Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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In the Midst of the Storm

Matthew 14:22-33

The storms of life will certainly come, whether they are literal or figurative. And they are frightening.

In September of 2006, my brother and I did a canoe trip in Ontario. We were on a lake called Kioshkokwi toward the end of our trip. We woke up to a howling wind. By the time we were done with breakfast, it was raining. And the temperature was dropping fast. To get to our next lake, we had to cross about a mile of open water with five foot high waves. We loaded up the boat and pushed off. About half-way across, I stopped to think for a second: If we dump this canoe out here, there is no way we’re going to be able to get to shore with our gear and light a fire. We will die of hypothermia long before then. That was a sobering thought. Maybe I should have had it before we started. Literal storms are scary.

Figurative storms are scary, too. This spring felt like a storm. The world turned upside down. Everything we considered to be normal was taken away: Work, church, school, routines. And it was replaced with fear. What if I get sick? How many people are going to get sick? How many are going to die? Will life ever feel normal again?

How do we respond to the storms of life? Well, as followers of Christ, we respond by putting our faith in God, trusting that he is bigger than the storm.

The setting of this text is that it happens just after the feeding of the 5000. Jesus had gone to the sparsely populated northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee to seek rest and renewal. This was just after John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, had been put to death. No doubt that also drove home to Jesus where his own journey was headed.

But instead of solitude, the crowds followed Jesus there. He had compassion on them. He healed the sick and fed the crowd. And then Jesus forced his disciples to leave. That might seem odd, but there's a detail Matthew leaves out in his short version of the story which John’s Gospel includes. After the miracle, the crowds wanted to take Jesus and make him king by force. This was not his place, of course, and perhaps Jesus got the disciples out of there for fear they might complicate this situation further. Then he dispersed the crowd.

Finally alone, Jesus did what he set out to do in the first place: He found rest and renewal. He went up into the hills by himself to pray. This was a regular pattern for Jesus. He regularly sought out times of solitude for prayer and to reconnect with the Father, often in nature. So Jesus spent the evening and most of the night in prayer.

This should be a pattern in our lives, too. Something I heard once that has stuck with me came from another pastor. He said that we should think of spiritual practice in terms of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. At least daily, we should read God’s word and spend time in prayer. At least weekly, we should worship and fellowship with other believers. At least monthly, we should engage in an act of service in the name of Christ. And at least yearly, we should leave our regular lives behind and seek a time of renewal that lasts more than one day. That could be a mission trip, a week at camp, a retreat, or something similar.

Meanwhile, the disciples were having a hard go of it. They were fighting a storm on the lake. The Sea of Galilee is about 700 feet below sea level. It’s quite warm there. But it’s surrounded by mountains that reach up to almost 4000 feet above sea level. During the day, warm air rises from the lake and then cools in the mountains. Once the sun sets, this cooling air can rush back downhill creating strong storms on the lake in the evening and night. The disciples are fighting to get the boat to shore.

About 3 AM, the fourth and final watch of the night by Roman reckoning, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. They are afraid, thinking he’s a ghost. Belief in ghosts was common in first century Judaism, even though their theology of death and resurrection really didn’t allow for such a thing. Ours doesn’t either, by the way.

Jesus says to them, “Fear not, I AM.” That’s a literal reading of his words. And of course, I AM is God’s covenant name in the Old Testament. We can, and I think we should, read this as a claim of deity.

Peter says, “If it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Now, there were some Old Testament miracles related to water. Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha all were part of miracles of water being parted. Elisha was part of one where an axe head floated. But only God could walk on the water. Job 9:8 says, “God alone has spread out the heavens and walks on the waves of the sea.”

Still, Jesus says to him, “Come.” And Peter gets out of the boat. As we meet Peter in the Gospels, it becomes pretty obvious that he is one of those people who often acts without thinking. And as such, he ends up in trouble. Perhaps some of you can relate. And that is the case here. He takes his eyes off Jesus, he realizes what he is doing, and he begins to sink.

He does the right thing at that point: He cries out to Jesus. And Jesus rescues him. As Psalm 18 says, “He rescued me. He drew me out of the deep waters.” They return to the boat, and the wind stops. Jesus is there, and there is peace.

The disciples worship him, something a good Jew would only do for God. “You really are the Son of God,” they exclaim. I’m not 100% sure of this, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus is described by the disciples as the Son of God. It makes sense, since he just did something only God can do: Walking on water.

How should we interpret and apply this story?

I think it’s fair to say that the most common interpretation is that Peter’s failure is that he takes his eyes off Jesus. If only he had kept his eyes on Jesus and not doubted, then he could have stayed on the water. Therefore the lesson is that if we have enough faith, we won’t sink in the storms.

But I also think that’s probably the wrong way to read this story. You see, the moment of doubt happens before Peter gets out of the boat. Jesus says, “Fear not, I AM.” And Peter says, “If it’s really you, tell me to come.” There are shades of Matthew 4:3 here. Matthew 4, where Jesus is in the wilderness, praying and fasting before he begins his ministry. And Satan says, “If you really are the Son of God.” “If it’s really you, tell me to come walk on the water.” But only God can walk on the water. Peter is putting Jesus to the test. It should be good news to see Jesus, but Peter doubts.

“If you have enough faith, you can walk on the water.” Faith does not set us free from the realities of this world. Even with faith, storms still come. Jobs are still lost. Acccidents still happen. Coronaviruses still spread in pandemic proportions. People still die. Even with faith. Faith is not walking on the water. Faith is believing God is still with us in the midst of the storm.

And the community of faith is also present with us. The disciples are in the boat. Why did Peter leave the boat? The boat is an ancient symbol of the faithful community, going all the way back to Noah and the Ark.

One of the old words for the “sanctuary” of a church is the “nave,” from the same word that gives us “navy,” boats. Most church architecture to this day mirrors the keel of a ship.

We are not alone in the storm. Jesus is with us, and so is the community of the faithful. Even if Jesus doesn’t calm the storm, he can still give us peace in the midst of the storm.

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