A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
August 10, 2014
Psalm 85:8-13; Matthew 14:22-33
Let’s talk about something that has happened to just about every one of us, a common experience to which we all should be able to relate. You may take the same route to work or the grocery store or the bank every time you get in your car to run errands. But one day you see something – a building perhaps – that has never before caught your eye, and you say to yourself, “When did they put that there?” Oh, about fifteen years ago. For whatever reason, you had just never noticed it before.
That’s happened to me. Has it ever happened to you?
That’s the way the mind works. In fact, let me put it to you as something of a challenge. Whatever you do the rest of the day, or maybe this week, wherever you go – especially along the ways that are familiar to you – look at your surroundings with fresh and expectant eyes. Search for something that never before has caught your attention. My guess is you will indeed see something new, something you’ve never noticed before... right smack dab in the middle of the common, everyday experience that you’ve had so many times before.
You’re standing in front of your friendly bank teller. You’re a regular customer, to the point that you even know her name without having to look at the badge pinned to her blouse. But have you ever noticed that her eyes are green, or the beautiful ring she’s wearing, or that she’s left-handed? Sometimes preoccupation with other things – more often than not, ourselves – keeps us from taking notice of what is right in front of us. That’s the way it is with life.
And that’s the way it is with scripture. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on it, and know it by heart or are familiar enough with it that we don’t think it can possibly tell us anything new, some phrase or word, idea or image comes leaping out at us from the page. And God gives us a new secret we’ve never known before.
On your last visit to some particular passage from the Bible you discover something new... a nugget you had never noticed before, a thought that comes literally jumping out at you – to the point that you just can’t ignore it – an idea that is fresh and new and exciting.
If you have any affection whatsoever for reading scripture, my guess is that you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Did that happen to you this morning when we read from Matthew’s gospel? Has that ever been your experience, either at worship or during your private devotions? It happened to me earlier this week as I began thinking about this story, the one of Jesus walking on the water. However, my new discovery wasn’t about that part of the story. It comes earlier in the account.
This narrative of Jesus coming to the disciples in the midst of a storm at sea follows on the heels of the one that tells about Jesus feeding the multitudes. So let’s start with that. Once the meal is over – and we are told that from a meager bit of fish and bread Jesus feeds five thousand men plus the women and children who accompany them – Jesus dismisses the people to their homes.
No big deal. They’ve got to go home sometime, don’t they? But notice how it happens. First, Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go on ahead of him to the other side of the sea. He didn’t suggest that they do this, or request it. He didn’t ask if they’d be willing to leave. He made them go. That’s the word Matthew uses... in the Greek, of course. It is translated “constrained” or “commanded.” Like a military general, Jesus demanded that they get in the boat and head for the other shore. Another way of putting it is that Jesus dismissed his disciples. They really had no choice but to do what Jesus told them to do... i.e., to leave... now... do not pass go and do not collect your $200. Then he turns his attention to the crowds.
Matthew tells us, not once but twice, that Jesus dismissed the people. I wonder if the writer of the first gospel is trying to tell us something. And, I wonder how Jesus did it. Did he command the people to leave, as he did his disciples? After the disciples have pushed off from the shore, did Jesus raise his hand and say to the multitudes, “Okay, folks, time to go home.” Did he, like Dandy Don Meredith used to do on Monday Night Football when the outcome of the game was obvious, start singing, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over...”
How do you picture it? This is the way it comes to my mind... I can just see Jesus walking out among the thousands of people covering the landscape beside the sea, blessing them along the way. He’s not a military general – not now – he’s a shepherd tending to his flock...
Jesus looks at the tax collector who has brought his family with him to listen to the Nazarene’s teachings, and he says to him, “Go home now, and no longer defraud those who work hard in order to provide for their families and pay their fair taxes. You have enough. Be content with what you have.” He says to the soldier, “As much as is possible, be kind to those who are under your command.” He turns to the prostitute and says to her, “Your body is your temple, God’s holy creation. Treat it with respect and our Heavenly Father will bless you for it.” He says to the teacher, “You have the power to mold minds. Take seriously the responsibility that has been placed before you, for you will never know the power of your influence.”
And on and on Jesus goes, touching the children and blessing them, speaking to the people as only he had the authority and ability to do, reaching into their hearts and encouraging them specifically as to who they were and what they were doing in life. In my vision of what it meant that Jesus dismissed the people, it might have taken hours for him to do this. After all, we are told, there are thousands of them there by the sea.
That was the fresh, new insight that came to me as I read this familiar story again this week. Jesus didn’t just teach and feed the multitudes and then leave. He dismissed them in the grace of his heavenly Father. Now, it may not have happened the way I envision it. In fact, my idea of it might not even be close to the way it really was. But it does seem to me, according to the way Matthew frames this story, that Jesus went to great effort to dismiss first his disciples and then the crowds. And I can’t help but wonder why.
