For this week’s bulletin, click here: 12th Sunday after Pentecost 2011 bulletin
This sermon was a lot of fun to ponder, study, and preach. It was a very personal sermon, because this text forces each of us to consider ourselves in relation to Jesus — how do we rely on Him? How much do we trust in Him?
This sermon took a lot of work in revision, but in the end that freed me up to preach more directly and it worked out pretty well. Jesus walking on the water is an image that has come in for constant ridicule and mockery among the ungodly, but can they walk on the water? No. To anyone who has the urge to make light of this account or to joke around with it, I say: Let’s see you do it. That should give people pause. (There’s a lot that should give people pause, but unfortunately it rarely does.)
We’re accustomed to thinking of Jesus as the only one who’s ever walked on water, but sometimes we forget that Peter did, too — at least for a moment. It’s hard to imagine a more graphic illustration of the power that faith exerts when it’s focused absolutely on Jesus. Peter literally does the impossible. Jesus’ words about the mountain being thrown into the sea at our command, if we have faith, seem a lot less farfetched when you contemplate this account.
The key phrases in this Gospel are what Jesus and Peter say — “Take courage! It is I, don’t be afraid,”; “Lord, save me!”; “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” That last question, especially, should give us a twinge. We all panic at times and then later admit that there wasn’t ever really anything to be worried about. Jesus was in total control the whole time — just as the wind stopped when He climbed into the boat with Peter.
In Greek Jesus’ saying, “It is I,” jumps off the page like it’s written in neon. Literally it’s “I Am” — ego eimi. That immediately takes us back to the Old Testament and God’s revelation of Himself by that name. Jesus is calling Himself God in this text — a claim amply backed up by His walking on the water. Moments like these are one of the reasons it’s so great to know Greek. I’ve been given a great gift by the church, and it would be churlish of me not to make full use of it. (For a while I did my daily devotions in Greek, meditating on just a couple of verses per day through John’s Gospel. I may go back to that approach in the future…it was very fruitful for me.)
Today we also had the joy of welcoming another baby into the family of God via Holy Baptism. I had the privilege of lending my hand and voice to the Lord Jesus’ use as He washed away little Michael’s sin. What a thrill! And we celebrated the Holy Communion today as well. In these ways — by preaching, by baptizing, by giving us Himself in the Sacrament of the Altar — Jesus comes to us and gives us His help.
May you find help and solace and everything you need whenever you cry out to the Lord Jesus. Amen.
“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (matt 14.22-33 niv84)
I’ve been ice fishing a few times, and I remember the most recent time I went. One of the things I remember most clearly is hearing the ice crack and creak as it would shift. It was unnerving, but the guy I was fishing with assured me nonchalantly that everything was fine, and that it did that all the time. I figured that if he was out here it must be okay, and I knew I could run faster than he could, anyway. I’m still amazed, though, at the people who drive their pickup trucks on the ice. It seems like as soon as they can’t get a boat in the water anymore, they’re driving on the ice and towing trailers out there. It’s always amusing to hear about someone going through, as long as everybody’s safe. In our gospel for today, Peter takes a walk out on the lake – only it’s not ice he walks on, it’s the water. We’ll see how Jesus rescued Peter, and how He rescues us, as well as just what kind of a Lord we believe in and the power that faith can have. Let’s pay attention as Jesus Banishes that Sinking Feeling.
Our text takes place right after Jesus feeds the 5000. The crowds want to make Him king, but Jesus doesn’t want His apostles to catch the crowd’s false ideas about Him. That would undo all His work with the Twelve, so He hustles them onto a boat and shoos them away – “Go, go.” Then He goes up on a mountain to pray. The disciples start across the Sea of Galilee, and at first everything is fine. But they get about halfway across, and then a storm comes up. They pull down the sail and start to row, but they’re not really going anywhere.
Then Jesus comes to them, walking on the lake. The disciples’ reaction is not very dignified or rational: “It’s a ghost! Ahhh!” Right away when we hear this, we want to ask: did the disciples really believe in ghosts? We need to remember the conditions they were under. The wind was holding them in place, and waves kept pounding their boat. It took all their strength just to hold their position. They had been straining at their oars for hours while the wind howled in their faces and drove the spray into their eyes. They can’t see anything or hear anything except the sound of the wind and the crashing of the waves; they’re exhausted, wet, cold, hungry, and in a state of constant tension all night long. Now their eyes see something that’s clearly impossible. It’s too much for them. In their fear they lose it. They’re scared so they yell.
