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Caught between Glory and Terror

Mark Twain once made a visit to the Holy Land with his wife. They stayed in Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. One night there was absolutely gorgeous. The moon was shining bright and the weather was perfect. This gave Mark Twain the romantic idea of taking his wife for a boat ride on the lake.

The two of them walked down to the seaside and asked a man sitting in a fishing boat how much he would charge to take them out on the water. Twain was dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes, and white cowboy hat. The fisherman, presuming that Mr. Twain was a wealthy rancher from the United States, said in his broken English that it would cost Mr. Twain the equivalent of twenty-five American dollars. Mark Twain thanked the fisherman and as he turned away with his wife on his arm he was heard to exclaim, “Now I know why Jesus walked!”

Of course by failing to pay up Mr. Twain also missed the adventure that Jesus’ disciples experienced on the Sea of Galilee. Let’s read together the story of how Peter was once caught between glory and terror on the Sea of Galilee and see what the Lord has to say to us through it, from Matthew 14:22-36 . . .
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. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

During the fourth watch of the night 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.

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

“Lord, if it’s 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 toward 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 worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.
This incident takes place right after Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. We read that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and cross the sea ahead of him. Why?

John’s Gospel tells us that after the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd wanted to force Jesus to be their king. Rather than giving in to the adulation of the crowd Jesus chose to focus on what his Father wanted for him to do. He knew that he could best do this by going up on the mountainside to pray.

What did Jesus pray about that night, there on the mountainside? It seems evident to me, based upon what followed, that Jesus was, among other things, praying for his disciples. Perhaps it was in prayer that the Father informed Jesus of the present need of his disciples, alone on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a storm.

You may remember that this is not the first time the disciples have been caught in a storm on the sea. However, the last time, in Matthew 8, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples. This time he is not with them.

This story would have resonated powerfully with Matthew’s struggling little church in the north of Palestine in the 70’s of the first century. They would have felt very alone and threatened by the same powerful forces which put Jesus to death.

Matthew’s message to his needy church, and to us, is clear: in the midst of the storms of life, when it seems that we are all alone, Jesus is praying for us.

Paul teaches us the same thing: that Jesus “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Romans 8:34) And the writer to the Hebrews tells us about Jesus: “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25)

Access to important people is a difficult thing to attain in our world. For example, access to the President of the United States of America is granted only to the few who have successfully passed through a series of detailed, cautious checkpoints. A Norway teen created quite a stir in the United States when he challenged the system, boldly dialing a secret phone number for the White House. Sixteen-year-old Vifill Atlason claims he called President George W. Bush out of curiosity. “I just wanted to talk to him—have a chat, invite him to Iceland, and see what he'd say,” the teen told ABC News.

In order to get through security, Atlason pretended to be the President of Iceland. He was surprised when his initial call didn’t pass through a switchboard, but went directly to a higher office to be screened by various security officials. Atlason was asked a series of personal questions in an attempt to verify his identification as the President of Iceland.

“It was like passing through checkpoints,” Atlason said. The checkpoints proved one too many—the teen never made it through to the president and was later taken from his home for questioning by local police. No charges were filed.

There are many checkpoints if you want to get through to the President of the United States. But the good news is that there is only one checkpoint with God—the name of Jesus gives us complete access to the one who is already praying for us!

How does that make you feel, to know that Jesus is praying for you right now? Does that encourage your own prayer life? The fact that Jesus is praying for us suggests that prayer is not a monologue in which our prayers merely rise to the ceiling and bounce off. Prayer is a dialogue, a conversation with our Savior. We are not alone in prayer. We have access to God through the one who prays for us. As Archbishop Richard Trench has said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance . . . it is laying hold of his highest willingness.”

But Matthew tells us there is more. Not only is Jesus praying for us at a distance, he will come to us in the midst of the storm.

Sometimes Jesus stills the storms of our lives, as we saw in the earlier story in Matthew’s Gospel. Other times he comes to us in the midst of the storm, walking on the waves.

