Stay the Course

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me
.[1]

We know these lines from the book of psalms, and most of us have lived long enough to know that this is not the prayer of someone who swam out too far from the beach and got caught in a rip tide. This is the prayer of someone who looked around and could only see trouble on every side.

For more than two years, we have been in the wake of the most seismic housing collapse in the nation’s history, and nearly 1 in every 4 U.S. homeowners with mortgages owe more on their home than it’s worth – they’re underwater, as we say.[2] We have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over us, and people are drowning – in debt, in anxiety, in despair. These are times when our worries and fears don’t stay contained in our hearts but flood us like mighty waters that threaten to swallow up everything.

When Peter began to sink and his life was about to disappear in the deep, all he could do was cry out, “Lord, save me!” – and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. When they got back in the boat, the disciples who had witnessed his power to save worshiped Christ – but a couple of them, at least a couple of them, I imagine, eventually turned to Peter and said, “What were you thinking? Why didn’t you stay in the boat?”

Earlier that evening, they had been part of that wondrous banquet on the beach, where their meager resources, in the hands of Jesus, became food for all. They had witnessed Christ’s power to transform their worries about what to eat into a feast of joyfully shared abundance. Then, while Jesus dismissed the crowds, he told the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead without him. It was the first time since Jesus had called them to be his disciples that he told them to go on without him. When night fell, he was alone on the mountain, praying, and they were alone in the thick of things, battered by the waves in the night, far from the land, with the wind against them, working hard to keep the course, bailing to keep the boat afloat.

The scene depicts the church on its mission: a small boat on a voyage to the other side of the wide sea, threatened by the wind and the waves. This is actually the second time in Matthew that we are invited to recognize ourselves in those seafarers rather than watch them from the shore. The first time, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples when a wind storm arose on the sea, and the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.[3] He was right there with them, but to them it was as if he wasn’t there at all. They woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What kind of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” They – and we along with them – began to see that Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In this second clip of the great voyage to the other side, Jesus was not in the boat. It was dark, the waves were powerful, and they were far from the land – but they were not afraid. With the wind against them, they were busy keeping the course. And early in the morning, in the darkest hour of the night, just before dawn, they saw Jesus walking on the sea. Now they were terrified and they cried out in fear – until they heard the familiar voice, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” They – and we along with them – discovered that Jesus was not far away on a distant shore, but that he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In the Bible, the sea is shown as a place teeming with life, but also as the unfathomable deep, the unpredictable and uncontrollable force that can destroy life. Within minutes and without warning, its friendly, sun-speckled surface can turn into violent, churning, watery chaos. Matthew’s witness of Jesus walking on the sea is to help us recognize and remember that in him, God is with us, that he can subdue the frightening chaos of our anxiety and fear. At the end of the story, the wind ceases and the sea is tamed.

Matthew’s gospel, Matthew’s witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ, begins with the birth of a child called Emmanuel, God-with-us, and it ends with the promise of the risen Christ, “Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.”[4] And here, in the middle of his narrative, Matthew gives the followers of Jesus on their long voyage, with the wind, it seems, always against them, a church tossed by the waves of opposition against its mission, a church exhausted by the struggle – here he gives the church of all generations a glimpse of that darkest hour before dawn: Matthew shows us the Son of God walking across all that frightens and threatens us and bringing peace to creation. “Take heart, it is I,” he says to us. It is a long journey, it is a hard journey; fear and anxiety will stir the world into a horrid dance of suspicion and mistrust, but you are not alone. “Take heart, it is I.” Stay the course of faith and mercy.

Now what got into Peter that he responded, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”? Many have suggested that Peter climbing over the gunwhale is an example of discipleship. They tell us that Jesus is standing on the stormy waters of life, bidding us, across the roar of the wind and the waves, to come to him. Like Peter, we are to heed his call and find the courage to step out onto the water. Step out boldly; pay no attention to the storm; keep your eyes on the Lord. If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat. They present Peter as an example of “extreme discipleship” whereas the rest of the disciples are mere “boat potatoes.”[5] They suggest that it’s perfectly OK for a follower of Jesus to want to walk on water, and if Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off his Lord, he would have hiked up and down the waves like it was just the thing to do in the middle of a storm.

Peter is an example, but not of extreme discipleship. He is an example of ordinary discipleship, an example of how difficult it is to be a follower when the one you follow isn’t present in familiar ways.

“Take heart, it is I,” Jesus said. You are not alone. We hear the words, we hear the promise, but we go back and forth between courage and fear, between trust and the need for unshakable certainty, between Yes and Yes, but what if? What if this call to a life of discipleship is just in our imagination?

Peter said, “Lord, if it is you,” and in all of Matthew there are only two other scenes when someone addresses Jesus with this kind of conditional clause. In one, the tempter comes to Jesus in the wilderness, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”[6] And in the other, at the crucifixion, some who pass by say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”[7] We want more than the word and the promise, and that can put us in the company of those who tempt and scorn our Savior.

Nevertheless, Jesus said to Peter, “Come.” And this simple command reminds me of the time when Jesus called his first disciples. He walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Peter and his brother, and he said to them, “Follow me.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Things became more difficult when following was no longer just a matter of keeping up with the man going ahead of them. That’s when they – and we along with them – began to understand that to follow Jesus is to trust his word and promise; to be attentive to his voice and call. Our faith in Christ equips us not to be water-walkers but rather seafarers on the great voyage to the other side, ordinary human beings in a threatened world who, with the wind against them, stay the course of faith and mercy. Our faith is as human as Peter’s; it is that mixture of courage and fear, of trust and doubt, of listening to the Lord and noticing the wind, and of sinking and being held. When Peter began to sink and the waters were about to close over him, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” No more “Lord, if it is you,” only the voice of a human being crying out from the violent, churning, watery chaos – and there it was, the strong hand of Jesus.

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me
.[8]

We know these lines from the book of psalms, and most of us have lived long enough to know that this is not someone else’s prayer, but ours. This is the prayer of God’s people, and Jesus has prayed it with all who put their trust in God’s power to save.

We have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over us, and people are drowning – in debt, in anxiety, in despair. These are times when the worries and fears of many surround us like mighty waters that threaten to swallow up everything. These are times when the world needs the witness of ordinary disciples, ordinary men and women who muster the courage to stay the course of faith and mercy. May we be among them.

 


[1] Psalm 69:1-2

[2] See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/03/learning-to-walk-underwater-mortgages_n_818315.html

[3] Matthew 8:23-27

[4] Matthew 28:20

[5] John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001), pp. 13, 31

[6] Matthew 4:3, 6

[7] Matthew 27:40

[8] Psalm 69:1-2