When I was in Israel we went to a museum on the Sea of Galilee which displayed the famous “Jesus Boat.” They call it “the Jesus boat” but nobody claims
that Jesus had anything to do with that particular boat. It dates back to Jesus’ time, so it could very well have been just like the boats that Jesus and his disciples used to get around in.
It’s not very big really; about 27 feet long and less than 8 feet wide in the middle. It would not take much of a wave to give it a good ride. Apparently the disciples in the boat were having quite a ride that night. Matthew describes their situation with three descriptive phrases:
24 “… the boat [was] battered by the waves, …far from the land, …the wind was against them.”
Quite the description:
“Battered by waves, far from land, the wind against them,”
Life in our little boats
We meet the disciples out in that boat in challenging conditions several times in the gospels. I think the reason these episodes were so well remembered and so often recorded for us because they describe life so well. How often have you felt like you have been trying to keep your little boat afloat, far from the safety of a shore, battered by waves with the wind against you?
If you saw the film “Good Will Hunting” you will remember that’s exactly the scene that the Robin Williams’ character painted during his wife’s failed struggle to overcome cancer. He was all alone, out on the sea, in a little row boat, battling an enormous wave.
How did we get there?
How do you get out there in that situation? We all have our own launch reasons: loss of someone we loved, illness, signs of the breaking down of our mortal bodies, nearness of death, loneliness, family trouble. Whatever your reasons are, you have been in that situation in which you felt helpless and in trouble. Matthew captures it perfectly. We feel:
“Battered by waves, far from land, wind against us.”
And where was Jesus?
Though there are stories in the gospels of Jesus calming the storm, that is not what happens here. In this scene, Jesus is not in the boat asleep. Rather, the disciples are out there, alone.
Jesus has stayed behind on shore. He has spent the evening alone in prayer. If there is anything characteristic of Jesus it is that he was in conscious contact with his Heavenly Father.
23 “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,”
Noticing the contrast
I wonder if Matthew intends for us to see the contrast: Jesus in prayer, communing with his Heavenly Father, and the disciples out there on the see, blown and tossed about. Prayer did not spare Jesus from opposition, confrontation, and ultimately death. But Jesus is never in the boat in a panic, either.
I wonder what the experience of being in a wind-tossed boat would have been like for the disciples had they been nurturing their relationship with their Heavenly Father in prayer as Jesus did?
Some troubles we bring on ourselves, other troubles come all by themselves. Perhaps the kind of experience we have during those times, terror or assurance, has to do with the strength of our connection with the Father.
It’s a sobering thought. How are your spiritual disciplines? Are there changes you need to make before then next storm at sea develops in your life?
Walking without Footprints
Back to the story. The way Matthew tells this, realistic events fade in and out of heavily symbolic language. Jesus comes to them walking on the water.
25 “And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.”
Matthew tells it in a way that reminds his good Jewish readers of all the times in the Hebrew Bible God’s rescue, God’s saving actions, are described as God making a path to walk on in the middle of the sea. One example out of many will illustrate:
“Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” (Psalm 77:19)
The sea itself was often used in the Bible as a picture of a hostile, life-threatening place. It’s deep, it’s dark, it’s dangerous. If you are in it, you sink down and down with no foothold, nothing to grab. You sink down to the realm of death itself. Again, I think we have all been there.
Urgently needed words
So Jesus’ presence in the context of the waves and the wind changes everything. Jesus says urgently needed words:
27 “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Especially because of what we are going to be talking about a bit later, it is important to notice that Jesus’ presence and his words are not for condemnation or judgment. He does not blame them for being there in such a bad spot. He does not make them feel guilty for having gotten themselves into a bad situation. He comes with words of mercy and hope:
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus then says those famous words, “It is I” – echoing the words Moses heard at the burning bush where he came face to face with the presence of God. Yes, Matthew wants us to hear that echo: the presence of Jesus is the presence of God. There is reason not to fear; God is with us; Emmanuel!
Peter’s bright idea
But then the totally unexpected happens. Peter gets the idea that he should get out of the boat and come to Jesus directly.
28 “Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
At first, all goes to plan, but then, things change.
We used to go to a lake in the summer that had a long dock with a diving tower at the end of it. It was about 30 feet tall. From the top, as young kid, it looked
100 feet tall. I remember so clearly the first time I worked up the courage to step off the edge. As soon as I started plunging towards the water below I thought, “Now that was a mistake!” – but I could do nothing about it. I was on the way down.
Peter steps out onto the supportive water looking at Jesus, but then looks up at the wind and down at the waves, and says to himself, “Now that was a mistake.” But it’s too late. He goes in to a slow-motion sink.
On the way down he did what the people of God characteristically do when they get in trouble; he cried out to God.
30 “…he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
And of course, Jesus does save him; that’s what he came to do.
31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This is where we need to ask ourselves, “What does Matthew want me to get from this story?” Certainly that the presence of Jesus among us is the presence of God, yes. Certainly that faith, even in the context of experiences of fear and dread is possible. Certainly we are supposed to see that God is able to save us.
But there is one thing that needs to be noticed: Peter, and all the other men in the boat, were good Jewish people. They already believed in the God of Abraham. They were not pagans without faith.
Lots of people talk about God saving them as if it was something that happened once after an emotional experience of repentance. Turning to God in repentance is necessary, but Peter was not having a conversion. Peter was sinking; he needed saving – or rescue (it’s the same word) from the situation he had gotten himself into.
What do I need to be saved from?
I think we need to pause, and ask ourselves the question, as people of faith who often fail, what do we need saving from?
I need saving from all kinds of things, and I need that saving often, not just once.
I need to be saved from my selfishness. I need to be saved from my self-indulgence, from my apathy, from the way I can get all wrapped up in trivia. I need to be saved from my stinginess and my cynicism. I need to be saved from consumerism and escapism. I need to be saved from laziness and neglectfulness. I need to be saved from pettiness and from carelessness and from my faithlessness. In short, I need to be saved from myself.
How does the story end? Jesus did reach out and save Peter from the mess he made, but then what? He did not put him back in the boat for the sake of a pleasure cruise. Jesus had a mission for Peter, and for all the others.
Jesus has a mission for us as well. Yes he wants to rescue us from drowning in our own failure, but not so that we can have one more way in which to be self-indulgent. Jesus came to bring the reality of the Kingdom of God. He came to bring healing to the sick, food to the hungry, welcome to the excluded and to find the lost souls.
Now, we have been given the mandate to be agents of the kingdom of God in our world. We are to be the ones offering a hand to those who are sinking. We are to be the ones with the word of hope,
“Take heart, …do not be afraid.”
But to get in a position of being helpful to anyone else, first we need our own rescue. We are the ones who need to be saved. We are the ones who should be crying “Lord, save me” – save me from myself.”
He will; if we want him to. He is extending his had; take it!