Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 10, 2008)
“The Rescue of Jesus” (Matthew 14:22-33)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s always dangerous to get your theology from bumper stickers. Once in a great while, however, you see one that gets it right. Like this one: “Next time you think you’re perfect, try walking on water.” Now, of course, it’s impossible for a bumper sticker to tell the whole story. Most people who read this one will first chuckle, and then think to themselves, “You got that right. Nobody’s perfect. We’re only human.” And then that seems to make our imperfections okay. But those imperfections are the evidence of a deeper problem. It’s not just that we have imperfections. We are utterly corrupt. So don’t you dare try to walk on water. There’s only One Man who was ever able to do that.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see Jesus walking on the water. This was right after the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus sent the disciples away in the boat, and he finally got the chance to get some needed time alone to pray and to rest. If even Jesus, God in the Flesh, needed time out to pray and rest, you know that it’s even more necessary for us to do so.

In the meantime, a strong wind kicked up on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples were struggling against the wind. The waves crashed against the side of the boat, perhaps even spilling over the sides, threatening to sink them.

In the ancient world, there was a connection between chaos and the sea. The churning, swirling, crashing of the sea symbolized evil and the disorder it causes. Sinking down into the depths of the sea was a picture of going into the depths of hell and eternal destruction. And so it’s quite possible that this was on the minds of the seafaring disciples whenever the winds swept down upon the Sea of Galilee and churned up its surface. It would be bad enough to drown out in the middle of the lake. It would be worse to suffer at the hands of the evil forces who were thought to have caused the tempest. To make matters worse, the disciples thought they saw a spirit from the realms of the dead walking around out there on the surface of the deep. And Matthew writes from his own memory of the event, “They all saw him and were terrified.”

But, of course, it wasn’t a ghost. It was Jesus. And so he assures them, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Peter, with his usual impulsive nature, cries out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replies, “Come,” and for a moment, Peter is out there surfing without a board.

Peter was okay for a moment. But it didn’t take long before he had that sinking feeling. Peter was okay until he took his eyes off of Jesus. He glanced around and, as Matthew writes, he “saw the wind.” How can you see the wind, you ask? Well, you can certainly see the evidence of the wind. Peter the fisherman was probably a good swimmer, but even these waves were too much for him. He cries out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus reaches out, rescues him, they climb together back into the boat, and the wind stops.

Our problem is similar to Peter’s. Not that we can’t walk on water ... although that’s true. Our problem is that we, too, get that sinking feeling when we take our eyes off of Jesus. We begin to drown in the problems that come our way. Let’s face it. Like a churning, swirling sea, life can be chaotic. There never seems to be enough time. We often live paycheck to paycheck. We can’t afford to put a nest egg away for later on in life. We worry about the status of our job ... that is, if we even have one. The choices our children make cause us anxiety, anger, and stress. The Golden Years are tarnished because of bad health. Perhaps violence or crime have invaded our otherwise calm existence.

Even worse, we begin to drown spiritually when we take our eyes off of Jesus. We neglect to worship him as we ought. We stubbornly cling to pet sins. We refuse to forgive others who have offended us. The tumult of disobedience and unbelief fills us with guilt, shame, anxiety, and fear. Unless we are rescued from all this, we will drown eternally into the depths of death and hell.

Drowning in life’s problems ... drowning in sinful disobedience ... we hear the Lord’s voice. “Take heart, it is I,” Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus seems absent when problems come our way, even as Jesus was not in the boat with the disciples. Jesus seems absent when we know our sin and wonder how God can forgive us. But he did not abandon the disciples. He came to them, walking on the water. And Jesus does not abandon you. He has not left us in our drowning condition. Instead, he came to “drown” for us. An anchor was tied to him in the shape of a cross. The weight of our sins dragged him down all the way to death. You and I deserve death and the agony of hell because of our sins, but Jesus suffered all this for us at the cross and conquered death and hell when he rose again on the third day.

