Sermon: Stepping Out of the Boat

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Matthew. Matthew is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew 14, beginning in verse 22. If you don’t have a bible with you this morning, feel free to grab one from the pew in front of you and leave it open as we read and study God’s word together. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule,

Your Holy Spirit our teacher,

and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, being buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said and cried out in fear.

Jesus immediately said to them, “Take courage! It is I! Don’t be afraid!”

“Lord, if it is really you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “Why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

And when they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. When the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought to him all their sick and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

For fishermen, the disciples sure have a difficult time whenever they get into a boat. Have you ever noticed that getting into a boat never goes well? Whenever they try to catch fish, they come up with nothing. Until Jesus shows up. Whenever they try to cross the lake, they find themselves in a storm. Until Jesus shows up.

Whenever the disciples climb into the boat and head out onto the lake, they encounter struggle. Every time the church launches out onto the deep waters of this world, it encounters struggle too. Perhaps we, as a church, can relate to the disciples on that night long ago.

It is right after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus stays behind to send everyone home, but he sends the disciples ahead of him to cross the lake. But it is no quick crossing. Late into the night, they are still rowing, wind in their faces, and waves slapping hard against the side of the boat. One stroke of the oar. Another. Another. And they inch forward. After hours, they might begin to wonder if they are making any progress at all. They are far from shore, but nowhere near their destination. They are exhausted, likely discouraged, and possibly wondering why they ever decided to get into this boat and head out into the lake.

Jesus gathers us each week for a feast. We come and are fed by his Word and at his table. Then Jesus sends us out into this world each week. He sends us out to be salt and light. Yet, you know as well as I do: we often find ourselves rowing against the wind, buffeted over and over again by the waves of this world.

It doesn’t take an advanced sociology degree to tell that it can be hard being a Christian in the world today. Youth sports seek to be all-encompassing in the lives of young families, promising fame, fulfillment and the elusive college scholarship, forcing more Christian parents to make more difficult choices about when and where to commit and how to live for Christ. The ever-increasing pace of contemporary life makes sitting together around the table for dinner seem like a fantasy from a bygone era, let alone reading scripture and praying together. Belief in spirituality is on the rise in this country, but we see person after person, even those we love, walk away from the orthodox Christian faith. We, as a church, know what it is like to be buffeted by the waves because the wind is against us. Public life has turned vicious as those claiming the name of Christ justify almost any evil for the sake of political gain. We know what it feels like to see the church, to see personal faith in Jesus Christ, become marginalized in the lives of our communities. We know what it feels like to row and row and row, not sure how much progress we are making, only to look around at the wind and the waves and see that it looks like we are failing. Like we are being pushed back. Like, after all this effort, we will not make it to the shore.

We cannot even pretend that all is perfectly well within the boat either. The storm we see raging outside the church is only matched by the one raging within. The divisions over doctrine, discipline, and the witness of the church reveal that commitment to Christ and his truth is often far overshadowed by commitment to our pet ideologies. And the character displayed in this disagreements is more anti-Christ than Christian. The waves are beating down and the winds blowing against us and, today, Christ’s disciples are squabbling in the boat.

A couple months ago, we met as Pleasant Prairie Classis and this was our scripture passage. Norma felt very prepared, because this had also been the passage our consistory was dwelling on for most of last year. Every elder and every pastor in that room knew what it feels like to row against the wind and feel beaten back by the waves.

Yet, remember that Jesus sent the disciples there. Even as the waves beat against the boat, the disciples were exactly where Jesus had told them to go.

Yet, shortly before dawn, after they had been rowing longer than their minds could register, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. What power that our Lord made the water act like the ground before him. Whereas with Israel, the LORD divided the waters and had the people walk through on dry ground. Now the Lord himself in the person of Jesus walks upon the water itself as if it was dry ground. As the psalmist proclaimed, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen” (Ps 77:19). What power and what grace. While the battered church struggled in the boat, straining their arms at the very task Jesus gave them, Jesus went out to them. Jesus comes to the battered Church and says words that should be emblazoned on every door, every pulpit, and every heart:

Take courage! I AM! Don’t be afraid!

This is the message of Jesus to the beaten and beleaguered church rowing against the wind: Take courage! I AM! Don’t be afraid!

