Preached by Michael Cheuk
September 14, 2008
This morning’s Gospel reading comes right after Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand. Jesus sends his disciples out on a boat into the Sea of Galilee, while he went up on a mountain to commune with His heavenly Father in prayer. But while Jesus was alone enjoying a time of rest, his poor disciples were all alone wrestling to keep their little boat afloat while a storm blew them out to sea and threatened to sink them all. Jesus, the earthly presence of God, was not on the boat with the disciples. I wonder in the midst of the chaos, if the disciples were tempted to ask, “Where is God in the midst of the storm?”
For the Jewish Christians for whom Matthew wrote his gospel, the picture of the disciples huddled in a little boat in the middle of a raging sea symbolized more than just the dangers of sea travel. They would have remembered the creation story in Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless (literally in a state of confusion) and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” As you may remember, God then called for light to separate it from the darkness. And later, God separated the waters to form the sky and dry land. In biblical thought, the sea–the waters–symbolized the forces of chaos and confusion that God brought into order and control at beginning of creation. While the waters of chaos may have been subdued by God, the waters nevertheless are always churning waves of anxiety, fear, and death, always threatening to undo the order that God has created and unleash chaos onto His creation. The victims of tsunamis and hurricanes would certainly relate to this thinking.
It is within these waters that the disciples find themselves, separated from their Lord. But early in the morning, in their darkest hour between 3 and 6 am, they see a figure coming toward them, a figure walking on water. In their anxiety, fear and disorientation, the disciples think it is a ghost. For us modern hearers, we can only think of physics, and wonder how anyone can defy the laws of gravity to levitate on the sea. But for hearers in Matthew’s community, they know that there is only one who can walk on the churning waters-it is the One who ordered and controlled the waters at the creation of the world, the One who overcomes the power of chaos by literally “walking on” it to subdue it.
Here, Jesus comes to the disciples and does what only God can do: He comes walking on water to subdue the powers of chaos that the waters represent. Furthermore, Jesus speaks the words that only God can speak: “Take heart! It is I. Do not be afraid.” When Jesus identifies himself: “It is I,” he is literally saying: “I AM!”
“I am” -this is the same title that God used to identify himself to Moses. At the burning bush, God gave Moses a mission: to deliver the Hebrew people out of slavery. And when Moses asked, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them: ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them? God answered Moses: “I AM WHO I AM.” “Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”
Jesus, the Word, who in the beginning was with God and was God, now exclaims a word that evokes the self-identification of the LORD God, YHWH. “I AM.” “I am the One who controlled the chaos of the waters at the beginning of creation. I am the One who parted the waters so that the Israelites can walk through the Red Sea to escape the Pharaoh. Now, I am the One walks on the raging waters. So do not be afraid.”
We too face storms in our lives. Hopefully they are not as devastating as the one faced by the residents in Texas this past weekend, but nonetheless, when the storms strike, they can threaten to undo the order of our daily existence, to grip us with fear and anxiety, and to wreck havoc with our lives. The storms may come in the form of a diagnosis that confirms that we have a serious disease. The storms may arise in the midst of a broken relationship that tosses our emotions about like a small boat in a raging sea. The storms may come literally like Ike, which slammed into the Texas coast yesterday morning. The storms may batter us like what happened to Farrah Schmidt when she lost one of her twins in a premature delivery Friday morning. And when those things happen, sometimes, Jesus seems so far away, like a shadow, a ghost on a distant shore. I wonder in the midst of such tragedies, if we are tempted to ask: “Where is God in the midst of the storm?” Matthew wants to tell us this morning, God is here, in Jesus coming to us in the midst of the chaos.
But as Jesus walks toward the disciples, a very strange thing happens. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Now, we are not really sure of Peter’s motivation for wanting to walk on the raging water to Jesus.
Perhaps he wanted to express his genuine faith – LORD, if it is you, . . .
Perhaps he wanted to test this mysterious figure – Lord, IF it is YOU, . . .
Perhaps he wanted to prove himself worthy – Lord, if it is you, command ME to come to you.
Perhaps he was just impulsive – Lord if it is you, command me TO COME TO YOU ON THE WATER.
Perhaps it is a mixture of all of these motives.
And Jesus graciously replies: “Come.” Whatever his motivations, good, bad and indifferent, Peter takes that first step of faith, out of the boat and onto the water. And he walked toward Jesus.
