February 15th, 2015

Jesus trusted his Catcher. So can you.

Matthew 14:22-33

February 15, 2015

Three kinds of convictions

The miracle of Jesus walking on water is so well known that it has spawned a common phrase even among those who don’t read the Bible. If your coworker can “walk on water,” it means she can do the impossible. If your Valentine can “walk on water,” it means in your eyes he is impossibly perfect.

Two phrases in today’s Scripture reading have especially captured my attention. The first one is in verse 22: “Jesus made the disciples get in the boat” (emphasis added).

The second phrase that grabbed me is in verse 31 after Peter joins Jesus on the choppy, liquid surface. Peter takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink. Jesus says to him, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” At least he had some faith. The other guys never even got out of the boat. We will come back to both those phrases.

I picked up a marvelous little book Friday morning – John Ortberg’s Faith & Doubt – and was so captivated by it I finished it yesterday afternoon. He talks about you in chapter 3 – people who recite in church every Sunday, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” Ortberg says there are three kinds of convictions (another word for faith): public, private, and core.

Public convictions, Ortberg says, are “convictions that I want other people to think I believe” (Ortberg, 42). Politicians may say, “This is the greatest nation on the face of the earth,” or “This is the most important election in our lifetime.” It is irrelevant at that moment whether they have studied every nation or every election to make such a comparison. They must say those words convincingly or their support will wane.

I know how they feel. Several years ago when we were raising multi-millions of dollars for capital projects, most of the time I really believed we were doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. Occasionally doubts entered my head. But it was not appropriate for me as senior pastor to say, “Folks, I’m not sure if we ought to be doing this or not, but I hope you’ll give generously anyway.” I needed to consistently uphold and express a public conviction.

Private convictions, according to Ortberg, are “convictions that I sincerely think I believe, but it turns out they may be fickle” (44). One of my private convictions is that I want to eat healthy. I really believe that about myself. But it’s fairly easy to betray that private conviction if you put the right dessert in front of me. I find it fairly easy to resist meat, potatoes, and vegetables. But set a bowl of ice cream with hot fudge and caramel for toppings, and I’m a goner.

Third, there are core convictions, “the ones that really matter…revealed by our daily actions” (46). I have a public and a private conviction that my highest priority in life other than my relationship to Christ is faithfulness to my wife. I think Linda would tell you that is also a core conviction, based on what I do to protect my marriage and serve her. On the other hand, I have a public and private conviction to care for the poor, and I’m not so sure that my actions show it – how I spend my time and money.

So let’s talk about these words you and I say every Sunday: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” Is that a public conviction (one you stand up and recite because you want everyone to think you believe it), a private conviction (one you think you believe until it’s tested by a storm), or a core conviction (one that guides how you live, how you pray, how you speak)? If there are times you doubt that God is a loving Father whose power is unlimited, does that mean you don’t have faith, or you have little faith? If a 5-year-old is battling terminal cancer or a 17-year-old dies in a car wreck or an earnest prayer for a job goes unanswered or your spouse is unfaithful, do you still act as if you “believe in God the Father Almighty”? If not, should you say it in church?

That takes us to Matthew 14, doesn’t it? If you’re Peter, do you believe Jesus is the Son of God – that he can not only walk on water, but empower you to do the same? If you do believe that, will you get out of the boat? If you get out of the boat, what happens when you look around and see the wind and waves? Let’s look at this text verse by verse.

Faith and doubt

22 – Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

Note that Matthew says this happened immediately after the feeding miracles. It was late in the day, maybe even after dark. “He made the disciples” should be translated, “he ‘forced’ them” or “he ‘compelled’ them.” This means they were resistant. Why? Perhaps because they felt the energy of the crowd that had been fed. Maybe they were enjoying miracle afterglow. Maybe the wind was whipping up. Maybe they had some sense of foreboding. Maybe they wanted Jesus with them on the lake. It felt risky enough to get in the boat on a windy night with Jesus; why would he send them off alone?

Let me help you visualize their boat. In 1986, during a drought that caused the Sea of Galilee water level to recede to record levels, two modern fishermen discovered in the mud along the shore the remains of a boat that was later carbon-dated to the time of Jesus. Although there is no way to know if Jesus was ever in this particular boat, the boat has been nicknamed “The Jesus Boat,” and what we do know is that this is likely the style and size fishing boat that Jesus and his disciples would have used.

