, what exactly is Peter’s impulse here?
His impulse is not simplyto walk on water. He doesn’t say, “Hey, Jesus! I want to walk on water like you! That looks so awesome! That looks more fun than water-skiing. Let me try!” If that were his impulse, he would be asking Jesus for a frivolous and unnecessary miracle. But that’s not what Peter asks for. His request is not, “Let me walk on water like you!” His request is, “Let me be closer to you… Let me be near you… Let me be with you”…
And Jesus said “yes” to his request. And by the way, Jesus loves saying “yes” to that kind of request when we pray!
So if that’s impulsive, Lord, sign me up. Let me be impulsive just like Peter! Let my first impulse be to do whatever I can to be with you, Lord!
In fact, Peter reminds me of my beloved springer spaniel, Ringo… Ringo absolutely loves me, as I’ve said before. He always wants to be with me. Or… almost always. There’s this one tiny little way in which he doesn’t want to be with me. It’s the dog’s only flaw, I promise. But you see, for some reason Ringo doesn’t enjoy going on walks with me. My family teases me about this. It’s weird because he always wants to play catch with me. He always wants to lay next to me on the couch. He always wants to follow me around… except when I want to take him for a walk.
If he thinks I’m planning on taking him for a walk, he rushes over to Lisa… and lays on top of her… hoping she’ll protect him from the “bad man” who wants to take him for a walk!
It’s so weird because he loves when Lisa takes him for a walk. But not me. It should hurt my feelings!
So now if Lisa wants Ringo to come and snuggle up next to her, all she needs to say is, “Do you want Dad to take you for a walk?” and—pewww…As fast as he can, he rushes over to her, jumps on the couch with her, climbs on top of her. Happens every time!
It’s as if, when he thinks he’s in trouble, he knows exactly where he needs to be. With Lisa!
And there’s a lesson there for us, isn’t there? Peter’s impulse, his first instinct, is to be by Jesus’ side—especially when there’s trouble. And that’s Point Number Two: Peter is a role model for us!
Point Number Three: “God is in his office at the end of our rope.”
Unlike Peter, when I face trouble, my first instinct is not to do what Peter does and at all costs rush to be with Jesus right away. I don’t usually think of Jesus when I’m in trouble… at least not at first. Rather, I usually think, “What do I need to do to solve this problem on my own? Who can I call? Who can I message? Who can I pay to help me? Whose services can I enlist to help me solve this problem? What resources do I possess that will enable me to handle this crisis. What conference do I need to attend to help me develop the skills to handle this crisis.”
Because, brothers and sisters, I love feeling self-sufficient. I love feeling independent. I love feeling self-confident,I love having other people think that I’m perfectly competent to meet every challenge I face… even as your pastor! Heck! Especially as your pastor!
Even in this present crisis that we’re facing as a church… It’s coming to a head, as you know, this Wednesday night, as members of this church will vote either to remain United Methodist or to disaffiliate from this denomination.
But throughout this crisis… almost every day—I promise you—I hear various “worst case scenarios,” I hear about possible scary-sounding outcomes… I hear about people leaving our local church or threatening to leave if this happens, or that happens… Almost every day I hear this! And I’ve been hearing it for many months.
My point is, I feel utterly inadequate to handle this crisis as a pastor. I simply don’t have within my limited skill set whatever I need to make this all work out well. I feel weak, I feel powerless, I feel at the end of my rope.
But… as I heard a pastor say recently, “You’ll find God in his office at the end of your rope.”
That was true for Peter and the disciples in today’s scripture: They found God in his office at the end of their rope… Consider this: At the beginning of our passage, Matthew tells us, Jesus “makes” his disciples get in the boat and go to the other side of this big lake. He makes them… that’s an interesting choice of words. “I’m going to make you go out in this boat in the midst of what I know is going to be a terrible storm.” You don’t have a choice.
But Jesus sends the disciples away on this boat before evening starts… Evening starts at 6:00 p.m. That’s the beginning of the “first watch” of the night. It isn’t until the “fourth watch” of the night, Matthew tells us, that Jesus comes walking out to them on the water. The fourth watch is between 3:00 and 6:00 in the morning.
Which means these disciples have been trying and failing to reach the other side of the lake for at least nine hours! They were fighting against the wind and the waves for at least nine hours! And they were getting almost nowhere for at least nine hours.
It’s also worth mentioning, of course, that while they were fighting wind and waves for nine hours, Jesus was praying to his Father for nine hours—but that’s a sermon for another time…
My point is, before Jesus finally showed up, these disciples felt the way I feel right now—in this present crisis: they felt weak… powerless… at the end of their rope.
