Keep Your Eyes On Jesus
A sermon preached on Matthew 14:22-33 by Pastor Michael Johnson at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on August 23, 2020.
When was the last time you had a good scream? The words good and scream together will probably confuse my wife today because screaming is probably the thing I complain about most as a dad. I also hate horror movies. Sorry if you love them. I especially hate jump scares that exist just to scare you and make you scream. But there are times where being scared or a bit of a scream can be a good thing. For example, have you ever been so tired while driving that your eyelids began to droop and you were jolted awake as you drifted onto the rumble strip? Your heart was pounding, forcing you awake! My kids love to jump out and scare us occasionally and it lets us all have a good laugh. Sometimes a scary situation is exactly what you need to snap you out of something you had become far too comfortable with. Well today, God shows us he uses anything, even something scary to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
We’ve been following Jesus this year in the Gospel of Matthew. We’ve seen him heal a man of leprosy. We’ve seen him heal a man with a shriveled hand, drive out demons, calm an entire storm just by speaking to it. Last week we saw him feed over 5,000 people with what was little more than a sack lunch. All this time, Jesus was teaching the people. Every miracle showed that he was the Savior, the Son of God. Every miracle showed he cared about the people physically but as he talked, he showed them he cared about more than their bodies, he cared about their souls and their eternities. Yes, he could give them bread. But he came as the Bread of Life for their souls.
Some of the people didn’t get that message. Today, our reading takes place immediately after last week’s Gospel. “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.” Why would Jesus make the disciples get on the boat? In fact, the Greek word there means he forced them. While Matthew goes from the feeding of the 5,000 directly to this, the Gospel of John fills in a bit that might help. The people wanted to make Jesus their earthly king by force. They were less concerned with Jesus as the Bread of Life, they were interested in bread for their bellies. Maybe Jesus didn’t want that attitude rubbing off on the disciples. Maybe, being later in the day, it just wasn’t time to teach the crowds that lesson. So he sent them off.
Tonight was the right time to teach the disciples. So he made them get on a boat and head off ahead of him. When everyone was gone, Jesus went up on a mountain to pray. There’s a subtle reminder to me to always find time to spend some time with my Heavenly Father in prayer no matter how busy I feel.
Night falls. Jesus is off alone praying. The disciples are out in the boat. Maybe they’re fishing. The boat starts getting battered by the wind and waves crashing and pushing it. I’m sure they were working hard to keep the boat upright – after all, several of them are experienced fishermen. Then Jesus starts to walk out to them around the 4th watch of the night, that means somewhere between 3am and 6am. That’s a dark and lonely time to be out on a boat with wind and waves crashing all around you. But it wasn’t until the disciples see a figure walking on the water toward them that they were frightened! Matthew says: “When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
And with those simple words, Jesus calms not the storm but the storm brewing in Peter’s heart. So Peter cries out, “Lord if it’s you, tell me to come to you.” Jesus says, “come on over.” And Peter steps out of the boat and begins to walk on the water. With one word from Jesus, Peter goes from frightful fear to firm faith. Except for the fact that he quickly goes back to fear and starts to sink. What happened? It’s not that he completely lost his faith – after all he knows exactly whom to call out to when he’s sinking. Jesus doesn’t say he lost his faith. He calls him one of little faith. Peter might have been right next to Jesus, but he had taken his eyes off of him and focused on the storm.
Jesus is right by us too. We gather on Sunday to see him in his Word. We can study him in his Word in our homes. But when a storm comes up in our lives, it’s so quick and easy for us to take our eyes off of Jesus. And all we can see and think about is the storm. Maybe all I can see right now are the storms of COVID and the frustration with 2020. How could someone so flippantly not wear a mask? Or I could just as easily be troubled by how people treat me for not wearing a mask, I see storms on both sides of that issue. We’re past 80 days of riots in Portland, Oregon. Maybe I’m worried about what will happen as my children return to school. There are many storms in our lives that so easily take our eyes off the one thing that actually matters.
But did you notice what Jesus did for Peter as he sunk in the water? “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” Immediately – Jesus didn’t let Peter sink a little bit until he learned his lesson. Immediately Jesus reached out and touched him with his help. Jesus could have easily just commanded him to get up and he would have. He could have commanded him to fly and he would have even. Instead, Jesus used a person touch to take Peter’s fear away.
And these are powerful and important words for you and me. God wants you to see that when you are in the storms of life he is reaching out to touch you and pull you out of them and use them to teach you as well. What might God be using as a wind or wave in your life for your good right now? Maybe it’s the frustration with hysteria you see people reacting to 2020 with. Maybe it’s the real concern you have for your family in a pandemic. Maybe it’s an argument that left you feeling sick. Does 2020 keep giving you the old one-two that you can’t feel like you’ll ever catch up.
It can be so easy to be right next to Jesus in his Word and be distracted by these waves. But Jesus reaches out and touches you not to be afraid, but focus on him. After all, this is the one who was conceived and born of a virgin. This is the one who defeated death…by dying. This is the one who rose from the dead and rules all things – even the storms. It is a small thing for Jesus to walk on the waters of the storms in your life and reach out and touch you. In fact, he will do that today in just a few minutes when he says – take and eat this bread, it’s my body given for you. Take and drink this wine, it’s my blood shed for you. He is literally coming to you. He assures you he has forgiven you.
Notice one more amazing thing Jesus did for the disciples. Did you notice that Jesus calmed the fears of the disciples long before he stilled the storm? God does not need to stop the storms in your life before he stills your fears. He doesn’t need to stop a storm that’s been raging in your life to give you peace and strengthen you or loving you. Jesus stops our doubts and fears by putting our eyes back on him and reminding us who he really is. He is the Son of God. He loves you. He forgives you. He strengthens you.
Because of this, I once heard a pastor say, he may ask you to do something harder than walk on water. He may ask you to go through the storm of a long illness. Maybe you’ll have to watch a loved one slowly deteriorate. Maybe he’ll ask you to have the courage to let go of a grudge. Maybe he’ll ask you to have the courage to admit that in one storm or another, it was you who caused the winds and the waves and you’ve never been able to admit it. Maybe he’ll ask you to have the courage to say sorry. Maybe he’ll ask you to be patient as others have different opinions on COVID as you do.
Alone, we’ll sink in those storms. But Jesus comes to us, not as a ghost, but in his Word, in his Sacraments and he doesn’t just talk to us, he reaches out to us. He focuses our eyes on him. Trust in his Word and in his promises. Keep your eyes focused on Jesus. And you will have nothing to fear. Amen.