Matthew 14:22-33 - Walking on Chaos

KNU International English Church
Josh Broward

July 27, 2008

Last week, we studied the story of Jesus making a miracle out of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish to feed 5,000 people (or 15,000 depending on how you count). Part of the core Christian message is that we ourselves are the raw material for miracles. God can take any one of us and do something amazing.

Today, we read the story of someone who accepted that challenge.

Let’s read Matthew 14:22-33.

v. 22: So Jesus just finished feeding thousands of people with one Happy Meal. This would be a pretty cool miracle anywhere, but in Israel under Roman domination, food was sometimes hard to come by. Naturally, the people are pretty excited about this new leader who can produce banquets.

When John tells the story, he says the people were ready to make Jesus king by force (John 6:15). “You don’t want to be the Messiah? Too bad! We need somebody like you!”

Jesus sends the disciples away. At this point in the story, they were probably ready to make Jesus the King and start the revolution, too. Maybe Jesus just can’t handle fighting against them, too.

So Jesus puts them on a slow boat to Gennesaret and dismisses the crowd. I wonder how he got them all to go home. Who would want to leave a guy who can pull pizzas out of his pockets? Maybe he used something like “the force” from Star Wars, “You want to go home now. You do not want to stay.” Who knows?

v. 23: But Jesus finally got to go up the mountain and have some quiet time with God. Let me just make a side note here. If even Jesus needed some quiet time to talk with God, don’t you think that you and I probably need it, too.

v. 24: Meanwhile, back on the slow boat to Gennesaret, the disciples are having trouble. The Greek text says the waves were harassing or torturing the boat. Those are some pretty mean waves!

This would be kind of bad and scary for any of us. Maybe we would lean over the side of the boat, and our stomachs would toss up that miraculous meal from Jesus. But to really understand how this would have felt for the disciples, we need to do a little history work.

Remember the beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). The earth without God’s presence was a dark and chaotic sea. Sound familiar?

The biblical story pictures God literally forming the earth’s foundations atop the sea – holding back the chaos with the land. Land and sea are symbols of a constant struggle between order and chaos. Remember our Call to Worship: “You set a firm boundary for the seas, so they would never again cover the earth” (Psalm 104:9).

Israel’s neighbors had stories of ancient gods rising out of the roaring oceans to do battle with each other. It was common belief that the seas and oceans, as the symbols of evil and chaos, were the homes of demons and spirits and ghosts. The sea was the doorstep of hell. (Think Davey Jones’ Locker times 1,000.)

So, when the disciples get stuck in a roaring wind, and their boat is tortured by the waves, this is a big deal. It is as if the deep, dark forces of evil are stirring up to suck them down to the place of the dead.

v. 25 Then, Jesus comes walking toward them on the water. Now, I want to ask questions like: Did Jesus have to walk up and down the waves? Or did the waves make kind of a smooth path where he was walking? Did the splashing of the waves make him all wet, or was he miraculously dry with his hair flapping in the stormy wind like a romance movie?

But, this is more than just a cool magic trick. This is a deep symbol, an enacted parable, a living drama. Jesus is walking on the sea! Jesus is walking across the roaring, foaming symbol of chaos and evil! There’s nothing but Jesus and the dark demons of the deep, and Jesus walks across the face of evil, grinding his heals as he goes. In the Jewish world, this would have been one of the supreme symbols of Jesus dominance over the powers of evil.

This symbol gets even more interesting, though. Jesus walks in dominant defiance over evil, but he allows evil to continue to rage. There is Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee during a wild storm. The wind is howling. The rain is falling in sheets. The waves are crashing all around him, lifting him up and down. He has the power to stop it all (as we’ll see later), but he just walks through it. Instead of immediately eliminating the symbols and signs and expressions of evil, Jesus walks through the heart of chaos with dominant power and continues to let chaos rage.

v. 26 The disciples, however, are not immediately convinced of all of these theological truths. Their first thought is: “Ghost!” This is completely natural for them, right? They’re on the sea. This is where they believe the ghosts and demons live. Something is out there in the storm – must be a ghost (or worse)!

v. 27 Immediately, Jesus says, “Chill out, boys. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

v. 28 The disciples are unconvinced. I mean, how many times have you seen your Sunday School teacher or pastor walking across the water on a stormy night? They think this might be some kind of demonic trick.

This summer lots of people from my mom’s side of the family were visiting my grandparents in Arkansas. We all stayed in a hotel because there just wasn’t enough room at my grandparents’ house. At night the adults would stay up talking and playing games, and some the kids stayed in the room watching TV or sleeping. My uncle was very clear with his 10 year old son, Isaac, “Do not open the door for anyone but your mom or me!”

When he came back after a while and knocked on the door, Isaac asked, “Who is it?”

My uncle said, “It’s your father.”

Isaac said, “What’s your last name?” My uncle thought that was pretty smart.

An hour or so later, my aunt came to the door, and it was the same routine. “Who is it?”

“It’s your mother.”

New question this time: “What did we have for lunch?”

She was not quite as patient: “Let me in Isaac, right now.”

Peter decides to ask an identifying question, kind of like when you have to call your bank. “What’s your mother’s maiden name? What was the name of your pet when you were 12 years old?” But Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

That’s a pretty strange security question! “If it’s really you, tell me to jump into this deep, swirling mass of evil. Then, I’ll know you’re really Jesus.” Huh?

