Walking on Water
Pentecost 11A Matthew 14:22-33
The word, “miracle,” and the experience of the miraculous, is in no way confined to Biblical times or the first century. The word, “miracle,” and the experience of the miraculous, is very much part of our modern world and our everyday lives. In spite of all the technological advances and scientific sophistication that is part of the modern world, the word, “miracle,” is still very much part of our contemporary vocabulary and the experience of the miraculous is very much part of our everyday lives.
Let me illustrate. You open the refrigerator door and you pull out a jar of Miracle Whip, a mayonnaise that spreads so nicely across your bread. Or you pull out a small, flat bag and put it into the microwave, and “wallah!,” it puffs up and you have instant popcorn, and you say, “What a miracle!” ..... You go out to the garden and you pour Miracle Grow onto your plants and they flourish so splendidly, thanks to Miracle Grow. ... A rocket is shot up into the air and a man for the first time plants a footprint on the moon, and everybody called it a miracle. ... It wasn’t that many years ago that penicillin was discovered and everyone called it a miracle drug. Soon after that, in the early 1950s, Dr. Salk discovered the Salk vaccine to vaccinated against polio and all of our parents said it was a miracle, that children didn’t have to fear polio any more. And recently, the smallpox vaccinate was given to children throughout the whole earth and there is not one case of smallpox anywhere on the globe and everybody would agree that is a miracle. And when a vaccination or the equivalent is discovered for cancer or cancers, the headlines will shout for joy: “Miracle drug found for cancer!” ... There was a car accident the other day and the body of the car was totally smashed, and those who saw the car exclaimed: “It is a miracle that anyone came out of that car alive.” ... Births and adoptions often evoke the word, miracle. A baby is born, and the parents almost automatically say, “This is a miracle,” and the parents who have been struggling with infertility for five, ten, or fifteen years, when their child is born, truly believe that their child is a miraculous gift from God. My wife and I can personally vouch for such feelings. And when parents adopt a child e.g. Pam and John Korn who recently adopted their son, Evan, from Russia, having gone through several different possibilities of different children from their Russian adoption agency, firmly believe that Evan’s adoption into their home is a miracle. You could not convince them otherwise.
What I am suggesting to you is that the word, “miracle,” and the experience of the miraculous is not confined to Biblical times and the first century; but that the word, miracle, and the experience of the miraculous is interwoven throughout our modern lives. We use the word, “miracle,” all the time.
A miracle? Miracles aren’t necessary Biblical magic which confound the mind such as the body levitating or floating in air; or the magic of a shorter leg miraculously stretching out three or four inches. The focus of miracles isn’t on some magical voodoo or natural laws that have been violated. Rather, a God given miracle is a series of events and the timing of events in such a way that convince us that God has intervened in our lives. The result of such miraculous intervention is the experience of awe and adoration. That is, we go “wow!” and then we worship God in thanksgiving for the miracle.
For example, a man goes in for a heart bypass surgery because of a blockage in his arteries, and he receives a double bypass for which he is grateful to God and the doctors. But another man goes in for an angiogram; they take only one picture of his arteries and he begins to have a heart attack on the table. Instinctive fear takes over; he feels sharp pain in his heart like he has never felt before and he overhears the doctor’s intense conversation as they go to work to calm his heart down. He thinks life is over. A surgeon is immediately found and an emergency bypass is done; and when the patient wakes up several hours later and is alive and comprehends what happens, says “That was a miracle. That I am alive is a miracle. I was a walking time bomb and to have a heart attack on the operating table. The timing couldn’t have been better. Incredible.” That’s what David Head said to me last night, twenty-four hours after what happened to him, and if you know David, you know he is the consummate rationalist, the scientific thinker…who believes he experienced God’s miraculous intervention in his life.
It was the sequence of events and the timing of events; having an angiogram, a heart attack on the table, a surgeon immediately available; and David was convinced that God intervened in his life. David’s response is awe and adoration, wow and worship to God. You will not convince David otherwise.