In our decisions and actions, we too are often creatures of mixed motives. I know that in my life, that is the case. I became a Christian in the sixth grade partly out of a desire to follow Christ, but also out of a desire to please my uncle, who witnessed to me about taking that first step of faith. I was active in the youth group partly to learn more about being a disciple, but also because there was a pretty girl that I wanted to get to know better. I went on mission trips partly because I wanted to serve God, but also because my friends were going and I didn’t want to be left out. While I have tried to serve and to step out in faith out of pure motives, I confess that sometimes, my motives have been mixed. But Jesus has been gracious, and he continues to invite me to come and take baby steps toward him despite my mixed motives.
And Jesus will be gracious to you, and I believe that any step of faith that you desire to take towards Him, he will accept and encourage, regardless of the initial motivation. Oh don’t worry, He will work on your motivations, but I believe that any first steps out of your comfort zone and onto the water, he will accept “Just as you are.” You may desire to take that first step in becoming a disciple of Jesus. Jesus bids you to come. You may desire to take that first step in being more intentional about sharing your faith. Jesus bids you to come. You may desire to take the first step in increasing your financial contribution to the church. Jesus bids you to come. Where is God in the midst of the storm? God is here, in Jesus inviting us to come to him.
But Michael, you say, you don’t understand. If I make that first step in becoming a Christian, my family will disown me. If I make that first step in being more intentional about sharing my faith, my friends might think that I’ve gone off the deep end. If I make that first step in being more generous, my finances might suffer. Yes, I’ll concede that those things might happen. But remember, God never promised his followers that they would be spared from the storms of life. He did promise his followers that in the midst of those inevitable storms, they would have his presence. The Bible never promised that you will never pass through the waters, that you will never pass through the floods. The Bible says in Isa. 43:2, “WHEN you pass through the waters, I will be with you; WHEN you pass through the floods, they will not sweep o’er you; WHEN you walk through the fire, you will not be consumed. You are mine, you are precious in my sight.”
To come to Jesus takes faith. Jesus tells us, “Be not afraid.” But that is easier said than done. Even Simon Peter, who actually started to walk on water, became frightened and began to sink when he noticed the strong wind and the angry waves. But Jesus responded by immediately putting his hand out and holding on to Peter and pulling him up out of the waves.
The good news this morning is that in our lives and in our walk of faith, when we begin sinking into the chaos of uncontrollable circumstances, when we fall in the midst of our own failures, our Lord Jesus is here to lift us up with his hand. For God knows that there are some things that we can never do to save ourselves, no matter how hard we work at it. That’s why when Peter sinks, Jesus did not respond by saying, “Peter, try harder!” “Pump your legs!” “Come on! Move your legs faster!” No, Jesus knew that what Peter needed was not self-help. What Peter needed was a Savior. What Peter needed was One who can subdue the chaos of the waters. One who is worthy of worship. One who is truly the Son of God.
And One who is also a gracious Lord and Savior. For only after Jesus saved Peter did he tell him, “You of little faith! Why did you doubt?” Peter is a symbol of believers and the church – we, like Peter, are full of faith and of unfaith, of amazing feats and of abysmal failures, full of trust and of doubt. This story teaches us that through faith, we can believe and do great things, but we cannot sustain faith by ourselves. Matthew Henry has a great quote reflecting on this story: “Christ bid Peter come, not only that he might walk upon the water and so know Christ’s power, but that he might sink and so know his own weakness; for as he would encourage his faith, so he would check his [self-]confidence.” Hence, “Lord, save me!” is the cry of both the strong disciple and of the sinner. What then, is the lesson? “To the believing one, Jesus gives a share of his power, to the doubting and sinking, Jesus stretches out his saving hand.” So where is God in the midst of the storm? God is here, in Jesus extending his saving hand.
Let’s hear the end of the story. When Jesus and Peter got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” We like happy endings to our stories and in this story, the wind ceases and the storm subsides. But much more important than that, is the fact that JESUS IS NOW IN THE BOAT with the disciples. Perhaps that is the gospel in a nutshell: Jesus leaves his place of peaceful communion with God in order to come to us to save us from the raging storm, and to commune with us until we reach the final shore. For all of us who are in the midst of storms, Jesus comes to us and calls out: “Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid.” And no matter where we find ourselves in this story, let us take inspiration from the disciples at the end of the story. They welcomed Jesus into the boat and worshiped him saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God!”
Where is God in the midst of the storm? God is here in Jesus coming to us in the midst of the chaos. God is here in Jesus inviting us to come to him. God is here in Jesus extending his saving hand. God is here in Jesus getting into our boat. God is here in Jesus in whom we worship. God is here.
Let us pray. In the midst of the storm, Father God, come to us to keep us strong by your mighty hand so that we may come to you in faith and worship. Amen.