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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 11, 2014

 Seeing in the Darkness

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-24; Matthew 14:22-33


            For my nickel, the Sea of Galilee is one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the earth. Eleven miles long and four miles wide, it is nestled between the Golan Heights and the hills of Galilee, fed by the River Jordan. But I should hasten to add that I have never been on it during a storm!

             That is probably the first thing we ought to note about this awesome account in the Gospel of Matthew this morning: Even when we are living the life God calls us to live, even when we are doing God’s will, darkness and the storms of life are sure to come. The notion that faith in God will somehow save or protect you from life’s storms or from deep darkness could not be further from the truth.

             That is an obvious lesson this passage holds. Why are the disciples caught in a storm on the sea in the darkest watch of the night? They are there because Jesus told them to be! The text is clear: “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side.” The fact that they are where they are in obedience to Jesus’ word does not mean that they will be spared adversity.

             In the Bible, the sea with its unfathomable depths and unpredictable sudden storms was a symbol of all that threatens life. It is often a metaphor for chaos and the destructive power of evil in the Old Testament. Swiss theologian Karl Barth said, “Water,” from creation on, “is the principle which, in its abundance and power is absolutely opposed to God’s creation.” “It is representative of all the evil powers which oppress and resist the salvation intended for the people of Israel.” And God does not keep us from ever encountering the power and fury of the sea. Sometimes, God calls us right into the darkness and fierceness of the storm.

             I often return to that poem my father made me commit to memory as a boy by Robert Browning Hamilton, sometimes called When Sorrow Walked With Me.

 I walked a mile with Pleasure, she chatted all the way,

But left me none the wiser, for all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow, and ne’er a word said she,

But oh, the things I learned from her, when sorrow walked with me!

             Wisdom, humility, perseverance, gratitude, resilience and strength never come to us by way of ease and safety. They don’t come through sunshine and pleasure, so much as from the slap of setback and suffering. We learn of them, and grow into them, only in the storms of life, only in the deep darkness through which we all must pass.

             A second lesson this powerful story holds is that when the storms and darkness descend, it is common for us to react with a mixture of faith and doubt, of wisdom and folly. The disciples were afraid in the storm, in the darkest watch of the night. And when Jesus appeared, not at all as they expected, walking on the sea, they grew terrified. In that great moment of recognition, when Jesus was finally recognized by His Word, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” Peter responds with faith, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says what He so often says to us: “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. Then Peter catches himself, and instead of looking only to Jesus, he noticed the waves and the gusts of wind, and begins to sink. (William Sloane Coffin once wondered if this was why Jesus called Peter “the Rock,” and said he would build the church upon him!) Notice Peter, who here and elsewhere, is the symbol of discipleship. Dale Bruner says, “Peter is a symbol of believers – they, like he, are full of faith and unfaith, of feats and failures.”

             Some folks think that if you have a strong or a mature faith, you will never doubt or fear. That is not what the Bible teaches, and it is not what Peter shows us. Even Peter sinks, even Peter walks a few steps in faith, and then is overcome by his fears. Fear and doubt are a part of faith, and when we experience them, we can trust and follow anyway, even in the storms and deep darkness. We can experience both faith and doubt, fear and trust all at the same time, and still be Jesus’ disciples.

             Finally and most importantly, note that when the storms of life come, when the deep darkness descends, we find Jesus at the very center of it all. Jesus does not flee from us in the chaos of the storm, but rather comes right to us. Jesus here came walking on the sea, in a way the disciples could never expect. I have never seen Jesus walking upon the water, but I have known Jesus’ presence in the darkest, loneliest, most devastating times in my life. I have learned that the most God-forsaken times and situations are not in fact that at all. For in those awful times and places, especially, I have learned that Jesus is with me, and for me, and always out ahead of me.

             Bruner notes, as only a New Testament scholar would, that when Jesus utters His words to the frightened disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” the words translated “it is I,” “ego eimi” in Greek, are the very same words the Greek Bible, called the Septuagint, uses for the divine name God revealed to Moses out of the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. “I am,” Bruner notes, “these two words are dead center in the account of Matthew.” There are ninety Greek words before “ego eimi,” “I am,” and ninety words that follow! Jesus stands at the center of everything, even the darkness of the storm.

             And just as Yahweh triumphs over the waters at creation’s dawn, and at the Exodus, and as God masters the waters in the story of Noah, and in Jonah, and as God in Job “walks in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:16), so Jesus strides atop the very things we fear the most. And Jesus comes, as Calvin loved to say, “clothed in His Word.” “Take heart; I am; do not be afraid.” No word is more characteristic of Jesus than this! “Do not be afraid” is a keynote of the Gospel itself. At Jesus’ birth and at His resurrection, and here in the midst of the dark, terrifying storm, Jesus’ Word echoes: “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

             So after Jesus rescues Peter, He chides him, I think, with a smile, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Remember Jesus’ recent parables? The little mustard seed is all the faith you need. And the little yeast leavens the whole lump. And the little pearl is such that you ought to sell all you have to possess it. And, last week, the little bit of food – five loaves and two fish –proved to be more than enough to feed the five thousand, with twelve baskets left. Again, Bruner says, “Matthew knows that all faith has ‘little faith’ in it, and that doubt is always a part of human faith.” Jesus can take the little faith we possess and make it enough.

             So William Barclay, the great Scottish New Testament scholar, who died in the 1970’s was asked once, “Do you really believe that Jesus actually walked on water, and that He in fact calmed a storm?” Barclay did not answer directly, but told a story, his story. “Mrs. Barclay and I had a lovely daughter, and as a young woman, she met a fine young man and they fell in love. He was an answer to our prayers. She was all we could have asked for in a child. And one day, before their wedding, they went sailing on the Firth of Clyde. A storm hit and it capsized their little boat, and both of them perished in that storm. What I can tell you is that Jesus calmed the storm that raged in my heart. And if Jesus could calm that storm, yes, I believe that He could calm a storm on the sea.”

             I tell you, Jesus is the great “I AM,” and is with you, even here, even now. And Jesus promises never, ever to let you go. Can we worship Jesus today as the disciples did, in that boat, in the deep darkness, so long ago? “Truly, Jesus, you are the Son of God.”


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