“That Sinking Feeling”

Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.  But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Matthew 14:22-33

You find some interesting story titles in your Bible.  For today’s story – the title in the NIV Bible (and many others) is “Jesus walks on the water”. But that’s not really the point, is it. It’s not like Jesus decided to go for a walk. It’s not even about the miracle that took place, that Jesus could walk on water and enable his disciple Peter to do the same.

There is so much more here – so many themes that come together – as I discovered this last week, when I was giving a devotion on this text. And I just want to pick a couple of them today.

It all starts with the picture of water. Just imagine the scene – a storm is frightening at any time. But a storm in a sea is formidable force. Jesus has sent the disciples ahead – these are seasoned, experienced navigators. They have grown up around boats, but they find themselves in dire straits, Held back by the winds, thrown around in the forces of the waves.

That is the first picture: Water is dangerous. Think of a tsunami – masses of flooding waters that can surprise, that can destroy, and there is no way of escaping.

Water is dangerous – also in other ways. Just think how quickly disease can spread. Water can be full of bacteria, endangering life. Unclean water in developing countries, lack of hygiene, can be the cause of illness and even death.

But on the other hand – we know just as well – that water is source of life. Water is necessary for all life. We have to drink it every day. Water refreshes. Water is needed for cleanliness and health.

I grew up in a small village in Southern Germany that had natural hot springs. There are hundreds of these little official ‘bath’ towns in Germany. You drink the water which supposed to have healing qualities. In our town it was for the kidneys and liver. Every year we had hundreds of pilgrims who swore by the healing qualities of this water.

I am currently reading a very interesting book by Canadian professor of psychology, Jordan B Peterson, an international best seller called “12 rules for life”. But it is the subtitle that interests me: He calls it “An antidote to chaos”.

He makes the same references to the ancient teaching of the power of water as something that is dangerous, life-threatening and chaotic. I am reminded of my first Old Testament lectures with Dr John Kleinig, who described how the whole of the creation account in the first pages of Genesis is about God creating order: order out of chaos, putting the chaos waters in their place.

This is what Peterson is saying: Our lives are a journey along this polarity between order and chaos, good choices and bad, happiness and despair, right and wrong, success and loss.

So the story that we’re hearing today is in many ways a parable of your life. The way you move between the greatest possible extremes – “I am (literally) walking on water – like floating on cloud nine, everything is going my way – I’m on top of the world.”

On the other hand “I’m sinking here – I can’t make sense of life, why is this happening to me and I’m dying here.”

So here you have the disciples who have obeyed Jesus and gone where he told them. Remember it is Jesus who sends his church.  The boat is an old symbol for the church. They find themselves in this storm – and everything is looking precarious.

All of a sudden they see their Lord coming toward them and things go from bad to worse. They think it is a ghost – obviously, no human can walk on water.

That all changes when Jesus speaks. This is where the power of the word starts.

Immediately they realise, “This is Jesus” By the way, your English Bible will quote Peter asking the question, “Lord, if it is you…”  But the original Greek can just as likely be translated “Lord, since it is you, command me to come to you.” There is no “if” – This is Jesus, and they know it.  So, again, the power of the word spoken by Jesus, “Come” enables Peter to come.

There are so many themes I could get you to think about in this story. There are a number of sermon topics I’ve written in my Bible, such as ‘When Jesus calls you out of the boat, don’t wait for calm weather’ or ‘Step out of the boat, in faith, and no it is not going to be easy’. Walking – by definition – means taking one foot off the ground. Step out of the boat, but don’t think that everyone is going to follow.

Well, Peter takes that first step and walks on the water towards Jesus, without fear, equipped with a huge portion of trust and faith. But before Peter gets to Jesus, he is overcome with panic. He hears the wind, sees the waves, and like a deer stuck in the headlights of and oncoming truck, he freezes. So he is distracted from his goal which is to reach Jesus. He looks away and sinks.

He does the only thing that he can possibly do, and that is cry out to Jesus – “Save me” – and before he is swallowed up by the chaotic forces Jesus reaches out and catches him.