What I am suggesting is that the word, “miracle,” and the experience of the miraculous is very much part of our modern lives, even in a scientific age. What I am suggesting is that our intuitive definition of a miracle isn’t so much “magic happened” or natural laws were violated; but that the sequence of events and timing of events convince us that God has intervened and saved us or helped us. And miracles are very much part of our lives.
It is with this understanding that we approach the miracle story for today, Jesus walking on the water.
We need to create the setting. The setting is the same as for the sermon last week. It was springtime in Israel. The winter rains had come and the hills were green and lush in March and April. It was religious time in Israel, the time of the Passover. That meant a holiday from school, a holiday from work, packing up the donkey and heading to Jerusalem for a religious trip.
It was tragedy time in Israel; John the Baptist, their great prophet and moral visionary, had been assassinated by King Herod and everyone was stunned by this tragic, shocking event. As a nation, they were grieving, and so was Jesus.
And it was popularity time for Jesus. That is, his miracles and teachings had created notoriety and large crowds were following him like masses of young people follow a rock star.
In Matthew’s gospel, we have seen Jesus do several miracles in a row. Jesus stilled the storm on Lake Galilee and this demonstrated his power over nature. Jesus then raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead which demonstrated his power over death. Jesus cured the sick, demonstrating his power over disease. He caste out demons, showing his power over the demonic. And in the previous story, he has just fed five thousand men plus women and children with five loaves of bread and two fish. In other words, the miracle of the walking on the water occurs immediately after all these other miracle stories in the Gospel of Matthew.
And Jesus, after feeding the five thousand, Jesus sent the crowds home and the disciples out in a boat in Lake Galilee, a large lake, eight miles wide by thirteen miles long. Jesus himself went up into the hills to pray. Meanwhile, a vicious storm came up on the lake; the waves were enormous as the disciples were rowing in the middle of the storm in the middle of the night. It was about three o’clock in the middle of the night, and the disciples were frightened, terrified, by the storm. Suddenly, Jesus appeared to the disciples, walking on the water. The Bible says that the disciples were frightened, terrified, crying out, utterly astounded by what they saw, as if they were seeing a ghost. Their reaction wasn’t, “There is Jesus, just like we expected, walking on the water. He must be God,” No, they were frightened, shocked, and terrified by what they experienced.
And so are you and I when in those particular moments in life we are convinced that there is a God, that God is real, that God is truly God, and sees every movement of our lives. There are times when we finally and really believe in the existence of a personal God, and we are frightened about the last judgment, the possibility of eternal judgment, the reality that God has seen everything we have done and thought, and our reaction is to be frightened at the very thought of the reality of God, saying to ourselves, “O my God, am I in big trouble now.” Yes, people are frightened when we finally are convinced of the reality of God, the reality of a personal God.
And Jesus, seeing their fears, said to them, “Do not be afraid; it is I.” And so also, God seeing our fears and insecurities, says to us: “Don’t be afraid of me. Do not be afraid.”
And then Peter, being brave of heart or a bit foolish, asked, “Jesus, can I come onto the water?” Jesus said, “Come,” Peter came and he kept his eyes focused on Jesus, on the face of Jesus, on the eyes of Jesus, on the presence of Jesus; and then suddenly his eyes were diverted and he focused on the wind, on the water raging about him, on the storm; and doubts overwhelmed him and he started to sink, crying out, “save me.” And Jesus, immediately, not waiting for five seconds or five minutes to teach Peter a lesson; immediately, the Bible says, Jesus reached out to Peter and saved him. And when they got into the boat, the storm calmed and the disciples were in awe, in fearful reverence of Jesus, and they worshipped him as the Son of God; they praised him in thanksgiving for saving them.
