Faith and Doubt All Mixed Together – August 13, 2017
Bible Text: Matthew 14:22-33 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler
Several years ago I read that the Israeli government had approved the building a tourist attraction at Tiberius on the Lake of Galilee. It was to feature a 150-yard walkway out on the Lake of Galilee built just 6 inches underwater. Those who went out on it would appear to be walking on the water. Like many other great and zany ideas I don’t think this one was ever built. I’ve searched the internet and can find no indication that it exists. But, what a great photo opportunity for Christian tourists to the Holy Land if it did!
The story of Jesus and then even Peter walking on water cuts far deeper (if you’ll pardon the pun) than such gimmicky focusing on the mere appearance of walking on water. That barely scratches the surface. This is a great story about how we wrestle with doubt and faith in our lives.
Jesus had asked his disciples to get into the boat and go to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds and went by himself to pray. He didn’t just “ask” his disciples to get into the boat; he “made” them. Perhaps he was telling these fishermen against their sea-wisdom and better judgment to get in the boat in what was likely to be a stormy night. In the 3rd watch of the night – around 3 a.m. –after praying Jesus was walking around the lake to meet them when he looked out over the lake and saw his disciples struggling and making little headway against the wind and the waves. So Jesus walked out across the water to come to his disciples on the sea. When they saw him they were terrified and thought it was a ghost. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” Jesus called out to them. The words can also be translated “I am,” the same words spoken as God’s name to Moses by the burning bush on Mount Sinai. As later at the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus appears here to his disciples in all his power and glory. But Peter remains unconvinced. “Lord, If it is (really) you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus simply says, “come.” Peter steps out of the boat makes a couple steps on the lurching waves, looks around in a moment of fear and suddenly starts to sink. “Help me!” he cries and Jesus catches him by the hand. Once Jesus and the other disciples haul Peter back in the boat Jesus climbs in too. Suddenly the wind ceases, the waves stop and the disciples in awe and wonder worship Jesus saying, “truly, you are the Son of God.”
There was an ancient understanding of the sea as the abode of demonic forces, as the place on earth where chaos still reigns. It must never appear more so than on the sea in a small boat during an unexpected storm. This makes Jesus walking across the sea all the more miraculous. By strolling across the stormy sea of Galilee as if it were a paved street Jesus really does beat down Satan under his feet, proving his dominion over the devils of the deep as well as the wild winds and crashing waves. The picture here is of the Son of God who is Lord of land and sea and Lord over every spiritual evil.
Even more amazing than Jesus walking on water is Peter. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” There’s something fishy about Peter’s request: “Lord, if it is you…” We’ve heard these words before! Each time the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness he did so with these words – “If you are the Son of God then… turn these stones into bread, jump off this parapet and float down unharmed, claim your kingship of all the cities and kingdoms of this world.” Peter is putting Jesus to the test. ‘If you are who you say you are then prove it by letting me walk on water.’ ‘Prove it by making me have the faith and the power to do what you do.’ Peter’s request – brash and audacious, testing Jesus and also risking himself – is granted. Jesus simply says, “come.”
Peter steps out on the water. It holds him up! He takes another step. Have you ever been on a little boat in storm tossed sea? I remember one time with my friend fishing in turbulent waters near a water discharge losing my balance and falling hard on the deck (luckily inside) the boat. Peter took his eyes off of Jesus looking at the wind and waves and immediately started to sink.
Then as he was sinking under the waves and no longer doubting for an instant that Jesus was with them Peter cried out “Lord! Save me!” Jesus caught him by the hand and hauled him back into the boat.
Were Jesus’ harsh words: “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” upbraiding Peter for taking his eyes off of Jesus and sinking or for doubting Jesus was who he said he was and putting him to the test in the first place? The story doesn’t say.
Why don’t we have more faith? Why do we doubt? Why can’t we have the courage to do something risky (like tell why we believe in Jesus to our next door neighbor or spouse or child or friend). Why don’t we trust God to lead us and guide us? Why don’t we trust God enough to really follow Him without holding so much of ourselves back?
Why do I doubt? I believe I am in God’s hands and they are good hands, but then I lose my job and cannot find another and as the interviews go on and on my savings disappear and my faith goes with them and I start to sink.
I believe God is present and active in this world, but terrible things keep happening. I read the newspaper headlines of suicide bombings, of parents raping their own children and selling the pictures on the Internet, of economic decline and corporate scandal and I think the storm will never end.
I trust God is my savior, but then I get sick and the treatment goes on and on and I may never be the same again. In fact I may not get better and I despair.
Why do we 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 so 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. It’s not like we have no faith. Like Peter we have a little and a little is better than nothing, even though there are times when it does not seem enough to save us.
Like Peter we have faith and we have doubt at the same time. Like Peter we cannot walk on the water by ourselves alone. We need a savior. We need Jesus.
On July 24, 2002 9 coal miners were trapped in the Quecreek coal mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania when a neighboring coal mine full of water was breached. The coal miners had no power of their own to escape from their desperate plight – 250 feet underground, with cold water rising and threatening to drown them. They did what they could. They stuck together. They prayed. They got to the highest possible ground. They marshaled their resources. When an air pipe was drilled through to them they tapped a message saying there were 9 alive. They were terrified and despaired and wrote out their last words by flashlight to their loved ones. But they also trusted and hoped that the rescuers would get to them. They had both doubt and faith. Four harrowing days later all 9 miners were rescued when a 27 inch drill bored into their air chamber and a rescue capsule was lowered deep into the mine. The fear and terror those miners experienced as they awaited rescue provides a good picture of our own condition.
Just like Peter we need a Savior every time we sink and fall. Like the man asked by Jesus if he truly believed that he could heal his son – “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief!” We are a mix of doubt and faith. It is not our great faith that saves us, but Jesus who saves us.
We need a savior! Over and over again we continually need a savior: to forgive our sins, to strengthen our week hands and trembling knees, to love us, to help us love others and do what we are called to do. That’s why God sent His Son Jesus. We need a Savior. In His great love we have one.
Our doubts, fearsome as they are, remind us who we are and whose we are, and whom we need in our lives to save our lives. When we begin to sink, as Peter did, as we so often do, our Lord reaches out and catches us, responding first with grace, and then with judgment – “Why did you doubt?” But 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.
He returns us to the boat and our companions grab us by the scruff of the neck and haul us aboard, where we fall grateful and exhausted onto the slippery deck, and all at once the wind ceases and the waves hush. And in the awesome silence of the dark night all of us – this community of disciples of Jesus – are in the boat together worshipping him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Amen.