Jesus Boat

The “Jesus Boat” was about 27 feet long, 7½ feet wide, and a little over 4 feet from keel to gunnel (bottom to top, for those of you less familiar with parts of a boat than I have become since Thursday morning at my Bible study). There were likely four oarlocks, and a fifth person would steer the boat at the rear. In a boat with twelve men, seven were idle.

23a – After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.

Why did Jesus make his disciples get in the boat? He knew the crowds’ intent to make him king (cf. John 6:15). He knew it would be easier to disperse the crowd if the disciples had already departed. He also knew his disciples needed another lesson on the water. Most importantly, he knew what he needed – alone time with the Father.

23b-24 – When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

None of the gospel accounts say the disciples were frightened by the wind and waves in this story. (They were in other storm stories.) Several of them were professional fishermen, accustomed to water. Nighttime was when they usually fished.

They were frustrated, however. John (6:19) tells us they had made it 3-4 miles from the shore. But they had stopped making progress, and they were exhausted in body, soul, and spirit. Jesus already acknowledged their need for rest before the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:31), after they came back from their two-by-two mission. They spent several hours rowing to the opposite shore to get some rest in a secluded spot, only to be met by crowds whom Jesus healed and then fed. It was late in the evening when they embarked again. Having rowed for 6 or 8 hours and now going nowhere, they may have been thinking, “We knew better than to venture on to this windy lake, but you made us.”

25 – During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.

The “fourth watch” was from 3 AM to 6 AM. Thomas Fuller, an English theologian and historian, noted, “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.”

Mark (6:48) adds a couple of details. One is that Jesus saw them “straining at the oars” from the shoreline. So he’s coming out to help them. But Mark also says that Jesus “intended to pass by them.” That’s odd, isn’t it? Perhaps it is a reference to Exodus 33:21-22 and 34:6, where the LORD passed by Moses.

If the disciples knew their Bibles, they knew that Job (9:8) had said of God, “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” Whatever else this is, it clearly indicates Jesus displaying the power of “God the Father Almighty.”

26 – When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear.

At first the disciples don’t recognize the figure as Jesus. Maybe there’s a cloud cover or fog. Maybe it’s too dark. Maybe he bobs up and down in the waves. Or maybe they simply haven’t imagined the possibility that even with everything else they had seen him do, he could do this. We don’t know. Instead of being comforted, they are “terrified.”

They “cried out” (krazo), Mark says. This word is an onomatopoeia in Greek, imitating the raven’s piercing cry.  Their gut reaction is revealing: “It’s a ghost!” Phantasma in Greek is an appearance in visible form of the normally invisible part of a person – a phantom, a spirit, an apparition (which is how Charles Dickens referred to the ghosts who appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge). What else could they conclude?

27 – But Jesus immediately said to them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Notice the “immediately.” He reassures them above the noise of the pounding waves. But don’t miss those three words in the middle – one word in Greek. “It is I” is literally, “I am.” At this point, Mark and John are done with the story, except that Mark (6:52) comments the disciples would not have been “amazed” if they had understood about the loaves and if their hearts had not been so hard. Matthew, who was in that boat, adds the rest of the story.

28 – “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

Why does Peter do this? He’s a risk-taker. Some people are risk-takers. Nick Matthews is one of them, and told us Wednesday night about grabbing his helmet and gun in the middle of the night to join a battle in Afghanistan after telling his terrified wife, “I gotta go. We’re under attack!” Paul Schowalter is one of them. His story is about climbing to 60,000 feet plus in his Air Force fighter jet when he had been told the plane wouldn’t fly that high. Nick and Paul would have reacted like Peter. Bob would not have.

Peter is a risk-taker, yes, and he’s impulsive. But he is also a student imitating his rabbi. Rabbis encouraged their students to do as they did. Peter seems to get that.

29 – “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.

