I don’t normally tell jokes in a sermon, but I have to make an exception in this case. I think the relevance to our text could hardly be greater. There were four men in a boat on a lake fishing. One was a Baptist, one a Presbyterian, one a Methodist, and one an atheist. After some time, the Baptist said that he had to go use the bathroom, so he got out of the boat, walked on the water across the lake, went to the bathroom, and came back, walking on the water. After another while, the Presbyterian also got up, saying that he had to go get some more sunscreen. So he got out of the boat, walked across the water, and came back, bearing the sunscreen and walking across the water. After another while, the Methodist said that he had to go make a quick telephone call. So he got out of the boat, walked across the water, made his call, and came back, walking across the water. The atheist was amazed. He thought that maybe there was something in this Christianity thing, if miracles like this could happen. So he announced that he was going to get a new fishing line from his pickup. He got out of the boat and immediately sank to the bottom like a rock and drowned. After which, the Baptist said to the Presbyterian, “You think we should have told him where the stones were?” Now, some scholars treat this miracle just like the joke. They argue that Jesus didn’t really walk on water, because, after all, that’s really impossible. So they invent some story like the disciples were really near the shore, and Jesus walked in the surf, and they thought He was walking actually on the water. Or, others think that the disciples were simply hallucinating. Scholars think this way because miracles like this simply cannot happen. They rule out such miracles out of hand. However, the text simply does not allow us to interpret the miracle that way. For one thing, there is Peter. Why would Peter be afraid of sinking and drowning if they were that close to shore? If they could see Jesus, then they could have seen the shore if they were that close to it. No, they were still out in the middle of the lake. The text tells us that they were many stadia from the land. A stadion is the distance of a normal Greek stadium for the Olympic games. It was about 607 feet long. So if they were that far away from land, then they were still in the middle of the lake. Then also, they thought he was a ghost. In that time, people often believed that ghosts would come out on the lake and that if anyone saw such a ghost, it meant that they were about to die. And finally, if all Jesus did was walk on the surf, and it was not a real miracle, then the incident would not have led to worship. But the disciples are led to worship Jesus for what had just happened. They called Him the Son of God. Okay, so we have established that this was a true miracle, where Jesus actually walked on water as if it was solid ground. Why did He do this, and what difference does it make to us?
To answer these questions, we have to look at the text once again. Jesus had just finished feeding the five thousand. The crowds were wanting to make Him king by force, as we learn from John’s Gospel. That is why Jesus commands the disciples to leave Him. The disciples, you see, had more than a little sympathy for what the crowds wanted to do. So Jesus had to get rid of the disciples while He dismissed the crowds. Otherwise, the disciples would get wrapped up in a king-making frenzy. This all explains why He literally compels the disciples to get into the boat and leave. There was not a moment to lose. Then, having already fed the crowds, He dismissed them so that He could go up on to the mountain to pray. It is interesting here that Jesus spends this much time in prayer on the mountain. He spends most of the night in prayer. The text tells us that Jesus came to the disciples in the fourth watch of the night. The Jews divided the twelve hours of the night into only three watches of four hours each. But the Romans divided the night into four watches of three hours. Since the text tells us that Jesus came to the disciples in the fourth watch of the night, it is clear that Matthew is referring to the Roman custom of dividing the night into four watches. That would have been, then, from 3-6 AM when Jesus came to them. This means that Jesus spent well over six hours in prayer to His Father! I don’t want us to miss this point. If Jesus felt it necessary to pray that much to His heavenly Father, and He was God Himself, then how much more do we need to pray to our Heavenly Father! We give prayer all too short a shrift, I fear.
Anyway, the disciples were a ways out from land. However, with more than six long hours of rowing, you’d think they would have gotten all the way to the other side by now. The problem was the storm. Literally, the text says that the boat was tortured by the waves, tormented by the waves. The boat was actually suffering. In some of the other accounts, we learn that the disciples were also being tormented, and were suffering. They were in the midst of a terrible ordeal. They didn’t even know whether they would make land safely. The wind was against them, and the waves were against them. And then, concentrating so hard on what they were doing, they were startled to see a man walking on the sea. As we said before, they shared some superstitions with first-century Jews about ghosts. It was thought that if a ghost appeared to you on a lake, that was a sure sign that you were about to drown. And so they cry out in fear.
Jesus answers them immediately, and with a wonderful message full of hope and comfort. He tells the disciples to take courage. Then He says “It is I.” Literally, the text reads “I am.” It is the exact same wording as the burning bush when Moses asks God about His name and who He is so that he can tell the Israelites who God is if they ask Him. God answers by telling Moses “I am who I am. If the people ask you who went you, tell them that “I am” has sent you to them.” We see this language more often in John. But in this instance, where Jesus is appearing to the disciples in a miraculous way, and He wants to give them courage, He tells the disciples that He is the covenant-keeping, world-creating, all-powerful, God. Included in this is the idea that Jesus created the wind and the waves. If He created them, He can certainly control them. They therefore have nothing to fear, because He is with Him, His rod and His staff, they comfort them.
Then Peter has one of his frequent “brilliant” ideas. He decides to do what Christ has done. It is important to notice here that Peter has some faith. He knows, for instance, that only Christ can strengthen him. He also knows that if Christ strengthens him, then he can walk on water. However, as we know, Peter did not have a huge faith at this time. Other things began to crowd out his trust of Christ. He is being a little bit like the thorny soil in the parable. The seed was there, but the thorns of this world crowded out the seed, making it unfruitful. Peter saw the wind and the waves, and, being a fisherman, knew the danger. Those things weighed in his mind more heavily than the power of Christ. And so he took his eyes off Jesus and immediately began to sink. However, it is at this moment, ironically, that he is closer to Christ than ever before. For it is here that he does what he needs, and it is here that he knows what he needs. He knows that he needs Jesus, and so he cries out to Jesus. Oftentimes, in our own experience, it is true that only when we are at the very bottom of the well can we see that we need Jesus. Otherwise, we just think we can go it on our own, right? When life goes smoothly, we think we don’t need Jesus. But when the trial comes, then we are faced with our own inadequacy, as James Boice points out. If only we could remember our utter need for and dependence on God even when we are not in the middle of a trial! But that is so hard.
Lastly, it is important to notice the outcome of this trial and miracle: worship. Notice that the disciples worship Jesus not just because He did this outstanding miracle. They worship Jesus also for saving Peter from sinking to the watery depths like a rock (Peter’s name means rock, by the way). If we want to walk, we must have firm rock under our feet, like in the joke with which we began. The only solid bedrock on which we can well walk is that foundation that Jesus Christ has laid.
In applying this message, it is important to recognize that we are not likely to walk on water in our lifetimes. That is not the main point of application. Miracles were necessary in the early church. I am not saying that God could not act miraculously today. Certainly when anyone is born again, that is an act of supernatural power. But I am skeptical of claims for miracles, when so many of them turn out to be frauds. What is true is that life is often like a storm at sea. When we are storm-tossed, then we need to fix our eyes upon Jesus, and look full into His wonderful face, as the hymn has it. Then the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. Which things in life have captured your vision? Do the cares of this life distract you from God? This miracle teaches us that the cares of this life should rather drive us to Christ, than tempt us away. We need to know that Jesus is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He is. Therefore, we do not need to be afraid. The point here is not that we will escape all storms in life. The point is that Jesus is with us in the midst of those storms. And He is more powerful than the storms. Take heart. It is Jesus. We need not be afraid. Instead, we should worship Him as being the Son of God.