Moreover, when Jesus said, “It is I,” in the Greek it is literally “I AM” ... Yahweh ... the Holy Name of God ... the same Name with which God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush. With these words, Jesus reveals that he is the Creator of the universe who shows his power over the chaos in creation by walking upon the sea. In fact, many years before this the patriarch Job declared, “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” (Job 9:8) And in today’s reading from Job 38, Yahweh confronts Job and says, “Who shut in the sea with doors ... and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’ ... Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” Our Lord Jesus is the One who has done just that. He walks on water. He stills storms. The One who “walked in the recesses of the deep” stays the “proud waves” of life’s troubles and the evil forces which crash around you and toss you about.

Now some of you may be thinking, “At least Peter had faith enough to answer Jesus’ invitation and to walk on the water. I could never do that. My faith is so weak.” But was it really Peter’s faith that allowed him to walk on the water? I submit to you that it was not. Instead, it was the powerful call of Jesus that enabled Peter to walk on the water. “Come,” Jesus said to Peter. And with his own powerful Word, Jesus gave Peter faith and enabled him to step out of the boat and not sink. If Peter had jumped in the water without Jesus’ invitation, he would have sunk immediately. But instead, Jesus called him, and that’s why Peter was able to do what he did.

Even today, it’s not your faith that does great things. So don’t get down on yourself and say, “If only my faith was stronger.” And don’t you dare let anyone convince you that you would be healed of your diseases or that your problems would go away if only your faith was stronger. It’s not your faith that does great things. It’s the Word of Jesus. It’s the Word of God. From our perspective, our faith often wavers. Sometimes our faith is strong. Sometimes it’s not so strong. Sometimes we’re not even sure if we have any faith at all. But remember, Jesus said that even faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating over and over again: It’s not the strength of your faith which is important ... it’s the object of your faith. It’s who your eyes are focused on. Are you focused on your faith? Or are you focused on Jesus? It’s not your faith that does great things. It’s the Word of Jesus. It’s his powerful invitation to you to “Come.” We heard from St. Paul earlier who said, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17) And through that Word, the Spirit works faith in our hearts so that we can come to him, repent of our sins, and believe that those sins were taken away at the cross of Christ.

In the same way, it’s the Word of Jesus that puts power into those things that deliver that forgiveness to us personally. It’s the Word of Jesus that makes water into Holy Baptism, and our sins are washed away. It’s the Word of Jesus that makes words from a man’s mouth into Holy Absolution, and our sins are forgiven. And it’s the Word of Jesus that makes common bread and wine deliver Christ’s Holy Body and Holy Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.

“Lord, save me,” Peter cried out. Peter’s faith wavered, too. He began to doubt. But he knew who to call upon in his trouble. He didn’t rely on his own resources. He had none. No life jacket. No life preserver. No inflatable pool toy. But he did have a lifeguard whose hand reached out and rescued Peter when he began to sink. You can just picture the scene...Jesus standing on the water, reaching down and grabbing hold of Peter...the wind and the waves splashing around, Peter soaking wet, and Jesus pulling Peter close and saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Did he say this with a scowl or with a grin? I’m sure it was the latter. In the midst of rescuing Peter, the grasp of Jesus would only put away Peter’s fear and anxiety and strengthen Peter’s faith and trust. And I’d like to think that once the hand of Jesus was firmly grasping Peter, that Peter had a little chuckle himself and said, “You got that right, Lord ... how could I have been so foolish to doubt you?”

It is foolish to doubt Jesus. But even in the midst of our doubt, Jesus never hesitates to save. You and I are also in his grasp. The sea of chaos is all around us, but we have been brought into the peaceful waters of Baptism. Through water and the Word, Jesus reaches down to rescue us with the forgiveness he earned for us at the cross. But he rescues us by drowning us ... by drowning our old sinful nature and raising us up again as a new creation. And remember how the Small Catechism teaches us to keep on drowning that Old Adam in us by daily contrition and repentance so that a new man can daily emerge and live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Jesus reaches down to us, and he is not a phantom. That was a real flesh and bones hand reaching down and catching Peter to rescue Peter. And our Risen Savior reaches down to us today in the Supper, and he is no phantom. That’s real body and real blood that you receive along with that bread and wine.

When you know and believe what Jesus has done to rescue you from drowning in sin, your only response is the same as the disciples in the boat. So worship him and say, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Confess his holy Name: “For it is with the heart one believes and is justified and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” And keep your eyes on him when there are some big waves crashing around you, and cry out, “Lord, save me.” And he will. He has.

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