It started off as just a normal day. The teacher had spent the afternoon explaining some complicated lessons to his students, but now the day was almost over, and the teacher told the students that it was time for them to go. So, they hopped into a boat and started making the familiar journey across the lake that they had come to know so well. The teacher ended up falling asleep eventually; everything was peaceful. That peace didn’t last for very long though. The gentle breeze picked up and turned into a furious roar, waves crashed against the sides of the boat, nearly knocking them overboard. The students fought hard against the storm, but the longer it went on the more likely it seemed like they were going to die at any minute. They began calling out to their teacher, asking him what they should do…but he wasn’t answering. A quick glance to the back of the boat showed why. The teacher was sound asleep…just like he had been since they had pushed off from the shore. The students ran over to him, shaking him and yelling, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?!” This man opened his eyes and said, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then, he just stood up, looked at the wind and the waves and said, “Quiet! Be still!” And all was still. The students were dumbfounded. The teacher had just taught yet another lesson: that he is Lord over the wind and the waves. And this was a lesson that they’d never forget…Or was it?
In today’s gospel reading, we hear of something that happened not too long after this lesson that Jesus taught his disciples, another time where Jesus showed his power over nature and his power to save. We also hear of another time where his disciples were terrified. Do we ever fall into that same trap? That trap of letting fear threaten to sink our faith as it blinds our eyes that need only look to Jesus? I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never given into that temptation. In this account, Jesus is going to show us the foolishness of that. He’s going to show us why, even in the storms of life, we can look to Jesus with confidence. Don’t shake with fear, because the Savior is near. Look at Jesus.
The event that Matthew tells us about in his Gospel happened right after Jesus fed the 5,000 near the Sea of Galilee. When you think of that event, you probably remember how Jesus fed that massive crowd with just a few loaves of bread and some fish, or that there were so many leftovers after he had fed them that the disciples collected twelve basketfuls of scraps. The twelve had just been shown yet another lesson of the power that was in Jesus. Their confidence had to have been at an all time high! Then Jesus made them get into a boat and go on ahead of him to the other side of the lake. While the disciples did that, Jesus began to dismiss the crowds, and once he did that, he did what he’d wanted to do hours ago when he heard about John the Baptists death. He went up into the mountains to pray.
Meanwhile, the disciples were in some trouble out on the lake. They were pretty far from shore, way too far to consider turning back, and they were caught in another violent storm. The wind was blowing, and waves were crashing against the boat. At this point the Bible doesn’t tell us that they were afraid yet, but they definitely weren’t enjoying a peaceful journey. Then, during the 4th watch of the night – so between 3 and 6 a.m. – Jesus went out to them, walking on the water. As the disciples saw him approaching them, that’s when the Bible says they became terrified. They thought Jesus was a ghost walking on the water, and they became gripped by fear, and shaking they started to scream.
But they had no reason to be afraid. It was Jesus! He was right there. Even when he was up in the mountains while they were struggling against the storm, he wasn’t too far away from them. He came to them and immediately silenced their fears. When the disciples thought he was a ghost and started to scream, he didn’t let them tremble in fear for a while. He didn’t play with their emotions. He said – immediately – “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Aren’t there a lot of times in our lives where we need to hear those same words? When chaos hits, do we ever lose sight of our Savior who provides? Or do we ever forget everything that Jesus has told us and shown us about himself in his word and in our lives and become terrified instead of comforted? This makes me think of the prophet Elijah when he was at Mount Horeb. He had just defeated the prophets of Baal in spectacular fashion, God had just answered his prayer by shooting fire down from heaven! He knew that God was God! How could he not?! Yet where do we find him a short while later? Trembling in the mountains, doubting that he would want to see what God’s will for his life looked like, and saying, “Lord, I’ve had enough. Take my life.” And how did God respond to this? God showed Elijah that he can display his power and his love with a whisper, with a still small voice in the midst of chaos. And that’s what he showed his disciples on the lake so many years later. And that’s what he shows us. With that same still small voice he promises time and time again in his Word that he isn’t far from us. With that same still small voice he says, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” He says, “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” And he shakes us free from our worries and fear. And the source of that voice isn’t just some ghost, something that is there at one moment and vanishes the next. No. The same God who existed before creation, the same God who took on our flesh to dwell with us and to save us, the very same God who watches over everything from the throne of heaven, is the one who says that to you. You don’t have to shake with fear.
