Sermon preached on August 13, 2017
Text: Matthew 13:22-33
As miracles go, walking on water is ostentatious. Remember Herod’s song in Jesus Christ Superstar, “Turn my water into wine, walk across my swimming pool.” Notice Herod did not say, fill the poor with good things, and cure the sick. Those are very practical, compassionate demonstrations of the nature of God. When we say, “He thinks he walks on water,” we mean the person is arrogant. So, I’m not wild about this miracle at first glance.
Let’s start at the beginning and give the text its due. Listen closely to the first line,
“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.”
Why did Jesus make his disciples get into the boat? The original Greek is more forceful, saying that Jesus compelled his disciples and “threw them into the boat.” It sounds more like a scene from a pirate movie, or “Master and Commander.” “Peter, take the helm, Andrew and John, set the sail, the rest of you, don’t just stand there looking at me like a dead mackerel, look lively now. Get this ship out on the sea.” There is nothing here in Matthew’s Gospel to explain this odd reaction.
I checked the other Gospels, and John 6, written likely two decades after Matthew, gives this prelude to walking on the water,
“Jesus, therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone. And when evening came, his disciples went down unto the sea; and they entered into a boat.”
In context, this makes sense. Remember from last week’s scripture, that the feeding of the 5000 took place in the aftermath of the beheading of John the Baptist. After the political assassination of a popular resistance leader, maybe the 5000 wanted to make Jesus king and stage a revolt against Herod. Note that John says the crowd was going to come and “take Jesus by force.” Bizarre, right! Enough with all this love your neighbor, heal the sick, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, now is the time to strike at Herod, because this is intolerable. No wonder Jesus must throw his disciples on the boat. He had a few hotheads in the 12, Judas Iscariot was a Zealot, James and John were called the “sons of thunder.” He had to remove them from the scene and let the air out of the crowd.
That would be totally consistent with how Jesus acted throughout all four Gospels, refusing to be called the messiah, and all the political expectations that went with the label. Jesus chose to de-escalate the crisis rather than “fire and fury.” I’m curious how “fire and fury, the likes of which have never been seen before,” made it into Trump’s North Korea speech. (The last phrase is from Harry Truman, but he said, “rain and ruin.” Fire and fury is straight out of Isaiah 66:15,
“See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury.”
The only support for this rhetoric has come from the Evangelical Right, like Trump’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, told the Washington Post this week,
“God has given Trump authority to take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Bible gives rulers “full power to stop evil … to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment, or evil punishment” to stop “evildoers.”
Jeffress told The Post that a Christian writer asked him: “Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?” The sermon is an epic collection of Jesus’ sayings that have to do with turning the other cheek, loving your enemies and the hell that awaits people who judge or are angry. “Absolutely not,” Jeffress, the biblical literalist, said.
I’ve digressed into this week’s politics for a reason. I think it helps us understand Jesus throwing his disciples on to the boat. They too may have wanted “fire and fury” but this is not the way to the Kingdom of God. The theology of preachers like Jeffress, well, they miss the boat.
Let’s get back to the disciples and the boat.
“When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.”
Note the contrast. Jesus is off in a quiet place alone and praying and he has sent the disciples out into the storm. Matthew has masterfully showed us that Jesus is grounded in God and crystal clear, while the disciples are being tossed about in the wind and waves. They are all enduring the political storm caused by a despot, but Jesus stays spiritual grounded while they are tossed and driven by the restless seas of time, as our opening hymn said.
Now we come to the walking on water scene. Some biblical scholars want to defend this as a supernatural miracle, and affirm that Jesus had the power to defy the laws of science and do miracles. Others look for natural explanations, maybe he was on the shoreline and the disciples couldn’t see very well, or maybe there was a sandbar. But I don’t think either the supernatural or natural explanations due justice to the imagery and project of Matthew. Let’s not forget that Matthew was not there either, and is not a reporter, and has no idea about Isaac Newton and modern science. He likely would be puzzled at our debates over whether walking on water was a miracle or not. He wrote in Greek and was possibly familiar with Homer, and stories of chariots crossing the waters, Xerxes and Alexander the great were said to walk on water, as Bultmann notes, and the storm sequence itself has tones of the storm when Achilles cremates the body of his beloved nephew Patroclus. Storms are a literary devise from Homer onward showing the tension of the narrative. Heroes must rise above the storm.
Matthew is a Jewish scholar, the most Old Testament-oriented of the Gospels, and he portrays Jesus as the new Moses, who parted the Red Sea, defeating powerful Pharaoh, by the way. Matthew is deeply imbedded in the OT worldview, which saw the oceans and seas as the realm of chaos, and that Yahweh was the tamer of chaos. In Genesis, it was God who separated land from water, and made the sea monster on the 5th day of creation. God tells Job about Leviathan, the mythical sea creature who snatches ships, God can catch Leviathan with a fishhook. Psalm 46 says that though the mountains tremble in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam… God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
And this is the point. Just as God is a refuge in the Psalms, Jesus is in the storm with the disciples. And in Matthew Gospel, it is Peter who asks Jesus to call him out of the boat. He too would like to conquer the chaos, but he can’t do it without Jesus’s help rescuing him. And Jesus will be there in our storms, and lend a hand when we feel like we are sinking too.
Whatever your storm is today, whether it is a stormy marriage, or waves of depression battering you, the political hurricane that engulfs us all, God is here with us, and Jesus shows us God’s nature and God’s way. The passage calls us to prayer and faith and staying grounded amidst the tensions and storms of life, and to not be tempted to follow a contrary path. Storms are inevitable in life, Jesus even sends the disciples into the storm, and our journey must weather storms of hate and trials and tribulations, but God will help us navigate not necessarily to the next calm harbor. But we can sail with lives of courage and grace, for justice and peace.