Sermon / August 10, 2014 / Pastor Terry Defoe / A Contrary Wind / Matthew 14:25-27
25 Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
As we live out our Christian lives, the Lord has many lessons to teach us. As the years go by, we learn those lessons. In our Bible text this morning – found in the 14th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – there’s a truth we need to focus on – the fact that contrary winds sometimes come our way in life. I pray that God would richly bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day!
In Matthew 14, Jesus asked his disciples to get into a fishing boat and sail out across the Lake of Galilee. It was late in the day. Dark clouds were visible on the horizon. Jesus told his disciples that he would meet them on the other side of the lake. After the disciples left, Matthew tells us that Jesus "dismissed the crowd." The crowd Jesus dismissed was the crowd we talked about last Sunday, the 5000 plus individuals who had just experienced the miracle of the loaves and the fish.
Jesus left that huge group of people with a word of blessing. As you would expect, they were very much impressed with Jesus. Some had begun to think of him as a great prophet – perhaps the special prophet that Moses had predicted in the Old Testament book of Genesis. The crowd Jesus dismissed was indeed impressed with him. As a matter of fact, some wanted to make Him their king. They wanted to make him a political king. They wanted him to raise up an army and defeat the Romans. The Romans, as you know, had taken over the land of Israel and held the people in bondage.
There were those who thought that Jesus was just the right person to unite the nation of Israel, and bring it back to the glory days it had experienced when David was their king. Jesus was very different from their own religious leaders – the Pharisees and the Sadduccees. The people sensed that God was with Jesus in a very special way. But there was much they still didn't know about him – still many lessons they needed to learn. And that was true not only of the crowds, but also of Jesus’ own disciples.
After Jesus dismissed the crowd, he finally got to spend some quiet time in prayer with his Father. As we heard last week, Jesus had been wanting to do this all along – but his plans were changed when huge crowds came out to meet him. But now, after the miracle was over, and as his disciples headed out across the lake, Jesus went to a nearby place to pray. It was nightfall. The intense pressures of the day were gone. We don't know exactly what Jesus prayed about that night. But it's not too hard to speculate. Jesus most likely prayed for himself. He most likely prayed that His Father would strengthen him on his mission to bring salvation to the people of Israel and to the whole world. There's a good chance that Jesus also prayed for the people of Israel – that they would understand who he was and what he had come to do. There's a good chance that Jesus prayed for his disciples that night as well.
Matthew chapter 14, verse 22 says that Jesus' disciples did as he had asked them to do. They got into the boat and went on ahead of him to the other side of the lake. By nightfall, we're told that their boat was already a considerable distance from the land. But there was a problem. The boat was being buffeted by strong winds – contrary winds, if you will – and progress was slow.
It's important to remember that Jesus’ disciples were doing exactly what He had asked them to do. Now, I don't know about you. But if it was me out there on the lake, fighting a relentless headwind, I'd probably be thinking,
"I'm out here doing what the Lord told me to do, but I'm not getting anywhere. That wind never quits. At this rate, we'll never get to where we're supposed to be going. To make things worse, we've all had a long day. We're tired. Why did Jesus sent us out here – at night – anyway?”
Verse 25 of Matthew chapter 14 says,
"During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake."
The fourth watch of the night was from 3 am to 6 am, just before dawn. Through bleary eyes, Jesus’ disciples could see a figure coming out towards them, moving across the lake. I don't know about you. But that would definitely get my attention! It seems to me that there was a good reason why Jesus sent his disciples out onto the lake that night. He could have told them what he wanted them to know. But he decided to show them instead – and show them in such a way that they would never forget. He wanted to involve them. As I said last week, he had some “on the job training” for them. As the old saying goes:
“Involve me. Then I’ll understand!”
Jesus wanted his disciples to learn that that he would always be with them. He wanted them to learn that nothing could separate them from him or his love. The disciples didn't recognize Jesus out there on the lake – at least not at first. Of course, they didn't expect to see him there, out on the lake, in the middle of the night. At first, they thought they were seeing a "phantom." They were terrified. But Jesus had words of comfort and assurance for them.
"Take courage, It is I" he said. "Don't be afraid."
The first disciple to speak up, as you might expect, was Peter. We all know Peter. He was the impulsive one. He was the one who said that he'd never leave Jesus but found out the hard way that he couldn't keep his promise. Peter, as someone said, was the disciple who "put his mouth in gear before his brain was engaged." Matthew 14:28 records for us what Peter said to Jesus, out there on that stormy lake, somewhere between 3 and 6 o'clock in the morning:
"Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you, on the water."
Peter had a strong independent streak. He wanted to step out of the boat and come out to Jesus, walking on the water. After all, if Jesus could do it, so could he.
Jesus said, "Come."
I've got a question for you. Do you think that Jesus wanted Peter to do that? Or do you think Jesus only allowed Peter to step out of the boat because he had a lesson for Peter – and for the other disciples – to learn? For me, it's the latter. It's as if Jesus was saying,
"All right, Peter, if that's what you want, then go ahead. Give it a try. Let's see what happens."
