Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Eyes on Jesus"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Last week we left off with Jesus feeding the 5,000. Now at last Jesus gets to pray alone, filling that deep spiritual hunger to reconnect with God. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, we do well to pray with Jesus and reconnect with God in prayer, for the health and nourishment of our soul. Prayer is 24/7 reconnection to the God Who loves us and knows all our inmost thoughts and struggles, Who graciously invites us to pray, “Our Father…”
When Jesus finishes praying the disciples are several miles offshore, fighting a heavy wind on the Sea of Galilee. In Job and Psalms, we read that God “alone stretches out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8) and “The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen” (Psalm 77:18-19). God alone, the Mighty Creator, tramples on the sea, and walks a path through the great waters. The disciples are watching it with terrified eyes! Jesus cuts a path across the water, walking across to them through the storm—doing the thing that only God does! At first they don’t recognize Him, they are so scared.
They thought Jesus was a ghost. How else could they explain a dark human figure walking across the water to them in the dim light? They had never seen this before. Humans have apparently believed in ghosts forever—but consistently in the Bible, when someone suspects a ghost, there’s a better explanation. Several times, it was Jesus Himself they mistook for a ghost—but He would show them His flesh and bones (especially after the resurrection) to prove He was no ghost or phantom. The Bible teaches in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed for man to die once, and then face the judgment”; and Ecclesiastes 12:7, that at death “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” The Bible doesn’t lend any support to the idea of wandering spirits of dead humans haunting the earth. Accounts of ghosts are heavily based on our faulty human experiences—and if there is anything supernatural going on, the Bible points us not to dead human spirits, but angels and demons as the more likely explanation.
But hear how Jesus disputes their fear! “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Eyes on Jesus and hear these words with your heart! The Psalms say: “Be strong, let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14). Courage is there for the taking, when we trust in the Lord, when we know that it is the Lord who stands before us! God invites your heart to take courage. Imagine your heart reaching out and grabbing that courage. When God offers you courage, or forgiveness, or faith, or His Spirit, or any of His gifts, free for the taking, take Him up on His offer! Don’t delay—I love to call these the “guaranteed prayers” that God already promises to give a “yes” answer. When our eyes are on Jesus, we truly can take heart because everything we face, we face with Him.
In your fear, in your trouble, Jesus doesn’t want you to sink beneath the waves or cower in fear from your problems but Take heart! And in the original Greek, His next words are literally, I AM. Most Bibles translate: “It is I” because He’s identifying Himself to the disciples. But I AM is God’s self-chosen name. He told Moses from the burning bush: I AM WHO I AM—tell them YHWH has sent you. YHWH or I AM, is God’s self-chosen name, and Jesus, doing the God-thing by walking on the water, identifies Himself as God to them! He says, take heart, I AM! Don’t be afraid. God’s Name on Jesus’ lips is sandwiched between two commands to not be afraid. Jesus signals that God is approaching; not to drive them into deeper terror, but to drive the terror away! He stands with them in the storm. As certainly as with the disciples, Jesus stands with you in the storm. God approaches you in Jesus, and the storms have no power over God, who tramples on the waves. Jesus, the great I AM, stands on the waters and gives courage to our hearts! Eyes on Jesus!
Amazed and reassured that it is Jesus, strong-willed Peter says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” Jump in the fray, give the answer, push forward, whatever it was, Peter was ready. He jumps in at Jesus’ command, “Come.” Out of the boat, standing on the water—it was happening! Peter actually walked on the water, eyes on Jesus. Hey, I’m doing this! And then all of a sudden, he wasn’t. He looked around at the wind and waves, eyes off Jesus, and started sinking. It wasn’t that Jesus no longer upheld him, it was that he lost focus on Jesus, and fear surged back in, where faith first was.
In our heart, soul and mind, faith and fear can ebb and flow, competing to take hold in us. When our eyes are on Jesus, faith surges and takes hold, and when our eyes are off Jesus, and focused on the troubles or dangers around us, fear surges back in. I’m not saying faith is a wishy-washy thing that flees in an instant, but to show that faith’s strength and foundation is when our eyes are focused on Jesus. With unswerving focus on Him, we stand on the turbulent waters and come to Him by faith. Scripture says “fix your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith!”
When [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Are you already sinking beneath the waves? Have your eyes been focused on the troubles around you, so that you are floundering, drowning in the waters around you, and Jesus seems out of reach? Our troubles can be powerful, they will gladly pull our eyes off Jesus, and pull us under the waves. That’s the power of fear and doubt, which James says can leave us tossed and driven like the waves of the ocean (James 1:6), and Paul says that false and clever human doctrines are like winds and waves that toss childish believers about (Eph. 4:14). But fear and doubt, false teaching and human cunning is no match for Jesus, the Great I AM, and with our eyes on Him, we stand strong and stable on the churning waters. We walk boldly in faith, eyes on Him, our strength and stability and courage.
What does that mean for you in your storm? Eyes on Jesus, stand up and walk toward Him. If you are already in panic mode, or still frightened by your situation, cry out that simple prayer, “Lord save me!” He will not turn away or leave us forsaken. God does not leave us or forsake us, not in death, not in persecution, not in personal or family illness, not in unemployment or pandemic or loneliness. Eyes on Jesus! Look at Him, and the wind and storm recedes from your focus. Eyes on Him and call for His help! Jesus reaches out and grabs our arm! O you of little faith, why did you doubt? Again, doubt is that enemy of faith. Jesus will drive it out—eyes on Him and believe! Sadly we often hold onto our doubts more firmly than we hold onto Him. So doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs! Jesus will gently chide us…you of little faith. Jesus wants that faith to grow into a great and spreading mustard tree. He is the Author and Perfecter of your faith, so let Him write it on your heart. Eyes on Him, as He perfects your faith, drawing you ever closer to Him, with loving arms extended. Pulling you up out of the sinking fear and doubt.
The winds labored and grew calm as they climbed into the boat. Back in the Gospel service in Afghanistan, they used to sing, “trouble don’t last, trouble don’t last always!” And it’s true. Nevertheless, many troubles can last years and even decades. And the trouble of the Israelites stretched over centuries and millennium. But God is on a massive timetable. He is working good through all human history, and He has no trouble to weave our troubles into His tapestry, stretching out across millennia, and work it together for the good of those who love Him. And on our side of that tapestry we see a messy tangle of threads. But on God’s side, from the grand view of history, it’s creating a marvelous story of faithfulness and redemption. Eyes on Jesus to trust that with each push and pull of the needle, God’s purpose is being woven in and around your life. The Great I AM is greater than all our struggles, however long they last, and He’s with us to the very end, and beyond that into eternal life!
Little faith becomes great faith with eyes on Jesus! Doubt melts into courage with eyes on Jesus. Troubles become the anvil iron on which God forges our life and shapes us into useful instruments. Eyes on Jesus and know that He’s at work, no matter what swirls around you. Take heart, He is God! And what else is left but to worship Him! Truly you are the Son of God! Seeing the grace and mercy of Jesus at work in our lives, our calm in the storm, we are made to worship and praise our Lord and Savior. Nothing better fits the occasion and our lips than words of praise and thanksgiving. God’s gifts flow down to us from above, and our hands and praise rise back up in worship to Him. Jesus’ hand reaches down and out to us, firmly grasping and saving us, and with thanks and due praise, we answer, “My life is in your hands.” And with eyes on His majesty, His fearless walk in the storm, and His utter victory over sin, death, and the grave, we confess, Truly you are the Son of God! In His Name we pray, Amen.