Not being able to explain what happened or how it happened, those disciples believed that they had experienced a miracle; that the sequence of events and timing of events convinced them that God, that Christ, had intervened and saved their lives. And what was their reaction? The experience of awe of holiness. And then worship him in thanksgiving. They concluded: truly, Jesus is the Son of God.
A few comments.
When we experience a miracle in the Bible or in real life, we often want to explain what is unexplainable. And so we rationalize and intellectualize, trying to figure out what happened. We think like Greeks. For example, we try to explain the walking on the water.
You perhaps have heard this joke. I have a thousand times. A rabbi, a priest and a Lutheran pastor were fishing in a boat together, not far from land. The rabbi used up all his bait, noticed a bait store a short ways away, got out of the boat, walked on water to the bait shop, returned the boat, walked back on water and started fishing again. A short time later, the priest ran out of bait, walked on water over to the bait shop and back again and started fishing. Then, the Lutheran pastor ran out of bait, had a look of doubt on his face, stepped out of the boat and sank. The rabbi and priest said: “Hey, dummy, don’t you know where the reef is?” ... What a sick joke. It’s a groaner. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times. It is the kind of joke that church members love to tell their pastor.
And behind that joke, there is the rationalization; the attempt to explain how Jesus walked on water. He walked on a reef. Jesus knew where the reef was and Peter didn’t and sank. Or some commentators will suggest that the Greek language implied that Jesus walked “beside the water,” and the disciples thought he was walking on water. The disciples couldn’t clearly see in the storm and Jesus was walking beside the water, not on the water. These are attempts to rationalize, to explain, to think like a Greek, and ask “how did this happen.”
But what I am suggesting is that something happened that night that we and they don’t quite understand, but in the sequence of events and in the timing of those events, they experienced the miraculous saving power of God in their lives.
That’s the miracle, theexperience of God’s intervening and saving Presence in their lives.
It’s not the magic; it’s not the proving how it happened. That’s the wrong focus. What I am suggesting to you in that the disciples were in a boat in the middle of a ferocious storm and were scared spitless that they were going to die; that Jesus came to them, walking on the water and saved them. They were awestruck by what they experienced, encountering the holiness of God, and then they worshipped Christ as the Son of God in appreciation for what he had done for them. They couldn’t explain it; anymore than we can explain miracles that happen to us.
I tell the following story with Carolynn Spies’ permission. It was twenty two years ago that daughter, Julie, was born with severe cardiac defects and the Spies were told that baby Julie would never leave the hospital alive. I went down and baptized Julie there in the hospital. Well, Julie did come home. Grandma told Gary and Carolynn that she would pray for Julie’s healing; that Grandma would get all the prayer groups she knew to pray for a miracle for Julie. Gary and Carolynn, being devout, rational, Christians, told Grandma she didn’t need to do that; that God knew their daughter’s need. They had religious conflicts with Grandma who was too pushy in prayer for their religious style of beliefs. Well, there were a thousand trips to the hospital, and when Julie stood before the congregation yesterday as the maid of honor at a wedding, twenty two years later, still occasionally blue from lack of blood and still needing oxygen supplements, as Julie stood before the congregation yesterday in her pale blue dress, looking so beautiful, all who knew her thought to themselves, “That is a miracle, Julie standing there today.” And the issue wasn’t trying to explain how it happened; where the rocks were; where the reef was; trying to figure out how it happened. Rather, the focus was on the awesome presence of God who had worked a miracle of healing, and all were deeply thankful to God.
The focus of the miracle wasn’t the walking on water; it was the saving of Peter and the disciples in the midst of disaster. The focus of the miracle wasn’t the surgeries and the blood transfusions; the miracle is that Julie is miraculously still alive. Praise God!!!
I am always amazed at the large number of people who tell me that they are a “walking miracle;” that God has intervened and saved them, rescued them, healed them, strengthened them for some tragedy; that they could have made it without God. I hear such comments all the time, and the focus is never on the how the miracle happened or rational explanations for the miracle or the magic of it. The focus is always on God’s intervention in their lives and their deepest appreciation for God’s deliverance. The focus is not on thehow but on God’s miraculous deliverance. The focus is not on explanations but on deliverance. And such people worship God, praise God, thank God for all God’s goodness.
