Sermons

Sun, Aug 13, 2017

Getting back in the boat

Series:Sermons

"And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea".

Jesus walks on water--

it's perhaps one of the best-known Gospel stories.

But how do we make sense of it?

 

One theory suggests that there had been an earthquake in the region--

a not-uncommon phenomenon--

which had caused the bedrock to shift. 

That shifting disturbed the sediment at the bottom of the so-called 'sea of Galilee'...

which rose up...

and, mixed with the water, increased its viscosity...

turning it into a gel-like substance...

sufficient to support Jesus' weight.

However, the disciples--

caught in a violent storm...

confused and panicking--

were unaware of what was actually happening.

 

A few years back, another theory was proposed by a professor of oceanography from Florida.

He claimed that a "rare combination of...water and conditions"...

namely... 

"a brief blast of frigid air combined with generally cooler weather...resulted in a unique, localized freezing phenomenon".

In other words, Jesus only appeared to be walking on the water when-- 

in reality-- 

he was actually walking on a patch of ice floating on the sea of Galilee.

 

Like all of the desperate attempts to explain or rationalise the Biblical stories...

both of these explanations stretch the imagination to the point of breaking.

As I mentioned last week--

in relation to the story of the feeding of the five thousand--

none of the so-called "nature miracles" in the Gospels happened.

Jesus never fed more than five thousand people from five loaves of bread and two fish.

And Jesus never walked on water.

But, unfortunately, we continue to get people coming up with wacky explanations...

and we continue to get wacky people trying to re-enact these stories--

like a certain African Evangelist a number of years ago who... 

in response to a vision that he believed that he had had... 

drowned while attempting to walk on water.

Rather, this story of Jesus walking on water--

like so many stories that we find in the pages of the Bible...

both in the Old and the New Testaments--

belongs to the category of myth.

We're dealing here with a story that was constructed based on what the early Christians--

decades after Jesus lived-- 

believed ought to have happened.

It was a story that was constructed and composed with a strongly symbolic meaning...

trying to convey a significant theological point.

 

So, what is this story about?

What's the point that it's trying to make?

 

Well, in this story, we have a heavy storm on the Sea of Galilee.

That was a phenomenon that, apparently, happens quite often...

and one that can happen with little warning.

So, we have the poor, frightened disciples in a small fishing boat...

being buffeted and tossed about by the strong winds and the treacherous waves...

in grave danger... 

and unable to cope.

And we have Jesus... 

who calmly walks across the waves...

and, when he gets into the boat...

immediately the winds die down...

the storm subsides...

and the sea is becalmed.

It's a carefully crafted story, one that's based upon--

and replete with--

echoes from the Old Testament.

For example... 

in Psalm Sixty-Five... 

God is described as One who silences the roaring of the seas and who hushes its waves.

And in Psalm one hundred and seven, we read that the people of Israel...

"cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed".

So, in the first instance, there's this whole theme...

or motif...

of God as One who saves and rescues God's people...

through the stilling of storms and the calming of seas.

But, more than that, in the book of Job... 

God is described as One who "trampled the waves of the sea".

And, in Psalm Seventy-Seven, it's said that God's path "was through the sea"... 

and yet God's "footprints were unseen".

In other words... 

in the Old Testament, God is also portrayed as One who walks up the sea;

God is portrayed as One who has mastery or power over the elements.

And this, the Gospel writers want us to believe, is true of Jesus as well.

In other words, they are claiming here that Jesus shares in God's power;

that Jesus will come to save God's people when they are frightened... 

distress... 

unable to cope...

and in danger;

when, if you like, they're all at sea.

But the imagery and symbolism goes even further than that.

You see... 

it's not just that Jesus is portrayed as walking on the water...

rather, Jesus is specifically said to be walking "on the sea".

And, for the ancient Israelites, 'the sea' was an object of great terror and dread:

it was a frightening creature that swallowed and engulfed people;

it was not just a force of nature, but a powerful cosmic force--

a force of chaos and threat...

an almost demonic force.

The sea represented and symbolised their darkest fears...

their greatest insecurities...

and their deepest anguish.

So, when the author of Matthew's Gospel--

like the author of Mark's Gospel before him-- 

describes Jesus as walking over the sea...

and coming to the terrified and struggling disciples...

and calming the wind and waves...

he's trying to reassure his readers that-- 

in the face of grave danger-- 

Christ is with us, we are not alone.

Whatever terrors we may face...

and whenever we confront our deepest fears... 

Christ is with us, we are not alone.

Whenever we might feel overwhelmed...

swamped...

unable to cope...

like we're about to go under...

Christ is with us, we are not alone.

But, more than that, the author is trying to reassure us...

that the Christ who is with us is One who is able to save us from our deepest fears;

that he can hush the storms of self-doubt and insecurity;

that he can still the raging winds of anguish and anxiety;

that he can trample down the menacing waves of chaos that threaten to engulf us.

 

Now, that all sounds good-- 

at least in theory--

but life isn't that simple.

It's not always easy to placate our fears...

our doubts...

and our insecurities;

It's not always easy to tell ourselves, blithely, that everything is going to work out okay...

because Christ is present...

and that Christ is able to calm the storms.

It doesn't always wash.

There are times when, like Peter, it's difficult to shut out the noise of the wind... 

and the force of the waves...

and to believe that we, too, can symbolically walk on the waters of our fears.

And when the author suggests that our failure to do so only betrays a lack of faith and trust...

I want to grab him and give him a good shake!

 

And yet, in a way, maybe he does have a point.

Maybe, sometimes-- 

like Peter does in this story--

when you have gotten out of the boat...

and you have tried to laugh in the face of the gale...

and failed...

it's about having the courage to get back into the boat-

even though the storms are still raging--

and waiting... 

and trusting...

for God to do in, and for us, what we can't.

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