Matthew 14:22-36: Stay in the Boat!

Sun, 28/01/2018 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Many of us know from experience that the waters of life are not always calm. Things can get decidedly choppy.

A number of us have had the experience of Jesus being with us and looking after us in the stormy times. But others would say that those times have been even harder because Jesus has felt absent.

Today’s Bible story is for everyone who’s known a season when their life is like rowing into the wind. And for everyone who will ever have such a season. Which means all of us.

This passage will help us trust Jesus in the seasons we most need to. It will help us think through what that trust looks like in practice.

But as we approach it, we need to be careful. I’ve heard talks that treat this story as an extended metaphor. I’ve heard the stormy lake as a metaphor for life’s difficulties. I’ve heard the boat as a metaphor for life’s comforts. I’ve been told that Jesus calls us out of our comfort zones, into the storms.

This passage is not first and foremost a story about your life or mine. It’s a story about Jesus. It does invite us to trust him. And parts of this story are symbolic of some of life’s pressures. But the invitation to trust Jesus flows from who we see him to be. So we need to look at Jesus. We need to ask what this story shows us about him.

Jesus: The God of Chaos

This story shows us different sides to Jesus.

We see him to be a human being with a unique relationship to God. He needed time to pray to God his Father. He needed time alone to pray.

So he sent his disciples across the lake on their own. They had a terrible night. Think how tired they must have been. They’ve just served lunch to some 20,000 people. That’s about one and a half thousand people each. Yes, Jesus made the bread, but they still had to hand it out. And gather up the leftovers, one heavy wicker basket each. Then when night came it wasn’t time for a sleep. It was a time to row.

But they found themselves battling a ferocious headwind. We’ve had some windy days the past few weeks. Have you ever been out walking on a windy day, and found yourself walking straight into the wind. It’s exhausting. Now try rowing instead of walking! They were at it all night, because the final scene of this story began sometime after 3am, the fourth watch of the night.

If only Jesus had been with them. They’d been in a violent storm once before, recorded back in chapter 8. That time Jesus was with them, and he spoke to the wind and the waves, and all went calm. But that is a distant memory now. Jesus is a distant memory. Where’s he got to when they needed him the most?

And then the answer comes to them out of the gloomy light just before dawn. They weren’t expecting to see a figure walking towards them on the surface of the lake. They had heard rumours of ghosts on the lake, fishermen who had drowned come to haunt those who now sail its waters. A bad night had just got worse. Now they’ve not only got a vicious headwind to content with; they’ve got ghosts!

Until the ghostly figure speaks to them, in a voice that is strangely familiar. In verse 27, he tells them to do two things. Number one, “Take courage!” Number two, “Don’t be afraid.” And the reason why they can do these things comes in the short sentence sandwiched in the middle. “It is I!”.

That may be all it means. “It’s me, Jesus!”. But the exact words used are actually just the two simple words, “I am”. “Take courage! Don’t be afraid!” Why? “I am”

In the Old Testament, God gives us a number of names to call him by. But a big one is simply “I am”. God sends Moses to the Israelites to tell them that he’ll rescue them from their slavery in Egypt. “Suppose they ask who sent me to them. What shall I say?” God’s answer: “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent me to you.”

That name for God comes back a number of times. And then we find Jesus on the lake. “Take courage! I am. Don’t be afraid.”

There are other Old Testament references coming into play here. In particular, I’d like you to turn to Job chapter 9. It’s on page 515. Job is describing God. I’ll read from verse 4: “His wisdom is profound, his power is vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed? He moves mountains without their knowing it and overturns them in his anger. He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble. He speaks to the sun and it does not shine; he seals off the light of the stars. He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.”

There are other Old Testament passages that speak of God stilling the waves of the sea. We looked at those when we looked at the earlier miracle of Jesus calming the storm.

There are also other Old Testament passages that speak of God passing through the sea, but that may refer to miracles where God parted the waters so his people could walk across on dry ground.

Job chapter 9 uses very particular language. “He alone … treads on the waves of the sea.” It’s quite specific. God is pictured to be walking on top of the waves.

