The Gospel According to Jesus - Week Two: "Why Did You Doubt?"
Today we are continuing a sermon series that will take us through September as we explore the Gospel lectionary texts from Matthew.
This sermon series will take us through some of the key teachings and lessons from the life of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel—to hear the Good News directly from Jesus himself.
Many people in our current culture claim to speak for Jesus, yet when you hold up what they are saying next to the actual words of Jesus, it doesn't add up.
This is why it's so important to go directly to the source and read Jesus's stories and teachings. If we are going to call ourselves Jesus-followers, it makes sense to know what he wanted us to do to follow him more fully.
Today we will explore the story of the Apostle Peter and the time that he and the other eleven disciples were in a freak storm on the sea of Galilee, and Peter became only the second person ever to walk on water.
Jesus was the first, in case you were wondering.
But first, let me share a story of my rough and wild boat adventure with you.
Several years ago, my wife and I, along with our oldest son, went on a fishing trip with my father-in-law. Our boat wasn't small--it was like a 42-foot fishing boat--but the waves were at 8-10 swells on the way from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas.
At first, things were sort of okay, and then it got nasty quickly. I regretted everything I'd eaten for the past two days... let's put it that way. I soon found myself lying on the floor in the cabin with my face on the carpet, holding on to it for dear life.
Let me tell you, if Jesus had shown up walking on water at that moment, I would have totally launched myself off the side of that sucker and run out to him. But Jesus didn't show up, so I sucked the carpet for several hours and prayed for death.
Have you ever found yourself wishing you were braver? I certainly did on that day and on many other days since. So what keeps you from being brave? If most of us were being honest, the main thing that holds us back from being braver is a fear of failure.
We don't want to look bad. We don't want to fall flat on our faces. We don't want to appear weak or foolish... so we stay on the couch, embrace the carpet, and stand back when others are stepping forward...
The story we will be learning from today is how Jesus encouraged Peter to walk on water... and also how Peter started to sink under the waves once, he realized that he was actually walking on water.
But he was the only disciple to get out of the boat--as we will soon see. 92% of the other disciples remained right where they were. And so what I want us to learn today is this one simple truth:
WE SHARE THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS WHEN WE STEP OUT IN FAITH
We're going to be focused on the Gospel of Matthew chapter 14, verses 22-34, but our story actually begins earlier in the chapter. By the time we get to the moment Peter is stepping out of the boat to walk on water to Jesus, it has already been a big day.
Jesus and his disciples had received the bad news that John the Baptist had been executed by King Herod, so Jesus withdrew to a solitary place high above the Sea of Galilee. The crowds found him, though, and he ends up healing their sick and ministering to them.
Then, because they are hungry, he feeds them miraculously with five loaves of bread and two fish.
So, that was a pretty full day--but it got crazier.
Jesus tells the disciples to get in their boat and start heading back across the sea of Galilee and that he will meet up with them later. And so they dutifully obey, but a freak storm suddenly blows up, and they find themselves in danger.
22 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. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
The following is some information I gleaned from the interwebs on these storms.
Such storms result from temperature differences between the seacoast and the mountains beyond. The Sea of Galilee lies 680 feet below sea level. It is bounded by hills, especially on the east side, where they reach 2000 feet high. These heights are a source of cool, dry air.
In contrast, directly around the sea, the climate is semi-tropical with warm, moist air. The large difference in height between the surrounding land and the sea causes large temperature and pressure changes. This results in strong winds dropping to the sea, funneling through the hills.
The Sea of Galilee is small, and these winds may descend directly to the lake's center with violent results. When contrasting air masses meet, a storm can arise quickly and without warning. Small boats caught out on the sea are in immediate danger.
The Sea of Galilee is relatively shallow, just 200 feet at its greatest depth. A shallow lake is "whipped up" by wind more rapidly than deep water, where energy is readily absorbed.
A few years ago, a similar storm had tragic results in Branson, Missouri, with the duck boat that sunk during a freak storm with 60mph winds.
So the disciples are battling the wind and the waves and afraid for their lives--things are looking poor. Then all of a sudden, this happens:
25 Shortly before dawn 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.
Hey, you think you'd be all composed and stuff if you saw someone walking on water toward you? You'd think you were seeing a ghost, too. Don't judge the disciples.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
What Jesus says here is the Greek translation of the Hebrew declaration: I AM. When Moses asked God as he was standing in front of the burning bush, "What is your name, what shall I call you?" God replies simply, I AM.
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
When the disciples hear this declaration from their Master, Peter is the only one who rises up. Peter believes that as a true disciple, he should be able to do everything that Jesus does. That's what a disciple does, after all.
