[NOTE: This sermon was written before the events in Charlottesville, VA happened. It gave me a new appreciation for what I’d written earlier in the week.]
It had been an exciting day for Peter and the rest of the disciples. On the shores of Lake Galilee, Jesus had fed over 5000 people with five loaves and two fishes. 5000 people! Five loaves. Two fishes. You do the math! It’s pretty impressive to say the least Then, after everyone’s belly was full, the disciples gathered all the leftover pieces and filled twelve huge baskets with them. 12 baskets! Something is seriously wrong with this equation. But the disciples didn’t complain. Jesus’ math was always a little bit different than the kind they learned in school. They wouldn’t have it any other way!
After witnessing a holy moment such as this, one would think the disciples would stick around for a while and bask in the glory of the moment. One would think Jesus would sign a few autographs, kiss a few babies, and simply enjoy the adulation of the crowd. But Jesus had other plans. Matthew says he “immediately…made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side” of the lake.”
Meanwhile, he gave the crowd a parting benediction and probably told them to take the leftover baskets of food and give them to the poor. Then he did something we rarely give ourselves permission to do: He climbed up the hill and spent time with God in prayer and solitude. He got away from the push and pull of the crowd. He escaped the endless questions of the disciples.
For a moment it was just he and his Abba. He created a quiet place, a sanctuary, where he could recharge his spiritual batteries. He gave himself permission to stop being productive and simply be. “Be still, and know that I am God.” [Ps 46:10] The Psalmist reminds us. Jesus knew how to be still. He invites us to do the same if we are willing to follow his example.
But the disciples were not so lucky that night! Lake Galilee might have been a quiet place as they began their journey. But when the sun had set, and the moon was a small sliver in the sky, a great windstorm arose on the lake. This was a common occurrence. But it didn’t make it any less terrifying.
Ancient superstitions called to mind, the gods of the deep: AMUN, Egyptian god of wind and creation; HADAD, Semitic god of storm and rain; JUPITER, Roman god of sky and weather; and ZEUS, Greek god of thunder. It called to mind the great Leviathans, the sea monsters who dwelt in the deep.
And so, when the wind and waves began to toss the boat to and fro, the disciples were terrified. They were far from land and were sailing against the wind. I’m sure they thought they didn’t stand a chance. They probably wondered why Jesus sent them out onto the lake in the first place. Surely, the man who fed 5000 people could foresee the disciples’ impending doom. Surely the man who produced 12 baskets of leftovers could also predict an incoming storm. Where WAS Jesus when you needed him?
But, friends in Christ, do we do any better when the storms of life batter our boats The world around us is a scary place. The storm gods of war, greed, and hate attack us from every side. The great Leviathans of power and ambition threaten to capsize our little boats. We hardly stand a chance against them. During these times of storm and wind, don’t we wonder where the heck Jesus is? Don’t we fear we are going to drown Let’s not judge the disciples too quickly for we have been in the same boat more times than we can recall!
Thankfully, this is not the end of the story! As the wind rocked the boat relentlessly; as the salt spray from the waves stung their eyes and made it difficult for them to see; they noticed a figure coming toward them. This figure made them even more terrified than they were before. “It’s a ghost” they cried out in fear. “It’s one of the ancient gods who has come to put an end to us!” But as soon as they vocalized their fear. The ghost spoke: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Now the phrasing of this sounds more like a Shakespearean play, than the comforting words of a savior. “Take heart, it is I. Fearest thou not, for I have come to save thee!” What Jesus actually said was, “THARSEO,, have courage. EIMI EGO, the Great I Am is with you! There is no reason to be afraid.”
The I AM who stirred up the waters of chaos and gave birth to light is with you! The I AM who called to Moses in the burning bush is with you! The I AM who led the Israelites from slavery to freedom is with you! The I AM who became flesh and and moved into the neighborhood is with you!”
Isn’t this the reassurance we need when the storms of life threaten to capsize our boats? We might think specters of darkness surround us on every side. We may think the paranormal forces of evil are going to devour us. But Jesus cuts through their thunderous voices of doom and says “I AM. I AM Emmanuel. God is with you. God will see you through the storm. Have courage. There is no reason to be afraid.”
