Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
The story we are about to read comes just on the heels of one of the greatest miracles Jesus ever performed. On a hillside above theSea of Galileeone day, Jesus feeds a hungry crowd of 10,000 or more people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Matthew tells us that even though everybody that afternoon ate their fill, there were, amazingly, still twelve basketfuls left over in the end.
Jesus’ disciples witnessed this scene, yet another time when they saw their Master act with unexplainable power and unparalleled authority. And I think – this is just my hunch – I think that Jesus is ready to test them. After all they have seen Jesus do, will these men finally have faith enough to believe that there is no problem Jesus cannot solve, no obstacle that he cannot overcome.
We’ll see. Listen to what happens next.
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake.
26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 14:22-27, NRSV)
Pay attention and you will see a pattern here. There are times when Jesus brings us close to demonstrate to us, in one way or another, that he is indeed Lord and Master over all that there is. There are times in your life, I’m sure, when God has made abundantly clear to you that if you would only trust him, he is able to do whatever is necessary to protect you and to provide for you.
I believe that it is often just after these moments of assurance when Jesus tests us. It’s as if he says to us, “Okay, I have just proven to you my Lordship. You have just seen that I can be trusted completely. Now, let’s see if you really believe it.” And then he sends us out on some difficult mission in life where our faith will be tested, where it will be shown whether or not we really do trust that Christ is greater than whatever challenges and circumstances we might face.
I think this is what Jesus is doing here. These men have just witnessed another of Jesus’ jaw-dropping miracles. Now he sends them out. He makes them get into a boat and go out onto the water without him. And I think he knows that the journey across that lake is going to be an opportunity for them to test out, and hopefully grow, their faith in him.
As soon as the disciples shove off, Jesus goes up on the mountainside overlooking the lake to pray. I would love to know what Jesus prayed about. We’re not told. What we are told is that Jesus stays up there most of the night. And I’d like to think that he spends at least some of that time praying for his disciples. After all, from his vantage point he can likely see them in the distance out on the lake as they row their boat into the horizon. I’d like to think that he prays for them as he watches them go.
Romans 8:34 is a verse I have always loved. It’s a verse that proclaims, among other things, the fact that Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for us, advocating on our behalf. I love this truth that Jesus is at the very throne of God praying for me, praying for us, praying for our world, bringing our needs and concerns before the Father, seeking to gain for us that which we need. Be encouraged today knowing that Christ is constantly interceding for you and for those you love, even for those you don’t love.
I can imagine Jesus on that mountain praying for his disciples as they rowed their way towards what was going to be a great challenge to their faith. Rowing across the lake was, in and of itself, a great chore. Galileewas about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide. That’s about half the size of Tahoe. Galileewas a big lake. What made the journey across it often more difficult were the frequent storms. Because of the peculiar landscape of the region, it was not uncommon for abrupt temperature shifts to cause sudden violent storms.
Sure enough, by evening time when the disciples were likely several miles out into the lake, one such storm kicks up. The wind begins to rage and the boat, we’re told, is battered by the waves. While Matthew doesn’t suggest that the disciples are in grave danger, we certainly can assume that at least the going became difficult for them. And I think this is just the way Jesus planned it.
I hope you recognize that the moment you decide to follow and obey Jesus in your life is the moment you can begin to expect that he is going to deliberately send you into circumstances that he knows are going to be difficult. There are people, I know, who have this crazy idea that once they place their faith in God things are going to become easy. Those people, however, are sorely mistaken. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that if the mission you believe Christ has sent you on in life is turning out to be easy, and comfortable, and without adversity, you probably should begin to wonder if it’s really Christ’s mission you’re following in the first place. Likely, it is not.
Just think about the disciples. Did Jesus even one time ask anything easy of them? I can’t think of a single instance. When Jesus sends us on a mission, gives us a task, asks us to follow, we can almost be guaranteed that the road will be, at places, a rocky one. Our obedience to Christ’s call is no guarantee that we will be spared adversity. But in the midst of that adversity – and this is key – we will find, if have the faith to see it, that we do not have to face it alone.
