The weather these last few days feels appropriate. Grim, dark, cold weather – the coldest three days for over twenty years. It matches the mood of the city: dark and uncertain, with a definite sense of frostiness. The restrictions get tighter and we can only hope they work. People are sick, businesses are being forced to close, we are barely able to leave the house, and an atmosphere of distrust has descended like one of those damp fogs that are such a feature of a Melbourne winter.
We are rowing our little boat as well as we can, bending on our oars as we stretch out for land, but the wind is against us, and it’s kicking up an ugly sea.
The first thing to do, it seems to me, is to lament. We are doing all we can, masking up, only going outdoors for an hour a day, only shopping for necessities once a day at most. We are all doing our bit, but still the virus storm rages around us, and sometimes we find it hard to believe that it will ever stop. We look at the situation overseas, and we wonder: could that happen here? And then we look at the situation in other states where life seems much closer to normal, and we ask ourselves: Why isn’t it like that here?
We have to name this as a storm. We have set out on our tiny fragile little boat onto a dangerous sea, and there is nothing else for it but to weather the gale.
Australians, as a rule, love the sea, and our houses cluster as near to the beach as we can afford. For us it’s a playground and a highway where so many of the things we need to live come sailing through the heads into the calm waters of Port Philip Bay. Very few of us risk the dangers of the open ocean, and we all share in the benefits of the sea.
But for the ancient Israelites, it was a very different situation. The sea represented chaos. Once out on the open waters, you couldn’t be sure where you were going. You couldn’t guarantee you were going to get there. You definitely couldn’t build a house or plant an olive grove out there. There was a strong contrast between the Promised Land, overflowing with milk and honey on the one hand, and the raging chaos of the sea on the other – the Isralites plumped for the land every time.
After all, hadn’t they preferred to walk from Egypt to Israel in the Exodus? One foot after the other, for years on end. But even that was better than having to take a boat. Just think of the trouble that Jonah got into when he tried to use a ship to flee from God’s command! Swallowed by a fish and spat out on the beach for his troubles.
In the very opening scene of the Bible, Genesis 1:1, the Spirit from God hovers over the ocean, and brings order out of chaos.
To translate the fear of chaos into Australian terms, consider the term “rip current” and notice the slight twinge of fear as you involuntarily imagine yourself drawn powerfully out to sea, being swept out towards New Zealand, trying to remember what you were told about not panicking: was it to ride the current out, and then swim across it? It’s hard to remember as the beach vanishes into the distance.
So the disciples found themselves in a rip tide, a long way from help. Pitch dark, wind howling, disoriented. In the grip of chaos, not knowing which way to turn. Their best efforts not seeming to amount to anything much.
Rather like us.
Into this scene, Jesus comes, walking on the water.
The disciples are terrified. Horrified. Is it a ghost, or some sort of demonic trick?
Jesus, like all messengers from God, says: do not be afraid. It is I.
Peter, of course it’s Peter, issues a challenge. If it’s really you, then command me to get out of this boat and come across the water to you.
Jesus says: come.
Peter gets out but, as the text says, “he noticed the strong wind” and panicked and began to sink.
Jesus stretches out his hand, grabs hold of Peter and suddenly they are both in the boat.
Then he asks Peter a simple sounding question: why did you doubt?
It’s a bit of a puzzle, this question. Does Jesus mean: why did you start doubting when you were already out on the water?
That’s how the question struck me when I heard the story as a child. The supernatural element was so strong, that it seemed obvious that it would have been the focus of Jesus’ question. Why can’t you be more like me, he seemed to be asking.
But what if the question was really more like: why did you have to test me? Why did you need me to perform yet another miraculous sign? Why did your faith need yet another demonstration?
Peter, after all, did say: “if it is (really) you.”
I’ve tended to think of this story as being about Peter and his failing faith.
But what if it is really a story about who Jesus really is?
The story it reminds me of most is the Transfiguration, where Jesus’ real nature was revealed as God’s beloved son.
Just like in that story, Jesus is revealed as somehow participating in God. Walking on the sea – calming the chaos, making the dangerous waves into something more like a garden path – is something only God can do. Only God’s spirit hovers over the waters of creation, only God can draw up Leviathan in a net.
So it was right that the disciples worshipped him.
We, too, are struggling in the storms of life. That’s often the case of course, but it seems more than usually true right now. All our science, all our bureaucratic organisation, all our mastery of the world seems to be of no more use than a dozen tired disciples trying to row across the lake into the teeth of the storm.
But this is precisely the time that Jesus comes to us. This is precisely the time when Jesus says: It is I, do not be afraid.
We don’t need to engage in Peter-style heroics, leaping enthusiastically out of the boat to run up to Jesus and high-five him.
All we need to do is to listen for God’s presence in our lives, and to rest in his presence. There are a lot of ways we can tune our hearing for God, but the fundamental thing is this:
Jesus says: Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.
You might enjoy By the Well, the Lectionary Podast which is an important resource for me as I on the lectionary text for the week.
Sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 7/8/20 on Matthew 14:22-33 for the 10th week after Pentecost / Proper 15 (20) Year A