Waves, Wonders and Worship
Matthew 14:22-33

It was unquestionably the worst physical beating that I had ever received. I was a junior in college, and was wrestling in a tournament sometime in March. I had the misfortune of going up against somebody from a university in Minnesota. I, a scrawny, petite, fragile, gentle, little, 190-pounder, wrestling up a notch in the unlimited weight class, going against a man who weighed 280 pounds, (by the way, this isn’t the same story I told you a year ago about another guy who was even larger than that) who got the award during this particular tournament for having the most pins in the least amount of time. I’ll let you decide if I was courageous or stupid. But I happened to last the duration of the bout.

At the end of those three two-minute quarters, I was absolutely exhausted, bruised and beaten, limp, crawling off the mat, to my place in the bleachers on the other side. When finally I had regained my senses, and looked up, I saw someone standing right beside me. It was my father. He had climbed down from the bleachers, praying all the way, and come over to stand beside me during these moments of considerable duress.

It’s an image that sticks with me, and strikes me as I look at this wonderful story that Matthew shares with us here in chapter 14 of his gospel. According to the Christian calendar, we’ll be celebrating Epiphany in a couple of days. Having received Jesus into the world, we now think for just a moment about him as an adult and about his presence in our lives and what difference that might make. This story gives us a window into precisely that.

Jesus had just finished feeding the multitudes, and from all indications, the results were far less than what he had hoped for. According to John’s account of the story, rather than worshiping God, the crowd sought to coerce Jesus into becoming their political leader—their king. Likewise, Mark informs us that the disciples themselves failed to grasp the full impact of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. As David McKenna phrases it, “One gets the impression that the disciples, each one with a basket of food, stood flat-footed and complained, ‘What do we do with all these leftovers?” No one seemed to grasp the meaning of what had just taken place.

And so, Jesus sent the multitude home and the disciples to the boat. He needed to be alone. He needed to pray. He needed space. So the scene is set. Jesus, alone in the hills adjacent to the Sea of Galilee, praying. The disciples, together in a boat, beginning a journey to the other side of the sea.
Sometime early in the evening, Jesus, whose “prayer corner” in the mountains allowed him a beautiful panoramic view of the water below, noticed that the disciples were making little if any progress. It seems as though one of those wind storms, so typical of the area, was off-setting the energy that they were exerting. They rowed and rowed, but continued to move their oars in the same place. Jesus, nevertheless, apparently does nothing immediately to intervene. Both Matthew and Mark point out that it was not until the 4th watch, that is, sometime between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. the next morning, that Jesus came to lend a hand. Why would he leave them out there struggling for most of the night?

I am a “fix-it” person, for the good and the bad. Many of you are too. For the good, I’ve served on various mediation teams in other congregations that were experiencing considerable turmoil. I’ve also mediated conflicts between various individuals, including any number of family disputes. I like to build bridges and help people work through difficulties.

But my predisposition toward “fixing” people also has an undeniable downside. I have a tendency to not only get involved in conflicts that I ought to stay away from, but also to spend considerable amounts of time and energy trying to help people close to me live stress-free lives. This is particularly easy to do as a parent and spouse. I want to intervene right away when an argument arises. I want to lessen the fall when one of my children encounters disappointment. I want to bail them out of trouble or pay the bill when a debt is incurred. I want to, although I thankfully recognize now that I often shouldn’t intervene. Sometimes I simply must allow people I love to go through tough times. Why? Because there is often much that can be learned from the difficulties of life.

Jesus knew that long before I did. He makes no attempt here to immediately remove all of the disciples’ discomfort, though he was perfectly well aware of it. He watches as these people, who he cares deeply about, experience moments—indeed hours—of considerable stress and tension. I no doubt would have run down the cliff and jumped in the water to correct the situation as quickly as possible. Jesus takes his good, old time. Why? Because there is often much that can be learned from living through difficulties.

Our preference, of course, is typically to seek as carefree and as pain-free a life as possible. We enjoy comfort, and our culture often leads us to believe that a life of ease is not only possible, but preferable. We take pills to drown out every hurt, and spend countless dollars to enjoy every pleasure that the world has to offer. We even pray now that God would remove every discomfort from our lives—every twitch, every dilemma, and every struggle. And as a result, we have rarely if ever learned to make friends with the difficulties—not the sins, but the difficulties—in our lives. We have rarely if ever learned to appreciate the possible lessons that might be learned through the darker seasons in our lives. And we have only occasionally come to recognize what many followers of Jesus have been telling us over the years: difficulties can lead us closer to God.

Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat, climbed up a Galilean mountain, and watched them struggle for a while. Perhaps they were initially frustrated by the storm but not desperate. After all, these were experienced fishermen we are talking about here, people who knew the sea. Storms were by no means uncommon in Galilee, and they continue to swell up quickly even to this day. With persistence, the disciples no doubt assumed that they would surely arrive at their desired destination. After all, they had done so countless times before. During this particular storm, they undoubtedly had rowed with all their might. Any unnecessary cargo would have been thrown overboard. All human options would have been exhausted. But after several hours and little if any progress, their situation grew far worse. Their strength is gone, their nerves are raw, and they are overcome by fear. “How many more waves can the boat withstand?” they must have wondered. Any illusions of self-dependency have now vanished.

Once any sense of self-dependency was gone, once the disciples realized that this was a situation that they could not get themselves out of, when they realized that they had finally met their match, then Jesus could come to their rescure. And that is precisely what he does. Exhausted, defeated, and with their heads hanging low, the disciples all of a sudden notice him where they apparently never expected to see him—walking on the water, right there in the middle of the storm with them. “L-l-l-ook, it’s a ghost,” they probably cried. Panic ricochets throughout the boat, some of the passengers perhaps even contemplating jumping overboard. “Take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid,” Jesus assures them.

Jesus may stand at a distance from time to time and allow us to wrestle with many of the difficulties that life throws at us, but it is no less apparent in our story that he is with us through those very same difficulties. This is a truth of alarming significance for all of us to grasp. The Bible depicts more than once this idea of Jesus descending to the deepest depths to aid those who are in distress. Paul eloquently describes this downward movement in Philippians 2 when he talks about Jesus:
…who, though he (Jesus) was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Jesus, in other words, “came down” to save us.

A similar description of Jesus’ descending appears in Ephesians 4. This same Jesus who “ascended on high, far above all the heavens,” first descended into the lower parts of the earth. In the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase that many of us have often repeated states that “he descended into hell,” a phrase that I had, over the years, great trouble wrapping my mind around. Regardless of whatever more sophisticated theological explanations we might offer for such a thought, I find myself increasingly struck by Sister Suzanne Looker’s rather simple response. “Jesus descended into hell so that he would know what hell was like.” Jesus knows what hell is like.

And so, this descending Jesus—this Jesus who comes down—now comes down from the mountain and joins his disciples in the middle of their raging storm. I want so much to avoid the typical analogies often drawn from this wonderful story. It is easy for us to equate the storm encountered by the disciples with the so-called catastrophic or tragic experiences in our own lives. For us, the storm means sickness or loss or unemployment. To formulate such analogies, I fear, is to miss the everyday importance of this idea of Jesus coming down from the mountain. In truth, what we must learn is that Jesus comes down to us in all the difficult moments of life. Jesus is present in the middle of our darkness. He is with us when we struggle with questions concerning the reliability of the Bible or when we wonder if good really wins out over evil. He is with us when we feel lonely and forgotten. He is with us when we are mistreated by others, and he is walking beside us when we feel nearly overwhelmed by doubt or temptation. Jesus is with us, this story vividly suggests, when we least expect him—during those times of darkness when we assume that he is nowhere to be found. “Jesus can’t walk on water,” the disciples assumed, but he did. “Jesus can’t be with me during such moments of intense pain and frustration,” we assume. But he is.

“Is it the Lord?” the disciples wondered. Impulsive Peter soon bursts in, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds with a single word: “Come.” That’s all Peter needed. Before you could snap your fingers, he’s out of the boat on his way to meet the Lord. But then something suddenly dawns on him. He is walking on water. People aren’t supposed to do that. And it is awfully windy. And before long, the water was up to his chin. Whereas he had just said, “If it is you, tell me to come to you on the water,” he now screams, “Lord, save me!” That is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus could not only walk on water. Apparently he could also carry someone else at the same time. Soon, Jesus and Peter climb together into the boat and rejoin the other speechless disciples. Immediately the storm subsides, and the response is more encouraging this time around. “You really are the son of God,” they announce. “You really are.” And they, amazed as they are, can do nothing but worship.

I think just about every square inch of my body was black and blue that day several years ago when I took a good beating from that Minnesota wrestler. I’m recovered now. When I looked up, I saw the face of my father. Wherever you are today, whatever your doubts, whatever your frustrations, whatever the pain, wherever they fall on the barometer or the magnitude of struggles, this story reminds us – Jesus is there in the middle of our darkness.