(July 31, 2011)
Some scholar pointed out that this story comes in the exact middle of Matthew’s gospel. The 14th chapter of 28. What’s more, in the middle verse in this story (with 90 Greek words before and after it) is “Take heart- It’s me -Do not be afraid.”
Of course Matthew is not responsible for chapter breaks so it would take me a while to verify the observation, nevertheless it is appropriate, if it is true that the very central sentence should be “take heart- I am here- Do not be afraid.
Even more – if you look at it the heart of the sentence is “Ego Emi” “I Am” which echos the very name God revealed to Moses. Indicated in most Bibles with LORD, but in Hebrew original it was the Tetragrammaton– YAHWEH. The name which means “I AM” or could be read “I AM HERE” or, we might say, “It’s Me”. The name of God announces is his presence.
Maybe this is no accidental placement. At the beginning of the gospel Joseph is told to name the child of Mary “Emmanuel” God with us. And at the end of the gospel Jesus before his ascension say “Lo I am with you always.”
This story speaks of the presence of God, JESUS CHRIST as LORD. The presence with his followers in the midst of dark storms.
There is nothing like a rough storm to make you appreciate how not-in-charge you really are. The Perfect Storm was a book and a movie about a “Perfect Storm”. It is about a 72 foot swordfish boat, The Andrea Gail, that set out from Gloucester, Massachusetts on the morning of October 23, 1991 in search of big fish. Five days later three massive storm systems collide in the North Atlantic, Hurricane Grace coming from Bermuda, a Great Lakes storm system moving East, and a Canadian cold front moving South, creating waves of up to 100 feet, and turning a powerful storm into a disastrous storm, into what meteorologists call “a perfect storm.” The Andrea Gail is caught in the middle of it. The last words from the ship are those of Captain Billy Tyne, “She’s coming on boys, and she’s coming on strong.”
No one could rescue them. Despite their experience and equipment, they were no match for the mess they were in.
What are these disciples doing in the wee hours of the night at sea? All the gospels tell is somewhat the same. After feeding the thousands, Jesus sent the disciples on ahead of him while he dismissed the crowds. Then alone at last Jesus went up the hill to pray. So he was not with them when trouble came.
Now it is not hard to hear Matthew telling this story to his church in Antioch, where he was a resident resource. I imagine more than once someone had said, “Oh I wish we could have been there.” or “I wish Jesus was still here walking with us like he was back then.” And when times got hard I imagine they could see themselves in that boat with the twelve. Alone in the dark and fearful world.
There was a painting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. by Rembrandt in the Isabel Stuart Gardner museum in Boston until it was stolen in March 18, 1990. You can still see photos of the painting. It depicts the other storm story you can read about in Matthew 8. And the strangest thing: Rembrandt painted himself into the boat with those frightened disciples. Rembrandt had enough ups and downs in life that he could put himself in the shoes of those disciples.1
And so can we. We have all been in the same boat – or we will be.
Someone quoted an African American saying, “You are either coming out of a storm, or you are in a storm, or you are headed for a storm.”
My sister Nancy was telling me about her son’s experiences entering a residency program. The name of the coat declares he is an oral, maxillofacial surgeon. His first night in the ER a nurse led him to a woman whose head was completely swaddled by bloody bandages. She said, “There’s your patient.” He said “My first feeling was I need an adult!!” He did what needed to be done, and was excited that it all went well. But haven’t you had that feeling? “What have I got myself into and who is going to help me get out of it.”
Being on our own and not ready for prime time. Being overwhelmed.
Then one of them noticed a figure on the water. Maybe in the flash of lightning. They are terrified. “A ghost!”
But the figure calls out “Take heart. It’s me Don’t be afraid.”
