Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck
This sermon was delivered last Sunday at the Lutheran church Barb Roberts attends in Melbourne. The preacher, Andrew Brook, has kindly given us permission to publish it today.
Matthew 14:22-33 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
It was a dark and stormy night out on the sea. None of the disciples liked it, even those who were fishermen. Peter and Andrew, and James and John, had spent countless days and nights on this lake. At least when it was light you could see the patterns of the clouds massing in the sky. You knew the signs of an imminent storm and you made your way to shore. But night was different, foreboding.
They tolerated the sea. They had to, because they had earned their living from it. But for all its beauty, and for all it provided, they didn’t trust it. In their language, the word for sea came from one of the Canaanite gods, called Yamm. It was Yamm’s job to whip the waters into frenzy, and cause all sorts of havoc for those who ventured out. But the Hebrew Scriptures spoke of how God had wrestled with the waters and created order through his powerful word. They remembered, too, how God led his people through the waters of the Red Sea on the beginning of their Exodus journey. As the boat pitched and tossed, they wondered whether they would be overwhelmed by this chaos.
They were in the middle of the storm on this dark night because Jesus had sent them away. It had been a difficult day. It began with the report of John’s death. Then the crowds came to Jesus, wanting a piece of him, healing, helping and finally feeding. Finally, Jesus wanted to grab some time alone with God. The disciples didn’t begrudge him that. They knew how crucial his life of prayer was. He would meet up with them again, somewhere.
But now they were on their own. And the wind has begun to torment their small craft. It was going to be a long and arduous night. Straining at the oars, they forced their path heading for the other shore, stroke by painful stroke. Pitching and tossing, ill and exhausted, rowing on automatic pilot, desperately praying.
‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.’
But what comes as the answer to their prayers is not what they expect. Something looking like a man is walking toward them. But he doesn’t look like a helper, rather a ghost, a messenger from the world of the dead, coming to get them. Then this ghost speaks, and it’s a voice they recognise, and words that they’ve heard before. ‘Take heart. It is I; do not be afraid.’ The same voice that had spoken to a man who couldn’t walk, assuring him that his sins were forgiven, and to a woman suffering bleeding, telling her that her faith had made her well. It was the voice of Jesus, but what was he doing, here, in the middle of the night, on the sea?
Peter isn’t convinced, so just to be sure, he puts this question to the one he hopes is Jesus. ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ The wind is still blowing; the waves are still pounding. Jesus answers; ‘Come’ Peter steps off the boat. Quite disbelievingly. The water affords a foothold. Step by step he comes closer to Jesus. Then the reality of what’s happening to him sinks in. The waves that crash around him. The wind that almost blows him over. Who is Peter to think he’s any match for the elements, let alone his fear? He starts to sink, on his way down to a watery grave. Now he directs his screams to Jesus. ‘Lord, save me.’ Is this a cry of faith or of desperation?
Either way, the hand of God stretches out to pull Peter up out of water. The wavering one is rescued from the waves. ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Peter is a mixture of courage and anxiety, of bravado and fear, and yet Jesus responds in grace to this little faith. Peter is brought back on board and the storm stops. The rest of the crew respond the only way they can imagine to what they’ve witnessed. Jesus was done what only God himself could, the God ‘who stretches out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.’ No wonder they gasped in amazement, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Many of us experience dark and stormy nights like this. Perhaps not just a night, but a day and a night, and many of them strung together. In the experience of the terminal illness of someone we love. In the sudden death of a family member or friend. In a relationship breakdown, or stuck in a job which drains us but we are unable to change, or the wrestle with illness and pain in our own bodies or minds, or the nagging sense that we are not making the most of our lives, or that we don’t have the full measure of what the world has promised us.
This is our world, and the world of the disciples too, those of whom Jesus says, “You of little faith,” who live between trust and doubt. The word Jesus uses for doubt here doesn’t mean the corrosive cynicism of unfaith, but rather a lack of confidence, not in the reality of God’s existence, but in his ability or indeed desire to help us. Perhaps that’s the space that the disciples were in: wondering how much Jesus cared for them in his absence, but knowing how much his presence brought healing and hope.
We also lose our nerve when the odds are stacked against us. We commence with great intentions, but the reality of life, and the struggle, wears us down. All of a sudden we feel ourselves sinking. It might be despair at our failure, or guilt over how we’ve let God down, or frustration that we can’t get it right. We want to throw it all in. We feel we can’t go on, and aren’t worthy of the name ‘disciple.’ We’re not sure if God cares in the particulars of our circumstances.
Yet Jesus came to the disciples in the middle of the storm. However, he didn’t calm the storm straight away but first of all spoke a word of relationship: ‘Take heart, it is I! Do not be afraid.’ I have not abandoned you. I am with you in the storm. Even if you cry out in fear as much as faith, I will rescue you. I will take hold of your hand. I will continue to love you with an everlasting love. When there’s no shred of self-sufficiency to hang on to anymore, there is only the cry, ‘Lord, save me.’
These words are really shorthand for the basic Christian confession of faith. Paul reminds us of the closeness of God in Jesus Christ: ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’ This word is the Lord himself, Jesus Christ, the one whose lordship we confess with our lips and believe with our heart. In Jesus, we are justified, we are saved. And so Paul can say to us, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ Saved doesn’t just mean sent to heaven. It means help in the here and now, with the God who is as close to us as the next heartbeat. That’s what Robin Mann means in his communion hymn: Feed us now. “God is here, O so near; nearer than our thoughts. Stay with us where’er we go; Lord, help us to grow.” In Holy Communion, the bread and wine, we encounter Jesus bodily, and we know that he becomes part of us through his body and blood, that he forgives us and strengthens our often fallible and faltering faith.
Matthew wrote his gospel at a time when the church was beginning to face systematic persecution by the Roman state. An image of the church from the earliest days is of a boat tossed about on stormy seas. We even call the body of the church the nave, which comes from the Latin word for boat. Over a voyage of 2000 years, the church has been battered, even tormented, by wave upon wave of persecution. Today we again pray for the Christians of the Middle East, in Palestine, in Mosul in Iraq especially, who have been driven out of this historically Christian town by the Islamist terror group, ISIS. May Jesus save them from certain death. May he rescue those who cry out to him, ‘Lord, save me.’
In the storm on the sea of Galilee, in the storm of persecution or intolerance toward the church, in your life-storm, Jesus is not absent. He says to his disciples, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ As you risk faith in stormy weather, remember the Lord who reaches out his hand and catches you. ‘Lord, save us.’ Amen.
You can listen to the sermons from this church here. At time of writing, this sermon, titled Sustaining Faith [PDF, Internet Archive link] and dated Sunday 10th August 2014, does not have a ‘listen’ option, but that may change soon.