Notice what Jesus does next: He uses His Word to take away their doubts and fears. He speaks to them immediately: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” – more literally, “Stop being afraid.” When Jesus speaks, worry and fear and doubt vanish, because His Word is the only thing that creates and strengthens faith. His Word dispels doubt and fear like the rising sun makes the morning mist disappear. When Jesus’ voice is heard, fear disappears – that cold black feeling in the pit of your stomach, the fear that sits there like swamp water, goes away, and you see His power over sin and death and hell and all things. When you trust in Jesus, you don’t have to be afraid of anything. He gives you that trust through His Word. Whatever frightens you, whatever scares you silly — Jesus is stronger. He’s already has overcome it. Listen to His Word. He is the Lord who controls all things for your good. If He walked on the water, He can handle whatever frightens you.
When Jesus says “It is I,” it’s not just “Hey guys, here I am, it’s Me.” Jesus is actually reminding them that He’s God when He says this. He is saying, “I am He — I am the Holy One of Israel. I am the Lord, the only God there is in all heaven and earth.” The God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is walking across the waves toward them. They can believe their eyes. Jesus can do this because He’s God. It’s impossible to get around what Jesus says about Himself here: “I Am.”
Then things start to get really strange. Peter asks Jesus if he can walk on the water. His faith is so strong that he wants to be near Jesus, even if He’s standing in the middle of the lake. You can tell Peter’s faith is strong, because Jesus lets him actually walk on the water. When he trusted that Jesus could make him able to walk on the water, Peter was trusting that Jesus is true God. Then he could do it. But when he doubted that Jesus could make him walk on the water, Peter was really doubting what Jesus was saying and showing about Himself. He was doubting that Jesus was God, because his fear led him to think, “This is impossible! I can’t walk on water! This can’t be happening.” That’s when he started to flail around and swallow water. When we doubt that Jesus will help us in a specific situation or we doubt that He’ll deliver us from a specific sin or evil, we’re really doubting who He is as the Lord. If we doubt His ability to help us right now with whatever we’re facing, we’re really beginning to doubt that He really is God – and then we start to sink for real.
The thing was, Peter was in no real danger while he trusted in the Lord. As long as he kept his attention focused on Jesus, he could literally walk on water. Jesus made him able to do the impossible. He protected him from drowning. But when he doubted that Jesus was able to keep him above the water and keep him safe, then he was defenseless – and he sank like a rock. If you keep your faith focused on the Lord, instead of looking at the wind and worrying – whatever the wind might be for you – you will come through okay. If you dwell on whatever is worrying you, it can seem awfully big and scary. If you dwell on Jesus, if you focus on Him, your problems recede in importance. They’re not so threatening then.
That’s easier said than done at times. We want to cry out, “Lord, don’t you see this? I’m in serious trouble here! I’m getting overwhelmed! How am I ever going to deal with this?” But Peter let himself get distracted. He started out well but then he got distracted by how strong and fierce the wind was – and that’s when he had problems, when he took his attention off Jesus.
Think about race car drivers. They can drive 100 or 200 miles per hour around a tight track in close formation, as long as they pay attention. But if their attention wanders for a moment or they get distracted, they can fall behind, they can lose the race, or they might even cause a big crash. Races have been lost in the last few laps because of just a few moments’ inattention or distraction. If the race car driver focuses on what he’s supposed to, he can stay clear of danger and win the race. In the same way, we will be kept safe if we focus on Jesus. Choose to pay attention to your Savior, and not to everything else that threatens to overwhelm you, and you will be saved from everything you fear.
Peter forgot that for a moment. He was distracted by the wind and his fear gets the upper hand. Peter let go of his faith, which had been strong enough to make him able to walk on the water a moment ago. He starts to slide under. The waves are starting to splash him in the face, he feels the cold water beneath his feet, he’s coughing and spluttering and swallowing water; all he can do is cry out, “Lord, save me!”
