Psalm 77:1-20; Matthew 14:22-33
‘Jesus Walks on Water’, by Laura James, 1998
Of course, every generation, every society, has its own defining moments. For the ancient Israelites, the exodus was a major one. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for centuries until the Lord used Moses and his brother Aaron to rescue them. And the way the Lord rescued his people—a series of extraordinary events culminating in the Red Sea parting to ensure the Israelites’ escape—was so mind-blowing that it etched itself onto the collective memory of the people. It became a defining moment for all subsequent generations. To this day, Jews around the world remember the astonishing events of the night the Lord rescued the people of Israel from Egypt.
This is also why so many Old Testament passages, including today’s psalm, Psalm 77, make use of exodus imagery when asking the Lord for help.
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;I will remember your wonders of old. . . .With your strong arm you redeemed your people,the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. . . .When the waters saw you, O God,when the waters saw you, they were afraid;the very deep trembled. . . .Your way was through the sea,your path, through the mighty waters;yet your footprints were unseen.You led your people like a flockby the hand of Moses and Aaron.
A few weeks ago, Janice preached on Matthew 8, where Jesus calms the storm. You’ll recall that the disciples were literally all at sea in the middle of a storm, but Jesus commanded the storm to stop, which it did. As Janice said, the natural message for us to take from this is that Jesus can calm the storms of our circumstances as well as the storms in our hearts. Jesus brings that calming peace we all need when the storms of life threaten to capsize and drown us. It’s a good message, a vital message, for us all at the moment.
But what happens when Jesus doesn’t calm the storm? What happens when the storm rages on all around us, when our fears and anxieties about the coronavirus or about anything else have such a grip on our hearts and minds that all our thoughts and emotions are mixed up, churning away in our stomachs? What happens when we pray for people to get well, for people not to lose their jobs or homes, for food supplies not to run out, and, above all at the moment, for the coronavirus to stop spreading and die out—and still the disease spreads, knocking down anyone who gets in its way? What then? Enough people are praying for these things, so why is God not doing anything about it? As Psalm 77 puts it, has the Lord’s ‘steadfast love ceased forever? . . . Has God forgotten to be gracious?’ It’s all so different now, the psalmist complains. God worked wonders in the past; God marched ‘through the mighty waters’ with footprints unseen; so why isn’t God doing anything now?
Today’s reading from Matthew offers us some encouragement and hope. As Janice reminded us a few weeks ago, Jesus had already calmed a storm to save the disciples from a watery grave; but in today’s reading from Matthew 14, the disciples are once again in stormy seas. Verses 24-25 suggest to me that this situation was not quite as bad as the earlier one, but it still seems pretty full on. And no doubt the disciples, some of whom were experienced fishermen and so used to sailing in choppy waters, were cold, wet, fed up, and absolutely knackered. No wonder, then, that they freaked out when they saw a human figure approaching them in spite of the atrocious weather. ‘It’s a ghost!’ What else would they have thought? The disciples weren’t idiots; they knew people couldn’t walk on water; and so, quite naturally, they were terrified.
We read that Jesus tells the disciples who he is straightaway; I suppose he didn’t want them to be scared, and certainly not scared of him. And so he says, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
The Bible translation we use obscures something important here. Jesus isn’t just saying, ‘Don’t worry—it’s me, folks!’ The actual words are ‘I am’—and this simple phrase again recalls the exodus story, where the Lord reveals himself to Moses using the words ‘I am’. It’s no coincidence. The God who called Moses and freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt by walking them through the Red Sea and treading with footsteps unseen is also the God made flesh in Jesus Christ and walking towards the frightened disciples on the stormy sea. ‘Take heart, I am; don’t be afraid.’ The disciples saw Jesus and heard God.
But notice: the storm is still going on. Whereas earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus calmed the storm, here, in Matthew 14, Jesus doesn’t calm the storm but lets it rage on. Jesus’s concern is to comfort the disciples with his presence. And that is enough, it seems, for these men.
But is it enough for us today, especially given the coronavirus storm all around us? Well, yes, it is enough, for Jesus is with us now and always, if only we would listen for his comforting words and accept his tender embrace. But no, it is not enough, for we know Jesus is the God who can command storms to stop as well as walk on squally seas. So why does Jesus calm some storms but not others?
I’d be lying if I said I knew. Jesus is Lord, not me. I simply need to remain faithful and committed to Jesus, trusting that he knows what he’s doing even when things all around me are rough. Perhaps this is why Matthew includes this little story about Peter. It seems Peter wants to be like Jesus, walking on the water; and Jesus commends Peter for this, calling him forwards. Peter starts well: presumably his eyes are fixed on Jesus, trusting that the Lord has everything in hand. But then, suddenly, perhaps realising the absurdity of what he’s doing, Peter loses focus, allows the storm to overwhelm him, and begins to sink.
‘Lord, save me!’
I’m sure we can all identify with Peter here, and perhaps even more so at the moment. The obvious message here is not to let the surrounding winds and waves and rains obscure our vision of Jesus.
But what else can we say? First of all, if we’re wondering where God is at the moment, or what God is doing, or why God is taking so long to do anything decisive about the coronavirus or anything else that might be bothering us, then let’s be aware that these sorts of questions have always troubled God’s people. And we don’t have to put on some kind of spiritual gloss on our worries. If you are scared or anxious or angry—tell God! So many psalms have a real go at God, almost demanding to know why God isn’t doing anything about anything, especially when God has done spectacular things in the past. Remember Psalm 77, verse three: ‘I think of God, and I moan’. Many psalms, like Psalm 77, are a gift, helping us pray when things aren’t right and God seems far away.
Second, when Jesus doesn’t calm our storms, he is certainly there with us, for he is Lord over everything, including the coronavirus, and comforts us and encourages us with his words and presence. We don’t know why he allows some storms to continue while others go away quickly; that’s something each of us needs to wrestle with for ourselves; but we can trust that God in Christ is with us by God’s Holy Spirit, encouraging us with God’s presence so we needn’t be frightened and terrified.
Third, Jesus’s faithfulness to us in our storms means that we can be faithful to Jesus, that we can walk on water even as he walks on the chaotic sea. Jesus still calls us to be his disciples, even though the coronavirus and the lockdown have radically changed the way we follow him. And whether we sink or stay upright is up to us, though Jesus is, of course, ready to grab us should we lose heart.
And finally, notice that we don’t know how far Jesus was from the boat; he may have been very close; he may have been quite distant, though within the disciples’ earshot. And because of this, we don’t know how far Peter walked on stormy waters. It may have been a step or two, or it may have been far longer, even quite a few metres. My point is this: we don’t know how long storms will last or how far we will have to walk in them. But we do know that when Jesus finally gets into the boat with us, the winds and the waves and the rains will cease, and all our fears will give way to worship.