What’s more, in the Old Testament, the sea is frequently used to symbolise evil and chaos. And when the waves of the sea are churned up and stormy, that is a picture of the forces of chaos raging. Don’t turn there, but Job chapter 38, verse 11, has God saying to the sea: “This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt.”

So Jesus comes to his disciples, treading the waves. There’s only one conclusion. Here is God on earth. Here is one who can walk over the top of the chaos. Here is the God of chaos, the one who controls the storms, who sets boundaries for even the most violent storms of life.

Here is Jesus. The great “I am”. The wave-walker. The God of chaos.

And so the climax of the story comes in verse 33. Let me read from verse 32: “And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

That’s the only conclusion to reach.

Jesus: The God Who Protects

Now we can return to think about how this Jesus might look after us.

This story is a massive reassurance. It shows us a Jesus who is in control of anything we might face. No matter how chaotic or out of control life feels, he is more powerful than the storms.

Why does he not stop the storms before they hit us? Why is he not with us in the boat at those times when we most need him there?

Some of you may have come across a poem called “Footprints”. It pictures someone looking back on their life as a Christian. They see two pairs of footprints behind them on the beach. Theirs, and Jesus’. But then they see that during the hardest times of life, there was only one set of footprints. So the person asks Jesus where he went during those tough times. And the answer comes back that this was then he carried them.

It’s a lovely thought, and there is some truth in it. It may be what’s going on behind the scenes, but for some people the comfort it offers feels hollow. Because it’s not how life felt in those times. Ask the disciples. Two sets of footprints through the Galilee region. Theirs and Jesus’. And then they hit the storm and the wind on the lake, and there was only one set of prints. Why? Jesus had vanished! He was on the hillside praying while they were straining at the oars.

Jesus let the disciples go across the lake by themselves. He knew what they would face. They had no need to be afraid. “It is I!” I am. He would walk to them across the sea, across the top of the waves, and bring order to the chaos. He had the situation all the time. But before he did that, they went through a period of being alone and frightened.

He does not tell us why he did that. Just as he does not always tell us why some impossibly difficult times come our way. He does tell us that he is fully in control, that he will reign in the chaos in his own time. He does tell us that we can trust him, rely on him. That we can take courage. That we don’t need to be afraid. Because he is “I am”.

Jesus doesn’t only take care of his people in this life. The biggest enemy will all face is death. That is the big wave that threatens to completely engulf us and take us down.

There are two moments in Matthew’s gospel when a human being says what the disciples say in verse 33. One of those moments is here: “Truly you are the Son of God.” Their understanding was still developing. There was much they didn’t understand. Maybe they meant little more than: “We can see you’re no ordinary human being.” But they still said it. “You are the Son of God”.

The other comes as Jesus takes his last breath on the cross. The Roman centurion overseeing things had seen many people die. It was his job. But there was something different about this man. And so he exclaims: “Surely he was the Son of God”. Again, we don’t know how much he understood. Possibly nothing more than “I can see was no ordinary human being.” But still he said it: “He was the Son of God.”

By recording these two speeches, Matthew draws these stories together. We go through many storms in life. The decisive moment when Jesus comes to us in the storm is the moment he hung in darkness on the cross. That was when he allowed the waters of our own sin and darkness to engulf him. And yet that was the moment when actually he conquered death, rather than death conquering him. It turns out he was walking on top of the waves once again. Which is why he came back out of the tomb three days later, triumphant over sin and death.

Jesus is able to see us through the biggest storms we will ever face in our lives. Including the biggest storm of all, our own death, and the judgement day beyond.

But for the time being we have to trust him. Those storms may feel all-consuming, and he may feel absent, but he speaks to us: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Jesus: No Need to be Reckless

Before we leave this story, it’s got one further lesson for us.

It protects us against misunderstanding what it means to trust Jesus through the storms of life. This story warns us not to be reckless.

Matthew records one detail that Mark and John do not include in their accounts. Let me read verses 28 to 31:

“‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’ ‘Come,’ he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”

This is a detail that has fascinated readers down the years.

We need to ask whether what Peter does is an example to us, or a warning.

