Called to do the Impossible

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 Matthew 14:22-3

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 7th August 2011 at Southwater Community Methodist Church in West Sussex.

As you may know, Claire and I moved house this week.  Claire’s job has taken her to Hastings, and I’m about to start a new job in Battersea, so we needed to move somewhere that would enable us both to be able to travel to work without too much difficulty.  Moving house is never an easy task, but we managed to make it harder for ourselves by going on holiday for two weeks just before the move!  We managed to get some of the packing done before we left, but as soon as we returned we had to get straight back into it.  We had a couple of very late nights and very early mornings, but somehow we had just about managed to cram all of our possessions into boxes as the removal van pulled up at 8am on Tuesday morning.  It seemed from the outset like a difficult task, but somehow we did it.

I’m sure that you’ve had similar experiences.  Perhaps, like us, you’ve had to move home.  Maybe you’ve found yourself up against a deadline at work that you thought you’d never manage to hit.  Perhaps you’ve struggled to complete an essay or dissertation by the deadline.  It’s amazing, isn’t it, how when we persevere, when we have faith in ourselves and confidence in our own abilities, we can achieve things that we thought would be difficult to do.

In today’s reading we will consider how Jesus calls us to action, and sometimes to tackle tasks that we might think are not just difficult, but impossible.  We’ll also look at how Jesus responds to our call, “lord, save me!” when things just seem too difficult.  First, though, we’ll consider how the power of Jesus can challenge, frighten and intimidate.

At the beginning of our reading, we saw how Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him in a boat whilst he dismissed the crowds and went up to the mountains to pray.  Soon the disciples found themselves caught up in a storm on the lake, battling against the wind and the waves.  Interestingly, Matthew, in his account of this incident, does not say that the disciples were afraid facing the storm.  Many of the disciples, of course, were fishermen who no doubt would have faced similar storms on this lake many times before.  Presumably they trusted their boat, and trusted in their own ability to ride the storm out.  This was their natural environment after all.

So why is it that one of the things we remember most about this passage is the fear of the disciples?

Well, the disciples were afraid, but it wasn’t the storm that scared them, but the ghostly figure they see striding out across the water towards them.

Sometime between 3am and 6am, Jesus began walking on the sea towards the disciples’ boat.  Seeing the figure of a man walking across the stormy waters, the disciples were absolutely petrified.  They saw something that they just did not understand, and couldn’t rationalise.  How can anyone walk across water?  They believed that what they were seeing was a ghost and were very frightened.

The disciples were challenged by the very existence of Jesus in this incident.  They had never seen anyone walk on water before, and why would they have?  They didn’t expect Jesus to be able to walk on water.  Despite all the amazing things that they had seen, Jesus confounded their expectations.

Many people still fear Jesus today.  There are times when I fear Jesus.  I wonder if you do too?

Sometimes, as I read my Bible, or listen to a sermon I am amazed and confounded by what Jesus has done, and what he continues to do.  Sometimes this can lead to doubts in my own mind.

How could Jesus heal a blind man?

How could he calm a storm?

How could he feed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish?

Surely this is impossible?

Yet it is precisely through his actions that Jesus shows that he is God.  Jesus’ teaching was amazing, incredible and truly inspirational.  But it is through his actions that he demonstrates his sovereignty.  And that can be terrifying, particularly if we don’t understand that Jesus is the Son of God, indeed God himself.

Still today, when people see God at work, fear is a common response.  Healings still occur today, and these can shock and scare people if they don’t know where this healing power has come from.  Miracles still happen across the world, and can often leave people feeling fearful.

It’s that fear that afflicts the disciples as they see Jesus walking on the water towards them.

Jesus is quick to allay his disciples fears.  After they cry out in fear, Jesus immediately calls out to his disciples, “Take heart, it is I.  Do not be afraid.”  He reassures them that the figure they see walking on the stormy water before them is the same man, the same teacher that they have been following for the past few months.

Whether or not this statement calmed the disciples isn’t recorded in Matthew’s gospel.  What is is Peter’s response.  Peter called back to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Quite why Peter responded in this way is open to much discussion and debate. What we can ascertain from the New Testament, however, is that Peter was a rather impetuous character, one of those people who acts first, and thinks later. People have debated as to whether this incident demonstrates that Peter had a great deal of faith in Jesus, or not very much at all. Those who believe that Peter’s challenge to Jesus demonstrates a lack of faith say that Peter was challenging Jesus to demonstrate his power, he was asking for a sign. I’m not entirely sure about this myself; after all, Peter had enough confidence in Jesus that if he stepped out onto the water in a raging storm, Jesus would ensure that he didn’t drown!