There is a wonderful Texas story about two little boys whose mother asked them to chase a chicken snake out of the henhouse. They looked everywhere for that snake, but couldn’ t find it. The more they looked, the more afraid they got. Finally, they stood up on their tiptoes to look on the top nesting shelf and came nose to nose with the snake. They fell all over themselves and one another running out of the chicken house. “Don’t you know a chicken snake won’t hurt you?” their mamma asked. “Yes, ma’am,” one of the boys answered, “but there are some things that will scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself.” 2
You know we are like that. Sometimes our fear causes us to do stupid things. “A black preacher exclaimed, “One day there is a knock at your heart’s door. You open the door to discover an ugly individual standing there and you ask, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ He answers, ‘My name is Worry, and I am here to babysit your thoughts.’ You invite Worry to come in. A few days later there is another knock at your heart’s door, and you open the door to find an uglier individual standing there. ‘Who are you and what do you want?’ He answers, ‘I am Depression. You are overworking Worry, and I am here to relieve him.’ You invite him inside. A few days later, there is another knock on your heart’s door. You open the door to find an even uglier, more grotesque person standing there and you ask, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ He answers, ‘My name is Oppression, and I’m here to relieve Depression.’ You stand aside and allow Oppression to enter the door of your heart, and you know the rest of the story.”3 Storm comes up and blows your dreams away as it did for Joseph who all of a sudden discovered he had been sold into slavery, when he had dreamed that even his brothers would be serving him.
My goodness. We could worry about so much. The stock market plunge. The Standard and Poor’s downgrade of USA credit, the national debt, the inability of congress to work together, or problems with a child or the prognosis of a disease. There is more than one storm we might be in at once.
[“Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you
Is this story not a word of God for us? Out of the night, one walking on the waves of that storm calls out “Take heart! I am here. Do not be afraid.”
Now some people lose their tires in this problem of Jesus walking on water. How could somebody walk on water? And they spin their tires in the mud flats that they imagine must have been there to hold Jesus up.
Joanna Adams puts it this way,
To me, the challenge of faith has little if anything to do with my taking these things literally, and everything to do with my taking them seriously. None of the stories the Bible tells is told for its own sake, so as to make us marvel, as one would marvel at the execution of a magic trick. The stories are told to reveal a larger reality. They are told to show us the truth about God and the reality of the presence and power of God at work in human life, in human society, and in the universe, in ways that shatter all our present categories and assumptions.
An insightful friend once said that it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether you believe there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden, or even that there was a Garden of Eden, but it makes all the difference in the world whether you believe what the snake said.
I guess the reason I don’t have trouble thinking of Jesus walking on the water is that this story is telling us that Jesus is God present “in skin and sandals.”
Who walks the churning waves? Why,1in the Hebrew scriptures the waves represent the chaos, the threats to creation.
Psalm 89: 9-10 (New Revised Standard Version)
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
Or hear Job (Job9) saying, who is a mortal to contend with God:
He is wise in heart and mighty in strength — who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded? — he who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in his anger, who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea;
God is in control of creation and of everything that threatens to undo the Divine work.
What Jesus hints that when Jesus is present, the Creator is there. One with authority over all the threatening powers of the universe. God is able to bring things through to where he wants them to be.
If you are who you say you are, command me to walk on the water to you,” Peter shouts.
But time and again Jesus does just that – he gives the power and the authority to his disciples to do what they see him doing.
“When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” Luke 9:1-2 NIV
“By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas; the one who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might; who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples, so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.” Psalm 65:5-8 ESV
“Command me to come out there in the waves. And Jesus does.
If it is Jesus, Jesus not only assures us of his presence with us in the storm , he may command us to get out of what security we have into the middle of threatening, dangerous things.
The way you will know it is Jesus is that Jesus will lead you to do things you would not attempt on your own without the order.
“Ananias, Saul is in town and I want you to make a pastoral call.”
“The man who is trying to kill Christians?”
“That’s the one.”
Take a step into the mess.
Peter did okay for a minute and then he got to thinking about two things at once. Jesus had said “Come on” but the storm didn’t stop when he stepped out of the boat. Peter (the Rock) looks at the waves and loses his balance. Just enough time to shout “help” but Jesus had already reached out to grab him. Jesus is not just the Lord to be obeyed, but the savior when we get that sinking feeling.
We cannot do what Jesus calls us to do simply on our faith, we ever need the mercy and strength of God to be a disciple.
Bonhoeffer decision to be part of assassination plot against Hitler. Arrested and eventually executed.
“O ye of little faith.” Well yes. But didn’t you say Lord that if it is no bigger than a mustard seed it can grow into a blessing. Didn’t you make a point about how a little yeast can transform a whole pile of dough? So, help us .
And God’s response is swift the moment we truly cry out for help.
And Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
1There are 14 figures in the boat: Jesus and the twelve + someone that looks like Rembrandt’s self-portraits).
2Thanks to Joanna Adams
3“The God of the Storms”by Dr. John Adams, Vice President for Campus Ministries
and Church Services,Union University.