Crashing Waves

A step of faith to a ‘not-safe’ space

Sermon given on January 14, 2024, at Central Presbyterian Church, Vancouver. Based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Matthew 14:22-33.

In my late teens, in the early 1970s, an age when nothing seemed impossible, an age when we thought the universe was ours for the taking, when astronauts had already gone to the moon and back for the sixth time, we had no fear. At that age we thought ourselves invincible, death-defying; danger was an adventure.

My college buddies and I, we were all training to be science professionals. We were all going to change to world, be outrageously significant, engineer breakthroughs and invent all sorts of stuff. We worked hard, we played hard. There was no room for weak knees.

Then we grew older, and as some might say, wiser.

Albert Einstein once said: “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” As a scientist gets older and acquires more knowledge, every radically different potential breakthrough concept would be countered and drowned out by a thousand caveats like an avalanche presenting itself as experience. I would call it fear.

Fear paralyzes. It immobilizes. It imprisons. It robs you of the joy of discovery.

I learned the meaning of fear when just having turned twenty I almost lost my life twice within a span of 24 hours.

We had gone camping on a small uninhabited island in the South China Sea probably within a nautical mile off the western coast of the Philippines. The bright idea was Grace’s, whom I was to marry a few years later. The first brush with death was a failed attempt at a night swim to the next island. Leg cramps in deep water brought deadly panic, my swimming buddy having had to dive underneath me to push me up for air.

The second incident happened the morning after and was equally deadly: an encounter with a box jellyfish, the deadliest in the world, venom in its tentacles that can stop a human heart. It wrapped around my legs – my heart didn’t stop – I’m still here today by the grace of God. I lost consciousness from the pain. At 70 years old, I still bear the scars where the tentacles embedded themselves.

From then on, I hated the water. Whereas once 10 laps in a 50-metre pool was easy, I could no longer swim without being overwhelmed by an irrational panic, a paralyzing fear that completely deprived me of what I once enjoyed.

A couple of decades later, I brought my family for a long weekend at Bob’s Lake in Kingston, Ontario. I decided I was going to defeat this fear of water. I set out on the lake, alone, in an 8-foot aluminum skiff with an outboard motor. Aluminum boats are noisy, if you have ever used one. The water became a bit choppier than I cared for, and the waves, it seemed to me, began to slap loudly underneath. I decided to turn back, but I lost my position as all the cottages along the shore now all looked alike. I had to fight my worst enemy on the water, fear and panic, in order to get back safely to where I must.

Through that thick fog of fear, I spotted in the distance what I needed to see to get back: the familiar figure of my wife, standing at the shore, watching over our children playing in the water. And as I headed in that direction, it became clearly so. I was on my way back. I was safe.

The Sea of Galilee is not as forgiving as Bob’s Lake, or so I am told. I read that the calm water could turn treacherous at a drop of a pin. I suppose that at night, when cold desert air would rush in from the surrounding mountains and onto the surface of the lake, that the water could churn and boil.

So it was when Jesus instructed his disciples to go across the lake to the other side.

The Sea of Galilee is only 13 km across at its widest. The disciples, a number of them seasoned fishermen, were to travel a fraction of that. And yet, past midnight, at 3 in the morning according to the parallel account in the Gospel of John, they had only been able to move 5 kilometres from shore. A fierce wind was against them, waves significantly slowing them down.

The storm itself probably didn’t cause much fear among these seasoned fishermen: no, it was the sight of a human figure walking on top of those raging waters that terrified them. They were convinced it was a ghost.

Grace and I once volunteered at the Seafarers’ Centre in Montreal. There I met men who worked in ocean-going commercial ships that docked at the port of Montreal. These were brave courageous and hard-working men, but they all had a healthy, almost spiritual respect for the grave danger that oceans can present. A ghost figure on the ocean water would have terrified these men as well.

The disciples thinking they were seeing a ghost, at that moment irrational, paralyzing fear, they heard that familiar voice: “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

Pardon the expression, but I imagine that today they might have exclaimed something like: “Oh sweet Jesus!”

Peter, the one who takes risks, asked: “Lord, if it is you, order me to come to you on the water.” Why did Peter ask this of the Lord? I can only guess. Perhaps it was to prove to himself that this apparition was not ghost, but was truly Jesus, Lord, walking over the water.

