From Fear to Faith - Matthew 14:22-32
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Have you ever thought that fear is related to faith?
For instance there are people whose fear seems to weaken their faith. In some cases this is a matter of natural temperament. There are the Eeyores and Puddleglums of this world who can always be relied upon to see the dark side of things. After a week with six days sunshine, they will remember the one day of rain. Sure, they will admit, life has its pleasures, its joys and perks, but somehow they seem to happen to everyone else but them. And so when it comes to trusting God and his promises, out of fear that they will be let down, they doubt. ‘Far safer not to expect too much and go for a diminished faith than suffer the humiliating deflation of disappointment.’ And maybe you know people like that, indeed; perhaps you are a bit like that yourself- a ‘the glass is half empty’ type of person.
But there are times when fear actually leads to faith. One common saying during the Second World War was that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’. When you are staring the grim reaper full in the face, it apparently does wonders for your prayer life. But there are those who think it is somehow unworthy and inferior to come to God on that basis-out of fear. They say what parent would want their child to come to them driven by fear? Well, of course there would be something seriously wrong with the relationship if a child came to their parents only when they were frightened, but surely any parent worth their salt wants their child to come to them when fear grips their little heart so that they can receive comfort and know that they are loved and secure? So why not the greatest parent of all-God?
Well, this morning we are going to look at an incident in the life of one of Jesus followers, the apostle Peter, which illustrates well how desperation can lead to a deeper devotion, when paralysing fear issues in profound faith. And we find it recorded for us in Matthew 14: 22-33.
Just how desperate the situation the disciples are in is laid out for us by Matthew, who not being a fisherman and a landlubber tax collector must himself have been scared spitless -v22, ‘Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.’ The wording his quite strong, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat, he forced them to it? Why? Well, because of what had just happened, namely, the feeding of the five thousand. You see this was a miracle the likes of which had never been seen before. One Jewish writing which appeared between the Old and New Testaments- 2 Baruch- claimed that food in the desert would characterise the days of the Messiah, as it had with Moses in the wilderness and the provision of heavenly manner. And so you can imagine the reaction of the people when from five loaves and two fish, Jesus provided a banquet. The atmosphere would have been electric because the people would have picked up the signals straight away- God’s appointed leader had finally arrived. And that is exactly what they did. John in his Gospel tells us that at this point the people wanted to make Jesus King and march on Jerusalem. Messiah fever was in the air. And so to preserve his disciples from getting infected with those sorts of ideas and no doubt to save himself from the temptation to go for a political solution to the world’s problems by violence instead of a spiritual solution by love, he removes everyone lock stock and barrel. The disciples are bundled into a boat, the crowds are told to go back home and Jesus ascends the mountain to pray.
Now, we are told in v23 that it was evening, probably around 6pm and that is when the storm struck with shocking immediacy. The sun had scarcely gone down when the typhoon winds began to roar. Jesus was would have been fully aware of the approaching storm that was coming to carpet bomb the sea’s surface from his vantage point on the mountain. But he didn’t turn around. As we read in verses 23 and 24 the boat was alone on the lake whilst Jesus was alone on the land.
And so the disciples begin what was the worst night of their lives. Matthew tells us that the boat was being buffeted by the waves- literally, battered. What is more, the wind was against the boat, pushing the disciples further and further away from their destination and closer and closer to disaster. The disciples were already confused, frustrated, disillusioned and disappointed. What should have been a glorious victory march to oust the Romans has turned out to be a one way trip to Davey Jones’ locker on the Titanic. The night was dark; the sea was rough and the situation was apparently hopeless. The one who could save them wasn’t with them- he was miles away on land praying- “good for him, bad for us”, they would have thought. Sure, they had been in a storm together like this once before back in chapter 8, but that was different for then Jesus was with them and he stilled the storm, but what possible hope could they have that he will rescue them now? Even if he wanted to help them he couldn’t, after all, what chance was there of him getting hold of a boat and reaching them in time? They were now miles away, all but invisible in the night. Why, all twelve of them could barely keep their boat afloat, what chance would one man have? The short answer: none.
So for nine agonising hours they struggled; drenched with water, shivering with fear and the cold, muscles screaming with the shear physical strain, and still the nightmare continued with no end in sight. But just before dawn, at around five o’clock in the morning, the impossible happened- Jesus came- 25 “During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. 27But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."
