Walking on Water (August 9, 2020)
Matthew 14: 22-33
Walking on Water
This story is picking up right after last week, when Jesus fed the 5000+ people with 12 baskets of leftovers. Jesus has received word that his cousin John the Baptist has been killed by Hared and he is grieved. So after feeding them, he sends the crowd home. But he also tells the disciples to get into a boat and head across the sea and he’ll meet them on the other side. He’s finally alone, and he walks up the mountain to pray alone. And we’re told that he finally walked out to meet the disciples on the water somewhere between 3 and 6 AM the next morning. That's how long Jesus prayed in his grief, but also that’s how long the disciples are waiting in the boat. I think that’s important.
The disciples are afraid. They’ve been out all night when he finally walks out to them. And I wanna give you a little bit of backstory. Storms on the Sea of Galilee are not uncommon in the slightest. What happens is that the sun beats down on that area and actually makes the Sea of Galilee rather warm, and then the warmth of the water heats the air right above the Sea of Galilee, but the air in the canyons around it is not very warm, and so the air starts to circulate very quickly. So we get very powerful storms very quickly as long as the sea is warm.
And the thing is, we know why those storms are there, but they didn’t. Also, they couldn’t really tell how deep it was, it’s so deep that they couldn’t quite get to the bottom, so they believed it must be a gateway to the underworld. So they blamed all of these storms that would come up and actually threaten the lives of sailors on demonic spirits coming up from the depths of the Sea of Galilee. You didn’t want to be on that Sea at night or during a storm, and you definitely did not want to die on that Sea because if your body falls down, where are you going? So instead, they were trying to get to shore, but Jesus told him to get on the boat so they’re on the boat. And the wind starts to pick up. They fight against the wind, trying to get back to shore, and they’re losing that fight, and they get whisked out into the middle of the sea.
Now, this is not the first storm in the Gospel of Matthew where the disciples are in the middle of the Sea during a storm. But the first one, in Matthew chapter 8, Jesus is with them. Jesus is sleeping in the back of the boat. And Jesus calms the storm. This is a calmer storm, but even the calm storms are still really awe inspiring. They’re still really powerful. I got to witness one of these when I was in Israel this past winter, and the wind was pretty impressive. If you’ve ever been out to Western Kansas it was very similar to what the wind can do on the flatter portions of western Kansas. The wind can get pretty high out there, and that was the similar feel to the way it was. I just wanted to sit on the beach at Capernaum and just watch the waves crash. I have a video of that night that I hope to put up on the church facebook and website.
And I wonder if you’re experiencing that at night, from a boat, and you don’t know why it’s happening but you believe that it’s a demonic spirit encircling you: what are they praying? My guess would be that they’re praying that Jesus would come to them already, that it would be like the first time.
So, if you put yourself in the shoes of the disciples: it’s 3 AM, you’ve been up all night over the gates of hell as a storm begins to whip up, Praying that Jesus will come. And then you look up and there is Jesus walking across the water; not in a boat of his own, but walking himself across the water. I forgive you if you think you’re watching a hallucination; if you think you’re maybe experiencing a spirit that’s not exactly Jesus might be impersonating him over this particular lake. If you put yourself in the mind of the disciples in that moment, you can kind of see where they are and why Peter wants proof.
Because that’s the thing with Peter is asking for him to walk on the water, it is Peter wanting proof that this is actually Jesus. Because a demonic spirit can walk on the water, but only God would be able to make Peter walk on the water. We often laud Peter for his faith in this moment, and then we will chastise him for his faith in a few moments when he sinks. We like to talk about living in the kind of faith needed to step out of the boat and walk on water, to go to miracles in the name of God. But that’s not really why he’s walking on water. He wants proof, he wants comfort, he's asking to walk on the water because he doesn’t have faith that God is really coming across the water in that moment. And Peter is asking God to do the impossible to prove it actually is God in that moment.
And Jesus, to his credit, immediately says, “OK. Come on up. Let’s do it.” There’s a couple of things here. Jesus chastises other people at other points of the Gospel for asking for a sign, and that’s exactly what Peter is doing: he’s asking for a sign. Have you ever asked for a sign? “God, if it’s really you in this moment, do XYZ.” And Jesus, for the most part when people ask him for a sign, he chastises them. In fact in one of the Gospels, after the feeding of the 5000, the next day the people come to him asking for bread as if he’s just a cosmic vending machine or a cosmic bakery, and he chastises them for wanting a sign. “I just gave you food. I fed 5000 people just yesterday. Isn’t that good enough?” Peter is in the same boat here, pun not intended but left in. “We just fed the 5000, you don’t think I’ve given you enough of a sign?” But Jesus doesn’t chastise Peter, instead he immediately provides the sign. What’s the difference?
I think there are two main differences. Number one: Peter is a disciple and the others aren’t. Peter’s important. The reality is I think the second difference is far more important though: Peter was genuine, the others are not. The others want bread; they don’t want to sign, they want bread. Peter wants a sign, and will believe it. Because that’s the other thing: Peter is ready to step out on the boat, step out onto the water.
