Walk on Water, Pete!

Matthew 14:22-33

July 10, 2009 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

It was Helen Keller who said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.” Those words would ring true no matter who said them, but coming from someone who lived a life like Helen Keller, they merit special consideration. Born blind, deaf and unable to speak, she somehow found a way out of the darkness and into the world around her. Her story is one of the great miracles of the twentieth century. Millions of people have drawn inspiration from her example.

So I ask you to consider her words a second time: “Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.”

When you bring this observation over into the spiritual realm it looks something like this: The life of faith is inherently a life of risk. Go back to the Bible and take a look at the men and women who did great things for God. Almost without exception, they were risk-takers who weren’t afraid to lay it all on the line for God. Consider these examples . . .

“Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.”
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

Noah built an ark.
Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees to go to the Promised Land.
Moses led the people of God out of Egypt.
Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho.
David defeated Goliath.
Elijah faced down the prophets of Baal.
Esther risked everything to save her people.
Daniel refused to defile himself with the king’s food.
Nehemiah led the Jews to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

When you read the Bible, again and again you discover that the men and women who accomplished great things for God weren’t content to accept the status quo. They thought that more could be done if only someone would lead the way. And when no one else stepped forward, they themselves volunteered.

When our little children come to Sunday School, what stories do we tell them? The very stories I have just mentioned to you. We tell them about the great heroes of the faith–Noah and Abraham and Moses and David and Daniel and all the rest. We talk about those brave souls who laid it all on the line for God. These are the people we hold up before our children. These are the models we want them to follow.

If you are unwilling to take a chance, you can never discover what living by faith is all about.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

That is only right and proper because the life of faith is inherently a life of risk. If you are unwilling to take a chance, you can never discover what living by faith is all about. If you have to have all the answers before you make a decision, if you’re afraid to take a step unless you know things will work out to your advantage, faith will always be a mystery to you.

“Let’s Go Sailing”

Of all the stories in the New Testament that teach this truth, I know of none more beloved than the story of Peter walking on water in Matthew 14:22-33. No doubt you’ve heard this story before, and our children know it by heart, but somehow we never grow tired of it.

The background of the story is very simple. Jesus is on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is late in the day and Jesus has just performed the great miracle of feeding 5000 men with five loaves and two fish (vv. 14-21). Understandably amazed and enthralled by this miracle, the people want to make him king. But Jesus, knowing that their enthusiasm is shallow, refuses them and instead goes off to pray by himself. After dismissing the crowd, he sends the disciples on ahead to the other side of the lake, telling them that he would meet them later. Matthew tells the story this way: “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he dismissed them, he went up on the mountainside by himself to pray” (vv. 22-23).

So far, so good. As the disciples begin to sail across the lake, an enormous storm blows up. From the way the gospel writers tell the story, it seems as if the storm began around 8:00 P.M. and continued all night long. Given the fact that the Sea of Galilee is nestled against the mountains, this would not be unusual, except for the fact that most storms come and go rather quickly.

The disciples are in the boat struggling against the wind and the rain.  9 p.m. . . . 10 p.m. . . . 11 p.m. . . . 12 Midnight  . . . 1 a.m. . . . 2 a.m. . . . 3 a.m. . . . Still the storm continues with no sign of letting up. After eight or nine exhausting hours, the disciples were stuck in the middle of the lake, dirty, drenched, chilled to the bone, weary to the point that they began to wonder if they would ever make it to shore alive.

“Shut Up and Keep Rowing”

We pick up Matthew’s story in verse 25: “During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.  When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified.  ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.” By Roman reckoning, the “fourth watch” occurred between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. It was sometime during that three-hour period that Jesus began walking on the water. (I hardly need to comment that this is a literal miracle-not a symbol or a parable or a vision. Jesus the man-not a vision or an apparition-was literally walking on top of the rolling waves. I don’t know how he did it, but that he did it I have no doubt. After all, he is the Lord of earth and heaven, the Lord of the natural and the supernatural. Walking on water would not be difficult for the Son of God.)

It’s not every day that you see someone taking a midnight stroll across a lake in the middle of a storm.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. Someone cried out, “It’s a ghost.” They were wrong, but it’s wasn’t a bad guess. After all, it’s not every day that you see someone taking a midnight stroll across a lake in the middle of a storm.

We can understand their fear, can’t we? They’ve been rowing and rowing and rowing and getting nowhere. And they can’t seem to make it to shore. It’s 4 or 4:30 in the morning. They are dead tired. Every muscle aches. The wind howls around them. Rain pelts them from every angle. They are cold and tired and waterlogged. Plus they are grumpy and hungry and frustrated.

Suddenly someone sees a figure walking across the water. I think in that situation I would say exactly what they said, “It’s a ghost.” My first thought would not be, “Here comes Jesus. He’s decided to walk on the water in the middle of this storm.” I think I’d be one of the fellows saying, “Shut up and keep rowing.”

