Matthew 14:22-33 When Faith Falters
Many of you know Joni Erickson Tada. She was paralyzed in a swimming accident as a teen. This life-changing accident lead her on a journey of faith. And from her experiences with God, she has become a well known Christian speaker and artist. In a recent devotional she wrote about another moment of importance in her life. She says,
“When I was little and went horseback riding with my sisters, I had a hard time keeping up. My problem was that I was riding a little pony only half the size of their mounts. I had to gallop twice as fast just to keep up. I didn’t mind. I took it as a challenge until we came to the edge of a river. My sisters on their big horses thought it was fun and exciting to cross the river at the deepest part. They never seemed to notice that my little pony sank quite a bit deeper into the swirling waters. It was scary, but I wasn’t about to let them know.”
So, Joni rode her mount into the river; she continues,
“One crossing in particular sticks in my memory: the Gorsuch Switch Crossing on the Patapsco River. It had rained earlier that week and the river was brown and swollen
As our horses waded out toward midstream, I became transfixed staring at the swirling waters rushing around the legs of my pony. It made me scared and dizzy. I began to lose my balance in the saddle.”
Have you ever crossed a stream on a fallen log? I can tell you, you’re fine until you look down at the rushing water and then suddenly you’re off balance, struggling to keep from falling and you usually wind up scooting across the rest of the way on the seat of your pants. Or you climb up a ladder to get to that high pitch of the roof, to repair a loose shingle. And when you look down, you freeze. That is what it is like when doubt seeps in; we lose our focus, our sense of balance, and our confidence. You know what I mean, you are going along in life and everything is going your way until something happens that makes you doubt and then it seems that everything turns against you. You get a good job and they tell you you are doing great but the company gets bought off and you find yourself unemployed wondering if anyone will ever hire you again. You’re in a good relationship but you’re afraid to trust him and the doubt begins to drive a wedge of suspicion between you. You’ve always wanted to go to college, but you got more than one C in school, so you changed your mind, and took the first job offered to you after you graduated.
Doubt. It is that insidious, spreading fear that makes us take our eyes off the goal and question our abilities and worth. That’s what happened to Peter. For a moment, he was walking on water, literally, then doubt seeped in and he began to sink. I love this biblical story because Peter is so human, he is so like us. He is bold and willing to take risks on the one hand and fearful and full of doubt on the other. He shows us what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt. We want to believe but doubt comes so naturally to us. In fact, this very story challenges the faith of many of us. We have a hard time conceiving of anyone walking on water. Our faith sinks as we doubt the validity of a story which violates natural law. But just for now try to put the science aside. This scripture isn’t concerned with science but faith. Focus on what the story says about who Jesus is and what it means to be one of his disciples.
The first thing we should notice is that while Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and sent them across the sea, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. The story gives us bifocal image – in one scene we see Jesus in prayer on the mountain, which traditionally symbolizes the place where the presence and power of God is found – while at the same time the disciples were being battered by wind and waves in a small boat on the sea. They were rowing for all they were worth but getting nowhere because the wind was against them. Have you ever felt like that? That no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t get ahead? You work and work but still can’t get the bills paid up. You’ve been in program after program but you still can’t break the addiction. You try a new diet every month but you still can’t lose the weight the doctor says has to come off. You’ve been to therapist after therapist, but still the pain won’t let you go. Sometimes it seems the wind is against us and our efforts are fruitless. By the time Jesus came walking toward them in the hours just before dawn, the disciples were soaked to the bone, dead-tired and near despair. They’d been rowing for hours but the shore didn’t seem much closer than when they’d started. The wind was against them and they were getting no where on their own. Then they saw Jesus and cried out in fear, “It’s a ghost.” But he immediately reassured them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Jesus had been on the way to his disciples for a long time before they noticed him. He was concerned with their needs even when he seemed to be absent from them. The time on the mountain was not time apart from them, but time preparing for the work of saving them.
When life is battering us around and the wind is against us, sometimes we don’t realize that Jesus is coming to us through the events of our lives. We may not immediately recognize the ways that he is present, interceding for us. But he is there, working for our good long before we are able to hear the words of assurance, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” But like Peter, sometimes we want proof. How do we know that Jesus is the one who comes to us? We catch a glimpse of something but it is fleeting and mysterious. How do we know that Jesus is there in the shadows, coming across the turmoil of our lives? How do we know that he is the one who can help us? Peter said, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” It was an odd question. He might have said, “Lord, if it is you, make this storm stop,” or “Lord, if it is you, give us the strength of ten men so we can make it to the other side of the sea.” But Peter wanted more than that. He said, “If it is you, bid me come to where you are. Let me join you on the water. Show me that I can do whatever you command me to do. Take away my doubt. Make me have faith.” And Jesus said “come.” Barbara Brown Taylor paints a vivid description of what this moment must have been like:
“Peter swung his legs over the side of the boat and, while all the other disciples watched with their hearts beating in their mouths, he placed his feet on the surface of the water – the waves crashing against the side of the boat, the wind whipping his hair into his eyes – he put his feet flat on top of the water, took a huge, trembling breath, and stood up. Then he took a few hesitant steps toward Jesus across the heaving surface, like the first steps he ever took in his life, and he was doing fine until a gust of wind almost toppled him, and he got scared and felt his feet sinking into the black waves below and he went down like a stone.”
