Epiphany Encounters: “Fixing Our Eyes Upon Jesus”

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A sermon preached on Matthew 14:22-33 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on January 19, 2020, the second Sunday of Epiphany. Part of a five-part series called, “Chosen: Five Epiphany Encounters with Jesus.”

A Supernatural Passage

I had a bump sticker on my car as a teenager. It said this: “Jesus Surfs.” I’ll give that a moment to sink in. In case you missed it, this is a supernatural passage (and actually, it follows another supernatural passage – the feeding of the five thousand). If you struggle with that this morning, I would offer two things: 1) which is harder to do – raise from the dead, or walk on water? Scripture’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is utterly trustworthy, and therefore we trust this, too. 2) What’s your view of nature? A Christian worldview takes into account nature’s ability to receive – indeed, the intention for it to receive – the miraculous from God (see C.S. Lewis’s book, Miracles). Moreover, the miraculous in this passage is not without purpose – it is designed to show us who this Jesus is – it is a true Epiphany passage. And that’s where we’re headed.

Peter: Exemplary or Not So Much? (vs. 28-31)

But to get there, we need to first tackle this question. Is Peter exemplary here, or not? I’ve greatly struggled with this question. Peter is so bold as to ask Jesus to call him to himself on to the water, and yet, something seems amiss.

Let’s remember Peter’s character profile for a moment. Jeffrey Gibbs says of Peter, “whenever he speaks, bad things come out of his mouth.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34, pg. 762, footnote 20) If you have seen the TV series The Chosen, then you know they’ve done a good job of capturing Peter’s profile as a disciple. In the early days of Jesus’ ministry they imagine him basically acting as Jesus’ bouncer – controlling who gets near Jesus, making sure he’s safe, controlling, even, who Jesus admits as a disciple. Peter is confident and impulsive, with great zeal and little knowledge. Recall this: even in his great confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, he then turns around on a dime, only to demand that because of this, Jesus should not die.

Here’s where I’m going with this: when this passage is applied, so often the emphasis is on Peter. Something like, you know, if you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat! Get out of your comfort zone! That’s a message I’d love to preach. It sounds good. It’s a message I connect with as a church planter. I think there’s even a good bit of truth to it! Problem is, I don’t think it’s the message of this passage. Far more foundational for the life of the disciple is learning to see more clearly who Jesus truly is and learning to trust him more deeply because of it.

Jesus Walks on Water (vs. 22-27)

So, let’s now look more closely at what this passage then teaches us about Jesus himself. This passage begins with great distance between the disciples and the Lord. Jesus has dismissed the crowds after teaching and feeding them. He’s on the mountain in prayer. The disciples’ boat is being battered by the storm – several miles out on the sea of Galilee. With this, the scene is set for Jesus to reveal a little more of himself to his disciples.

So, Jesus comes to them in the dead of night – 3 to 6 AM – and his presence terrifies them! They think it’s a ghost. In Florida, I used to fish off piers with my friends at night. It was so much fun, but nothing is genuinely creepier than the water at night. You’re sure that anything that stirs the water is the worst thing imaginable. But here, it is Jesus. The One who walks on the water is for them. He’s not a terror. He has come to guide them. Come to be with them. Come to calm the storm. Come to give them peace. Jesus says, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And here, his words echo the very way God speaks in the Old Testament: I am he! Jesus says. God himself, the one who makes a way in the waters (Isaiah 43:16), the one who can calm the waters, the one who created the waters, moreover, has come into their midst. To him, the water responds as if it were a path of stone beneath his feet. But will the disciples recognize him? Will Peter recognize him? Will Jesus word be enough?

Peter Walks on Water…and Doubts Again (vs. 28-31)

No, Peter is not convinced. Peter says, “if it is you…” We know Peter doubted as he walked on the sea in the midst of the storm, but it’s worth noting that actually doubts Jesus here – before he gets out of the boat. With that, he asks to come to Jesus – and Jesus consents.

It has to be granted here – Peter experiences an incredible supernatural event. But, he ends up doubting Jesus again. Jeffrey Gibbs writes, “The first time [Peter] doubted whether it was really Jesus, and the second time he doubted whether Jesus was able to do what he said he would do for him.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34, pg. 763)

Peter ends up in the same place as the other disciples – terrified and in need of Jesus’ rescue. And notice – when Jesus gets to the boat, he doesn’t chide the other disciples for not having jumped on the water. In verse 33, the passage ends with the worship and revelation of Jesus as the Son of living God, the one who treads on the storm and at the same time brings peace and salvation. What do we learn here?

Application: Fixing Our Eyes on Jesus

First, we must learn to clearly see, know and trust Jesus for who he is – for this is how faith is strengthened. Our faith grows stronger as we learn to more clearly gaze upon the object of our faith, not our own impulsive efforts.

As we have said, Peter did not recognize and then did not trust Jesus. Jared Wilson here writes,

“And yet, Jesus still held on to Peter.

Just as it is grace top to bottom that saves us, it is faith beginning to end that sustains us. We do not start over by faith and then embark on a great “good works” self-improvement project. No, we “walk by faith” (2 Cor. 5:7). The author of Hebrews says, in fact, that we run by it.

What is the weight [in Hebrews 12] —other than sin—that can easily ensnare us? Is it not our own sense of self-righteousness? Isn’t it anything, even good things, that can distract us from focus on Jesus? The author of Hebrews says to “keep our eyes” on him. Why? I think it’s because he knows that even in our spiritual disciplines, religious efforts, and theological studies, it is so easy to pursue these means as if they are ends to themselves. We want to look more holy, more knowledgeable, more “put together.” This is not walking or running by faith at all.

No, we must keep our eyes on Jesus. Every good work must be submitted to the glory of Jesus. Every spiritual discipline must be conducted as a means of deepening our friendship with Jesus. Every religious book read, every theological idea explored, every biblical doctrine studied must have as its aim a stirring of our affections for Jesus. Only by focusing on Jesus will we be able to endure in the Christian life and have a faith that lasts to the finish line.” (In Your Religious Exercises, Don’t Take Your Eyes Off Jesus – Gospel Coalition)

Second, we must learn that Peter’s last ditch and unadorned prayer, “Lord, save me,” is always the first and most pertinent prayer of the Christian life. We must learn, as did Peter throughout his time with Jesus, the full measure of our dependence upon him. Prayer, as the expression of that dependency, is to become our very breath. Last year, the Vestry read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In there, there’s that great section where Bonhoeffer says that we are to offer God the first word of every day that every word in our day might be his. It is not the eloquence of our words that matters to our God, but the offering of them – the coming to him for sustenance and daily bread – and the assurance that he wills to come to us and save us, no matter where we are.

I want to end with Jeffrey Gibbs’ powerful words on this passage:

“Was there ever a Master more patient and gracious than this Jesus, whose power and authority go out to all who call upon him in their need – even when they themselves have created their fatal situation of need? Matthew has structured and told this story in order to highlight the identity and power and the saving purpose of Jesus.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34, pg. 764) Jesus, who walks on the waters, is also the one who condescends to save all who will come. And he still does.

Prayer

Lord Jesus, when your disciples were tossed and tormented by a terrifying storm, you came to them with great calm, and they were safe. Speak peace, we pray you, to us; that we may find rest for our souls and to our bodies; grant us to drink deeply of the fountain of life that is in your and that gives hope and healing evermore. Amen.

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