Many people are drawn to the idea that Peter is an example. Whole books have been written on the fact that we need to get out of the boat. Get out of our comfort zones. This story has even given us a phrase in the English language, when we talk about the need to step out in faith.

Certainly, Jesus does tell Peter that his problem was that he lacked faith. The implication is that if he had had more faith, he would have managed to walk on the water. If he’d kept his eyes on Jesus, and not let the scary wind catch his attention, he’d have done it. And even on the water, Jesus kept him safe. When he began to sink, Jesus grabbed him, and all was well. Peter lived to tell the tale.

But that doesn’t mean he was right to get out of the boat in the first place. He put himself in considerable danger. If he had any doubts as to whether this really was Jesus, getting onto the water himself was the last thing he should have done! If this had been a ghost, that ghost would just have enticed him to his death!

It’s true that Jesus trained his first disciples to do the same miracles he had been doing. But Jesus’ miracles were never just conjuring tricks. He didn’t just do amazing things to wow the audience. His miracles revealed who he really is, but that was never why he did them. He did them to help people. So Peter and John were also given powers to heal the sick, to cast our demons, and so on.

That is especially true with the miracles where we see Jesus’ authority over nature. These were never raw displays of power. They were always done because somebody needed help.

So it is here. Why did Jesus walk across the water? Because the disciples were in difficulty in the boat, and he was far away on the shore. Peter was not doing the same miracle Jesus had just done. If there had been a second boat that needed help, and Peter had walked across to help them out, then that would have been different. But there wasn’t. He just stepped onto the sea for the sake of it. Maybe he was testing out whether he could. Maybe he was testing whether this really was Jesus. Or perhaps it was his boyish streak coming through – he saw his chance to have a fun experience, and he just couldn’t resist.

When the disciples took Jesus into the boat, they were trusting him. When Peter got out of the boat to walk to Jesus, that wasn’t trust. That was sheer recklessness.

And his adventure did not end well. He ended up having to be rescued. The person who walked across a frozen lake may boast that they had a great time and lived to tell the tale. But not if they fell through and had to be rescued. That’s not a boast. It was reckless. It was nearly a tragedy.

There’s trusting Jesus to see you through the inevitable trials of life. But then there’s deliberately putting yourself in harm’s way, knowing he can look after you.

Do you remember when Jesus was tempted in the desert, Matthew chapter 4. What did the devil say to Jesus? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you,  and they will lift you up in their hands,  so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus sent the devil away with a flea in his ear, and a verse from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

And neither must we.

So one person thinks they should quit their job. There’s no moral reason why they shouldn’t keep doing what they’re doing. They haven’t got a new job to turn to. But they’ll do it, because Jesus will look after them.

That’s not stepping out in faith. Faith is deciding that we’ll treat God’s promises at face value. We live on the basis of what God has said, we’ll take him at his word. But God has not made any promises that your job is like a London bus. You can’t just get off one in the knowledge that another will be along in a minute. This isn’t stepping out in faith. It’s recklessness, and Peter is a warning not to be reckless.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for people taking great risks for God. That’s a good thing. Jesus had strong words for the man in the story who just hid his investment in the ground and did nothing with it. But that is not a call to be reckless, to put ourselves in harm’s way, having said “catch me if you can” before we jump.

Peter lives to tell the tale. Jesus will look after us through all the storms of life. He’ll even look after us if we sometimes put ourselves in harm’s way. That’s a good thing, because we’re all foolish on occasion, and we don’t want Jesus to refuse to help because we were our own worst enemy. But let’s not give him too many occasions to have to bail us out.

Conclusion: Trust him

Life can be very stormy. This story is a story all about Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, who walks on top of the waves, who holds life’s chaos in his hand, who can be depended on absolutely.

So trust him. Put your life in his hands, and he’ll look after you. Put your death in his hands, and he’ll look after you then, too.

If he’s given you a safe boat to be in, don’t get out of the boat. But there’s no need to stay on the shore either. We can embark on life, with all the winds and the storms that will come, knowing that we are going through it in the hands of the one who walked on the water, who stilled the waves, who controls the winds.

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