We know that sinking feeling. When doubt creeps into our minds and fear grips our hearts we stop hoping for what is possible and start worrying about all that could go wrong. When our faith falters, we take our eyes off the goal and focus on the obstacles. And when we do, they grow larger and more powerful and we sink under their weight. If the fear of failure is foremost in your mind, then you will certainly fail. It is the nature of human behavior. It is also the nature of faith, but with a slight difference. For a moment, Peter forgot that he wasn’t dependent only upon his own ability. It wasn’t what he could accomplish, but what God could accomplish through him. He lost sight of the one who called him to venture forth from the safety of the boat and gave him the power to fulfill what had been commanded. He accepted the risk of faith by answering Jesus’ call and climbing over the rim of the boat but his doubt crept back when he felt the force of the wind and saw the size of the waves. He shifted his attention from the power of God in Jesus to his own limitations and fears and he started to sink like a rock.
But before he went down, he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out a strong hand to catch him and haul him into the boat, wet and shivering. At least Peter had the good sense to call out for help when he needed it. Some of us would rather drown than admit we need help! We should notice that Matthew says Jesus immediately reached out to catch him. He didn’t have to beg for help or wait until he was floundering in the water – the help was there immediately, even as Jesus rebuked him, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Why do any of us doubt? “Because we are afraid, because the sea is so vast and we are so small. Because the storm is so powerful and we are so easily sunk. Because life is beyond our control and we are so helpless in its grip? Why do we doubt? Because we are afraid, even when we do have faith. Because we do have faith, you know. We do not have none; we have some. Like Peter, we have a little and a little is better than nothing.” In the Gospel of Matthew the word oligopistos (of little faith) was never used to speak of nonbelievers. Rather it was spoken as a rebuke to people of faith who didn’t use the resources of faith available to them. Jesus rebuked Peter not for being faithless, but for not exercising the faith that he had. Faith is like a muscle, it will waste away if it is not used. It must be exercised; it must be practiced. Jesus had taught the disciples that with the faith of a mustard seed they could move mountains. But faced with the immediate threat of a churning sea, Peter’s doubt seemed more real to him than his faith. Yet, in his
moment of crisis he reached out with the little bit of faith that he had and it was enough.
That is the good news in this story. Jesus can reach out to save us of little faith, even as we sink in doubt and fear. That is good news indeed, because like Peter, faith and doubt are all mixed up in us – giving us courage and feeding our fears, lifting us up and bearing us down, supporting our weight on the wild seas of our lives and sinking us like stones. Faith and doubt co-exist in us. We obey and fear, we walk and sink, we believe and doubt
It is not like we do only one or the other, we do both. “Which is why we need Jesus,” says, Taylor. “It’s why we wouldn’t be caught dead on the water without him. Our fears and doubts may paralyze us, but they are also what makes us cry out for his saving touch. If we never sank – if we could walk on the water just fine all by ourselves – we wouldn’t need a savior. . . Our doubts, fearsome as they are remind us who we are and whose we are and whom we need in our lives to save us. When we sink, as Peter does, as we all do, our Lord reaches out and catches us, responding first with grace and then with judgment – “Why did you doubt?” – but never, never with rejection. He returns us to the boat knowing full well that the only reason we are in the boat in the first place is because we believe, or want to believe, and because we mean to follow him through all our doubtful days.”
Maybe our desire to believe is enough for Jesus to work with. It is at least a beginning. It gives us a place in the boat with the others who are struggling to believe more and doubt less. It is in the boat that we find people who are listening for Jesus’ voice in the darkness. It is there that we find people willing to obey the call when it comes and take the risk of faith. And it is there that we find help when the seas of life threaten to overwhelm us. Maybe it is enough to offer up our little faith, praying with the epileptic in the gospel of Mark, “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief (Mark 9:24).” When Peter was hauled out of the sea by the scruff of his neck, he fell grateful and exhausted onto the deck of the boat. Then Jesus climbed in behind him. Did you notice that? When Peter couldn’t come to Jesus, Jesus came to him and to all those waiting there in the boat. When we can’t walk to
Jesus, Jesus walks toward us and climbs into our life circumstances with us to bring the
help that we need. And like Peter Joni found the help she needed, in her moment of doubt and fear. She wrote,
“The voice of my sister Jay finally broke through my panic. “Look up, Joni! Keep looking up!” Sure enough, as soon as I focused on my sister on the other side, I was able to regain my balance and finish the crossing.”
And she concludes her story with reference to this event,
“That little story came to mind recently when I was reading about Peter in Matthew 14. It seems he had a similar problem as he walked on the water toward the Lord Jesus. He looked down at the raging waters, got dizzy, and lost his balance. Because he took his eyes off the Lord and put them on the swirling waves around him, he began to sink. How much we are like him! …we let our circumstances almost transfix us,… We become dizzy with fear and anxiety And before you know it, we’ve lost all balance. It’s easy to panic, isn’t it? And admittedly, it’s hard to look up especially when you feel like you’re sinking. But my pony and I made it across the Patapsco and Peter made it back to his boat. Thousands before you, enduring the gale force winds of circumstance, have made it through keeping their eyes on the Lord Jesus!”
And as Peter and the disciples learned the lesson of faith and doubt, they also discovered the care and compassion of Christ; and they learned of the faithfulness and presence of God. The moment Jesus stepped into the boat, the sea became calm and the wind was stilled and everyone knew they were in the presence of the Almighty God. And they fell
down and worshipped him. They recognized the God who has promised them, and each and everyone of us.
[But now] thus says the Lord,
He who created you, O Jacob,
He who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine;
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
When the winds which have been against us suddenly cease, when the fears that have gripped us lose their power, when the deliverance that we have hoped for is in sight, then we know without a doubt that we are in the presence of the Almighty. And like the disciples “in the awesome silence of that night becoming day, all of us who are in this boat together worship him, saying, ’Truly, you are the son of God.’”