And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them
and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Matthew 14:27
They were a nervous crew, those twelve disciples. Every one of them had left their comfort zones of everyday life and stepped out in faith to follow this strange, compelling rabbi named Jesus. But they were always uneasy when he wasn’t around. They knew he had to get away for those times of quiet and prayer because those nourished him for his ministry to people. But the disciples didn’t like being left alone. As Matthew paints the scene, it’s very early in the morning, probably well before dawn. Jesus has spent half the night in prayer, and the disciples are caught out in their boat in one of those ferocious storms that sweep down on the Sea of Galilee. I’ve spent a lot of time on the water myself, and I can testify that even though you’re used to them, high winds and rough seas can be very scary. Not long ago, on Lake Michigan, two very experienced sailors lost their lives when their large sailboat capsized in gale force winds.
Out of the darkness, in the midst of the storm, says Matthew, Jesus came walk-ing on the sea toward the boat. Did he really walk on water? That question used to bother me; and one time I pored over charts of the northern end of the Sea of Galilee and thought I had it all figured out: The boat could have hit a patch of shallow water—and water can get extremely rough when it’s shallow—and Jesus could have waded all the way out to the boat. Maybe that’s what happened—maybe not! The text says what it says. The important thing, I’m convinced, is to focus on what Matthew is really trying to convey to his readers. In the Bible, rough water often symbolizes chaos and destructive power. And Matthew and all the other gospel writers use a great deal of symbolism. Their consuming passion is to portray Jesus as the Savior, the One who personifies God’s saving power for all people. When we’re frightened by the storms of life, Matthew wants us to know with bedrock certainty that God is with us. We are never—ever—alone.
All God asks of us is our trust. But that’s hard when we’re frightened, isn’t it? In this scene, as he does so frequently, Matthew fastens upon the figure of Simon Peter to dramatize the issue of trust. Peter is so very human! Strong as he is, the big fisherman is the most nervous guy in the boat! And true to his impulsive per-sonality, he shouts to Jesus to let him come across the water to him. And Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter climbs out and starts across the water trustingly enough, but promptly loses his nerve and begins to sink! And that’s the way it always seems to be with Peter—his flashes of faith always give way to nervous doubts. Later on in the gospel Peter says he believes Jesus is the Son of God—but then he shrinks from the reality of it all and wants no part of Jesus being beaten and killed. When Jesus is arrested, Peter fiercely cuts off the ear of one of the soldiers—but soon denies even knowing Jesus. And Peter, of course, is nowhere to be found at Calvary, at the cross, when Jesus is hung up to die.
But God never gives up on us. Peter, frightened and flailing in the waves, cries out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus grabs him and gets him into the boat—and the wind ceases, and all is calm and safe; and Peter and the others are awestruck by this friend in the boat with them. And in the cool night air, as the storm fades in the distance, and the boat rocks gently on the still waters, Jesus’ question to Peter hangs before them all: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
How often I have found myself asking that same question, deep down inside. And I know it’s really God asking it. Like Peter and the others, I get so nervous sometimes—and it’s all because I get that panicky feeling that maybe God isn’t there, or God isn’t sufficient to see me through—irrational as those feelings al-ways seem later, in the light of day. God asks us to trust; but for some of us that nervous sense of aloneness runs very deep, because we’ve experienced it in its most hurtful forms, like being abandoned by a parent through neglect or abuse; or suffering the death of a child; or losing a friend through conflict or estrange-ment; or enduring the death-like experience of divorce. It’s very hard to trust when you’ve been let down or violated. And though we may believe in God, we instinctively pattern our relationship with God after our relationships with people we love and trust. And when those fail us, our trust in God is tested.
So how do we find our way out of that nervous, nagging sense of aloneness or abandonment to a surer trust in God? I don’t know any other way than through that often scary process of trial and error, success and failure, that so characte-rized Simon Peter’s dealings with Jesus. No matter how bad things may be, you do have to take that first little leap of faith. But I am absolutely certain that God is right there taking it with you. God is ceaselessly at work in the most intimate parts of our lives—and most of all in those inner places where we’re hurting. Fur-thermore, it’s very clear that God has “wired” us to be people of faith and trust. Babies instinctively trust their mothers’ care and nurture. Young people trust the world around them for food and companionship and the basic skills of living. All of us are born to be in trusting relationships with one another. No, the world isn’t perfect and neither are we. People fall short; things don’t always turn out as we want. But we learn to cope, to work things out, make allowances, do without. Often we succeed, but sometimes we fail. But we pick up the pieces and carry on—and God is always there to “jump start us” on the road back to wholeness.
You and I are wired to trust, like Simon Peter, who was humiliated constantly but for whom there was always that instinct to start over. And he found Jesus al-ways with him. He would scold Peter for his lack of faith, but he would never give up on him. So Peter would try again—and again, and again. He would take that step of faith. And as you must know, Peter finally came into his own as an incred-ibly strong, courageous spokesman for the early Christian Church.
God holds that same challenge before you and me. Whether our life has been relatively easy, or whether it has been scarred by trauma or tragedy, there simply is no other way than to take that first step, trusting that instinct, knowing that we are made for one another and for God. Remember the scene in today’s Old Tes-tament reading from I Kings, a story I’ve always loved. Here’s Elijah, the great prophet, up on the mountain alone. Despite all his successes he’s finally had to run for his life. Read the earlier part of the chapter (I Kings 19) and you see that Elijah has embarrassed the evil King Ahab by defeating Ahab’s prophets in a great contest of spiritual power. And that in turn has made Ahab’s vicious wife Jezebel extremely angry. You did not cross Jezebel if you knew what was good for you! Seething with venom, she sends a messenger to Elijah warning him in no uncer-tain terms that he will surely die for what he did to her husband’s prophets. And Elijah knows that she means it! So he runs for his life.
And now, up on the mountain, Elijah is alone. And God is frustratingly elu-sive—almost toying with the prophet, it seems, first telling him in a clear voice to go and stand forth in faith—and then disappearing. “There was a great wind,” says the text, “so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces…but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (Or, “a still small voice,” says another translation. I like that better.) Then God speaks clearly to Elijah and says, “Go, return on your way.”
As with Elijah on the mountain and the disciples in the boat, so with us, that “still small voice” is there—count on it— if we will only listen for it! God is always at work to return us on our way to wholeness. In the hidden recesses of our lives, behind the scars, amid the storms, in those places of fear and loss, there comes that same voice, as it came across the water to the disciples when Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And God offers us constant echoes of that still small voice, calling to us to take heart. I hear echoes of it in the evening in the distant whistle of a train; I hear it in the morning at the beach when I wake up to the sounds of the waves; I hear God’s voice echoed in the early springtime with the first glad chirping of birds as they return north from their winter homes.
In all kinds of ways, you and I are reminded that we are never, ever, alone. God is all around us. All of us are held in God’s eternal embrace. Hard as it may sometimes be to discern it in this hurting world, there is nothing that can happen to you which puts you beyond the reach of that great love. We’re all in the same boat together—just like those disciples. And Christ is in the boat with us, whis-pering to us, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them