But Jesus immediately said to them, “Take Courage!  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.’” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus (vv. 27-29).

In preparing this message I had a chance to go back and read a number of commentaries written at the end of the 19th century. Many of them react very negatively to what Peter did, calling him impulsive and headstrong and foolish for even wanting to walk on water. Some even suggested that Peter thought he was better than the others. That completely misses the point. There is nothing in the text that even remotely suggests that Peter was wrong for wanting to walk on water. Everything points in the other direction. The reason some commentators don’t like what Peter did is because they are the kind of people who would never get out of the boat in the first place! 

At this point Peter is not being impetuous. It’s not as if he just jumps out of the boat and starts walking. That would have been presumptuous and foolish. Matthew is very clear that Peter asks for permission first. If Jesus says no, then Peter stays in the boat. But Jesus didn’t say no. He said, “Come.” So Peter came. How can you criticize him for that?

Jesus links himself with the God who in the Old Testament miraculously delivered his people again and again.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

Faith = Concentration on Jesus

We must not miss the force of Jesus’ words. When he said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” (v. 27), he used an expression the disciples would immediately understand. The phrase “It is I” is the Greek version of God saying in Exodus 3:14 that his name is “I AM.” Jesus links himself with the God who in the Old Testament miraculously delivered his people again and again. It’s not just that Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry. It’s me. I’m not a ghost.” It’s his way of saying, “I am the Lord God of the universe. I created the wind and the waves and I sent the storm.” And it is the Lord himself who tells Peter to come to him on the water.

When Jesus says, “Come,” you’d better obey. When he says, “Walk,” you’d better walk. In Peter’s case, he was safer out on the water than in the boat. At that moment, the smartest thing Peter could do was to get out of the boat.

Once Peter was fully on the water, he turns to walk toward Jesus. As he walks toward Jesus, his Master walks toward him. Everything goes fine until Peter notices the storm all around him. Remember, the storm has never stopped. During all this commotion, the rain has been coming down in sheets. Behind him the little fishing boat bobs on the roiling waves. Matthew tells us that “when he saw the wind, he was afraid.” (v. 30). But the wind was there all along. The storm has been raging for hours. It’s not as if it let up when Jesus begins walking on the water. Jesus comes to them in the midst of the storm. According to verse 32, the wind doesn’t die down until Jesus and Peter get in the boat.

In his sermon on this passage, Robert Rayburn defines faith as “concentration on Jesus.” I find that very helpful because we all can get distracted, especially when the storms of life rage around us. It’s not easy to keep your eyes on Jesus in the middle of the night, when the raging storm of fear threatens to overwhelm you. This text reminds us that not only does Christ control the storm, and not only does he send the storm, he reveals himself in the midst of the storm. Very often our purest vision of Christ comes when the storms of life threaten to capsize the tiny boat of our faith. What do we do then?

Pray for “concentrating faith.”
Focus on Jesus.
Fix your eyes on the Son of God.

Life can turn on a dime. We all know that.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

Let me say it again. The wind always blows around us. The mighty storm comes sooner or later. We have no choice or control over when the storm comes. Today the sun may be shining; tomorrow we may find ourselves toiling against the wind and rain, tossed about by adversity. Life can turn on a dime. We all know that. What happened to Peter can happen to any of us. For a brief moment, he forgets about Jesus and remembers who he is and where he is. He is Peter, a Galilean fisherman who belongs back in the boat. In that instant he looks down at his feet and sees nothing but water underneath. His mind comes to a quick conclusion: “I’m not supposed to be walking on water. This is impossible.” When he lost his concentration on Jesus, he began to sink.

Pray Quick-Or Else!

As he goes down into the water, he prays one of the shortest prayers in all the Bible: “Lord, save me!” (v. 30) In this case, brevity was the course of wisdom. When you are sinking you don’t have time to pray a long prayer. If you aren’t quick about it, you’ll drown before you get to the point. The Bible says that immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. His words to Peter are very important. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 13:31) In our English version, “You of little faith” comes out to four words. But in the Greek Jesus only used one word: “Little-faith.” It’s a title or a nickname. Jesus called Peter “Little-Faith.” “Little-faith, why did you doubt?”

When you are sinking you don’t have time to pray a long prayer.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

By the way, where did this conversation take place? It took place out in the middle of the lake. It’s still pitch dark, with the wind still howling and the rain beating down. The boat with the other disciples is rocking up and down a few yards away. Peter is sopping wet and scared to death. Jesus is standing on the water as Peter clutches his arm for dear life. After the Lord pulls Peter up from the drink, he decides that this is what the educators call a “teachable moment.” So while they are out on the lake, Jesus shares a few things that will help Peter in his spiritual life. No doubt Peter is muttering under his breath, “Get me back to the boat. I promise I’ll never pull a stunt like this again.” Meanwhile back at the boat, the other fellows are watching this whole scene, their mouths wide open, their eyes as big as saucers. They never dreamed such a thing was possible.

