St Michael’s 11th August 2013
Reading – Matthew 14:22-36
At last the day was drawing to a close. It had been a long, exhausting day, but one that we would never forget. As the throngs of men, women and children began to slip away into the shadows, you couldn’t help noticing the difference from when they had first arrived that morning. Then they had come in little groups, sad, quiet and hungry, desperate to find Jesus even in this most desolate of places. Now they were leaving with a buzz in the air and a spring in their step, excitedly talking about the one who had fed them so miraculously, and healed their sick.
As for us, there was so much we wanted to ask Jesus, but we were too busy gathering up the pieces of bread and fish that had been left behind, and handing them over to folk to give to the poor of their villages. When the last souls finally disappeared into the gathering gloom, we hoped we’d finally be able to put our questions to Him. But Jesus had other plans. He needed time to be alone with his Heavenly Father, to be still, to pray.
That was always the thing about Jesus. How can I put it? He always had this sense of connectedness, of being in touch with what the Lord wanted of His life. And although none of us were privileged to witness Him pray, we all knew how important He found the time alone away from the crowds, away even from us, on a mountain, or out in the desert. It was like He was tuning back in with the rhythm and music of heaven itself.
And what of us? Well, Jesus made it clear it was time to move on. So once again we went down to the shore of the lake and embarked into the boat. By now night had drawn in. There was the cool, stiff breeze of springtime and a hint of rain in the air. As we headed out onto the Lake of Galilee the wind picked up and the waves began to break against the bow. It was hard work making progress, and we all began to wish Jesus was with us. We remembered how on a previous occasion we had woken Jesus up and He had stilled the storm. We would have loved His calming influence with us now.
But we were alone, completely alone. I wonder, have you ever been in a situation where you suddenly felt isolated from anyone else and Jesus seemed to be far away? That was what it was like for us then. We had spent the whole day surrounded by crowds. We had seen Jesus perform the most amazing works of power. But come the evening, it was just us. No buzz of people rejoicing. No miracles. Just us against the waves, in the darkness of the night. It reminded me of the time before Jesus called me, when I used to wake up in the wee, small hours, and the real Matthew faced his fears – not the prosperous, smiling tax collector everyone knew, but the uncertain, lonely man who wondered if God would ever forgive him his many sins.
And so that night we slowly battled on. Time dragged, and many of us found ourselves dozing. Those of us who were awake reckoned we were reaching the fourth watch of the night, and we began counting down the minutes and the hours before the first light appeared on the horizon. And still we rowed on, aching, weary, exhausted.
Then suddenly all of us became completely alert. I cannot tell you how we knew, but all at once we realised we were not alone. It was hard to be sure exactly what we were seeing. But across the waves we heard what sounded like footsteps, the sort of noise you hear when someone is making their way across puddles or a stream. And as the sound came clearer, we realised there was a person making that noise. Someone or something was coming straight towards us.
Now I have never been a superstitious person. I have always laughed at people who frighten themselves silly with ghost stories and tales of the supernatural. But for a few brief minutes I could have believed every spooky story anyone ever told me. And the worst thing was, there was nowhere to run. We could feel the hairs on the back of our head rising, and our grip on the oars tightening. But what was about to happen, no-one could tell.
And then suddenly out of the gloom came that so familiar and so welcome voice: Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid. It was Jesus! Right at the point when we were most weary, and our fears were at their strongest, Jesus appeared. And I think, looking back, I began to understand just why Jesus sent us on ahead with the boat. He knew we were tired. He knew the wind would be against us. But He wanted to see if we would meet the situation with faith and prayer. And sad to say, none of us passed that test. We were too busy focused on our own state of mind and body. We had not really understood who Jesus was and the difference He makes.
Of course, you might well ask if it really was Jesus out there on the lake, or whether it was wishful thinking. Well, at times like this we could always rely on dear old Peter to remove any doubt from the situation. As we peered out into the darkness, trying to make out who was approaching, he called out “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Now I guess in the cold light of day that was quite a ridiculous thing to say. After all, it is one thing for Jesus to walk on water, quite another for any of us to do the same. As I believe you are in the habit of saying, don’t try this at home. But then, Peter always spoke first, and thought later. And it didn’t mean Jesus loved him any the less.