At the center of these three phrases lies the central confession of the identity of Jesus, the central promise that gives us courage in every storm and casts out all fear: I AM has come to us in Jesus Christ. Most english translations say something like ‘It is I’ so that it makes more sense in english, but it looses the force of what Jesus is saying. In the midst of the storm Jesus identifies himself with two words: I AM.

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid!

Jesus, walking on water and later calming the storm, is doing what only God can do. Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid! This is why those in the boat respond with worship and say, Truly you are the Son of God!

We row against the wind every day, but Jesus comes to us, just as he came to the disciples, and he speaks the same words: Take courage! I AM! Don’t be afraid!

Jesus’ presence gives us courage in the midst of the storm. He says to us the same words Moses spoke to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous for the LORD your God is with you.” By his very words, Jesus gives us what he says. He gives us strength and courage to continue in the storm. While he eventually calms the storm, Jesus speaks to us words of courage while the winds are still blowing and the waves slapping against the side of the boat. It is only after Jesus himself gets into the boat that the storm is calmed. It is only after Jesus’ return that the wind stops blowing.

Until Jesus returns, we can expect the wind to keep blowing, but his words hold true. Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid! Jesus comes in a display of power and grace and says:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you;

and when you pass through the rivers,

they will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

you will not be burned;

the flames will not set you ablaze.

For I am the the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior,

I give Egypt for your ransom,

Cush and Seba in your stead.

Since you are precious and honored in my sight,

and because I love you.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;

I will bring your children from the east

and gather you from the wast.

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’

and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’

Bring my sons from afar

and my daughters from the ends of the earth –

everyone who is called by my name,

whom I created for my glory,

whom I formed and made.”

Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid!

If you hear nothing else this morning, hear these words from the lips of Jesus for you: Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid!

Peter takes these words to heart and responds as a disciple should and then responds like all of us. When Pastor Olga and I were in Israel with Ray VanderLaan, we learned that part of being a disciple was passionately desiring to be just like your teacher. You didn’t just want to learn what the teacher knew, but to be what he was, to do what he did. So when RVL picked a leaf off a tree, we picked a leaf off a tree. When he grabbed a rock, we grabbed a rock. When he climbed up the side of a mountain instead of taking the stairs, we climbed the side of a mountain. Once, he told us he didn’t see any disciples in our group because he had jumped into a shallow pool of water and the rest of us just stood in a circle watching and taking notes.

To be a disciple is to want to be like the one you are following, to do what he does. So Peter isn’t hoping to gain some cool magical power to walk on water. He sees Jesus walking on the water and he says, “If my Lord is doing it, so should I.” Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you on the water.

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came to Jesus. Peter is being a disciple. In those moments, it didn’t matter what was going on around him. It didn’t matter how foolish it looked, how impossible it seemed, or how windy it was. In those moments, it didn’t matter what his friends thought, what people would think of him at work, or whether he even thought he could do it. He wanted to be like Jesus, to follow him wherever he went, even if it meant walking on water. Even if it meant stepping out of the boat in the middle of the storm.

You know what it is like to row against the wind, you know the challenges of being a disciple of Jesus in your world. You have heard him say to you, Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid! Now you see him doing something you are not sure you can do. You hear him calling you out onto the water. Are you going to follow him?

Maybe it is being friends with that one person in the lunchroom no one wants to talk to. Maybe it sharing Christ with that someone you know needs to hear of him. Maybe it is seeking forgiveness where you would rather pretend nothing happened. Maybe it is offering forgiveness. You see Jesus walking on the water and calling you out of the boat. Are you going to follow him? Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid!

Peter takes those first few steps, but then falters. He looks around and see the wind. He grows afraid and begins to sink. Peter is all of us – filled with faith and fear, trust and doubt. He is the only one to step out of the boat, but he also sinks because he grows fearful. Yet, Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” Jesus said, “Why did you doubt?” Without delay, Jesus rescues Peter. Peter calls out for the LORD to save him and the response is immediate.

This morning, I don’t know exactly how hard the wind is blowing or the waves buffeting your life. But I do know that Christ’s words hold true: Take courage! I AM! Do not be afraid! I don’t know where he is calling you out of the boat to follow him, but I know that he not only gives you the power to do it, but will be there immediately when you stumble.

May we take courage in the face of the wind and the waves, and may each of us step out of the boat to follow Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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