Monday, August 11, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

Yesterday I found myself preaching twice, with translation into Portuguese. This is roughly what I said... The passage was Jesus walking on water from Matthew 14:22-33 because I don't think it's right for the preacher to choose the passage, and that was what the C of E lectionary said...

Today is Fathers' Day. I wonder what your memories of your fathers are like. Maybe they are bad and painful, maybe they are good. Maybe you don't remember your father. Maybe today is happy for you or maybe it is sad. But wherever we are, I think today's passage has something important to tell us about what it means for God to be our perfect Father.

I want to tell you about one memory I have of my father. I was only a boy then, and I was learning to ride a bicycle, but I was very scared of falling off. So we went to somewhere where there were not many cars, and my dad made me practice. I would try to ride the bicycle, and he would run along behind, holding it. After we had been going for a while, he told me that he often let go – that I had been riding the bicycle on my own, without him holding it.

That is one of the most important things that fathers do – they teach us how to do things and then help us feel that we can do them.

In some ways, that is very like what God does for his people in this passage, and in some ways it is very different.

To help us understand this passage more clearly, we will think about it as four events – four moments in the life of Jesus.

The first moment is that Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed. I want you to picture the scene. It is evening, the sun is setting, Jesus has sent the disciples and the crowds away, and he goes up a mountain to pray. It would be easy for me to talk here about how important prayer is – that even Jesus, God himself in human flesh, saw the need to pray to God for a long time, even until three or four o'clock in the morning. That means he was praying for about 9 hours. Jesus saw that praying was so important that he was willing to spend 9 hours praying when he could have been with his friends or sleeping. And it is critically important that we understand that, but that isn't where I would like to focus our attention this afternoon.

You see, Jesus had climbed a mountain, and was praying, while his disciples were in a storm on the lake. The Sea of Galilee, where they were, is a big lake, maybe 30 kilometers across, with a ring of mountains all around it. When Jesus was up the mountain, he would have known what the weather was like on the lake. He would have known that the disciples were in a storm, and he was praying. Quite possibly, there was a storm up on the mountain too – mountains tend to get very stormy, and yet he kept praying.

Jesus sent his disciples into a storm, and they did not know where he was. And yet he knew where they were, and he remained where he was, praying.

Is this what we feel like sometimes? Do we sometimes feel as if Jesus has sent us into a situation, and things have turned difficult, and we do not know where he is. Because that is what we see here.

It is like me as a boy riding the bike, if the first time I had been riding the bike, I turned round and suddenly could not see my father, I would have been terrified. But my father did not let go to start with, and when he did let go he kept running behind the bike so that if I looked round he would be there. He only let me ride off on my own once I felt more confident doing it.

And this is not the first time the disciples had been in a storm on the lake. In chapter 8, Jesus was with the disciples in a storm like this, but he was asleep in the boat. They woke Jesus up, he told the storm to calm down, and it was calm. They already knew that Jesus could defeat storms on the lake. But this time Jesus pushes them a bit further – it is a storm when they cannot see Jesus with them. And that is often how Jesus deals with us. He teaches us to trust him through difficult situations, then when we learn to trust him there, he teaches us to trust him in situations that are a bit more difficult. He is gentle with us – he does not give us more than we can bear.

But there is a big difference between Jesus and my father as well. When I was learning to ride a bike, the aim was that eventually I would be able to ride my bike without my father around – good earthly fathers teach us to be more and more independent from them.

But that is not what God is like, because God is not an earthly father. With earthly fathers, eventually we need to learn to be totally independent of them, and though we might still love them and respect them, we do not rely on them for everything. But with God, it is the opposite. As we grow up as Christians, we need to learn more and more to trust him in everything. We need to learn to become like little children in the way we rely on God.

So what the disciples need to learn here is that even when they cannot see Jesus with them, even when they cannot feel him with them, he is still in control and they can still trust him.

And the same is true for us. Even when it feels as if Jesus is not there, he is still in control, he still loves us, he does not abandon us, he is still praying for us – yes, Jesus, the one who made the universe by his powerful word is now praying for us with his words. He has promised always to be with us by his Spirit.

The second moment in this passage is when Jesus walks on the water. Jesus walks on the water. In the Bible, seas and lakes always represent chaos and uncertainty, especially when there is a storm. And this time, Jesus shows his complete control over the sea by just walking over it. It's far better than what the Israelites did when they came out of Egypt, when God sent a wind to make a path through the sea. Here, the wind is making the sea worse, and Jesus just walks on over it. He shows that he is totally in control. Whatever the situation is, however chaotic it is, Jesus is Lord over it.

But the disciples' first reaction is fear. They don't know what's going on, they don't understand it. And so they are afraid. And Jesus speaks to them immediately. He tells them not to be afraid, but the reason that they shouldn't be afraid isn't anything to do with his power. Jesus isn't safe. He is terrifyingly powerful, but the reason that the disciples should not be afraid is that “It is I”. The reason we should not be afraid of God is that we know what he is like. We know that he loves us. But more than that, the words Jesus uses to say “It is I” are the same words God used when he appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Jesus is saying that the disciples should not be afraid because he is the God of Israel – he is the God who has shown for centuries his love for his people and the way that he keeps his promises. We can trust God because we know what he is like, and we know that he loves us, and that he always sticks with his people.