I wonder what Peter was hoping to achieve with his challenge to Christ?

Perhaps it was something very basic.  Perhaps he looked at Jesus and thought that walking on water was rather cool, and he’d like a go.

Perhaps it was something more spiritual; maybe he had in mind Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 when Jesus gave his disciples authority over unclean spirits and to heal every disease and affliction, and thought that Jesus’ delegation extended to everything that Jesus did.

Or perhaps it was something else. Maybe Peter was so passionate about Christ, so enthusiastic for everything he stood for, that he just wanted to be with Jesus, and to do the things that his master and teacher was doing.

Whatever the reason, Jesus’ response to Peter was simple; come, he said.

Just one simple command: come.

This echoes the first call that Jesus made to Peter and his brother Andrew at the beginning of his ministry when he called on them to follow him.

It also foreshadows Jesus’ commandment to all believers at the very end of his ministry, when he tells us to go and make disciples of all nations.

The ministry that Jesus calls us to is a ministry of action. Christianity isn’t a faith based solely on a set of beliefs or rituals. Our faith is one of action. Just as Jesus demonstrated who he was through his actions, we’re called to action, to follow Christ, to come to him, and to go and make disciples.

In today’s passage, Jesus calls Peter to him in extraordinary circumstances. He calls Peter to come to him over the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee.

In stepping out of the boat, Peter risked everything. It was quite rare for Palestinian fishermen to be able to swim; if their boat capsized or sank, they preferred the prospect of a rapid death rather than hours splashing around before eventually succumbing to the inevitable. If Peter had not managed to step onto the water, therefore, he would be doomed to death by drowning in the stormy waters of the lake. Even if he survived, he would forever face the ridicule of his friends for believing that he could walk on water.

The step of faith that Peter took in getting out of the boat, therefore, was enormous. He must have had complete and utter faith in Jesus to even attempt to walk on the water, yet that was just what he did. Jesus commanded him to come, and that’s exactly what Peter did.

A fishing boat is, of course, a perfectly sensible place for a fisherman to be. I’m sure that Peter and his companions felt safe, relaxed and at home in their boat.

Similarly, a Church is a perfectly sensible place for a Christian to be. I’m sure that many of us here this morning feel safe, relaxed and at home here in our Church.

Just as Peter was called out of the boat by Jesus, though, we too are called by Christ into the stormy world in which we live, a world that at times can be a dangerous place for a Christian to be, a world where in many places we could face death for our beliefs, a world in which we may be subject to the ridicule of our friends for our beliefs.

It’s easy being a Christian in Church.

It’s easy to be a Christian at a Christian event like Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor.

It’s much harder to be a Christian in the world outside the comfort of our church.

If we seek to live an active faith, however, a life of action, Jesus calls us all to step out of our place of comfort and into the world, to minister to the sick, to support the needy, to love our neighbours and ourselves.

Walking on water seemed like an impossibility to Peter, yet that’s what Jesus called him to do, and he did it. We can expect too that sometimes Jesus will ask us to take a step that seems completely impossible to us.

Perhaps Jesus might call us to minister as a Local Preacher, but we feel that we don’t know enough and hate speaking in public. How could I ever do that?

Maybe he calls us to serve in Junior Church, but we don’t have any experience of working with children and feel that we’d be rubbish.

Perhaps he calls us to work as a missionary in the inner city or in a foreign country. How could I give up my home and my job and uproot my family to serve in that way?

Maybe he calls us to befriend prisoners, or the homeless, or drug addicts. How could I possibly do that?

Jesus calls us all in some way or another, and at times the call he makes on us looks totally impossible.  What is clear in this passage is that we are called to action, to get out of the boat, away from our comfort zone.  We mustn’t fear, we must do!

If, like Peter, we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will work through us and ensure that  we can fulfil the impossible task that he sets us.

If we seek out the task to which Christ calls us, that stepping out of the boat, and we have confidence in Christ and maintain our focus on Christ, we can achieve anything, and we can transform the world.

In today’s reading there’s another important lesson for us.  Peter responded to Christ’s call, and stepped out of the boat.  Sure enough, he was able to walk on the water!  It wasn’t long, however, before Peter took his eyes off Jesus and looked instead at the effect of the wind and the waves all around him.  Despite the fact that he had proven that he could walk on water with Jesus’ help, he began to doubt.  As he doubted, he began to sink.