Peter’s cry is panicked and desperate and he doesn’t care how he sounds. He feels like he’s about to die if Jesus doesn’t help him right now. Sometimes we feel that way. We too cry out this way when we feel like we’ve hit the wall – when we have nowhere to go, no one to help or rescue, nothing more to rely on – so we cry out to the Lord. Life can get too overwhelming for us, so that we almost feel like we’re drowning and can’t breathe. It’s a pity that we wait until we start to drown before asking for Jesus’ help, but maybe that’s why we swallow a little water before asking for help: so we learn to pray, really pray, to cry out to Him with everything we’ve got. Yell to the Lord for help like you’re drowning. Just cry out to Him – privately, in the shrine of your own heart, or even out loud, if that helps you. He will hear you, and He will help you far more quickly and more surely than any human 911 dispatcher or police officer or EMT ever could. Our emergency personnel in our community do a very good job and we’re thankful for them, but even the best firefighter or ER doctor can’t do what Jesus does. He responds instantly with all-powerful, total help, and it’s always exactly what is needed. Jesus delivers from death, both physical and spiritual; He heals sickness, averts accidents, forgives sins, takes away guilt. Jesus does everything we need.
Look at how He helps Peter. He doesn’t let him sink a little to toy with Peter or to make him learn a lesson. As soon as Peter opens his mouth to yell, Jesus puts out His hand and grabs onto Peter. Jesus helps you immediately too. Sometimes it comes in the form of immediate relief from pain, or inner peace gained through trust in Jesus’ promises to hear and answer your prayers. Maybe He gives you what you asked for right away, even before you’re done asking. Maybe He gives you the gift of patient endurance to hold on until He grants a more visible means of deliverance. Whatever it is, He’s always right by your side. His loving hand hovers over you, ready to grab you when you start to go under. He’s always right there when you need Him the most.
Jesus didn’t go walking on the water just to show off; He did it to show that He is God, and to be near Peter when he needed help. That’s why God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin in the first place: to be
near us when we need help. To save us and rescue us from the impossible situations we get ourselves into, and the big impossible situation: what to do about our own sin and death. Just as His hand reached out and found Peter slipping underneath the waves, so His Spirit reaches out for us in the depths of our despair and pulls us up. He says, “Come up here,” and we are lifted out of the depths of our sin and shame. He says, “Live!” and He puts His life-giving Spirit into our hearts. Like an accident victim who was unconscious and beginning to turn blue, but who’s brought back at the last moment by CPR, we gasp for air and open our eyes and begin to breathe again. Jesus gives life to our souls and rescues us every time we cry out to Him. He doesn’t wait; He does it right away. It’s not always as public as Peter’s rescue, and many times He’s rescuing us from what we’ve done to ourselves through unbelief, but that doesn’t make it any less of a rescue.
After Jesus caught him and saved him from going under, Peter must have felt like we do many times after we get all hysterical about something that’s coming, only to have it prove to be not nearly as bad as we’d dreaded. Many times we feel pretty sheepish, foolish for having panicked and gotten all worked up. We can look back and see that there really was no reason to doubt Jesus at any time. Jesus’ question still rings in our ears: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Yet Jesus doesn’t stop helping us because we have doubts. He still hears our cries for help, and He still rescues us. His Word still banishes our fears and calms our hearts in the face of adversity. We still feel His touch grabbing hold of us, saving us, delivering us from evil. When you come to the Lord’s table today and you feel the host touch your tongue, you’re feeling Jesus’ saving touch, and when the wine that is His blood touches your lips, you’re feeling Jesus Himself reach out for you and take hold of you just as He took hold of Peter. He is near to us in, with, and under the form of bread and wine blessed and consecrated to His use, and He comes to us to be near us in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar — near to rescue and to save. It’s Jesus reassuring you that you won’t go under for another week. It’s Jesus’ promise to deliver you. It’s Jesus communicating to you, in a way that doesn’t need any explaining to your heart, “Take courage, My child. It is I – Jesus, who loves you. Stop being afraid. Now go out and live for Me.” It’s Jesus giving Himself to you for your comfort and aid. May Jesus banish that sinking feeling for every one of you, until at last we are delivered safe and strong to our home in heaven. Amen.