The third moment is when Peter walks on the water. Peter walks on the water. And this is wonderful.

verse 28 “Lord, if it is you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” Peter sees Jesus' power. Peter knows that God is the sort of God who wants us to rely on him, who wants to get us out of places where we are comfortable so that we rely on him only. But at the same time, he is not mad. He does not just think that all that matters is trusting that God will help us – he knows that what matters is trusting that God will help us when we obey him. He does not just step out of the boat – he asks Jesus to tell him to step out of the boat, because when God commands us to do something, God's word is powerful and he enables us to do what he has commanded.

When I see pictures of this, or imagine it, it is almost always a lovely calm day, with still water. But this is in the middle of a storm. Peter trusts Jesus, he trusts the power of his words, that if Jesus tells him to walk on water in a storm, he can do it. What wonderful faith! What wonderful longing to be with Jesus, to lose everything that makes him comfortable!

Where are we comfortable? What is it that makes us feel that we are safe, that everything is ok? Because Jesus wants us to learn to trust him without any of that. We have to be willing to let go of it and step out on the water, trusting only Jesus.

Of course, it may well be that God sends us back to where we are comfortable, but the key is learning to trust him.

I do not know you. I don't know what you trust apart from Jesus. But I can tell you about what God has done for me over these last few weeks in Brazil.

In England, I used to be a science teacher in high school. I gave that up to go to seminary, and moved from a house to one room. But I was still comfortable there, with a lot of books and a car and a wonderful girlfriend. When I came here, I had to leave all of that behind. Normally, I love speaking in English and listening to people speak. I like to sit down and talk for a long time. But now I am in Brazil, where not many people speak much English. Almost all the things I brought with me from England have either broken or been lost for a while while I am in Brazil. There have been times when I have not been able to speak to my girlfriend, or have not been able to eat food. I am here in Brazil for 40 days, which is the length of time that Jesus spent in the desert before his ministry, and I have been learning, like Israel learnt in their 40 years in the desert, that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and that that word is Jesus – that the bread I need to eat and the water I need to drink, that is Jesus. Jesus is what I need to survive, and nothing else.

Jesus calls us to step out, like Peter did, from where we are comfortable, and to rely on him only. But more than that, Jesus wants us to ask to step out of the boat.

Peter asks Jesus to tell him to come out of the boat. Jesus says “come”, and Peter comes out. He leaves where he felt safe, where he felt secure, where he felt comfortable, and goes to Jesus on the water. That is what the Christian faith is. That is what it means to follow Jesus.

For Peter, it is impossible. But Jesus calls him to do it and he does it, because Jesus gives us power to do the impossible.

For many of you, it will be much easier than it is for me. One of the many dangers of living somewhere like England, where people have so much, is that we have so much that we must leave and let go of before turning to Jesus.

What might we have to leave? Maybe it will be how we are comfortable in our friendships – that people think we are just like everyone else, and we need to talk about our relationship with Jesus. Maybe it will be the language we use, or the way we think about other people, or the way we treat others. Maybe what we must leave behind will be the way we think about Jesus – the way that we imagine him to be, or that we think he only loves people like us, or that he does not love people like us. I cannot tell you which area of life it is where Jesus is telling you to leave where you are comfortable and come to him – to him as he really is, as we see him in the Bible.

But the story does not end there. Peter is looking to Jesus, he is trusting Jesus, and he walks on the sea. But then he looks at the waves and the wind and he gets afraid, and he begins to sink. And in the same way, it is so easy sometimes to be distracted by how difficult it is to follow Jesus, that we stop looking at him, and we start failing. Maybe that is where some of us are today. We have been trying to follow Jesus, but we have taken our eyes off him and are sinking.

If that is us, then do as Peter did. Cry out to Jesus “save me”, and fix our eyes on Jesus, as it says in Hebrews 12:1-2
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Fourth moment – the disciples worship Jesus. The disciples worship Jesus. This is the first time in Matthew that they call Jesus the “Son of God”. Jesus has led them out of where they were comfortable, by the storm and for Peter, by walking on the water. And as a result, they see Jesus better, they know him better, they see his power more clearly, they understand more about who he is. And when it is all over, when he is in the boat, the storm dies down, they know that Jesus is with them, when it is all over, they worship Jesus.

My father let go of the bike because he knew that even though it would be difficult for me, I would need to be able to ride the bike in the future, that I would enjoy life more and could travel around more easily if I could ride a bike.

In the same way, Jesus does not just call us out of where we are comfortable and to trust him because he can. He calls us to trust him more because that way we can see him better and worship him more, and that is what we were made for. That is where we can find true joy, that is where we can live life as it was meant to be lived. knowing and worshipping the one true God through his son Jesus Christ.

So what are we going to have to let go of? What areas of comfort is God going to lead us out of? How are we going to have to ask Jesus to lead us away from where we feel comfortable, away from where we feel like we know how to live and what to do, and how to trust in him and him only?

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