Verses 32-33 wrap up this little episode: “And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

Little Faith Versus No Faith

Before we leave this familiar story, let me make two observations about Peter.

“Peter, if you had just kept your eyes on me, you could have walked across the Atlantic Ocean.”
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

1. Give Peter credit because he was willing to do what no one else was willing to do. Before you come down too hard on Peter for taking his eyes off Jesus, just remember that there were 11 other guys back in the boat watching this whole affair. Before you sink, you’ve got to be out on the water. As long as you stay in the boat, you’ll never sink; but you’ll never walk on water either.

This is not the story of Bartholomew walking on the water . . . because Bartholomew stayed in the boat.

This is not the story of Matthew walking on the water . . .  because Matthew stayed in the boat.

This is not the story of James walking on the water . . . because James stayed in the boat.

This is about Peter walking on the water . . . because he was the only one with the courage to get out of the boat. Maybe some of the others wanted to, maybe they would have if Peter had stayed out there longer. But give the man credit. He did it, and they didn’t. That’s why this story is about him and the other 11 aren’t even mentioned.

Before you criticize Peter for having “little faith,” you’d better remember that “little faith” is better than “no faith,” because that’s what those others guys had who stayed behind

2.  When Jesus called Peter “Little-Faith,” he was not rebuking Peter for attempting too much, but for trusting too little. Do you see the difference?  Jesus is not saying, “Peter, you should have stayed in the boat.” Jesus did not rebuke Peter for getting out of the boat. To the contrary, Jesus is really saying, “Peter, if you had just kept your eyes on me, you could have walked across the Atlantic Ocean.”

That brings me to my final argument for getting out of the boat. If what I’ve said hasn’t quite convinced you, here is my last word to everyone who reads this sermon:

We’re all going to die some day.

We’re either going to die in the boat or out on the water.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

Some of us will die sooner, some later, but no one gets off planet earth alive. We’re either going to die in the boat or out on the water. As I write these words, I am 56 years old, and frankly, I feel it every day. Not that I feel old-I don’t-but I know I’m not 25 years old. I look at my three sons, all of them in their late 20s, and I see in them not only potential but also enormous energy. They can run circles around me without breaking a sweat. Such is the course of life for all of us. Live long enough and you’ll see a younger generation rising beneath you.

Two Little Boys at the Cemetery

So I must tell you about a picture I found the other day. In a closet in the hallway next to our guest bedroom, we’ve got a box stuffed with hundreds of unsorted pictures that cover family events going back several decades. Because the box is a jumbled mess, I rarely take it down from the shelf because I can never find what I’m looking for. That was true this time. The picture I wanted I couldn’t find. But while thumbing through the photos I found one that must have been taken almost 25 years ago, when our two oldest sons were very young. On a vacation trip to the town in Alabama where I grew up, we visited the cemetery where my father is buried.  (At the time my mom was still living. She would be buried beside my father many years later.) I snapped a photo of Josh (about 5 years old at the time) and Mark (about 3 years old) standing on either side of a large gravestone with the word PRITCHARD engraved in the middle. Josh is standing up straight while Mark is leaning on the top of the gravestone. They are wearing shorts so it must have been a warm summer day.

I can’t remember ever seeing the picture before. As I studied it, I was struck with the thought of the solemn march of time. A full quarter century has passed since that picture was taken. The little boys in that photo are both grown up and married. That picture reminds me that the generations come and the generations go.

My father.
My sons.

No one lives here forever. Fathers grow old and die. Little boys don’t stay little forever. Sooner or later we all have a date with death. Lest that seem depressing, I simply use it to remind myself that how I spend my life really matters because I won’t be here forever. An older generation taught us the truth this way:

Only one life, ‘Twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Christ calls us to find out what he is doing in the world, and then to fling ourselves wholeheartedly into his cause.
</h6 class=”pullquote”>

I want to live until the very last moment, fully invested for Christ and his Kingdom, doing everything I can to advance his cause in the world, taking risks on the basis of Kingdom principles. Staying in the boat may be comfortable and safe, but that’s not what the life of faith is all about.

Christ calls us to find out what he is doing in the world, and then to fling ourselves wholeheartedly into his cause.

In the end, who looks better? Peter who tried and sank or the other 11 who didn’t even try? There’s a reason we don’t preach about the other 11. They played it safe. Only Peter took the risk. That’s why we’re still talking about him after 2,000 years. I realize that it’s risky to walk on water. It’s possible that you might sink. But you’ll never know until you get out of the boat.

Heavenly Father, grant that we might be great risk-takers for the kingdom of God. Shake us loose from the security of staying in the boat. Help us to walk on the waters of faith because we believe that Jesus will hold us up.  Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?