Now isn’t that just the way it goes? There you are in the Christian life, wanting to obey Jesus, just like these disciples had done- they got into the boat as they were ordered, they may have been resentful but at least they were not disobedient- and the storm suddenly breaks: The baby gets ill. The job is lost. The exam is failed. And that, of course, is when faith is tested. When God says, ‘Will you trust me now? When it is dark and you can’t see. When you have exhausted all your own resources and have no where else to turn. Will you trust me?’ But what we see here is things going from bad to worse; at least that is the way it seems to the disciples. Battling against nature is one thing, but to be suddenly confronted with the supernatural is another which would have almost driven them over the edge. When in verse 26 it says, ‘The disciples saw Jesus walking on the lake’ the word actually means they were transfixed. In other words, an icy hand had gripped their hearts and they were glued to the spot in terror; they were literally petrified. And so would you have been if you saw what they thought they saw- a ghost. If anything signalled the end it was this dreadful portent- a phantom.
But Jesus does not allow them to remain in this state for very long does he? Immediately the reassuring voice of the master is heard and he speaks into their chaos: ‘Take courage, do not be afraid, it is I.’ Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is wanting to still the storm raging within their hearts before he stills the storm raging around their lives. And that is exactly what he does today. When the tragedy strikes, when the circumstances dive- we can still hear him speak. And where do we hear him speak? Well, where else but the place where we are hearing him speak this morning- the Bible. It is not some still inner small voice I need to hear when I am going under which is so uncertain and can be smothered by the events, it is a loud clear voice I want and this is where it is found. It is a voice which doesn’t change. Its meaning doesn’t vary according to my feelings or circumstances. He still tells me to take courage and not to be afraid (although often I am). And why am I to summon up such courage? Because of what Jesus says in verse 27, ‘It is I.’ Words used by Jesus which are words used by Almighty God himself in Exodus chapter 3 to another petrified man-Moses. He is the great ‘I am’. It is the name of promise- of covenant faithfulness. It is the name which speaks of unlimited sufficiency- ‘I will be whatever I need to be’ for you. That is what Jesus is saying then and that is what he is saying now. Do you believe it?
Well there was certainly one man in that boat who really did believe it and took Jesus at his word and that was Peter-v 28"Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water." 29"Come," he said.’ Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.’
Let me ask: what exactly is Peter doing here? Is he, as some people suggest, testing Jesus, and saying, ‘Prove to me that it is you by bidding me to come out to you on the water and I will believe?’ Is that it? Well, it seems to me to be a pretty stupid way of proving your faith-what if you are wrong? It is one mighty gamble to take isn’t it and on what evidence? No, Peter is not so much testing Jesus as pleading with Jesus. What he says can actually be translated, ‘Lord, since it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.’ That is more like it. And what propelled Peter out of that boat was more fear than faith. He, like the rest of the disciples, was at his wits end. He knew what these storms could do. He had heard the stories. He had seen the wreckage. He had attended the funerals and he wanted a way out, however desperate it might be, and this seemed to be it. If you had looked into Peter’s eyes at this point you would not have seen a steely determination, you would have seen the suffocating, heart racing-fear of a man who has no way out. It was a fear which was giving birth to faith.
Tell me. Do you think that had Peter seen Jesus walking on the water during a calm, peaceful summer’s day, he would have shouted to Jesus, ‘Jesus, do you mind if I join you’ and made his way out? Hardly. If the lake had been carpet smooth and the journey pleasant, do you think Peter would have gone out to join him then? No, and neither do I. It is not the most rational thing to do is it? Let alone the healthiest!
But Peter isn’t being driven by cold logic; he is being driven by shear desperation. Oh, to be sure it is not blind desperation- he knows it is Jesus alright, his ‘Lord’, but what he doesn’t know is whether he will hold him up. Maybe this is one request too far.
And so Peter frantically grabs the sodden edge of the boat, throws out one leg and then another and like toddler learning how to walk, he shakily makes his way towards Jesus. With his heart beating faster and his breathing getting shallower to his astonishment it feels as if an invisible ridge of rock runs beneath his feet, and at the end of the ridge is the glowing face of his faithful friend encouraging him on.