Turbulent deep water, churning and boiling, this in the tradition of the Abrahamic peoples is a picture of chaos, chaos that God the Creator subdued, tamed, and fashioned into a beautiful world, what we now enjoy. Jesus walking on the raging waters of the Sea of Galilee was a sign that Jesus himself is that same Lord of all, God incarnate, master even of chaotic nature itself. Peter, believing in this, would have had no hesitation in asking what he asked, for at the very moment, he knew that Jesus bore the power of God, God who has power over nature itself. The lesson for us, one that I have repeated to myself whether in times of fear and challenge, or in times of peace, is this: that with God, revealed to us in Christ, nothing is impossible.

At the invitation of Jesus, Peter did step out onto the raging sea.

If Peter had stayed inside the safety of the boat for fear of his life, he would not have learned the meaning of faith. He would have missed that feeling of exhilaration that the wind of God was behind him – that he was being swept forward into a greater more significant life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who stood bravely against Hitler’s Nazis once said: “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”

The one who believes is obedient, and the one who is obedient believes. The one who believes is free from paralyzing fear; the one who believes, in obeying the leading of God, enjoys that unique empowering sensation and assurance of the wind at your back.

Peter did step out of the boat and began to walk on the water to Jesus. But the strong wind frightened him and he began to sink.

We all have our moments of doubt. For some, they are but just moments. For others, longer moments. And still for others, endless periods of doubt.

Have you ever stepped out of your house, got into your car, drove a few blocks away when from out of the blue, that little seed of doubt enters your mind on whether you have or have not locked the front door behind you. Distracting, isn’t it.

I am all to familiar with the agony of doubt. I used to give solo recitals on the piano. These recitals would last about an hour to an hour and a half. I would prepare for recitals about 6 months to a year in advance, memorizing backwards and forwards thousands of notes. One thing I have quickly learned on-stage: when you are assaulted by that slightest bit of doubt that you don’t have the next few moments of music perfectly memorized, you will most likely in fact miss a few notes or make mistakes. It’s the doubting that kills you.

It’s the doubting that began to sink Peter. For ourselves, from time to time, we will probably have doubts over our faith in Christ. And these doubts may very well cause us to falter, even to fall away. It is Peter’s cry of the heart “Lord save me!” that brought the response from Jesus, Jesus who reached out, grabbed Peter’s hand and saved him from a watery grave.

From Peter’s cry for help and Jesus’ saving act, I really don’t believe that God holds our doubts against us. On the contrary, God extends his hand to us over and over again, and carries us through our multiple moments of uncertainty.

The climax of this story is not that the storm ceased. It is that those on the boat began to worship Jesus, an act which for these men brought up in the fiercely monotheistic Jewish faith, is strictly reserved for God and God alone. The parallel account of Jesus walking on the water, found in Mark 6 uses the English world “astounded” or “amazed” which in other parts of the Scripture in the original languages is associated with “joyful worship.” Further, they called him the Son of God. The very first time they addressed him as such in the Gospel of Matthew. Later on, a Roman Centurion at the foot of the cross would reach the same conclusion: “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”

For us today here present at Central Presbyterian Church, we ask ourselves: “Where is God taking us?” “What is God asking us to do, to be?” Is it something new? Does it seem to defy all logic and reason? Would we like Peter respond to God similarly – Lord, if it is really you, command us to step out onto new spaces and ministries we might otherwise think to be unwise and unsafe?

Whatever the leading of God, wherever the finger of God is pointing, may it be that we will step out of the comfort of our metaphorical boat; may it be that we will at God’s urging step out of our comfort zones, our safe places. May it be that we will transcend our fears and anxieties, step out in faith to sense the wind of the Holy Spirit at our back moving us on, leading us towards the joy, satisfaction, significance of the rich experience that Christ brings, and in this, believing that with God, all things are possible.

Why be afraid? Why be held back by fear? God calls us by name; we are His, we belong to Him. As the prophet Isaiah declares in chapter 43: turbulent waters will not overwhelm us; even raging fire will not harm us. And in chapter 55 Isaiah declares to us God’s people: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.

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