29 “Come,” he said.
And Jesus simply says to Peter, "Come." I love that, don't you? Jesus doesn't ask him, "Are you sure?" He doesn't ask him, "Do you know how to swim?" He doesn't try to qualify it at all, he just simply says, "Come."
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!”
As soon as he takes his eyes off of Jesus, and turns his gaze to the waves and to the impossibility of what he is doing, Peter begins to sink.
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
This is the lesson that is far too often conveyed by really poor preachers and theologians: It's your lack of faith that keeps you from being good enough for Jesus.
I think that Jesus was actually giving Peter props and was saying something like this to him, "Dude, you were so there! You almost had it, man--I believed in you. Way to try, brother!"
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.”
So the conventional wisdom is that when you are in a boat during a storm, you don't step out of the boat. You batten down the hatches, you hunker down, and you pray. You suck the carpet and wish you hadn't had all that bread and fish from earlier. But you don't get out of the boat.
But there is a hard and beautiful truth that you need to know when someone tells you that it's better to stay where you are:
You can't walk on water if you don't get out of the boat.
Peter's example teaches us so much about what it means to grow in our faith--to be the kinds of Jesus' followers who have an instinct to just scale over the side of the boat and out into the waves with Jesus.
First, we learn to step out in faith when we are willing to take risks.
This is a choice for us. We always have a choice between risk and comfort. Each and every day, we have to make these kinds of decisions. It's generally more comfortable for us when we stay with everyone else. And trust me, other people don't like it when we get up and start heading out into the waves because it makes them seem cowardly and small.
I once read that when fishing for crab, you don't have to have a lid on the bucket if there is more than one crab in the bucket. As soon as one crab is about to head over the side of the bucket to freedom, the other crabs will pull it back in.
So we have a choice when it comes to walking where Jesus is walking or staying in the safety of the boat, but that choice can have eternal implications for us and the world. John Ortberg once wrote:
“The decision to grow always involves a choice between risk and comfort. This means that to be a follower of Jesus you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life."
Second, we learn to step out in faith when we learn from our failures.
I've come to realize over the years that our current Christian culture doesn't really tolerate the idea of failure. The Church seems to want to stay right where it is.
I will never forget an evening I spent moderating the board meeting of a small, dying church a few miles from where I served as a pastor. They spent the first half of the meeting complaining about how they didn't have any money, no one was coming to church, they didn't have any young families, blah, blah, blah...
And then, the last half of the meeting discussed putting up a chain link fence around the church property because the local middle school students were tromping through the church on their way home every day.
I let the thing go on for a while---no one was disputing the need for the fence, just how to pay for it--and then I stepped in.
"You just spent the last hour bemoaning your fate---complaining that you don't have any families at your church anymore. And now you have kids who are invading your campus daily, and you don't want them there. Does anyone else see an opportunity here?"
That moment summed up so much of what is par for the course with most churches in America. They are afraid to step outside the box to reach people who aren't there because they are afraid of offending those who are.
And so they do nothing. And the beat goes on. And more and more people are losing their interest in church every year.
We need to change. We need to be unafraid of failure. We should do anything short of sin to share the good news of Jesus with a world that desperately needs to hear it.
Third, we learn to step out in faith when we focus on Jesus.
How often do we let our fears blind us to the holy, beautiful, and mysterious power of God all around us? We live our lives glued to tiny screens that hold 8-10 inches from our faces almost daily.
We walk around distracted, our heads filled with noise. Our eyes are glued to screens. When was the last time that you were just quiet and still? If you're like me it feels like you are doing something wrong if you aren't multitasking at every moment.
We don't have the time to simply sit in silence and be aware of the world around us, but we have time to chase internet videos of cats being scared by cucumbers for hours.
It's no wonder that only fear and anxiety seem to find their way through all of the noise. Calamity seems to be the only thing that gets our heads lifted up, but even then, we only see the power of the waves around us, not the power of the One who walks on them and calms them with a glance.
Speaking of storms... we are in a storm right now. The Church is at a crossroads.
Theologian NT Wright sums up the current state of our world like this:
"We have invented wonderful machines for making war, but nobody has found one that will make peace. We can put a man on the moon, but we can't put food into hungry stomachs. We can listen to the whales sing on the ocean floor, but we can't hear the crying of human souls in the next street." - N.T. Wright
So are we--as members of the Church--going to continue to cling white-knuckled to the past, to a world that no longer exists? Are we going to keep trying to create a space for us and for us, or are we ready for something bigger?
Do you want to stay in the boat, or would you rather step out onto the waves with Jesus?
WE SHARE THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS WHEN WE STEP OUT IN FAITH