And when you think about it, we do the same don’t we? For some here this morning it will be a matter of abandoning the boat of your good works religion, that false security that because of who you are and what you have done you are going to be able to waltz into God’s presence on the last day with nothing to fear. But you won’t. The sort of faith Jesus is looking for and commends here is not something which comes from bartering with God at the negotiating table, ‘I will do this for you God, if you do this for me’. Faith is the desperate dive out of the sinking boat of our so called ‘good religious lives’ and onto the sea of trusting that Christ alone is there to catch us and is sufficient enough to pull us out of the water. Yes, it may be a scary thing to do, to stop putting faith in yourself and start putting faith in Christ, but I tell you this, if the storms of this life will not make you realise that by yourself you are on nothing but a sinking ship which will at some point create resentment in you, ‘God I have been good why are you letting this happen to me?’, then what is going to happen when the storm of God’s final judgement hits, and it certainly will- then it will be too late. Then your good works will be as useful as a fig leaf hiding your modesty in a force nine gale.
You see, salvation is God’s sudden calming presence during the stormy seas of our lives. We hear his voice in the Gospel and we take the step. Like Peter, before you can become a true Christian you need to be aware of two facts: We are going down and God is standing up. So what are we to do? Simple, scramble out; leave the Titanic of your self-dependence and stand on the solid path of God’s mercy. That is what you need to do.
But for many of us, having taken that first step we are confronted with another challenge and it is there in verse 30: ‘Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?"’
Do you see what the challenge is and at what point Peter began to sink under the waves? The challenge is to keep our eyes fixed in Jesus, for the point at which Peter began to sink, and we begin to sink, is when we give undue consideration to the troubles going on around us. Think about it. Nothing had really changed from the moment Peter climbed out of the boat. The wind was still howling, the waves were still breaking and Jesus was still standing. It wasn’t as if all was calm and then the wind got up and so his faith failed. No, faith is refusing to be overwhelmed by the circumstances and actively trusting in the Lord of the circumstances- Jesus.
But did you notice how even when Peter panicked and he began to drown, he still cried out to Jesus and Jesus stretched out his strong hand and caught him? Sure, the gentle rebuke came later, v31, ‘Peter why did you doubt? Why didn’t you trust me?’ But Jesus is not so fickle as to let his loved one’s drown in despair-he still responds to the heartfelt cry.
So let me tell you about John. He, like Peter was a sailor and had been at sea since he was eleven years old. His father, a shipmaster in the Mediterranean, took him aboard and trained him well for a life in the Royal Navy. And he would have made it too had it not been for the fact that he was desperately lacking in self discipline. He became mixed up with the wrong crowd and although his experience qualified him to serve as an officer, his behaviour saw him demoted.
In his early twenties he made his way to Africa, where he became involved in making a small fortune in the lucrative slave trade. At 21 he made his living on the Greyhound, a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He loved to ridicule anything moral and too pleasure in poking fun at religion. He even made fun of a book which was eventually to change his life, ‘The Imitation of Christ’. In fact, he was running the book down just a few hours before the storm hit.
That was to prove the worst and best night of John’s life. The waves so pummelled the Greyhound that it was spinning the ship one minute on the top of a wave, only to plunge it the next minute into a dark, watery valley. Well, John woke up to find his cabin filling with water. He set to work the pumps. For nine hours he and the other sailors struggled to keep the ship afloat. But he knew it was a lost cause. And so he threw himself on the watery deck and pleaded, just like Peter had done nearly 1700 years before, and cried, ‘If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on us all.’ Of course John didn’t deserve mercy, he just received it. He and the crew survived.
John never forgot that moment, a moment which changed his whole life. He gave up the navy and joined the church, becoming one of the most influential preachers of his time, as well as a prolific hymn writer. He penned such classics as, ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds’. He worked with Wilberforce to rid the Empire of the monstrous slave trade. A year before his death, people urged him to give up preaching because of his failing eyesight. ‘What!’ He exclaimed, ‘Shall an old African blasphemer stop while he can yet speak?’ He wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Sure, he had many other storms to ride throughout his life, but the Saviour he first discovered in the storm on that terrifying dark night, is the same Saviour he found to be faithful in every other dark night.
During his last years, someone asked John Newton about his health. He confessed that his powers were failing. “My memory is almost gone,’ he said, ‘but I remember two things: I am a great sinner, and Jesus is a great Saviour.’ Well, is there anything more we need to remember? Is there anything more we need to do than what these disciples did? V 33 ‘Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
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