Stepping into the Unknown
by Jack Wald | March 2nd, 2014

Matthew 14:28-33

There are some days when so much happens it feels that a week passed in just 24 hours and Matthew 14 shows us one of those days in the life of Jesus. This is a fascinating chapter, full of drama. John the Baptist boldly confronted Herod Antipas who had married his half-niece Herodius, who had divorced his half-brother, Philip. She had married one half-uncle and then another. In so doing she had committed adultery and a form of incest. So John the Baptist publically condemned their marriage, for which he was arrested and then beheaded.

When Jesus heard the news, he withdrew to a quiet place for prayer and reflection. Remember that John was not a stranger to Jesus, John the Baptist was his cousin. He must have spent time with John when they were children, playing together when they went to the annual festivals in Jerusalem. Some have theorized that Jesus was first one of John’s disciples, before he began his public ministry. The death of John was a personal loss and Jesus needed time to grieve. But as is the case for us at funerals, we grieve for the one who has died and we also contemplate our own mortality. In the case of Jesus, this was more than a distant possibility. The death of John was an explicit threat to Jesus. Herod had essentially said that if you rock the boat, you will be executed, and so Jesus had to deal with this foreshadowing of his own coming arrest, torture and crucifixion. There was a lot on his mind.

After receiving this news, Jesus got in a boat with his disciples and sailed to a desolate place, but someone saw him on the lake. “Who is that on the boat? It looks like Jesus and his disciples. Where are they going?” As word spread that Jesus was on his way, people gathered those in their family who were sick or lame or disturbed and headed off to see where Jesus had gone. When Jesus arrived at the shore he discovered there were already a lot of people gathered asking for his help. Jesus went to be by himself and found himself in the midst of a crowd wanting to be healed. Jesus had compassion on them and healed the sick. Then when it was evening, he found the crowd hungry and needing food. He took five rolls and two small smoked fish, and with that small amount of food, fed five thousand men plus the women and children who were with them.

After this, he went up a mountain to be by himself and pray and the disciples set out on the sea of Galilee. In the middle of the night, in a storm, Jesus appeared to them, walking on the water. After Peter tried to join Jesus in walking on the water, Jesus, holding on to Peter, got in the boat, the storm quieted down, they landed on the northwest shore of the sea at Gennesaret
and Jesus healed the crowds who were there.

That’s quite a day. This morning we will focus on the part of the day when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea and Peter stepped out to join him.

Jesus told the disciples to take a boat to the other side of the sea, he sent the crowd away, and then he went up on the mountain to be by himself to pray and deal with his postponed grief.

I imagine he prayed for John. He prayed for himself. He prayed to be strong in the face of opposition. He prayed for the people he had healed that day. He prayed for his disciples and how he could lead them.

When he had finished praying and it was time to move on, it was evening. Jesus had taken his disciples on quite a faith-building journey that day, but he was not finished. They had seen people healed. They had seen the miraculous multiplication of bread and fish. Now it was time to stretch their faith even further. Jesus needed to get to the other side of the sea and the disciples had the boat. He could have done it differently, but he wanted them to see more clearly who he was, so he stepped out on the water and began to make his way.

This miracle of walking on water is one of the nature miracles of Jesus, demonstrating his power over nature. Job said: (Job 9:8)
[God] alone stretches out the heavens
and treads on the waves of the sea.

Psalm 77:19 affirms the power of God over nature:
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

On an earlier incident at sea, Jesus had calmed a storm and the disciples reacted with astonishment. (Mark 4:41)
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

When the disciples asked, “Who is this?” the answer was clear. Only the creator of nature has control over nature. And so Jesus set out toward the disciples, walking on water, demonstrating who he was.

Meanwhile, the disciples were straining at the oars, trying to make progress against the wind and waves. Remember that four of the twelve disciples were fishermen. They had spent many hours on the lake in all sorts of conditions. Eleven of the twelve were from Galilee and when you live by a lake you become familiar with boats.