Have you ever asked for a sign? “God, if it’s really you, send me a sign and then I’ll do whatever it is.” And then you get the sign. and you're like “I have to do it...I don’t really want to do that.” My hand goes up again. I think that’s what a lot of the people that are asking for signs of Jesus are really saying. They don’t really want a sign, rather they want an excuse to not do whatever it is they’re being asked to do. So they’re saying, “well if you really want me to do that, you have to show me that you’re God by doing some impossible thing.” But Peter genuinely wants to know that this is in fact Jesus. He wants a yes, he wants the sign, he wants to know that this is truly who he’s following. So when God gives it to him, Peter immediately stepped out of the boat because that’s what he wanted, that’s the answer he wanted. And I think that’s the biggest difference, and the biggest lesson for us. It’s OK to want a sign, it’s just that when we are asking for that sign, then we better be ready for a yes, we better be ready for the sign to actually come, and we really better be ready to do whatever it is we are expected to do on the back end like Peter did.
Jesus tells Peter to come on out of the water and Peter steps out of the boat. He steps on the water, and it holds. And he takes a step, and then another step, and then another step, and then another step, and then he notices the wind. And when he notices the wind he starts to sink.
Pastors for ages have mentioned “don’t take your eyes off Jesus! Don’t notice the wind!” And it’s sound advice. If we could do it, it would be great. But, have you ever been in a windstorm and tried to ignore the wind? “Keep your eyes on Jesus” is really sound advice, but it’s just not that feasible. And it’s certainly not easy, certainly not as easy as we like to make it sound.
It’s easy to have faith enough to walk on water, it’s easy to have faith enough to move a mountain when everything around you is going well. When you’ve got that prosperity, when your job is going strong and your kids are healthy; it’s easy to have faith then. But when the storm hits it becomes harder. That’s the real message of Job too: the entire book of Job is Satan going to God and saying “yeah, Job has great faith now, but what happens if he loses everything? What happens if he faces a storm? What happens then?” Faith is harder to keep when the wind is howling around you, and that’s what Peter experiences.
Peter had a bravado, and a certain level of confidence, maybe even overconfidence, that he could even fulfill his part of this transaction. The transaction was “I will believe that this is really you if you call me to walk out on the water,” but part of that is believing that Peter could walk on the water as long as Jesus called. That’s a pretty confident statement, and he winds up unable to fulfill his side of the bargain here because ultimately he can’t walk on water even though Jesus calls him. It’s something that will be repeated in just a few chapters when they’re all sitting around a table and Jesus says, “Peter you’re going to deny me,” and Peter has a bravado and overconfidence and says, “No, Jesus, I will never deny you. Even if I must die beside you, I will never deny you.” And then Jesus is arrested, and Peter finds himself around a campfire with three people coming up accusing him of being with Jesus, and Peter denied Jesus. He had a bravado at the Last Supper table, but when the storm came around he couldn’t stand up.
And what we recognize of course is that this is really a metaphor for the church. That we might have moments where we have these big bravado statements, that of course we can do something, we’re the church! But then we notice the storm around us, and we might falter. So what happens then? How does Jesus respond to this very human reality of what Peter is doing?
I want to point out at this moment that this is not a story about Peter's faith. This is not the story of Peter walking on the water. When you open your Bible, the little heading up there does not say “Peter walks on water,” it says “Jesus walks on water.” Jesus is the main character of the story. So what does Jesus do? He has to feel disappointed in Peter at this moment. Certainly, if he’s not disappointed in Peter this morning, he certainly is disappointed in Peter when Peter denies him. I mean, he takes time out of his trial to turn around and stare him down. But what does Jesus do when he is disappointed? When Peter and all of his bravado is now sinking in the water yelling “Lord, help me!” Jesus reaches out and they clasp hands. And Peter is back in the boat, and Jesus with them, and he calms the storm. When Peter denied Jesus three times, we know that a few days later Jesus is on the lake shore, and he offers Peter three chances to say he loves him. Peter gets another chance. What we see is that even when he is disappointed he saves us, he forgives us, and he gives us another chance. He asks us to learn; but he gives us another chance. And we keep going.
This is a story about Jesus being able to do the impossible. This is a story about Jesus being the Son of God, doing the impossible, proving that the rules that he operates by are not the same rules that govern us. The kingdom is upside down, and there is no limit to what Jesus can do. He’s not even bound by the laws of physics: he can walk across the water, and he can make Peter walk across the water.
But it also is a story of the church and the way Jesus interacts with the church. When Peter goes to walk on the water, Jesus does not make his walk any easier. Jesus doesn’t calm the storm when Peter stepped out of the boat, he calms the storm when he gets in the boat. He could have made Peter‘s walk easier, but he didn’t. He could have brought the disciples back to dryland once he arrived. Notice that they are still on the boat at the end of the story; the storms gone, but they’re still in a boat in the middle of the night out over the gates of hell. He doesn’t just transport them to dryland. He certainly could have, he just walked on water of course he could have brought them across it too, but he doesn’t. He could have calmed the wind from the mountaintop as he’s praying and they never would have drifted off from shore, but he doesn’t. Rather he comes to them in the storm. He comforts them in their mistakes, he loves them, and he’s with them.
That’s the only promise that he ever offers the church, that he ever offers to you: that in the midst of the storm, as you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus will be with you, always, until the end of age. That God’s staff will comfort you. That’s the promise of Jesus, that’s the promise of this story: that when you find yourself sinking in the midst of the storm, that Jesus‘s hand will be there to grab on to.
Go from this place and trust in that promise. And whatever you’re doing, whether you’re trying to walk on water or whether you’re just trying to walk through your day and survive, know that Jesus is with you. And let’s see what can happen. Amen.