So with that gentle note of challenge Jesus simply took Peter at his word. And to give Peter his due, he did exactly as he was asked. He got up from the boat, and gently put his foot on the water. And like a baby learning to walk, for the first, few hesitant steps he actually managed to keep on the surface. But then a wave came rolling across, and the wind gusted, and suddenly the moment was past.
Now Peter was a fisherman. He knew the lake like the back of his hand. He knew all about the currents, and the depth of the lake. As the wave rolled over him, without thinking he cried out, “Lord, save me”. And you know what? At that point Jesus simply reached out his hand and lifted him up.
It was I think at this point we began to understand just why Jesus told Peter to come. Because it seems to me that without the persistence of faith all of us are one way or another a bit like Peter. We may not be in physical danger, indeed we may not seem to be facing any real threat at all. But if Jesus is not there directing our lives, then one way or another all of us are floundering in sin, and in danger of being overwhelmed by forces beyond our control. So long as Peter was looking to Jesus and obeying His command, he was fine. But the moment he looked to his own situation and saw his own inability to help himself, he started to go under. And I have to say, I know what that’s like: those times when I have stepped out in faith and then stopped trusting, when the obstacles I have been facing have seemed bigger than the God I worship, when I doubt the real difference Jesus is able to make in my life. I hate to say it, but there’s more of Peter in my life than I care to admit.
And although Jesus was rebuking Peter, I think his words were meant for us all: “You of little faith why did you doubt?” Why indeed? Why didn’t we believe when we were straining against the wind that Jesus was there? Why didn’t we recognise Jesus when He came to us across the water? Why did we stop looking at Jesus and start looking at the wind and the waves? Maybe it’s when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable that the Lord tests us to see what’s really in our heart, whether our natural instinct is to trust and obey, or to lose heart and go our own way.
So there we were in the boat, with Jesus coming towards us, leading Peter by the hand. And with no more effort than if they were climbing over a step they got in. And perhaps it won’t surprise you to know that at this point the wind died down. It was, you see, once we understood who Jesus was and what He could do that the situation changed. Jesus of course had the power to change the situation all along. But He wanted us to learn what believing and trusting Him really meant. It wasn’t just looking to Him to perform miracles when we wanted. It was about recognising His authority and His unique identity, and placing our very lives in His hands. So as soon as Jesus came into the boat, we worshipped.
Now you may say that was no big deal. Of course you’d worship if someone had just walked across water, helped someone else to do the same and oh, yes, stilled the wind and the waves. But remember what it was like for us at that point. We had been brought up to believe there was only one God, and that God alone was worthy of worship. For us there was no greater sin than to worship anybody or anything else. We certainly didn’t worship any old religious teacher or miracle worker or priest that came along. But when Jesus came into the boat, all we could do was bow our heads and worship. Because we knew. This Jesus was none other than God in human form. And as He came among us, all we could do was declare, “Truly, you are the Son of God”.
It would be nice to say that after this encounter my life changed forever, that from this point on I always, faithfully followed Jesus as the Son of God. After all, I seem to appear in many of your stained glass windows as this holy man with a halo round his head, as if I were really someone special. But let me tell you, even after this incident there were still times when we, when I, let Jesus down, really let Him down. Even now I still shudder to think how we abandoned Him when He needed us most, when He Himself was facing darkness and isolation and pain on the cross. We lost sight of Jesus that day and focused on the wind and waves of persecution instead, as if there was something we could do to guarantee our own personal safety.
Yet even then, even on that most tragic of days, there was someone who declared Jesus the Son of God that day. But it wasn’t any one of us. It was, of all people, a Roman centurion. So ironic, really, that someone who crucified Him confessed their faith, while we, his so-called disciples, had fled. Was there nothing we had learnt from that night on the lake?
And yet the reason I am telling you this, the reason why I am writing this gospel, is to show there is still grace and mercy available even to the most fearful, the most bewildered, the most inconsistent of disciples. Because this same Jesus – but now risen, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father – still bids us come to Him. And if we look to Him, and not to our own failure, or indeed to our own situation, we can learn the joy of walking towards Him, knowing that should we fall or stumble, His mighty hand is always there to pick up. You see, that, my friends, is grace. Always there. Always available. For you and for me.