The conditions on the lake were difficult but they were not that much out of the ordinary. In the earlier incident I just referred to, Jesus was sleeping in the boat while the disciples battled a storm. On that occasion they were fearful because of the ferocity of the storm. This is a different incident and not beyond the capabilities of the fishermen among the disciples.

They set out from shore as evening approached, maybe about 6 PM. They tried to make progress with their sail but the wind was too strong and so they had to row. For eight or nine hours they rowed with waves breaking against them. They took turns at the oars and when they were not rowing, they bailed water from the boat and tried to sleep. After eight or nine hours they had only rowed three to three and a half miles. They were exhausted. By the time Jesus caught up with them they were tired, anxious and wondering how long this would last.

The hours between 3 and 6 AM are the most dangerous hours of the day. This is a dangerous time to drive on the roads because of sleep-related accidents. I have driven all night a few times in my life and it is very difficult to stay awake in these hours before dawn. Factories with night shifts have higher rates of accidents in these early hours. We don’t think as clearly in these early hours. Our senses are not as heightened in these early hours. We’re more tired in these early hours.

It was in these predawn hours that the disciples saw Jesus walking toward them on the water.
And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 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.

If this had occurred in the early morning, maybe about 7 AM, I don’t think the disciples would have been so frightened. But in the predawn hours with storm clouds blocking the light of the moon and stars and being so exhausted, the sight of a man walking on water, coming toward them was quite unnerving.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

This should have been reassuring. Jesus would climb into the boat and they would continue the journey. The disciples would be once again amazed at what Jesus could do. (“I can’t believe he walked three and a half miles on the water!”) End of story.

But Peter was not satisfied with hearing Jesus tell him not to be afraid.
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Why did Peter ask him that question? Why was he not satisfied with Jesus telling them to take heart and not be afraid.? Didn’t he recognize the voice of Jesus?

It must have been difficult to hear with the wind and waves. It must be that Jesus did not say, “It is I,”  he shouted, “DO NOT BE AFRAID!” And Peter must have also shouted his response into the wind. In those conditions it may not have been easy to recognize the voice of someone.

Peter still thought it might be a ghost so he sought confirmation that it was Jesus.
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Why this question? If he wanted confirmation this was not a ghost, why not ask, “Lord, if it is you, how many loaves of bread and how many fish did we start out with at lunch today?” A ghost would not know that detail. If Peter was looking for confirmation that this was Jesus and not a ghost, why not ask a question like that?

But Peter asked to do something impossible as confirmation that it was indeed Jesus. Peter wanted Jesus to do a miracle.

Jesus was asked to do miracles by others, but that was because Herod wanted to be entertained or someone wanted Jesus to do a miracle to prove he was the Messiah. This was different. This was not sitting back and watching Jesus do something miraculous. This was Peter asking Jesus to help him do something miraculous.

So once again, why would Peter ask this particular question? “Lord if this is really you, tell me to come and walk on water with you.”

This incident follows the time Jesus sent out the twelve disciples to preach, heal and cast out demons. For some time the disciples had seen Jesus do all these things. Their eyes had popped out of their heads when they had first seen Jesus heal someone who was lame or give sight to someone who was blind. After awhile they were no longer so surprised. They knew what Jesus could do.

But then Jesus told them, go out in pairs and you do what I have done. I give you the power to do what I have been doing.

The gospels do not say how they responded when they returned from their trip but later in Luke, when Jesus sent out 72 of his disciples in pairs, (Luke 10:17)
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

They were filled with joy. They were delighted. They had been able to do what they had seen Jesus do. That Jesus could do these marvelous miracles they had gradually been able to accept. But now they were able to do the same miraculous things in his name!

Maybe this was what made Peter ask this question, to find out if the person on the water was a ghost or Jesus. Jesus not only did impossible things, he gave power to his disciples to do impossible things. If this was Jesus walking on the water, Peter knew he could also walk on water with Jesus.