And, brothers and sisters, they felt that way on purpose. Jesus wanted them to feel that way. He made them go there, after all…
Why? Because he wanted to bring them to a place where they no longer felt self-sufficient, they no longer felt “in control,” they no longer felt independent, they no longer felt strong and competent and adequate and well-qualified and gifted and skilled enough to handle this crisis.
And Jesus Christ, who is God, made them feel that way… for a good reason…
Because that’s exactly the point at which Jesus does his best work in our lives! Jesus will always meet us at the end of our rope!
We’ve all heard the expression, “God’s timing is not our timing.” That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t quite say enough, in my opinion… because there isn’t one person in history who’s ever complained about God’s timing being too early. You know what I mean? “I hate that God answered my prayer so quickly! He should have waited!” No one has ever said that in the history of the world! The truth is not only that God’s timing is not our timing; it’s that God’s timing is also never early!
Nine-plus hours of sailing a boat and getting nowhere? God never shows up early!
There’s a tragic scene in 1 Samuel chapter 13 you can read about on your own time… King Saul is preparing to fight a battle against the Philistines. And to his credit, before he takes his troops into battle, he wants God’s blessing and favor. So he’s waiting for Samuel, the priest, to show up and offer sacrifices and pray for God’s blessings. And Saul waits and waits and waits. And guess what’s happening while he waits? His troops begin to desert him. And the Philistine army, meanwhile, is poised and ready to attack.
What’s Saul supposed to do?
So Saul goes ahead and does what only Samuel was authorized to do: He offers the sacrifices to God himself instead of waiting for Samuel to offer them. “We can’t wait any longer, after all! Look at the Philistine army! Look at the troops deserting me!”
Tragically, that decision will ultimately cost Saul his kingdom…
But poor Saul looked at his circumstances and said, “God is taking too long to show up—through God’s appointed representative, Samuel! I can’t wait any longer!” Aren’t we sympathetic?
But the truth is, of course Saul could afford to wait longer! What’s the size and strength of the Philistine army compared to God? What’s the size and strength of the Israelite army compared to God? God doesn’t need troops to accomplish amazing results. Remember Gideon and the Midianite army in Judges chapter 7? God makes that point emphatically there! “This victory isn’t about what you, Gideon, and your army do; it’s about what I do. The victory belongs to me. I get the glory!”
We can always afford to wait on God! No matter how big the enemy army… No matter how high and threatening the waves are…
Besides, God does some of his best work when we’re at the end of our rope!
The apostle Paul knew this! “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities…” Why is he content? Because “when I am weak,” Paul says, “then I am strong.” Why is Paul strong? Because in his weakness, he says, the power of Christ “works through him.” 1 Because, he says, Christ’s power “works best in weakness”! 2
I’d much rather be strong with Christ’s strength than with my own strength. Wouldn’t you?
When we are made weak by circumstances—like, for instance, gale-force winds and ferocious waves battering the hull of our ship in a terrible storm in the middle of the night—when we feel weak, when we feel helpless, when we feel powerless… when we have no other choice but—finally—to depend on the Lord… to trust in the Lord… to lean on the Lord…
God’s got us right where he wants us!
Because look… “Is that…? Could that be…? I think… I think it is… I think that is Jesus! He’s here! Look how he showed up! Look how he showed out!Look what he’s doing! Look at his power! Look at his grace! Look at his glory!”
Here’s something I never noticed about this passage before. Verse 30: “But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’” Notice those words “beginning to sink.”
Do you know what happens when you “begin to sink” on water? You go [make splash sound]… You sink. You’re gone. You’re under the water, under the waves. Instantly. There is no “beginning to sink.” There is no time to cry out, “Lord, save me.”
Unless even your sinking is a miracle from God! Unless Jesus himself is supernaturally controlling the velocity at which you are sinking! And that’s why I’ve called the sermon, “The Miracle of Sinking on Water,” because even the sinking in this case takes a miracle!
I can only imagine that Peter is sinking down in the water slowly… like the way cowboys used to sink down in quicksand in all those old TV shows and movies from the ’50s and ’60s! I think I remember Gilligan sinking down in quicksand on Gilligan’s Island. I think I remember one of Tarzan’s enemies sinking down in quicksand when he was running through the jungle.
Quicksand isn’t like that, by the way. People don’t sink in quicksand and die. That only happens in Hollywood. But be that as it may…
What’s causing Peter to sink slowly? What’s keeping Peter from going under immediately?
Only the power of God!