Similarly, there will be times when we begin to doubt. We look around at the storms of the world we live in and think there’s just no way we can bring the task we’re set to completion.

Every time I sit down to write a sermon, I think to myself, why am I even doing this?  There’s no way that I can preach.

I’m sure that you’ve felt the same thing once you have embarked on following your calling.

Perhaps the children start misbehaving at Junior Church and you lose confidence.

Perhaps you feel out of place and inadequate in the place to which you’ve been called.

It need not even be anything as radical as this, however.

Maybe you simply struggle to believe and you doubt the identity of Jesus, or doubt that he rose from the dead, or doubt that heaven even exists.

We can learn in our time of doubting from Peter.  When we’re called out in faith, it is absolutely vital that we keep our eyes on Jesus, and remove any doubts we might have from our mind.

Jesus is our constant companion, and if we retain our focus on him, we can achieve whatever it is we’re called to do.

When we follow our calling, our strength comes from him, not from within us.

A man cannot walk on water, and yet, with Jesus’ help, Peter managed to do that.

I cannot write a decent sermon, but with Jesus’ help, perhaps I might produce something that has some impact.

So if we’re called to be a local preacher, or help with the Junior Church, or to be a missionary, or to work with prisoners, the homeless or drug addicts, or even if we’re called simply to live out our faith in the world, we must trust that Jesus will not abandon us, that he will not let us fail, that he will not allow us to sink out of our depth.

But what if we do find ourselves sinking?  What if we do find ourselves flailing around because we have taken our eyes off Christ?

Well, it’s clear from today’s reading that there is still hope.

Note what happens to Peter in verses 30 and 31; he calls out to Jesus, “Lord, save me,” and Jesus immediately reached out and took his hand. He didn’t question him, he didn’t abandon him, he didn’t even stop to think about what to do. Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed Peter, saving him from drowning in the stormy waters of the lake.

It’s exactly this call, of course, with which we all begin our spiritual journey.  It’s a recognition that we are weak, that we are sinners, and that without Jesus we are doomed.  When we call out, “Lord, save me!”, we move our trust from ourselves and onto him.  We have confidence that Jesus has the ability to save us, and that he has the inclination to do so.

We can be confident that Jesus saves when we find ourselves flailing too. Should we find ourselves out of our depth, or struggling with the circumstances we find ourselves in, or if we turn our eyes from Jesus, if we call out to Jesus, “Lord, save me,” he will do exactly that.

Without hesitation.

In our times of trouble, in our need, or even when we simply find it hard to live a Christian life, Jesus is there for us.  If we falter or if we fall, he will immediately grab us by the hand and pull us to safety.

I don’t know about you, but I find that immensely reassuring.

We all have times when we struggle with our faith, when we lose faith, and when we simply feel overwhelmed by life.  We would not be human if we did not have doubts, that’s only natural.

Peter went on to be one of the great figures of the early church, one of the most influential people in proclaiming the gospel to the world, and ensuring that Jesus’ message of love, hope and forgiveness has lasted to this day.  Here he is, though, struggling with his faith.  At exactly the moment that he needs to have faith, he doubts.  At the point at which his faith is a matter of life or death, between staying on the water and sinking under it, he doubts.  And yet Jesus immediately reaches out to him and saves him from drowning.

As we draw to a close, therefore, let’s just bring together everything that we’ve learnt from this powerful passage of scripture.

We’ve seen that the power of Jesus can be challenging.  If we do not understand who he is, or don’t recognise that he is the Son of God, indeed God himself, then the character and identity of Jesus can be very frightening indeed.  How can he do all the incredible things he has been recorded doing?  Yet if we recognise Jesus as the Son of God, the actions that he took, the healings, the miracles, the raising of the dead, all support Jesus’ divinity.

We’ve also seen that Christ calls us.  He tells us to “come.”  He calls us out into the world, away from our comfort zones, and to take radical action.  He sometimes calls us to do things that we believe to be impossible, that we cannot do.  Yet if we keep our eyes on him, if we focus on him, we can achieve anything.

Finally, we’ve seen that Jesus responds to our call when we cry out, “Lord, save me.”  As he saves us from death, he will also save us from drowning in the storms of the world.  If we lose faith, or begin to doubt, if we call on him to save us, he acts immediately to rescue us.

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