N. T. Wright comments on this passage:
But before we think how the story works for us as individuals, let’s think of it first as a picture of our world. We are like the disciples in the boat. They had seen so much of Jesus’ power. They had heard his teaching and prayed his prayer. But now they were stuck. Professional fishermen, they were struggling with the oars, unable to make headway against the wind. We too in our world have discovered so much, learned so much, invented so much, and yet are still without power to do many of the things that really matter. We have invented wonderful machines for making war, but nobody yet has found one that will make peace. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t put food into hungry stomachs. We can listen to the songs the whales sing on the ocean floor, but we can’t hear the crying of human souls in the next street. 
And there, shimmering on the water, is a strange figure, walking toward us. Much of our world knows at least a little about Jesus; but he seems a ghostly image, a mirage or fantasy, unrelated to us and our problems. Some find him frightening. Others wish he’d go away and leave us alone. Even those who believe in him, as the disciples already did, don’t know what to expect from him. But he seems to be doing the impossible, and sometimes people get the idea that it would be good to copy him, if only we could. Some people set off with the aim of doing just that: to bring his love and power, his peace and hope, to the needy world.
Are you in the midst of a storm just now? If so, Jesus will come to you in the midst of the storm. We can never be sure just how he will do it. He never seems to do things the same way twice. But he always comes to us at the point of our greatest need. He is saying to you right now: “Take courage! It’s me. Don’t be afraid!”

But Matthew doesn’t stop there. He shows us through this story that when Jesus comes to us in the midst of the storms of life Jesus will also enable us to do the impossible.

Here we get one of the most delightful portraits of lovable, impetuous Peter in all of the Gospels. Alone out of all of the Gospels, Matthew tells this story of Peter walking on the waves to Jesus. It is interesting to me that Mark, who is traditionally thought to have been relaying the preaching of Peter in his Gospel, doesn’t tell this story. Was Peter reluctant to remember it? Or was Mark reluctant to tell such a story which showed his mentor in such a poor light? Personally I find this story to be one of the most encouraging ones in all of the Gospels, maybe in all of Scripture. I identify with it, and I imagine you can too.

Peter often acted without thinking. He will do this at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when he swears undying loyalty to Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest, then turns around and denies even knowing the Master a few hours later. Here he does something similar—“Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

This is a miraculous, wonderful moment and Peter wants to be right in the middle of it. He jumps right in. And for a few minutes he is walking on the water to Jesus. He is doing the impossible.

But then he looks at the waves and begins to sink. Because Peter often acted on impulse, out of the emotion of the moment, he often failed and then deeply regretted his failure afterwards. Jesus always insisted that people should think through their commitment to him. We must count the cost of following.

However, it is a good thing to get out of the boat and walk on the water to Jesus. It is only when we put ourselves in situations where we are bound to fail without Christ that we learn what this life of faith is really all about. It is only when we get out of the safety of the boat that we learn life’s greatest lessons. Though we may fail, like Peter, we will gain knowledge thereby which cannot be attained in any other way.

Once we do get out of the boat and start walking on the water, doing the impossible, so often, like Peter, we look at the waves of circumstance and begin to sink. We need to keep our eyes on Jesus at all times—not on what is going on around us.

The good news is that Peter was never finally or forever lost. In the moment of his failure he called out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and grabbed hold of Peter. If the Lord did this for Peter then he will certainly do the same for us whenever we are sinking and call out to him.

It has been truly said that a saint is not a person who never falls, but one who gets up and goes on again every time he falls. As C. S. Lewis has so helpfully written, “No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up.”

The key to picking ourselves up each time we fall is faith—trust in Jesus. He is the one who can pick us up, dust us off and get us started in the right direction again.

After Jesus reached out his hand and caught hold of Peter he said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter doubted because his focus was in the wrong place—on the waves. Faith is a matter of proper focus—keeping our eyes on the Lord and always calling out to him, trusting in him to help us walk on the water. For he alone is Master of the wind and waves.

Tom Friends of The New York Times once asked Coach Jimmy Johnson what he told his players before leading the Dallas Cowboys onto the field for the 1993 Super Bowl.

“I told them that if I laid a two-by-four across the floor, everybody there would walk across it and not fall, because our focus would be on walking the length of that board. But if I put that same board 10 stories high between two buildings, only a few would make it, because the focus would be on falling.”

Johnson told his players not to focus on the crowd, the media, or the possibility of falling, but to focus on each play of the game as if it were a good practice session. The Cowboys won the game 52-7.

In a similar way, winning the game of life is a matter of proper focus—keeping our eyes on Jesus as we walk across the waves to him in the midst of the storm.

Faith is also a matter of whom we are worshipping and whom we are touching. We read that when Peter and Jesus climbed into the boat the wind died down. Then the rest of the disciples worshipped Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When the boat got to the other side of the sea a crowd gathered because people recognized Jesus and spread the word of his arrival. Matthew tells us that all who touched Jesus were healed.

Faith is not some vague feeling. Faith is a matter of focusing on Jesus, worshipping Jesus, touching Jesus. Connecting to Jesus—that is saving faith.


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