So, that’s the story – and the really interesting question I’d like to ask, is: For how long did Peter manage to defy gravity? How long was he on top of the chaos under his feet?

The answer is a pretty simple one, isn’t it. As long as he looked to Jesus, as long as he trusted in the strength of Jesus, that is exactly how long he was able to deal with the chaos in his life, and, for a moment, even overcome his own fears. That is how long he “lorded” it over his own fears. As long as he looked to Jesus, the sea and wind couldn’t harm him, Even if he still had insecurities or fears – he was safe and secure. But the moment he focused on the threats he lost sight of the source of his strength, and there was that “sinking feeling”. If it hadn’t been for the strong, saving hand of Jesus that would have been the end of him. Jesus remind him why it was that he came so close to dying that day: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Why do you doubt? Doubt and fear can make you so weak. Fear and doubt take away our vision, our perspective, our ability to see. They make us small and timid – take us captive and ultimately steal from us our hope and our future. That sinking feeling overtakes us as the chaos waters threaten to break in.

That is why we have this story. This story is not about Jesus performing some miracle by walking around on water. It is not about Peter sinking because he hasn’t learnt to walk on water like Jesus. The only point of this story is ‘trust’: Trust in Jesus. That’s the point. That’s the main issue here in this tension between chaos and order in your life. It is faith.

I have heard it so many times in my life: “Pastor, I wish I had a strong faith like such and such a person. Or “Pastor, no matter how much I try I just can’t believe that…”

My answer is always the same. “Your faith isn’t an activity or a job or an exercise. It is not something you work on – it is not an achievement.” Faith is just another word for trust and the question you and I have to ask quite simply is “Whom or what do you trust?” We all trust something.

A member of Peterson’s audience who said “I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in anything” received the following answer: “Well, take your wallet and hand me the biggest note in it.” It happened to be a 50 or 100 dollar bill, and when he took it, Peterson said. “To make the point – the plastic value of what I am holding in my hand Is worth a few cents, maybe a couple of dollars at most. But if I were not to give it back to you, you could be rather upset because you believe that the reserve bank has ascribed to this plastic a far greater value than what you see, and your experience has confirmed that, But you can walk into a shop and get anything of greater value than the plastic worth of this note.”

We all trust in things – seen or unseen, verbalized or not. Do you trust in the support of your relatives, the health system, security in our country, and safety of your health in these covid times? A great indicator of what you trust is seen in the things you read: romance novels, newspapers, Financial Times, … or God’s Word?

It is exactly this Word through which God assures us that we are safe, even when we find ourselves in chaotic stormy situations, and still hear God’s voice to step out of the comfort of the boat.

When we trust and take that first shaky step, we might find that the storms of life don’t necessarily become all calm. But because we know what God assures us in his word, (some favourites)’ I will not leave you or forsake you’, ‘I have written your name in the palm of hand’, ‘your staff and your rod, they comfort me’. Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid!!!

So now, there is a different approach to these storms. Now we are looking to the one who holds on to us and tells us that he won’t let us drown and that makes all the difference.

That means that even when we find ourselves in life-threatening waters, and they are threatening to flood over our heads, thank God! We know there is his hand stretching out and over our fears and worries, his voice rings, “don’t worry – trust me.”

Finally, I imagine that Jesus asks this question with a smile on his face, “Why did you doubt? Have you still, after all these years of walking with me, still not got it that you can trust me – without reservations. I am never going to let you go. Don’t focus on the chaotic storms of life. Take note of them, but don’t let them intimidate you. They can’t drag you into the depth. Even when you feel weak look to my strength, for my strength is made perfect in your weakness.”

So, that’s the promise – let’s keep looking ahead, especially when our lives look like a small, fragile boat, out of which we’ve stepped to follow Jesus’ call. You might get that ‘sinking feeling’, and when you do, you know where to look. In the end, this story really only needs a one word title, and that is “Faith”. Amen.

The audio of this sermon is available on the web site.