Matthew 14:22-33
Proper 14A, Gospel
Thursday, August 11, 2011
International Center Chapel

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” [ESV}

What’s a disciple to do when Jesus isn’t where you expect Him to be? In Matt 14:22-33, if you’re a disciple looking for Jesus, he’s not there. He’s someplace where he seems singularly unhelpful.

First, He’s off by himself. Jesus sends the disciples away. Right before this the disciples had suggested that Jesus send the crowd of 5000 listeners away—who wants to provide dinner for thousands, anyway? Jesus refused to send the crowds away and fed them instead.

Now he sends the disciples away! Hardly what they would expect. We don’t have his words, but the jist of it is something like this: “Yes, you’re my followers, but don’t follow me now. I’m going away alone. You get in the boat and go that way.” Matthew makes sure we notice this. He tells us explicitly that Jesus was “alone,” and the disciples are just as alone without Him. What’s a disciple to do without Him?

In this case, keep rowing. After He sends the disciples away, they encounter a storm. It’s the second storm mentioned in the Gospels, but Jesus isn’t sleeping in the back of the boat this time. He’s gone. They’re facing the storm alone! Although it seems like they’re managing it okay, even though the wind and waves are against them. Matthew says nothing about any terror in this storm—no fear that the boat is about to be swamped by the stormy waves.

No, the fear comes when they see a ghost right there in the storm, walking on the stormy waves!  Jesus not only isn’t with them in the boat, He’s the one who is scaring them in the storm. He’s scarier than the storm itself!

What a great thing that the Holy Spirit put this story into the heart and pen of Matthew. Every generation of disciples needs it.

We too wonder what to do when Jesus isn’t doing what we expect of Him? Every generation of disciples knows how often we feel alone—like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Like the disciples, we just keep rowing and figure that’s all there is to it.

The storms hit and you cope with them yourself. You decide what to do when the doctor gives you bad news. You deal with it when trouble comes, when you feel abandoned, when families start to fall apart. You deal with the worry of economic decline and threats of unemployment and retirement uncertainty. You seek help when you’re sick or depressed or despondent.

Like the disciples, we keep rowing, but where’s Jesus? Is He really here? What difference is He making? Yeah, we know that lonely feeling. It’s scary to be alone in the storm, even if we’re coping and not curled up in a corner. But this Word of God gives us two strong words of comfort in our loneliness and in the sometime sense of Jesus’ absence.

First, it informs us that although our Lord might seem distant, He’s praying. While the disciples are struggling away without Jesus in the boat, His absence from Him means prayer, not neglect.

It is no different for us. In the creeds, when we confess the Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, we may think we’re just confessing an absence—that’s He’s not walking the shores of Galilee anymore. Rather, Hebrews reminds us that we’re confessing Him as our Great High Priest—our Intercessor (Hebrews 8:1).

Paul in Romans 8(:34) also assures us that no matter how far we might feel from God that such distance never means isolation from the goodness of God in Christ. No, not even the reality of our sin does that for God’s repentant children: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” That same promise is there in the assurance that the Holy Spirit also intercedes for us (Rom 8:26-27).

Yes, there’s no doubt. We’re in some very scary storms, but Jesus is praying for us. And His prayers mean a security that is always there, even when we don’t perceive it. That’s the first strong word of comfort.

The second is even stronger—so strong it’s kind of scary. Look at the second word of encouragement in this text. It’s strange, because it instilled the greatest fear in the disciples. As Jesus comes to them on the water, they’re scared to death, because they don’t recognize Him.

How could they? Who would expect a Man walking on water? Worse, who looks to the storm for hope—storms bring danger, not safety. But Jesus is in the very middle of the storm—on top of it, literally, walking on the roiling waves. Jesus Himself scares them because He’s not the way they expect Him to be; He’s not where they expect Him to be or doing what they expect Him to do.

And that is the strong Word of hope. In their absence from Jesus, He comes to the disciples where no one would expect Him. He comes to their aid in the very storm they are battling.

It should make us think twice about the storms of life—about distress and the grief and misery that life contains. It should make us think twice about how God brings His help into our lives. We like it best when we see God working gently—in a lovely day, a “sweet hour of prayer,” in encouraging words while all is well in our lives. I don’t even want to think about the storms as the place where God intends to make Himself known.

Okay, so He gave His Law in the thunderstorm of Mt. Sinai, but our faith is anchored in the Gospel, isn’t it? And that’s all sweet and tender, right?

Maybe not. Luther considered a puzzling line from Psalm 81 in which the Lord says in our English Bible: “In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder.” (v. 7, ESV; 8 in German). “The secret place of thunder?” Luther’s German translation of that last phrase said something closer to this: “I heard you in the secret place of the storm”  (Wetterwolke storm cloud). What Luther puzzles over is the idea of a thundering storm being a “secret place.” He writes:

“It is called ‘the secret place of the storm,’ … because the soul, even though there is storm and persecution out in the open, nevertheless is inwardly safe and at peace before God through hope and trust in Him…. How is the storm a secret place for us? It can be called that because ‘Thy visitation has preserved my spirit’ (Job 10:12). Thus storm and persecution preserve in the fear and love of God, but peace and security destroy and betray them. Therefore the secret place of the storm is very useful and much better than the appearance of peace and security. The latter brings forth the spirit into the open, while the storm drives the spirit inward and pushes it toward God. [AE 11:108-109]

So it goes: the storms of life are the very thing by which the Spirit is pushed toward God. No wonder Christ comes striding on the stormy sea. He needs to prepare His disciples, then and now, again and again, for the real heart of the Gospel.

We hate to admit it, but we need that push, for we’d rather have false comfort and a sweet spirit of sunny skies and “all-is-well.” We forget that the greatest good news—the heart of the Gospel—is a dark and stormy Friday filled not only with that ugly darkness but also with an uglier cross and bloody wounds and sheer agony.

Jesus scares His disciples that day. They can’t imagine Him coming to them in the way that He is. But it’s true. It really is Him. He calls out: “Be courageous. It is I. Fear not.

So Peter is at first emboldened. “If this is real, then let me come to you.” Then he steps into the storm, only to panic because he starts to see only the storm, and not the Lord who strides through it. Faithless fear begins to drown Him until He screams for help from the only one who can help.

Back in the boat, the disciples rightly worship Jesus—Jesus, who can not only still storms, but can stand on top of them.

That’s the Lord Jesus for you.

Better, that’s the Lord Jesus for you! He’s praying for you when you think He’s long gone. He’s striding through the storms of our lives so that fear might be the beginning of wisdom. He comes to turn our fear into faith. He compels us to see that in the storms of our lives where it is apparent that we have no hope in ourselves He will be our strength and salvation. He uses all that fear and anxiety and loneliness to draw us up out of the waves to Himself where we will find real peace and courage in His Word. In the midst of the storms of our life, here again is Jesus’ strong word to each of us: “Take courage. It is I. Fear not.”

—Rev. Larry Vogel