All Jesus spoke was one word. I like to visualize this part of the story. Don’t forget, Jesus hasn’t yet calmed the wind or the waves. I picture Jesus bobbing up and down, his hair and clothing soaking wet from the spray, his face completely calm, a sly smile on his face as he says, “Come on!” I think he enjoyed this. I don’t picture Peter leaping out of the boat – more gingerly stepping over the side and being delighted when he doesn’t sink. He takes a few steps toward Jesus, and he’s bobbing up and down as well. He’s already wet; all the disciples were. His confidence grows with every baby step on the surface. But when he’s out of reach of the boat, even though he’s within reach of Jesus (v. 31), it dawns on him where he is and what he’s doing.

30 – But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me.”

Maybe a fresh gale whipped up, we don’t know. Peter’s fear got the best of him, and the voice he used sounded a lot like the voice when the whole boat yelled, “It’s a ghost!”

31 – Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

I picture Jesus’ grasp as strong and firm as he lifts Peter on to the surface and they walk back toward the boat. “O you of little faith” is repeated four times elsewhere in Matthew (6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20). Every other time it’s in the plural – usually a rebuke of the disciples as a group. Here Peter, the only one who actually tested the water, is singled out for having “little faith.” What about the others who never got out of the boat?

Jesus asks him, “Why did you doubt?” This is a different word for doubt than the one used in the rest of the New Testament. This word isn’t about what you think; it’s about what you do. The problem is not what Peter thought; it’s what he did. I have come to picture Jesus’ response as humorous. He yanks Peter by the hand and laughs his way through “You faint-hearted chicken liver, you! What got into you? Why did you look down? Having seen me and then taken a few steps, why would you suddenly waver and think I would let you drown? Come on, let’s get back in the boat.”

32-33 – And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

For Matthew, this is the point of the story. It’s the only time before the resurrection in Matthew, Mark, or Luke where the disciples “worship” Jesus. And even then (Matthew 28:17), some of the disciples “doubted.” For now, the cumulative effect of Jesus’ teachings, healings, raisings, exorcisms, and mastery over nature causes them to exclaim with one voice, “You are the Son of God.”

The flyer and the catcher

Had I read John Ortberg’s book before writing most of my sermon, I might have written it differently. I feel like I could preach his book. He’s honest, he’s funny, he’s engaging, he’s biblical, and he’s so very practical.

What he doesn’t do is deal very directly with this story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water, which disappointed me a little over 177 pages. Maybe that’s because he had already written a book titled, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.

So much of what Ortberg says, however, applies to this story. For example, he quotes Frederick Buechner: “Doubts are ants in the pants of faith; they keep it awake and moving.” Ortberg introduces his most compelling illustration in chapter 2 and returns to on the final pages. He borrows this analogy from Henri Nouwen, which makes me feel a little better about borrowing it from John Ortberg. Let this scene play out in your mind.

You are at the circus. Trapeze artists have climbed high on to their platforms at either end of the tent. On one platform are the flyers, and on the other are the catchers. The flyers are lean and petite, weighing less than 150 pounds. The catchers are stocky, with bulging forearms and firm hands covered with dry magnesium power for a solid grip.

From your ringside seat as the spectacle unfolds, you think the star of the show is the flyer, with his graceful, acrobatic releases and five flips. But the flyer will tell you he does nothing compared to the catcher. He simply holds out his arms and waits. If he doesn’t stretch out, if he starts to look down to the net below, if he starts grasping or flailing in fear, he’ll ruin the act.

Jesus trusted his Catcher. When he took on flesh, he knew the importance of not letting the adoring crowds take his gaze off the Catcher. He headed into the western hills late one night to spend some time with the Father, to maintain that intimacy as his first priority, as his only strength and perspective.

But first, he made the disciples get into the boat and head toward the wind. There were lessons they needed to learn that night about doubt and faith. The lesson, I’ve come to believe, is not to beat yourself up if you doubt in your head. John Ortberg insists we all doubt, and tells stories about everyone from Martin Luther to Billy Graham to Mother Teresa to prove his point.

The point of this story, I think, is that Jesus doesn’t just still the storm. He meets you in the middle of it. He walks with you while the waves are churning and the wind is howling and the surf is soaking you. If you’ve disembarked from the safety of the boat and find yourself in an unstable place, don’t take your eyes off him. If doubts fill your mind, don’t let them alter your actions. Let your core conviction be to trust him. Stretch out your hand to the Catcher. His grip is sure, and you can trust him. Amen.

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