A second comment about this miracle: Peter sinking in the waves of the storm. As a little boy, going to worship every Sunday morning of my life, that picture was the center of our church’s altar piece. It was a picture of Peter, outside the boat, sinking in the turbulent waves, Jesus holding onto his arm, rescuing him. Every Sunday morning, we sang the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” and looked at that picture of Simon, doubting Jesus and sinking into the water. The picture is vividly engraved into the souls of many of us whose altars were similarly decorated.
A person cannot help but concentrate on Simon Peter; how he got out onto the water with his eyes focused on the eyes of Jesus, on the face of Jesus, on the Presence of Jesus; and there for a moment of doubt, his eyes were diverted to the wind, to the storm, to the size of the waves; and he sank. And so it is with us so often in our lives; rather than focusing on the eyes of Jesus, the face of Jesus, the Presence of Jesus, we focus on the storm which is raging in our lives and we start to sink...because we are focusing on the storm rather than on the saving Presence of God in our lives.
The story is told by “old salt” sailors of how to climb the mainsail to the crow’s nest, high above the wooden sailing vessel. On an old sailing ship, there is a tall mainsail and the crow’s nest is perched there, at the very top of the highest mainsail. Can you see the crow’s nest up there, in your imagination? It is scary enough to climb to the crow’s nest when the sea is smooth and calm; but it is very frightening to climb to top of the mainsail and into the crow’s nest in the middle of a raging storm. The sea vessel is swaying this direction and that, and the movement at the top of the mainsail sways even more, as the boat rocks back and forth. The old sailors tell you, when climbing to the crow’s nest in the middle of a raging storm, never look down...or you will fall. Never look down into the storm or you won’t make it. Remain keenly aware of the storm all around you, but don’t look down into the storm or you will get sick and fall. Keep your eye on the crow’s nest.
And so it is with us: in the middle of the nastiest storms of life, and the storms of life can be so nasty, it is wise, so very wise, to keep our focus up on God, up on the face of Christ, up on the strength and power of God, rather than on the storm. I have heard it so often: I would not have made it through that storm if I hadn’t focused on Christ, on the cross, on God. I had to keep looking up to God to survive. Keep your eyes on the crow’s nest in the storm!!! Keep your eyes up on the face of Christ!
And, when it was all said and done, these series of miracles convinced the disciples and the early church that Jesus was the Son of God. These people of the Bible experienced several miracles in a row: the stilling of the storm, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the healing of the lepers, the casting out of demons, the feeding of the five thousand, then the walking on water and deliverance from the storm. And finally, the disciples slowly came to the conclusion and realization, “Truly, this is the Son of God.” And they worshipped Christ as Lord.
And through a series of events in our lives, incomprehensible to us, God works on us and in us in such a way that we, too, are stopped in our tracks and slowly we come to the realization: “Jesus, you are the Son of God. We worship you.”
Miracles. The experience of the miraculous. I have found that the word, “miracle,” and the experience of the miraculous is not confined to the Bible and the first century. I have found that the word, “miracle,” and the experience of the miraculous, is very much a part of the modern world, very much a part of your life and mine. Amen.
(This sermon was given orally, without notes, and then typed up later from memory. The children’s sermon was me trying to play magic: first, a child twirled and I said he disappeared; secondly, we tried levitation, having the child float in the air; third, we had a child limp because of a short leg and then we had God lengthen it out. These are all attempts at magic; all which failed. Then I asked the children: “Did your parents call you miracle when you were born?” We had thirty children up front that Sunday, thirty miracles. It wasn’t a perfect children’s sermon, but I was laying the ground work for resistance to the idea that a miracle is magic e.g. disappearance, levitation, or lengthening legs.)
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