We hear this reassuring voice in many different ways. Sometimes it comes to us while we’re gathered for worship. Through bread and wine, water and word, prayer and praise, Jesus, the great I AM, cuts through the howling winds and crashing thunder of the world. He becomes a voice of calm in the midst of our restless seas. Listen carefully and you will hear his voice. You will find a smidgen of courage and a pinch of peace. The storm may still be there, but we will know that we are not alone! Jesus is with us, friends in Christ!
Let us claim this portion of the story for ourselves and believe that there is no storm big enough to keep Jesus from coming to our rescue and speaking a word of calm reassurance: “Have courage. The Great I AM is with you. There is no reason to be afraid.”
What comes next is the stuff of legend, and part of the story remains untold, until now. First, Peter gets a smidgen of courage. And, as he sometimes does, he lumbers full steam ahead, or should I say full storm ahead? “Jesus, it it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Say what? I’m sure the other disciples thought Peter was out of his mind which sometimes happened! They weren’t going anywhere! They were going to stay in the boat and wait until the storm passed. But Peter, for a brief and shining moment, was fearless. When Jesus said to him, “Come,”…he went! First one foot and then the other. Much to his surprise, Peter was walking on water.
But the water in question was not a tranquil frozen lake in Minnesota. It was not a shallow ridge of sand in an otherwise deep ocean. The water in question was a raging storm, and Peter was walking on it. Peter refused to let the storm get the best of him. He trusted Jesus and went for it.
This is not a person of “little faith” as the end of the story suggests. This is a spiritual giant, a role model for us to follow. The other disciples were total cowards. They stayed in the boat, paralyzed by fear. They were passive, waiting for Jesus to make something happen. But not Peter, he took Jesus at his word and faced the storm head-on. Granted, his little miracle was short-lived but dang it, he pulled it off nonetheless!
Friends in Christ, it’s easy for us to remain paralyzed by fear, when the storms of life threaten to capsize our boats. It’s a natural inclination for us to want to hide in the prow of the boat and hope someone will rescue us. But Peter does a brave thing. He faces the storm head-on. He trusts Jesus and takes a literal step of faith out onto a stormy sea. This is such a difficult thing to do! His bravery is way underestimated in this story.
It’s the kind of bravery that faces cancer head-on with a positive attitude and steeled determination. It’s the kind of bravery that works two jobs and takes on-line classes, dreaming of a better future for our family. It’s the kind of bravery that doesn’t let this weeks headlines of threat of nuclear war between us and North Korea and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville overwhelm us, but makes us even more committed to do the work of love, justice and peacemaking that is needed in our world.
When most people hear this story, they think Peter is a failure because he became frightened, and began to sink. I don’t think this is true at all! This boy was walking on water. Let’s see if we can top that! While it’s true that Peter began to sink, he had sense enough to cry out “Lord, save me!”
The next sentence in our gospel lesson is the most beautiful of them all. “Jesus IMMEDIATELY reached out his hand and caught him.” There’s that word again, IMMEDIATELY. Initially in our story it was a word of hurry as Jesus shoved the disciples into a boat and told them to set sail. Here, it is a word of hope and calm. Jesus did not hesitate to save Peter. He reached out his hand and caught Peter’s. Together they walked hand in hand to the safety of the boat. When they got there, the winds subsided and there was a great calm.
If there is a more beautiful image of who Jesus is to us, I’m not sure what it is! Yes, I’m glad he’s the shepherd who searches diligently for his lost sheep. Yes I’m glad he’s the sower who can produce a great harvest from a small patch of good soil. But I am most thankful that he is great I AM who promises to be with us in the midst of life’s storms.
When we feel helpless and overwhelmed, Jesus speaks to us words of comfort: “Have courage. The Great I AM is with you. There is no reason to be afraid.” When we step out in faith and find ourselves walking on water, Jesus cheers us on, every step of the way. Finally, when the waves begin to overwhelm us and we start to sink, Jesus IMMEDIATELY take our hand pulls us up, and walks us to the safety of the boat.
Friends in Christ, there are so many things in our world that cause us to be fearful. I can guarantee that sudden storms will arise in everyone’s life and in the life of our nation. But the good news we take with us this morning is that Jesus is with us. The Great I AM is with us. He promises to take our hands and see us through the storm. Let’s believe it and let’s claim it for ourselves, our loved ones, our church, our community, and our world. AMEN
Copyright ©2017 David Eck