Taking our eyes off Jesus

Pentecost 9 – 2014

Matthew 14:22-36

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who stretches out his hand and holds us when we falter. Amen.

 

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,

other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed

that during the low periods of my life,

when I was suffering from

anguish, sorrow or defeat,

I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
 ‘You promised me Lord,

that if I followed you, 
you would walk with me always.

But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life

there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.

Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?’

The Lord replied,

‘The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand,

is when I carried you.’

-Mary Stevenson

 

This poem adorns cards bookmarks, placemats, wall hangings, plates and a vast number of other things. It is a reminder that while we might take our eyes off Jesus, Jesus never takes his eyes off us.

Like most gospel stories this morning’s gospel reading is packed with detail.

You may remember from last week, that Jesus sought solitude after the death of John the Baptist and that he and his disciples got in a boat to go to a deserted place. His plan was foiled by the crowds who followed him seeking healing. Jesus’ compassion was such that instead of sending them away, he not only healed them, but he also fed them. It is now evening. Jesus commands the disciples to get into the boat. Then he dismisses the crowd. He himself remains behind to pray (his reason for being in the mountains in the first place).

When the disciples are a significant distance from land, the wind and waves build up and (according to the Greek) “torture” the boat[1]. This is not unusual. The Sea of Galilee is surrounded by mountains. When a wind causes the cool air from the mountains down to meet the warm air of the lake, the change in air pressure means that storms spring up suddenly and without warning. The lake is relatively shallow which means that waves build up more rapidly than they would in deeper water. We know that at least some of the disciples are fishermen and used to weathering stormy seas. This would explain why they do not appear to be afraid of the storm or the wind – even though they appear to have been battling the waves for several hours.

They are not afraid until – sometime between 3 am and dawn – they see a figure that they presume to be a ghost, walking on the water towards them. Terrified, they call out in fear, but Jesus – for of course, that is who it is – responds: “It is I, do not be afraid.” Both phrases are significant. The words: “It is I” are reminiscent of God’s words to Moses from the burning bush. I AM being the self- designation of God. Jesus is identifying himself to the disciples. At the same time he is identifying himself as divine. “Do not be afraid,” is also a familiar phrase. These are the words of the angel to Mary and to Joseph and to the shepherds in the fields. A natural response to the presence of God is fear or awe and from Genesis onwards, God’s representatives are careful always to allay that fear with the words, “Do not be afraid”.

Jesus is present but the storm continues to rage. The storm is not the source of the disciples’ fear, nor is the purpose of this story to demonstrate Jesus’ power over the storm.

Peter, who from now on, becomes the spokesperson for or the representative of the disciples wants to be sure that it is Jesus. Perhaps too he is testing Jesus’ divinity – if Jesus is “I am” then surely he will be able to empower Peter to come to him on the water. Jesus’ command: “Come!” makes the impossible possible. Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards Jesus. At first all is well. Then Peter sees the wind (or more likely the effects of the wind). He loses confidence and begins to sink. Terrified, he calls out to be saved. Jesus reaches out to catch him, at the same time chiding him for having little faith and asking why he wavered or doubted. Together they get into the boat. Only then does the wind stop.

Astounded by what has happened, those in the boat realise that Jesus is the Son of God and the fall down and worship him.

The chapter ends as it began with large crowds seeking out Jesus in order that he might heal their sick.

For the ancients the sea was the place of chaos and evil. It was volatile and uncontrollable. That Peter left the boat at all is evidence of his faith and confidence in Jesus. That he faltered when he realised the danger in which he had placed himself is perfectly understandable. Jesus might chide Peter, but blind faith is not a pre-condition for Jesus’ saving grace.

Faith enables us to do extraordinary things and to face terrifying and demoralising situations. Responding to the call of God empowers us to do things we could not otherwise do – to step out of the safety of our figurative boats and to walk across the stormy seas of life. There will be times when we walk with assurance with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, but there may also be times when we falter. When we are overcome with confusion or grief, when we are weighed down with despair or guilt or when misfortune hits us out of the blue we can forget that Jesus is present with us or waiting ahead of us. At those times we can be sure that even if we forget, Jesus will not forsake us and that, when we call out in terror, Jesus will stretch out his hand and pull us to safety. The storm that had threatened to overwhelm us has been stilled.

We will discover that Jesus does not put limits on his compassion or his love nor does he place conditions on his help. Just as he did not abandon Peter to the sea, he will not abandon us in those times when our faith is tested or when our confidence in him has grown weak. Our faltering faith may mean that there are times in our lives when we take our eyes off Jesus, but no matter how much we waver, Jesus will never take his eyes off us.

 

[1] (The Sea of Galilee is not a sea at all but a large inland lake. It is formed between the steep cliffs of a wadi where the Jordan spreads out across the Rift Valley. The sea itself is 680 feet below sea level and the surrounding mountains reach up to 2000 feet in height. This means that while the valley enjoys a temperate climate the mountaintops get quite cold. When a wind rises in the east it brings the cold air down to the lake and when the cool air meets the warm the resultant change in air pressure mean that storms can spring up suddenly and without warning. The lake is quite shallow – 141 metres – and this means that it takes no time for waves to build up.)

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