Faith that defies gravity

Sermon for the week of Epiphany 4

Romans 4:16-25  +  Matthew 14:22-33

Another storm on the Sea of Galilee, another miracle—two of them, actually—and, once again, the appearance of fear, doubt, and panic. The main point is similar to the main point in the Gospel from this past Sunday. But there is a little twist in this account that’s well worth considering.

It had been a very long day, including the feeding of the 5,000. When night fell, Jesus sent His disciples across the sea, while He stayed behind by Himself for a while to pray.

They spent the whole night rowing, but the boat was “tossed by the waves because the wind was contrary.” It was the fourth watch, almost morning, but they hadn’t gotten very far. Then, in the moonlight, they looked back over the waters and saw what they thought must have been a ghost, because it was walking on top of the water, and people just don’t do that kind of thing. It was Jesus. He called out to them, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter wanted to make sure he wasn’t just hearing things or seeing things. Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” “Come,” Jesus said. So Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. It’s one thing for the All-powerful Son of God to defy gravity, but it’s another thing when a simple human being does it. And notice where the power was. Peter didn’t just get it in his head that he could walk on water, too. He didn’t just believe he could do it. He very wisely waited for Jesus’ command, for Jesus’ word telling him he could come out and walk on the water. Once he had it, he had something to put his faith in.

That’s an important lesson about faith. Real faith is always based on a specific command or promise of God. If God hasn’t said it, you have no right to believe it. But if God has said it, you can bet your life on it, even if it defies all logic, even if it defies the laws of gravity.

So Peter was doing well for a while. His faith was focused on Jesus’ power and Jesus’ word to him, empowering him to walk on the water. But when Peter saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid and began to sink.  Peter focused on the wind, and faith took backseat to his logic. “How can I possibly stay on my feet? How am I able to walk on water, anyway? Hey, what I’m doing is impossible. That wind! Those waves! I can’t do this; I can’t walk on water. Oh, man. Now I’m sinking. It’s getting worse. See, I knew it, I can’t walk on water! I’m going to drown!”

Peter took his eyes off Jesus. He looked away, with his heart, focusing on the problem, on the crisis of wind and waves, allowing his heart to be pried off of Jesus’ word. That’s the definition of doubt: to stop trusting in what Jesus says, and to start thinking that maybe Jesus won’t do what He said He would do. That’s a formula for disaster.

As we learned on Sunday, the real danger in any danger is not the danger itself. It’s that the danger will scare us away from trusting in Jesus’ word and promise.

Crises are bound to come into every believer’s life. There’s a right way and a wrong way to handle a crisis. Peter showed us here – the wrong way: Take your eyes off Jesus. Look at the problem, focus on the problem, see the wind and the waves as bigger than Jesus, more powerful than Jesus, more real than Jesus’ word. Isn’t that just what we tend to do in a crisis? Forget everything else! Deal with the problem! Obsess over the problem! Try to figure it out, find a solution! Dwell on the problem! When I figure it out, when the wind dies down, then, then I’ll listen to God’s Word again. What foolishness! Just the opposite of what the real solution is!

Peter’s panic didn’t completely drive him to despair. He didn’t sit there, sinking down into the water, thinking, “Oh, I let Jesus down. He’ll never help me now. I’m just going to sink down and drown, I guess.” No. What did he do? Even then, as he sank deeper and deeper into the dark waters, with all of his doubt still intact, Peter looked back to Jesus to save him. “Lord, save me!” he cried out. He doubted Jesus’ word and was suffering for it, but Peter didn’t lose sight of Jesus as his Savior.

And Jesus did save him, in more ways than one. Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him. He didn’t let Peter drown. He didn’t make him splash around in the water for a while, gasping for air until he had learned his lesson. Immediately, he saved his sinking saint.

And then he refocused Peter’s faith. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”  “Don’t you know by now, Peter, that if I say something, it will always be the truth? That if I promise something, it will always come to pass? Don’t you know that My Word is more reliable than your own senses and more powerful than anything in all creation? Why did you doubt?”

Peter didn’t answer, but we know what the answer is, because we, too, are sinful human beings, easily fooled into believing that our problems are more real than Jesus. Like Peter, we’re sinful, weak human beings who know how easy it is to let the noise of problems and crises drown out the Word of God. What specific promise of Jesus gets obscured in your heart at times when the wind howls and the waves crash? That He really is working all things together for your good? That He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear? That He will provide for all your bodily needs? That He will be there on the other side of death to receive you into His heavenly kingdom?

Jesus had all of His disciples, and you and me, in mind on that night out on the water of Galilee. As soon as He and Peter climbed into the boat, the wind died down. That wind had been there for a reason: to teach us how easily our faith can lose its focus on Jesus and start to sink, so that we know what to do when we do start to sink, and so that, just maybe, we won’t allow the wind to distract us in the future.

When the walls are closing in around you…When it gets harder and harder to breathe…When you’re sinking into despair or depression or a pit of hopelessness…When you’re surrounded by evil…When, on your deathbed, the devil tries one last time to accuse your conscience… You remember this miracle of the sinking saint! You remember to focus on Jesus and His Word which pries your faith off of the wind and the waves and refocuses it on Him! And if you have doubted and have already begun the sinking process, don’t wallow in self-pity or let the guilt of your doubt pull you down into the dark waters. Even as you’re sinking, you do as Peter did and look up to Jesus! “Lord, save me!” Remember the body and blood of your Savior, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins and given to you in His Sacrament to give you miraculous power over sin, and fear and doubt. Amen.

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