IT'S WHAT YOU DO
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There is a series of ads by the insurance company Geico. In these ads they show people in various situations. One is a spy about to be extracted from a rooftop by helicopter. His phone rings, he says “Where are you?” It’s his mom, who starts talking about what’s going on at home. The tagline goes “When you’re a mom, you call at the wrong time. It’s what you do.” Here’s one with some raccoons in it (we can identify with this here in Toronto).
When I consider our story this morning, I think this tagline speaks to the same thing. When you’re God, this is what you do. We’re looking at the question – “Who do you say that I am?” throughout these weeks of Lent. We’re asking what Matthew’s Gospel tells us about Jesus. We’ve seen how Matthew began his Gospel with the genealogy of Christ. Christ as Son of Abraham and Son of David. Christ as the new Genesis – the new beginning. We’ve heard God’s voice speaking saying “This is my son, the beloved,” and what this means for our identity in the person of Christ. We've heard about what it looks like to follow Christ in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. After this Jesus starts to “do” in a big way. The intervening chapters are filled with Jesus healing – cleansing a leper (an outcast), restoring life, healing a woman suffering from hemorrhages (another outcast), restoring sight to the blind, calming a storm – which leads his followers to say “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Of course we’re still asking the same question. The answer that we’re finding in Matthew is that this is the sort of man who is bringing life. This is the sort of man who is bringing God’s love and mercy and grace and justice and in so doing is making things right. This is the sort of man who is looking after people. When you are God, this is what you do. You bring deliverance. In the story immediately preceding our reading from chapter 14, we read that Jesus had withdrawn from the crowds to a deserted place by himself. Crowds followed him nonetheless, and when he saw them he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was brought to Jesus attention that they needed food, he fed them. He looked after them. When you are God, this is what you do.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. Why this urgency? When John report this miraculous feeding story, he writes that the crowds wanted to seize Jesus and make him their king. Jesus sends the disciples away, potentially to keep them from getting involved in a potential riot, and sends the crowds away. He goes up the mountain to pray. When evening came, he was there alone…
But. Here we have the issue in our story. But by this time the boat was battered by the waves. The disciples are far from land. The wind is against them. It’s early in the morning – what the Romans called the fourth watch. Between 3am and 6am – the hours at which we tend to be our lowest. It’s important that we don’t look at stories such as this one and reduce them to psychology. Turn them into parables. Jesus calmed the storm and so Jesus will provide calm in the storms of your life. Surely Jesus will do that, but there is something deeper going on here.
Jesus’ divinity is being shown here, just as it was when Jesus calms the storm in Matthew 8. In Job 8:9 we read “(God) who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” Surely Matthew is making a point about the divinity of Christ. This man who has power even over the wind and the waves. The other thing to consider though, is what does this tell about who Jesus is functionally – what is it that Jesus does? Look at what God making a way through the sea meant to the people of Israel – it meant deliverance. It meant deliverance from bondage and slavery and oppression and injustice. It meant freedom. It meant life. Listen to how the Psalmist sings of this – “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you they were afraid; the very deep trembled…Your way was through the sea, your path through the mighty waters; yet your footsteps were unseen.”
Here we have Jesus making a way through the sea. This is the thing about the situation that Jesus’ followers were in on this boat. They were in a situation from which they were unable to extricate themselves. At the mercy of forces beyond their control. Battered by the waves, far from land, the wind against them. The word for battered here is “tormented.” Tormented by the waves. They are in a situation in which they are tormented by forces beyond their control.
Here is the good news. He came walking toward them on the sea. When you are God, you come to the rescue. What is it that we need to be rescued from? I like to describe God as a deliverer. What is it that we need to be delivered from? What is it that God has delivered you from? I like to ask this question. We might answer despair. Meaninglessness. Ourselves. Our own worst impulses in all the many forms our own worst impulses take. Jesus comes walking towards us and says “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. The command that’s repeated the most times in the entire Bible. Don’t we need to hear this message today? Do not be afraid. Jesus has delivered us from a situation. It was a situation from which we were unable to extricate ourselves. He’s delivered us from sin. From the barrier that kept us from God. Paul describes it so well in Romans 7 – “For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus comes to our rescue. We’re looking ahead of course. We read this story knowing where it is going. Knowing that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Knowing it is there that Jesus will bear the weight of the world’s sin on Calvary to deliver us. This is what God does friends. This is how God loves.