And maybe it was that sometimes Peter said things impulsively. It is as if his mouth moved and then his brain connected. Sometimes it was brilliant, as when he affirmed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Sometimes it was not so brilliant.

Peter shouted out to Jesus on the water
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

And Jesus shouted back, “Come.” Come and do what I am doing. Come do the impossible.

It is one thing to say you will do something, it is another to actually do it. You can say you will jump off a 10 meter diving platform, it is quite another to do it. Once I climbed the ladders that led to the 10 meter diving platform. I intended to jump into the pool from there. But when I got to the top, the pool looked like a postage stamp and I climbed back down the stairs.

If you want to skydive, you can take the lessons, put on the parachute, go up in the airplane, but then there is the moment when you have to step out into the air.

Jesus said, “Come.” The boat was heaving up and down with the waves and the wind. Peter put one foot out over the boat and then another. Now he was sitting on the side of the boat.

Where were Peter’s eyes focused? The account says he 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.”

When Peter was sitting on the side of the boat, did he look down at the water? Did he test one foot and then another to see if he would be supported? Did he look at the wind and waves and think to himself, “This is crazy. Who am I kidding?” I don’t think so. I think he was looking into the eyes of Jesus. He sat on the side of the boat, stood up and began walking toward Jesus, never taking his eyes off Jesus.

How was that for Peter? Exhilarating? I would think so. Amazing? Certainly. “Look at me! I’m walking on water!”

But then Peter saw the wind. Perhaps a wave came up and splashed his face and made him ask himself, “What am I doing? This is crazy!” He took his eyes off Jesus and saw the wind and he said to himself, ”This is impossible!” and he began to sink.
he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Peter asked, “Lord if it is really you,” and he discovered that the man walking on the water really was Jesus, the Son of God.

Last week Patrick preached from the story of Peter getting his first glimpse of who Jesus was when his boat filled up with fish. The story today is one more step in the faith of Peter and led to his great confession when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter boldly proclaimed: (Matthew 16:16)
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus took his disciples and led them step by step, experience by experience, into greater faith.

There are so many lessons that can be taken from this story but today I will focus on three:
Jesus wants us to walk on the water with him. Because it is Jesus who calls us into the unknown, we can step out with confidence. When we falter, Jesus will be there to rescue us.

First: Jesus wants us to walk on the water with him. He doesn’t want us to stay in the boat.

When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Jesus could have replied, “Stay where you are Peter. I’ll be right there.” But Jesus called to Peter to come.

If you could have a photograph of the face of Jesus as he watched Peter get out of the boat and come toward him on the water, what do you think you would see in his expression? I think his face would show his delight. He might have been laughing. I think Jesus loved having Peter step out of the boat and walk toward him.

Why did the rest of the disciples not ask if they could come? Wouldn’t it have been a wonderful story if the rest of the disciples, one by one, stepped out and joined Peter and Jesus as they danced together on the waves? But only Peter had the nerve to step out on the water. The rest of the disciples were too afraid to give up the safety and security of the boat. But as Peter was walking on the water, who was most safe? Peter or the other disciples? The other disciples were sitting in a wooden boat that floated, keeping them on top of the sea. Peter was doing something very strange and was in danger of sinking into the sea. But I tell you that no one was more safe than Peter in this story because we are always most safe when we are with Jesus.

We are secure in doing what we have done before. We like routine and predictability. We feel safe by staying within our comfort zone. But Jesus calls us to step out into adventure, to try new things, use new spiritual gifts, take on new responsibilities. Jesus has always been calling his followers to step out of the boat.

God called Abraham to leave the comfort and security of his home and head for Canaan.

God called Moses from his hiding place in Midian to return to Egypt to face Pharaoh and rescue Israel.

God called Gideon from where he was timidly trying to thresh wheat inside a winepress to lead Israel out from under the oppression of the Midianites.