With those words, the fear that had been inside of Peter turned to peace. Maybe you’ve experienced that same feeling, where God’s Word and promises restore your confidence to you also, and you think that you’ll never stumble again! But sometimes, it doesn’t take long for us to fall back into the same fear that we’ve just been rescued from. In fact, sometimes no more than a few minutes go by before we lose sight of the Savior who’s rescued us. It certainly didn’t take long for Peter to return to the depth of despair.
His faith was riding high after Jesus assurance and that he didn’t need to be afraid. Full of confidence, he replied to Jesus, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus answered and said, “Come.” Taking Jesus at his word, Peter actually climbed down out of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. One word from his Savior was enough to move Peter to this firm faith! Except…he took his eyes off of Jesus. After a little bit his eyes turned from the Lord of heaven and earth to wind and the waves. And that paralyzing fear came back full force, that doubt burst back into his mind, and Peter started to sink. So he cried out, “Lord, save me!” And once again, immediately, Jesus responded. He stretched out his hand to save Peter, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And to cap off all of that, Jesus removed yet another reason to fear; when they got back to the boat, the storm stopped. At this, everyone in the boat recognized Jesus for who he really was – the Son of God. And he was standing right in the middle of them. Now their knees were no longer shaking with fear, but in awe. They reacted to these miracles and this realization by falling to their knees and worshiping the almighty God.
How could they have responded to this in any other way? It’s amazing that the God of the wind and the waves, this God who revealed himself to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee that night, loves us so much that he listens to our cries for help, that he does this even though we take our eyes off of him when we think we’re in trouble. Why would we want to look at anything other than the God who does all of that? Rather than focusing on the waves that are threatening to swallow us and drag us down, we can look at our Savior. And we don’t see him as a terrifying ghost like the disciples did when they saw him walking on the water. We see him as the God over all things, including our fears and doubts. But not only that. We see him as the Lord who – unlike Elijah, unlike those disciples, and certainly unlike us – never took his eyes off of his Father’s will, who came and stood in the middle of a bunch of terrified sinners, even though it meant pain and suffering and death for him, all so that he could answer the cry that we had been making ever since Adam ate from the fruit of that tree. We see him answering that cry throughout the Bible’s whole history of salvation. We see him reaching out and touching us with his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. We see his Holy Spirit marking us as his own dear child every time we think of our baptism. All of these things assure us that Jesus has heard and answered our own cry of “Lord, save me!” This is the Lord who left his heavenly throne to step into human history, to be born of a virgin, to defeat death by dying, to rise again, to burst from the tomb to show the world that the Father had accepted his sacrifice as payment for every single time we’ve taken our eyes off him, for every time he’s had to say to us, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” It is a small thing for this Savior to walk on the waters of whatever storm you’re going through, to reach out his hand and grab you when you think you’re beginning to sink, to anchor your faith with his unchanging Word. The God of the universe has compassion on you, and he is near.
So, what does this mean for us? After all, I don’t think that very many of us in here are expecting Jesus to ask us to climb out of a boat and walk on water. But what if he did? Could you walk on water if Jesus asked you to? What if he asks you to do something harder? Maybe he’ll ask you to experience a long-lasting illness. Maybe he’ll ask you to go through a battle with cancer. Maybe he’ll ask you to bury someone you love. Maybe he’ll ask you to have to courage to say, “I’m sorry.” Maybe he’ll ask you to have the strength to say, “I forgive you.” Some of these things can seem so much harder than walking on water. And on our own I guarantee you that we would fail. But look at who’s right next to you. It’s the same Jesus who was right next to Peter and the disciples that night on the Sea of Galilee. It’s the gentle whisper, that still small voice who continues to say time and time again throughout his Word, “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Let the winds blow. Jesus is near. Look at him. Amen.