I wonder, in fact, if Jesus often allows us to struggle through adversity on our own for a time. We’re not totally alone, of course. He’s there, just on the mountain over the lake, watching over us the whole time, praying for us. But from his vantage point perhaps he lets us struggle in hopes that in time we will come to humbly realize that on our own power we are not going to make much, if any progress. It is then that Christ comes near, finding us at last receptive to let him do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Matthew tells us that early in the morning Jesus comes walking towards the disciples on the lake. The original Greek hints that this was about 4:00 in the morning. In other words, these guys have been struggling against this storm for a long time, just like some of us in this room feel like we have been struggling against a storm of our own for a long time.
Now I’ve seen a few people waterski barefoot, skimming across the top of the lake with no skis. And that’s impressive enough. I’ve yet to see anybody do it without a boat, however. Miraculously, Jesus comes walking to them on top of the water. And if you don’t believe that he could do this then you don’t believe that he was God. It’s a simple as that. Because the One who made the lake can certainly walk on top of it if he chooses!
In those days there was a popular superstition that disembodied spirits occasionally appeared over places on the water where people had drowned in the past. The idea was that these evil spirits lived in the sea and haunted the waters. It was thought that to see one out on the lake usually meant that disaster was near.
This explains why the disciples are terrified when they see what appears to them to be one such spirit. You would be too! But Jesus, even though he is happy to let them live with hardship for a while, does not want them to live with fear for even a moment. Immediately, Jesus speaks to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Biblical scholars point out that this is one of those places in the Bible where the English doesn’t quite capture the full sense of the original text. In Greek, Jesus literally says, “Take heart! I Am! Do not be afraid!” In other words, this is not just an ordinary greeting spoken across the waves. This isn’t a greeting; it’s a declaration! As many of you know, the Jews had long understood that the words “I Am” represented the very name of God. This went all the way back to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush when God told him that his name was “I Am Who I Am.” Regularly, Jesus took this name, “I Am”, and used it for himself to declare his divinity to the world.
Understand, then, Jesus is not saying to the disciples, “Chill out, I’m not a ghost. It’s just me. It’s Jesus.” No, he is declaring, “I am God. God is here!” Jesus does not come out to them to give them nautical advice. He doesn’t say, “Listen, try rowing together, in rhythm, and head a bit more to your right and you’ll make it through this.” Neither does he come to give a weather report. He doesn’t say, “Just hold on, I checked the forecast and this storm is about to pass.”
No, all he tells them is this declaration. “I am God. God is here! And in light of this truth, what in the world do you have to fear?”
It is here that we recognize something that is at the very foundation of every step of faith that we will ever take in life. If we can come to recognize that the God of the universe is truly with us, and always with us, in the person of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, what in the world do we ever have to fear? With Christ, there is absolutely no opposition that will ultimately overpower us. There is no adversity that will ever defeat us. If Christ is with us we can do whatever it is he asks us to do knowing that he will, in the end, never fail us.
When my kids were younger I would often play this game with them where I would have them jump off the stairway in our house and I would catch them. It was just another one of many games my wife was so glad I taught our children!
To begin with I’d have them just go a step or two up. I’d get them to perch out on the edge of the step and put their arms out. Then I’d reach my arms out towards them so our fingers would almost touch. Almost, but not quite. And then I’d ask them to jump to me. Again, at first it was just a small jump but still one that required full commitment. They had to throw their bodies out into thin air and trust that I would not let them fall.
The first time was always the hardest. But eventually, after some words of encouragement, and perhaps a promise of ice cream, they’d jump and, of course, I’d catch them. After a couple of times I’d then have them go a step higher up and jump. As they gained confidence that I could catch them from that altitude they’d go even a step higher.
Eventually their confidence would grow to such a point that they wanted to go all the way to the top of the staircase and jump. Once or twice I even had them jump without letting me know first and I’d turn and see this little body hurtling through the air towards me, smiling and laughing as it prepared for impact. Coincidentally, that was usually the very moment my wife just happened to walk into the room. Though I never did drop one of them, at some point, especially as they got bigger, we had to set some limits on the game. My thirteen-year-old is not allowed to play anymore. When you get to be 100 pounds, game over!
Here’s my point. As we seek to follow Christ in life, there are going to be times, many times, when he is going to ask us to take steps – even leaps! – of faith, to throw ourselves far out off of a safe resting place, so far out that if God does not catch us we are going to be in trouble. At first, the steps might be small ones. But as we take them, and as we find that Christ is there and will not drop us, we find ourselves willing to take even bigger steps. We don’t ever jump, of course, until Jesus tells us to jump. But when he does say jump, we do so with a great history of his faithfulness. He’s never once dropped us, never once let us down. As our choir so beautifully sang earlier, he never failed me yet!