God called Ruth to follow Naomi away from her land and her people into a strange land.

God called Philip to go on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip was used by God to bring salvation to the Ethiopian eunuch and then miraculously was transported away.

God called Saul from a secure career as a Pharisee to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

According to church tradition, God called Matthew to go to Ethiopia and Thomas to go to India. Throughout the history of the church, men and women have heard God call, “Come,” and left their home country and family to go out into the world to share the good news of Jesus.

Throughout the history of the church, men and women have shared their faith with their neighbors, friends and family.

God has called many to his service. “Come, “ teach a Sunday School class. Start a Bible Study in your home. Talk with your neighbor about me. Stand up in church to share what has been taking place in your relationship with me. Start a spiritual blog to share the insights you gain by reading and reflecting on passages in the Bible.

To any of these things to which God has called you, you may be too frightened to obey. Jesus may say, “Come, “ but you are too afraid to step over the side of the boat and into the water. But I remind you that the safest place you will ever be is when you are working side by side with Jesus.

When God calls you to come, you step out of the boat and go to places you normally do not go.

Second: Because it is Jesus who calls us into the unknown, we can step out with confidence.

Sometimes it seems that we miss the part of the story when Peter asked and Jesus said, “Come.” If Peter had thought to himself, “I think it would be pretty neat to walk on water. Jesus is doing it, why not me?” and stepped out of the boat, what would have happened? We are like that sometimes. We decide what it is we want and then expect God to help us get what we want.

A few weeks ago I preached from James where he writes: (James 4:15)
you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

James was being critical of wealthy businessmen in the church who made their plans without consideration of what God wanted them to do with their time and money. These businessmen made their plans and then went out to make them happen. They made their plans and then expected God to bless them. But can we really expect God to follow our lead?

This sermon has had a big impact on me and I am much more conscious of taking time to fast and pray before making major decisions. I have a friend who was accepted at one of the top law schools in the US. This is quite an achievement and it might seem that the decision to go to this school is obvious, but I have challenged him to fast and pray for a day to see if God has other plans for him. I have another friend who has a prestigious job being dangled in front of him. It is a wonderful opportunity and most people would jump at the chance to take this job. But I have also encouraged him to fast and pray for a day and see if this is what God wants him to do.

Unlike God, we cannot see into the future. We need to submit to God and allow him to direct us. We can’t shoot an arrow and then pray that God will help it reach the target we have chosen. We have to seek God’s will before we shoot the arrow, aim the arrow as God directs us, and then we can have confidence as we enter into new challenges.

Third: When we falter, Jesus will be there to rescue us.

The reason we can step out into new challenges, into the unknown with confidence, is that if we fall, Jesus is our safety net. Peter took his eyes off Jesus and saw the wind and waves. The exhilaration of walking on water was replaced with fear that he would drown and he called out for help. “Lord, save me!” And when did Jesus come to help him. After he had struggled a bit?
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

God is always there, as present as the air we breath. We do not need to wait to get God’s attention. It is not as if he is having a conversation with someone else and we have to wait our turn. God is present with us and when we are in trouble, immediately, he is there to help us.

Even when it seems we are failing, we can be at peace because we are walking on the water he has called us to step out on. He is delighted we have stepped out and he will help us when we need it.

Jesus stepped into the boat with Peter and the disciples and they
worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This is why we ask to come. This is why we come when invited. This is why we come with confidence. It is not simply a wonderful man, a talented and charismatic leader who calls us; it is Jesus, God in the flesh, who has existed for eternity before the creation of the world, who invites and calls us. So when you sense he is calling you, step out with confidence. When you have a major decision to make, take time to fast and pray and if you don’t sense a different direction, set off in the direction you think right and do it with confidence. Take the risk of using your spiritual gifts.

Jesus calls you. “Don’t be afraid, my daughter. Don’t be afraid, my son. Come walk with me.”