Why did Jesus do this... dismiss everybody and clear out the place? Evidently, it is because he wanted to be alone. As soon as the last person left the scene, we are told, Jesus climbed up the mountain “by himself to pray” (vs. 23). Eventually, darkness set in and he remained there praying... praying, praying. And all the while, his disciples, “far from the peaceful shore” are being met by a violent and ferocious storm.
Some of them were fishermen, so they’ve spent their lives in a boat. But they’re not used to this. Oh, they know how quickly a storm can come up, but most of their fishing is done fairly close to shore. When they spy an angry cloud formation coming their way, they can quickly haul in their nets and head to safety. That’s on any normal working day. This is something entirely new. They’re not used to being out in the middle of the sea where they are so vulnerable to a storm of this nature. This is an unfamiliar experience for them.
Have you ever felt, in your life, that when difficulties come it’s one step forward and two or three back? No doubt this is the way they are feeling just now. They’re making no progress at all. The wind is blowing them off-course – working “against” them, as Matthew puts it – and the water is coming into the boat. Some are rowing valiantly and others are bailing water. But the storm is winning, and things aren’t looking so good for the disciples of Jesus.
And it’s nighttime, don’t forget that.
Fred Craddock writes about this story, and what he says... well, I’ve just got to share it with you because it’s so spot-on. “Darkness exaggerates everything,” he says. “A hundred yards in the daytime looks like ten miles at night. If somebody you love is a hundred miles away, when night comes it seems a thousand. Night just does things. I used to come home from seeing a horror movie, and I could have sworn the telephone poles were moving, that they were coming behind me, and I could hear them walking faster and faster. But turn on the light, and we see it is not that way. ‘Mama, there is someone at the window!’ And Mama comes and turns on the light, and it is only the shrubbery rubbing against the screen. It’s okay. It’s dark.”1
They say it is darkest just before the dawn. That’s apparently about the time Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the sea. It is a frightening place and a frightening time. Any one of us would have been afraid under those circumstances. We might even, like the disciples, think that Jesus is a ghost.
I don’t know if I need to tell you this, but I think you can probably understand it, even if you don’t believe it. There are some folk who don’t think this story happened literally. In fact, there were Christian writers centuries ago who thought this was a bad dream of Simon Peter’s, and upon hearing about it Matthew turned it into a “so-tale,” as my grandmother used to say, in order to make his point.
I don’t know about that, but I do know this... Matthew is writing for people who are struggling, primarily about their faith. They’re rowing and bailing and for every step forward are finding themselves being pushed back two or three. Have you ever felt that way? Do you feel that way now? If that’s what is going on with you, my guess is that it matters little or not at all whether this actually happened just the way we are told. What matters is that Jesus comes to you in the darkest of the night, far from the peaceful shore, and lifts you up from the storm that is raging around you.
And my guess is that many of us, if not most, when life has gotten hard and like that wind is working against us, feel like Simon Peter. We have enough faith to get out of the boat, but not enough to sustain us on the choppy waters. “You of little faith,” Jesus says to Peter as he reaches down to take his hand and bring him up out of the sea, “why did you doubt?” That’s us! That’s us! We are so often weak of faith and overcome with doubt! Is there something here in this story that can give us hope, or maybe a way of living that sees us through the storms of life?
I think there is, and I doubt this is a new and fresh insight for us. We’ve known it all along, we have simply been resistant to it, perhaps. Notice that when Peter starts sinking Jesus doesn’t stop and pray for the ability or strength to pull him up out of the water. He just does it, to use one of Matthew’s favorite words and borrowed from Mark’s gospel, immediately. In fact, look at a number of the stories that depict Jesus’ healing ability, and you will find that rarely, if ever, does he stop first and pray before he performs a miracle. Why? Because Jesus has already prayed. It is the prayer before the storm that sustains and holds one up, not the prayer during the storm.
Jesus tells Simon not to be afraid, not to be doubtful. Chances are, he would not have been had he accompanied Jesus on that mountain, praying as Jesus prayed.
Think about it this way, if you will... Before Jesus came, there was little room in the life of faith for prayer. It was more a matter of animal sacrifice, of doing this and doing that, however the priest assigned it. Somehow, prayer – at least, personal prayer – wasn’t a vital part of the devotional mix. But Jesus of Nazareth provided a new model for those who would experience faith as he embodied it. No priest was necessary, no animal sacrificed on a temple altar. The only requirement was that all extraneous issues be dismissed from one’s presence so the only ones remaining were the person who prayed and the attentive God who would readily hear what the pray-er had to say.
Jesus, in other words, taught his followers how to “talk to God in a different way.”2
Has he done that for you? When the storms of life rear their ugly heads, are you prepared to meet Jesus because he has taught you to pray? That doesn’t mean the storms won’t come up. They most assuredly will. But it does mean, I think, as Vivian Greene has said, that “life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Lord, come to us and teach us how to be prepared when the storms come. And then, in your grace and mercy, show us how to dance. In Jesus’ name we ask it, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 32-33.
2Rowan Williams, “In the place of Jesus,” The Christian Century, August 6, 2014, p. 20.