All of us have places of fear in life. Let me just ask you today, what is it that you fear? Think about that for a moment. What is it that makes you afraid?
God does not want us to fear anything in life. Dozens and dozens of times in the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” It may be God’s will that you struggle with adversity in life, that’s true. It is not God’s will that you do so with fear. And that is because in the midst of our struggle, he is there. Right in the midst of the storm, there is Jesus declaring to you, “Take heart! I Am! Do not be afraid!”
Today is an important day in the history of our church. We chose to name this campaign Step of Faith because we believe that is what is going to be required of all of us in the days to come. Our goal, as you know, and as you’ll learn much more about over the next five weeks, is to grow and expand the building of this church so that, in turn, we can grow and expand the ministry of this church. It will be an endeavor that, I promise you, will not be without struggle.
This will also be an endeavor in which many of us will have to face some of our fear. Because I don’t know about you, but whenever people start talking about money, especially talking about me giving away money, too often my tendency can be fear. A lot of our fears and worries have to do with money and material things. Even people who have plenty of both are still afraid. They are afraid of losing what they have.
That’s why campaigns like this one – and it almost doesn’t matter what the project is as long as it’s a worthy one – can be wonderful opportunities for us to grow in faith. In fact, as excited as I am for how this campaign will help our buildings and our ministries to grow, I’m actually more excited to see how this campaign will help our faith to grow. Honestly, that’s the real long term value of a campaign like this one. What I mostly want to see built at FaithChurch is the faith of our church.
I know that many of you have already taken steps to give generously, even sacrificially, over the years to God’s work in this church. Some of these steps have been great steps of faith. Some of you have been so generous some years that you didn’t know exactly how God would provide for your own needs in the months to come. And yet he did. He has. He always will.
I believe that we as a church are now ready to move one step higher and take another leap of faith, trusting that the One who has caught us time and time again will, in fact, catch us once again. In the coming weeks, that is what each of us is going to be asked to do. Along with me, I hope you will prayerfully consider what step of faith Christ might be calling you to take. In this campaign, yes, but also in many, many other areas of your life.
As God leads us, wherever he leads us, I pray we will all have enough faith to follow. And even though our obedience does not insure we won’t face adversity, it does mean that we won’t have to face fear. For nearby there is One who, in the midst of our struggle, confidently assures us, “Take heart! I Am! Do not be afraid!”
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Matthew 14:22-27. What stands out to you in this story?
Matthew doesn’t tell us, but what sorts of things do you imagine Jesus prays about when he goes up the mountain to pray all night?
What do you think about this idea that Jesus is at the very throne of the Father praying (interceding) for us? What do you imagine he is praying about?
Do you think this was all a set up? Do you think Jesus sent them out across the lake as a test of their faith?
Do you believe it’s true that just because we obey and follow Christ that we will not necessarily be spared from adversity? Should we go as far as to expect adversity in the Christian life?
Do you think Jesus actually walked on the water? If so, why did he do it? Was he just trying to show off?
What step of faith do you believe Jesus is calling you to take in your life right now? Do you think you will take it?
How might this Step of Faith campaign our church is undertaking be just that, a step of faith?
Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:
Monday: Psalm 32 ~ Matthew 6:9-18
Tuesday: Psalm 33 ~ Matthew 6:19-24
Wednesday: Psalm 34 ~ Matthew 6:25-34
Thursday: Psalm 35 ~ Matthew 7:1-6
Friday: Psalm 36 ~ Matthew 7:7-14
Saturday: Psalm 37 ~ Matthew 7:21-29
Sunday: Psalm 38 ~ Mark 2:1-12
 The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus regularly went off alone to pray. If nothing else this ought to convict us. If Jesus, the very Son of God, found it necessary spend time regularly seeking the Father in prayer, how much more do we also need to do so if we ever hope to navigate life?
 Other verses in the New Testament make this same wonderful proclamation, including Hebrews 7:25, Hebrews 9:24, I John 2:1.
 R.T. France, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 569.
 See Exodus 3:14.
 Romans 8:31-39 captures this truth as beautifully as anywhere in scripture. Isaiah 43:1-4 is another wonderful passage.