My family was on vacation in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee a little over a week ago. While there, Jess’ uncle rented a pontoon boat for the afternoon. Because the majority of the crew were kids, we decided to treat the boat like it was a ski boat. We borrowed a wake board and a large tube, tied them to the boat, and hauled the kids over every square inch of that lake.
I knew that a bunch of the kids would be excited to go first, so I stayed off the boat for the first hour. When it pulled up to make the switch, I boarded and was informed that I would be the spotter. So, I sat on the back of the boat, faced backwards the whole time, and got to yell, “He’s down!” any time someone fell off of the tube, which was more often than you’d expect.
The most stressful part of that role was not watching the kids. No, it was watching the ropes. Usually ski boats have a rope system that keeps plenty of space between the ropes and the motor. That was not the case with this boat and our jerry-rigged system. Any time we were circling back to pick up a kid, the rope would just drag in the water, and the tighter and slower the turn, the closer the rope came to the motor. It was exhausting minding the ropes!
I ended up on the boat for two hours, mostly facing backwards and mostly keeping the ropes away from the motor. I like boats, but I was definitely ready to be done with boating after two hours.
So, I felt for the disciples when I studied the passage for today. Earlier in the day, they had been with Jesus and the crowds when he performed the miracle of multiplication, taking five loaves and two fish to feed thousands of folks. As the sun was setting on their time, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him on a boat. Many of them were fishermen, so they knew their way around boats and this particular lake. As the sun set, a storm cropped up and battered their boat. For over ten hours, they were tossed about on the sea, not able to make it to land and worried about surviving. I mean, I was on a pontoon boat with a motor on a placid lake for two hours, and I was ready to be on dry land; I can only imagine how fearful and anxious the disciples were in this storm.
What do you do when you are fearful and anxious? Do you panic? Bite your nails? Get frantic? Start yelling? Life throws plenty at us that can make us worry, and worry is something that is so personal that it’s not even worth me trying to list out its causes. You know them for yourself. Unfortunately, one of the lies that we sometimes believe is that faith in Jesus should eliminate worry and hardship from our lives — that somehow believing the right things and living the right way should mean that everything should work out just fine. Similarly, we also sometimes believe the opposite is true — that those who suffer misfortune deserve it because they didn’t believe the right things or do the right things. These lies we tell ourselves can be really harmful. Life is filled with trouble. We all face it. But here’s the truth at the heart of this passage:
Faith doesn’t exempt us from trouble. It equips us.
That is, trusting in God’s promises is what helps us navigate the difficulty that we all will face. It gives us strength. It gives us hope.
The story of Joseph affirms this. Here we have a young, precocious boy. He’s the favored son, despite being younger than most of his siblings. His father gives him a special coat, driving his brothers to jealousy. He’s had dreams that he shares with his brothers that clearly reveal that he will be more important than his brothers. If I were one of his siblings, I’d probably be sick of his cocksure attitude too.
One day Jacob sends Joseph to check in on his brothers, who have been tending the family flocks far from home. They seize their opportunity to rid themselves of their Joseph problem. They are ready to kill him, but Reuben offers a lighter sentence. So, they just toss him in a cistern. I wonder how Joseph felt in this. As he paced in this cistern awaiting his fate, did he rage against his brothers? Against God? Or did he turn to God in trust, believing that greater things were yet to come than his current predicament? I’d like to say it was the latter, since Joseph was made up of the stuff that allowed him to survive and thrive for years in Egypt, only to finally see God’s plan unfold that blessed him and his family. At the very end of his story, Joseph is able to forgive his family with these beautiful words, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Faith doesn’t exempt us from trouble. It equips us.
Joseph was tossed in a cistern, and even in his trouble, God was working things together for his good and for the good of others. Likewise in our gospel text, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat” and go ahead of him. He knew what he was doing. He knew God’s bigger plans for them, so whether he knew a big storm was in the offing or not, he trusted that God would be with them. This is actually the first time Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him in this entire gospel. They are equipped for this moment. They are learning to trust even in the trouble.
Still, I don’t fault them for freaking out. The text says their boat was “battered by the waves,” which in the original Greek actually means that their boat was “tortured” by the waves. They’ve been stuck on this boat for over ten hours, most of which were during this storm. Try to put yourselves in the boat with them. Ten hours. Terrible storm. Rain. Waves. Wind. It’s pitch black. They can’t see the shore, let alone make their way to safe harbor.
It’s hard to find faith and hope when things are bad.
But this is when Jesus shows up. In the darkness, in the vicious storm, and their distress, Jesus miraculously shows up in the most unexpected of places — walking to them on the stormiest of seas. Now, of course this blows their minds. People do not walk on water. They’ve been frantic for hours, and so his appearance is assumed to be otherworldly — he’s a ghost! But Jesus immediately speaks into their fear with these words, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Someone took the time to count the words in this passage, and this falls exactly in the middle of the story. It is I. In the Greek it is, “ego eimi.” I am. It is the same wording that God uses in Exodus when God is revealed in the burning bush. I am. In the heart of their very trouble, God in Jesus shows up doing the miraculous. Matthew is letting us know that Jesus and God are one in this story. Jesus uses the name of God — I am — and he does something the Hebrew scriptures attribute only to God — walking on water. Job 9:8 says, “All by himself [God] stretches out the heavens and strides on the waves of the sea,” and Psalm 77:19 says, “You strode right through Ocean, walked straight through roaring Ocean, but nobody saw you come or go.”
These disciples are clinging to dear life on this boat tortured by the waves, but they are not alone. The One who can take five loaves and two fish and feed thousands, the One who can stride on the waves of the sea is with them.
Faith didn’t exempt them from trouble. It equipped them.
But our story takes one more significant turn. Peter sees and hears Jesus, and wants more. “Lord, if it is you,” he says, “Command me to come to you on the water.” That’s quite the request, isn’t it? Most of us would probably just want Jesus to get in the boat with us and help us get through the turbulence. But Jesus commands Peter to get out on the water. Risking his life, he does it. As long as his eyes are fixed on Jesus, he’s doing fine, but the moment he loses that connection with Jesus, he starts sinking. Now, Jesus does rescue him, and this story finishes with a recognition from all who made it through this ordeal that Jesus is something special, that he’s the Son of God.
Throughout history, one of the metaphors for the church is a boat. Even classic church architecture reflects this, with the main part of the sanctuary — the nave — looking like an upside-down boat. There is safety in the boat. The disciples are scared for sure, but they will make it home sticking together in the boat. A piece of this passage is understanding that despite hard circumstances, God is with us in the boat. The church is very much a place and a people where God is made present and where we together have the opportunity to support each other through life.
But sometimes we need a Peter in our midst who is bold enough to take a risk — to leave the boat — in order to experience God outside of the sanctuary. Peter’s risk-taking changed the character of what was happening back on the boat. “The trust and risk of one follower of Jesus has an effect on the whole community of followers. Individuals who risk boldly and move toward the call of Jesus can make a difference in the lives of other believers.”
When he preached on this passage, Will Willimon wondered, “If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith.”
So, yes, faith doesn’t exempt us from trouble. It equips us. I want you to know that because it’s helpful when you’re struggling with your children or when you get bad news from your doctor. But faith also beckons us to take faithful risks. The church is no good to our neighbors if we only stay in the boat. The church is no good to our world if we leave our faith in the sanctuary.
The former pastor of Riverside Church once said, “The reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.” So, let’s end by making this personal. Where do you see God at work in your world? How has God been writing your story? Have you met God in the wind and the waves and also in the security of the boat? Rest assured, life will have storms. God equips us for those, and sometimes even calls us to walk bravely into them.