1 Kings 19:9-18
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. +
You can’t blame the disciples for being at least a little freaked out. It’s true that at least a few of them were seasoned fishermen who were likely well acquainted with the sudden storms that swept across the Galilean lake from time to time. It’s also true that those fishermen were no strangers to being out on the water in the middle of the night, working late to try to bring in a big catch so that they could relax during the hotter daylight hours. Matthew even tells the tale of another instance in which the disciples were caught out in a boat on a rough sea and needed a little divine intervention to get them out of that difficult spot. This wouldn’t have been uncharted territory for the disciples if not for one crucial fact: during this late-night voyage, Jesus wasn’t in the boat. He wasn’t even in the neighborhood. For all they knew, Jesus was still miles away, and they were trapped on a boat that was being tossed around like a rag doll. In fact, the original Greek text seems to indicate that this was no ordinary storm; the words used to describe the plight of the disciples and their boat are the same ones used to describe the experience of people who are being tormented by demons or evil spirits. That’s the situation faced by these twelve men: in the darkest part of the night, sometime between 3am and 6am, they were being thrown about by a storm, when through the mist they spotted the faint outline of a figure walking across the water toward them. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I would have reacted much the same way that those disciples did: with fear and trembling.
The disciples had no way of knowing that the shadowy figure that was approaching them on the waves was Jesus. That is, of course, until Jesus addressed them: “Take heart! It’s me! Don’t be afraid!” It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Jesus to say, and yet the circumstances were just too extreme to allow them to believe that it was really him. At least not without a test. So Peter opened up his big mouth and asked for a sign: Lord, if it really is you, order me to come to you on the water! Jesus indulged him: Come on, then! And he did. He stepped out of the boat, got a few steps into his walk toward Jesus, then remembered where he was and plummeted into the crashing waves. It’s a wonder he was able to say anything at all, but he somehow managed to sputter, Lord, save me! Wouldn’t you know it? Jesus did just that. He reached down, dragged him out of the water and into the boat, and then climbed in himself. It was only then that the wind ceased, the waves begin to calm, and the disciples could make their way back to land.
So often when this story is read it turns into a sort of object lesson: Be like Peter, but not too much! Take that first step out of the boat, but keep your eyes fixed on Jesus or you’re going ot be in real trouble! We read the Lord’s response to Peter’s flailing and sinking as accusatory: You of little faith, why did you doubt? And subconsciously we convince ourselves that the problems we face are somehow our own fault, as if having more faith would prevent us from being buffeted about by the storms that sweep into our own lives from time to time and knock us off our feet. I think I’ve even preached this text that way before! I’m not sure, however, that that’s a helpful way to read this story. Consider this: There was no relationship between the disciples’ faith and the storm that threatened to overwhelm them. They were simply following the command of their teacher when it hit, and they tried everything in their power to navigate on their own. The storm just happened. So is there anything to learn about faith from this story? I think so, but I think what we have to learn less about the quality of our own faith and more about the kind of God who calls us to trust. In that earlier story I mentioned, when the disciples needed Jesus to bail them out of another storm, they responded when he spoke to the waves by asking, “What kind of man is this that the wind and the waves obey him?” We might ask the same sort of questions today. What kind of man is this? What kind of God is this? Scripture testifies that the God who calls us to faith is a God who isn’t content to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos. This God is the one who strides across and through the waves to speak words of peace and strength to us: Take heart! It’s me! Don’t be afraid! This God is the one who came to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ, taking on our humanity and bearing our experience in all its heart-warming bliss and gut-wrenching sorrow into the very presence of God. This God is the one who suffered cross and grave and rose again so that we might be free to trust in God and not in ourselves.
Yes, we are called to faith. But our faith is often weak. We are tossed about by the changes and chances of life, by inexpressible joys and sighs too deep for words. Only one person in human history has demonstrated perfect obedience to the will of God, perfect faith in the one we call Father, and he did not escape this world’s brokenness any more than any of us have. That doesn’t mean that faith is irrelevant or insignificant, but that what makes our faith meaningful is not how much of it we have or don’t have. Instead, what makes our faith meaningful is remembering the object of our faith, the one to whom we have been joined, the one who claims us for lives of costly service and priceless love and grace. It is that we have been bound up with Christ, the one who meets us in our need and speaks, not with a voice that shatters mountains or shakes the earth, but with a voice that carries through the storm: Take heart. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.
Brothers and sisters, today we are gathered in the presence of the one who promises to meet us when the waves threaten and offers us peace unlike any that this world can give. As we go out this week into an uncertain world, may the song on our lips speak not of the weakness of our own faith, but of Jesus, who calls us to trust and grants us the faith to proclaim: On Christ, the solid rock, we stand; all other ground is sinking sand! Thanks be to God! Amen.