What Peter did reminds me of what little children do. Think for a moment of a little child – perhaps a child going through the "terrible twos." It's suppertime. And the parents want the child to have a glass of milk. Mom or dad offers the child a glass of milk, and the child pushes the parent's hand away and says,
You know what’s going to happen. The child takes hold of the glass. All the while mom or dad is thinking, "You're going to spill it!" And what happens? The child spills the milk. What we have here, it seems to me, is the equivalent of Peter pushing Jesus' hand away, saying, "No, I can do it by myself!" So Peter stepped out of the boat. Now, some Bible scholars think that the boat here is a symbol of the Christian church. Some scholars think that the boat is a symbol of the safety to be found in the Christian church. God's people gather together in the boat. Jesus Christ is the captain, the one who steers the vessel and keeps it on course.
With the Lord’s permission, Peter stepped out of the boat. Verse 29:
"Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus."
Jesus allowed Peter to do the impossible. Imagine how Peter might have been able to boast about this, later on. He had done something others couldn't do. He would have had a reason to boast about his superior spirituality. Verse 30 brought Peter back to reality:
"But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!'"
Peter's moment of elation and victory soon turned to terror. He took his eyes off Jesus for just a moment. We're told that rookie sailors on the old sailing ships, when they were on their way up to the "crow's nest" for the very first time, were told by the veteran sailors to "keep looking up!" As those inexperienced sailors climbed the narrow rope ladder up to the observation post, they were told to keep their eyes on their destination –not to hesitate or look down to the ship's deck below or the waters of the sea all around.
Peter was distracted – just for a moment – by that contrary wind and the waves. That was the same contrary wind that he and the other disciples had struggled against through the night. It was the same contrary wind that had continually frustrated their efforts. As soon as those negative thoughts entered his mind, Peter began to sink. And as he began to sink, he instinctively cried out,
"Lord, save me!"
We human beings tend to be very proud of our abilities and our accomplishments. And, truth be told, we human beings, as a species, have accomplished much. In our day, we can do many things that previous generations would have thought were impossible. But WE STILL CAN'T SAVE OURSELVES. Our sins still get in the way, they still keep us from the presence of a holy God, and, they always will, unless God Himself intervenes.
That moment, out on the lake, as he was being overwhelmed by the waves, Peter wanted what every human being instinctively wants. He wanted to be rescued. But what Peter wanted most, he couldn't do for himself. He couldn’t rescue himself. What he most wanted, only Jesus could do for him. Verse 31:
"IMMEDIATELY, Jesus reached out his hand, and caught him."
That night, Jesus’ goal was to teach Peter – and His disciples – and us as well – a critically important lesson about faith. Jesus said to Peter,
"You of little faith. Why did you doubt?"
This morning's Bible text reminds us how important it is to stay within the confines of the boat – the blessed fellowship of God’s people we call the church. Verse 32 says:
"And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down."
Did you notice that? Only after Jesus and Peter climbed back into the boat did the wind die down. It seems to me that Jesus allowed that contrary wind to blow that night. He allowed his disciples to struggle against it, hour after hour. He was teaching them – and us – that they would have to face strong winds of adversity while they were doing his will.
So, let me ask you – what do you think was the most important lesson Jesus’ disciples learned that night? Verse 33 has the answer:
"...those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying 'Truly you are the Son of God!'”
This is the heart of our text this morning. References to Jesus being the Son of God are found several times in the book of Matthew. And they always occur at critically important moments in His ministry. In Matthew chapter 16, for instance, Jesus asked his disciples what the people were saying about him. He also asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter spoke up and said,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
In Matthew 27, a non-Jew of high status, a Roman centurion said, after watching Jesus' death on the cross:
"Surely he was the Son of God."
Jesus' disciples learned the truth about him over an extended period of time. But that’s my point! The Christian faith involves a lifetime of learning spiritual truths. We don't learn it all in Sunday School. We don't learn it all in Confirmation Class. We slowly add to our knowledge as we hear God's word proclaimed on Sunday morning. We grow in our knowledge as we study God's word. We do learn these important lessons. And they make a huge difference in our lives.
The raging waters of the sea often represent chaos in the Bible. But ever since the first days of creation, God has been bringing order out of chaos. Jesus' death on the cross brings order into sinful chaos of our lives. In our text this morning, we have seen that Jesus' disciples learned to expect "contrary winds" as they served the Lord. The same is true of us in the church today. Adversity can make us strong. It can help us set our priorities. It can keep us close to the Lord and to his people. It can teach us patience and perseverance.
Jesus' disciples learned other lessons that night. They learned that Jesus always takes the first step in coming to people in need. In our day, He comes to us in the waters of Baptism. He comes to us in the bread and the wine – the body and the blood – of holy communion, which connect us to his death on the cross for our sins, and his resurrection from the dead for our justification. Jesus comes to us in Christian fellowship, as we gather together as his people. In many and various ways, Jesus answers our call for rescue. When we most need His intervention, He reaches out a powerful hand – a nail-scarred hand – and sets us on our feet again. May we never forget that. Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Help us keep our eyes on Jesus. Enable us to serve you and others, despite life's contrary winds. Calm our fears. Teach us about faith. Remind us that nothing can separate us from your love as we see it so clearly expressed in the life and death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.