See, too many preachers place the emphasis of this story not on God’s power… but on Peter’s power… They place the emphasis on the strength of Peter’s faith: “So long as Peter’s faith was strong, he could successfully walk on water. But as soon as his faith grew weak, that’s when he began to sink.” And while this isn’t exactly untrue, it puts the accent on the wrong syllable of the story…
Because there was no strength within Peter himself; there was nothing about Peter’s faith, nothing intrinsic to Peter, that caused him to be able to walk on water!
The only thing—or the only Person—that caused Peter to successfully walk on water here was Jesus Christ himself. He caused Peter to walk… and he caused Peter to sink… And he caused Peter to sink slowly enough for Peter to cry out in a desperate prayer: “Lord, save me.”
My point is, Jesus—not Peter, but Jesus—was in complete control of this crisis that Peter faced. When Peter took those first few steps of faith, Jesus gave him success; when Peter got scared by the terrifying waves all around him, Jesus took away his success. When Peter took his eyes off Jesus, began to doubt, began to think that his frightening circumstances—including the wind and waves—were more powerful than Jesus, Jesus said, “Let me remind you of my strength, Peter. Let me show you what real power looks like! Let me pick you up—on top of this water—walk with you back to the boat,and show you that these big, scary, powerful waves that you’re so afraid of right now… they are no match for me…they’re absolutely nothing compared to me!
“I’ve got you, Peter. I’m going to carry you through this storm to safety. It’s true that you’re not strong—as you yourself can now see—but I’ll be strong for you. I’ll be strong on your behalf.”
The circumstances we face in our lives and in our church are never any match for Almighty God!
Remember Peter’s first prayer in this scripture? Peter asked Jesus, in so many words, “I want to be with you. I want to be near you. You’re far away, Lord; I want to be closer to you. Please make that happen.”
Don’t you think that after Jesus brought Peter through this crisis and brought him safely back into the boat, Peter felt much, much closer to Jesus than he did before? I’m sure of it… the very fact that Matthew tells us that the disciples worshiped Jesus for the first time in scripture indicates that they felt much, much closer to Jesus!
This kind of spontaneous worship isn’t even like what we usually do at church, either… It’s more like what happens when your team wins the national championship, or the big rivalry game, or the World Series, or the unexpected come-from-behind victory. It’s more like cheering and shouting praise and jumping up and down and even crying tears of joy because you’re so happy. This spontaneous kind of worship in verse 33 comes from a place of unbridled joy!
Experiencing God’s glory is the best experience we can ever have. If it took the storm, and if it took the nine hours, and if it took the sinking on water, and if it took the fear of dying to bring them this glory, then it was totally worth it! The glory of God is always worth it!
The glory of God is always worth whatever we have to go through to get it!
And that’s true for us, too, you know?
And by the way, I want our church to be a place where people show up every Sunday morning praying for, and hoping for, and expecting, and anticipating, and by God’s grace experiencing the glory of God! I want Toccoa First to be a place where worship isn’t just something printed in a bulletin, or on the pages of a hymnal, or something you sit through on Sunday morning because after all, it’s your tradition and you’ve got nothing better to do anyway… I want this church to be a place where people wouldn’t dream of missing worship on Sunday morning because, after all, who would ever want to miss an opportunity to encounter our living Lord Jesus Christ, who promises to meet us here!
That’s what I want for Toccoa First. Don’t you?
And of course I know many of you do… You’ve told me… I’ve seen you pour your life into this church. And many of you have been praying for a long time that God would bring revival to this church. If so, man, now ain’t the time to give up! I know we’ve sailing against the wind for over nine hours, but the fourth watch of the night ain’t over yet! I hear Jesus likes to show up in the fourth watch of the night!
Our Lord sees the exact same trouble that we see—he sees the same powerful wind and waves of uncertainty and fear and change—even unwelcome change—that we see right now… In fact, he brought us to this place, after all. He made us go here. He put us on this boat! And he’s saying to us, “These circumstances that seem so scary to you right now? They’re no match for me… They are absolutely nothing compared to me.”
Keep your eyes on me!
Jesus is saying, “I’ve got you, Toccoa First. I’m going to carry you through this storm to safety. It’s true that you’re not strong right now, so I am going to be strong for you. And maybe you fear that I’m nowhere to be found in this storm, but just wait: I’m going to show up and show out for you. You’ll see. And on the other side of this storm, you will have greater joy, you will have greater glory, you will have deeper and truer worship… Because you will know more of my power, more of my Spirit, more of my love, more of my blessing, more of my wisdom, more of my favor, more of my peace, more of my healing, more of my sanctifying grace, more of my freedom from fear…You will learn to treasure me like never before… And if it takes this present storm to accomplish that, then it will be totally worth it.”
Do you believe it, church? Amen!
Now hear these words of the Lord from Isaiah 43:
Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. 3