So what do we do with this news? What is the fitting and proper response? Faith. No matter how meagre. The invitation is to respond with faith. Peter becomes more and more representative of Christ’s followers (us) as the Gospel of Matthew progresses. Here he calls out, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” If Jesus is able to do it, maybe Peter can too. Peter is perhaps remembering how Jesus told his followers to go and do as he did “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” In other words, “I am going to bring my Kingdom about through you. I am going to affect deliverance in and through you.” Do you believe this?
That is the question. Peter responds with faith mixed with doubt. We get this. I don’t think doubt is the opposite of faith. I think fear is the opposite of faith. It’s fear that paralyzes us into inaction. Peter puts aside his fear. He doubts sure, but he’s fairly representative of all of us in this way I think. One writer puts it like this – “It graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt. Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Saviour, take their first steps in confidence that he is able to sustain them, and then forget to keep their gaze fixed on him instead of the towering waves that threaten to engulf them.”
We get this right? How many of us are close to feeling overwhelmed at any given moment of the week? We see need all around us. We have our own needs, our own doubts, the sins that we struggle with – the things that set up barriers between us and God, us and others. In the midst of this we’re reminded to keep our eyes on Jesus. To not be paralysed by what we feel to be our inadequacies. Or perhaps we’re paralysed by our adequacies. It’s vital that we remember that we are not to rely on our own competencies. Not long ago I shared this with our deacons board. It’s a file in which my father kept things from my childhood – my dad was a great one for filing, something I did not inherit as those of you who have seen my desk can confirm. He wrote on it “Various honours re. David M. J. Thomas in this file. Someday he may identify with the apostle Paul re. the value of the same (Phil 3:7).” “Yet whatever gains I had, I count them as loss because of Christ.” I must add that he added “Nevertheless these honours signify a lot of character and hard labour.” Our success in following Christ is not going to come about because of honours we accrue (though there is nothing wrong with honours and we support education and accomplishments) – it’s going to come from keeping our eyes on Jesus.
It happens nonetheless. We take our eyes off Jesus. He’s there though. Peter knows what to do. He prays. He calls out. “Lord, save me.” Remember to call on Jesus. It’s not just a one-time thing. More like an all-the-time thing. Lord, save me. In praying this prayer we’re saying “Lord I need you.” We need you to do the things you’ve called us to do, to be the people you’ve called us to be. It is then that we find that God’s grace is enough, that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
It is then that we find Jesus holding out his hand. Not chiding. Not punishing. I love this image of Jesus reaching out and catching hold of Peter. The relief that Peter must have felt. We continue to press on toward the goal, reaching out for that which Christ has taken hold of us. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” This word for of little faith was heard in the first calming of the storm, and it will be heard in the passage we look at next week. It’s never used for people who aren’t following Christ. It’s used to describe followers of Christ. It’s a reminder that, as one writer puts it, “Only by grace can doubt be kept subordinate. Like the epileptic’s father in Mark’s Gospel, each Christian must pray continually, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” Faith is not something for us to keep to ourselves. It is to be borne out in our thoughts, our attitudes, our action, so that God’s Kingdom – God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s sacrificial love being made known. Somebody has described faith like a song that disappears when we stop singing. We need to keep on singing the song of faith. We need to keep on playing it. I know I often talk about guitars but let me talk about a charango. I bought this charango in Bolivia the first time we went there back in 2008. I wanted to learn how to play it. It sounds very cool, open Am7 tuning – very haunting. I didn’t play it much. It languished in its case. One day I took it out only to find that the neck had cracked. Unplayable! I’m hoping that the team might pick me up another one this summer and I promise I will not let that happen again.
We need to keep singing the song. To exercise our faith. What kinds of things happen when we do that? When we step out in faith, keeping our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus? It happened here 22 years ago when a group of you stepped out in faith to become an Out of the Cold church. Look at what God has done in 22 years. Look at the lives that have been affected. It happened when this church stepped out in faith in Lawrence Heights 6 years ago. Look at the lives that have been affected. Look at how the effects have reached all the way to Tennessee, to Texas, to North Carolina, to Yonge and Shepherd. I always like to quote King Jesoshaphat in these types of situations – Lord we do not know what we are doing but our eyes are on you. Lord we believe, help our unbelief.
Who do you say that I am? “Truly you are the Son of God.” This is the answer that comes at the end of our story. What does this mean? It means that Jesus rescues. There’s a great postscript to our story in Matthew 14:34-36. All who touched the fringe of his cloak were healed. When you’re God, this is what you do. When you’re a follower of Christ, you step out in faith to proclaim the Kingdom of God and make who God is known. May this be true for all of us friends.