Again, we have to do a little history work here. Way back in the spring, we talked about what it meant to become a disciple. A disciple was not just a student learning from the rabbi. Ray Van der Lan, a scholar of Jewish history, explains that a disciple “wants to be like the teacher, that is to become what the teacher is.” As the rabbi taught, the disciples “listened and watched and imitated so as to become like him.”[1] A rabbi only accepted someone as a disciple if he actually believed this kid could be like him. Peter wants to be exactly like his rabbi and do everything his rabbi does, so he says, “Me, too. Me, too, Jesus. Command me to be like you, and I’ll know you’re my rabbi.”

v. 29 Jesus says simply, “Come.” No words of advice. No helpful hints. Just, “Come.”

And Peter climbs out of the boat. I wish I could see that! Did he kind of jump full of confidence? Or did he sit on the edge and try to barely touch the water with his feet? Did he give a few push tests too see if his feet would go in? Once he got up on the water and started walking, what did it feel like? I imagine it felt kind of like Jell-O or those little jelly candies here in Korea – kind of wobbly but firm enough to stand on.

So there’s Peter, walking on the water, and the storm continues to rage. The waves are rolling, and the wind is blowing, and Peter is standing with his Rabbi in dominant defiance of the forces of chaos and evil. Again, notice that the chaos doesn’t go away just because Peter obeyed Jesus. Peter walks with Jesus into the face of chaos.

v. 30 Peter’s doing great … walking on water … being a miracle … he’s part of the living drama of Jesus defeating chaos. Until … he starts to look around at all of this chaos: “Boy, that wind is strong – kind of have to lean into it. Holy cow, these waves are big! Somehow they look bigger without the boat!” Then, suddenly, slowly, his courage fades. His faith turns to doubt, and he starts sinking in to the water.

So what was Peter doubting? Peter didn’t loose faith in Jesus or Jesus’ ability to walk on water. Jesus was standing there right in front of him practically dancing on the waves. Peter didn’t doubt Jesus.

Peter doubted himself! Peter doubted that he could be like Jesus. “What am I doing out here? I can’t walk on water!” Peter didn’t doubt Jesus. Peter doubted that he – Peter, the fisherman - could be filled with the power of Jesus. He was fully confident that Jesus could save him (Lord, save me!), but he didn’t believe Jesus could empower him.

v. 31 Jesus reaches out immediately and grabs Peter. Then most English translations say something like, “O, you of little faith! Why did you doubt?” I’m not a Greek scholar, but I wonder if a better interpretation would be more gentle: “You’re a beginner at faith, that’s why you doubted.”

Either way, the important point is that Jesus didn’t reject Peter just because he had doubts. Despite our doubt or failures, Jesus is there reaching out his hand to pull us up every time we need him.

v. 32 With the waves still raging and the wind still blowing, Jesus and Peter climb back into the boat while it rocks up and down. But as soon as they get in the boat, everything stops. The wind stops. The waves stop. All is at peace.

v. 33 And the disciples say, “Woah! Woah! You really are the Son of God!” And they worship him.

OK, so what about us? Where are we in this story? How is this story in our lives?

It’s pretty easy to identify the times when we are in the boat and the storm is raging around us. We’re rowing against the wind, and progress is slow. Problems with our marriage, problems at work, problems with our kids, cancer, knee trouble, back trouble, too much debt and not enough money, too much work and not enough time, too much food and not enough exercise (me!). Not to mention the bigger world problems that seem far away for most of us: hunger, AIDS, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, war, poverty. Chaos still rages in our world.

We are all in that boat. Sometimes, it feels like the waves of life are harassing us, maybe even torturing us.

Maybe in these times, faith is remembering that Jesus is out there walking on the water. Jesus is walking across the face of chaos with dominant defiance. Jesus has the power over all storms and all chaos and all evil. He may not quiet this storm, not right away. But he is here. He is with us, and he is stronger than the chaos.

But sometimes, that is not enough. Many times staying in the boat is not enough. We hear the voice of Jesus calling us into the chaos where he is. Jesus calls us into the swirling, raging winds and rains of hunger, depression, poverty, sickness, injustice. Jesus is there, and he calls us to join him. Amazingly, Jesus is there amid the deepest, darkest storms, and he doesn’t make the storms go away. Instead, he calls us to walk with him into the storms because there are people there, sinking in the waves, losing their faith and losing their lives. Jesus calls us to join him out in the storms, to walk on the face of chaos, defying its power, and reaching out with him to take a one hand at a time and lead them back to the boat.

What would it look like for us to get out of the boat and follow Jesus? Maybe it will mean going on and supporting more mission trips. Maybe today, when you are eating lunch, you’ll talk about something real, something from your heart. Maybe before you go to lunch, you’ll look around and invite someone new in our community to join you. Maybe getting out of the boat will mean visiting an orphanage and playing with the kids. Maybe it will mean increasing your giving here. Maybe getting out of the boat will mean stepping outside of your church circles and making friends with people who aren’t going to come here. Maybe it will mean speaking for justice when your company wants to do something wrong.

Whatever it means for you, when Jesus calls you to get out of the boat, get out of the boat! Go! Believe in Jesus power to work miracles through you, and go!

And someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe a long long time from now, Jesus will physically step back into this world, step back into our boat. And when he does, everything will be calm. Chaos will be gone. The sea will be as smooth as glass (Rev. 4:6). And we will worship him, “You really are the Son of God!”

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength belong to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 7:12).


[1] Ray Van der Lan, “Rabbi and Talmidim,” http://www.followtherabbi.com/Brix?pageID=2753.