One of the greatest things we face in life is fear. Fear is an intensely unpleasant emotion in response to perceiving or recognizing a danger or threat.  When we become fearful, we can become emotionally responsive to the situation.  We have a greater tendency to thrash about seeking to at least chase away whatever makes us afraid. 

But there are two important things for us to remember about fear.  The first is that we only ever fear something that has not happened.  If it is snowing and we must drive in the snow, we might fear that we will get stuck in the snow or that we might have an accident because of the slippery conditions.  But neither condition has occurred.  We are at that moment neither stuck nor in an accident, but we fear.  So, we fear only those things that have not yet happened. Should we later get stuck in the snow, we now no longer fear being stuck in the snow.  We may now fear that being stuck in the snow has caused damage to our car or that we will miss our appointment, but we no longer fear what has happened.  Whatever we fear has not happened.

          The second thing we learn about fear is that going through a fearful experience can sharpen our understanding of what is important.  Think again about that snowstorm.  Let’s say you decided not to go out in that snowstorm, but you receive a call letting you know that a loved one did go out in the storm and got into a traffic accident.  Instantly, you fear the consequences of that accident.  Then you hear the words, “Everyone is OK, but the car is not in good shape.”  Your immediate response is, “I am so glad to hear everyone is OK, we can always replace the car.”   Our response reflects our understanding of sharpened priorities, what we value the most.  As long as everyone is OK (that is our priority), we can always replace the car (not our priority).

          And so, fear is an unpleasant emotion, but fear involves things which have not happened, and fear sharpens our understanding of what is important.  How then does our understanding of fear play in the development of our faith?  Well, today, let’s look at a miracle story that has at its foundation the unpleasant emotion of fear.  This miracle story is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.  Today, I would like to use Matthew’s account of the miracle.

          As we come into the scene, we would want to know that dreadful news had reached Jesus.  Matthew wrote, “6 On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7 that he (Herod) promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother (Herodias), she (the girl who danced) said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’ 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he (Herod) ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His (John the Baptist’s) head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother (Herodias). 12 John’s disciples came and took his (John the Baptist’s) body and buried it. Then they (John’s disciples) went and told Jesus” (Matthew 14:6-12). 

This was awful news. John the Baptist was the messenger sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the people.  John’s message was simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” When Jesus began his own public ministry Jesus began by repeating John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Now John was dead.  Killed on the whim of a king who lustfully sought after the affections of a young woman. Jesus and his disciples must have grieved this news.  Particularly, Andrew and John must have been deeply affected by the news of John the Baptist’s death as Andrew and John had been disciples of John the Baptist before becoming disciples of Jesus. 

Matthew wrote, “13 When Jesus heard what had happened [to John the Baptist], he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Matthew 14:13).  Jesus knew that his disciples needed some time to absorb the impact of John the Baptist’s death.  The disciples would have been anxious and fearful that perhaps their own lives could be ended in such an arbitrary and cruel manner.  It is a common human response for us to see something happen to our friends and believe the same fate could befall us.  I think Jesus wanted his disciples to have some time to grieve.

Matthew wrote that, 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14).  There apparently was no time for solitude for Jesus and his disciples.  If we were to continue to read in Matthew, we would find that the crowd was exceptionally large, numbering 5,000 men alone.  It was there that Jesus fed the five thousand. After the meal was completed, “22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee), while he (Jesus) dismissed the crowd. 23 After he (Jesus) had dismissed them (the crowd), he (Jesus) went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he (Jesus) was there alone, 24 and the boat (with the disciples) was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it” (Matthew 14:22-24).  Albeit separate, at last Jesus and his disciples finally had some solitude to consider what had happened to their friend, John the Baptist.

“Then 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them (the disciples), (by) walking on the lake” (Matthew 14:25).  I find this verse so striking.  Matthew reports without introduction or explanation, in a rather ho hum matter of fact manner, that Jesus began walking on the lake, almost as though to walk on the lake as it was being whipped up into waves by winds no less, was a common day occurrence.  What Matthew describes here calmly is a miracle of Jesus calming overcoming the elements of nature.  Apparently, the waves were of no concern to Jesus because he was making good progress in crossing the lake.  “26 When the disciples saw him (Jesus) walking on the lake, they (the disciples) were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear” (Matthew 14:26).  The Greek word here for “ghost,” is phantasma, fan;tas-mah.  The word means a specter, the spirit of someone who had died.  The disciples did not recognize this figure. Perhaps in their grief, the disciples believed this specter was the ghost of John the Baptist.  Perhaps.  We do not know.  What we do know is that in believing the figure was the spirit of a dead person, the disciples cried out in fear, terror, and dread because the disciples presumed that this specter would bring upon them some harm or calamity.  But we also know that whatever the disciples feared in that moment had not yet happened and whatever they feared would sharpen their priorities.

Upon hearing the cries of the disciples, “27 Jesus immediately said to them (the disciples): ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’ 28 ‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’ 29 ‘Come,’ he (Jesus) said” (Matthew 14:27-29).  Fear had been working on Peter and his priorities. Fear of what had happened to John the Baptist and fear of seeing a ghost had sharpened Peter’s perspective about what was most important to him.  So when Peter heard Jesus’ voice, though Peter still could not fully make out the figure walking upon the water as Jesus, Peter wanted desperately to be in Jesus’ presence.  Peter, rather than calling to Jesus and saying, “Jesus, come quickly to us!” Peter chose instead to call to Jesus and saying, “Tell me, empower me, to come quickly over the water to you!” Peter was living out that we must do and that is in our fear we must draw near to God.  Scripture says, “22 Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:22).  In our moments of distress God is present but we must in faith draw near to him if we want our fears to be fully relieved.

And so Peter, with fear having shaped his priorities and creating within Peter a deep desire of being with God, got out of a perfectly good boat and “Walked on the water and came toward Jesus” (Matthew 14:29b).  Fear had transformed Peter’s heart and Peter sincerely wanted to be with Jesus standing by faith upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Nothing would have been more satisfying and more reassuring for Peter than to have joined Jesus in this ongoing miracle over the power of the elements by standing and walking upon the water.

But then as Peter  began to walk upon the water, Peter turned his attention away from Jesus and toward the wind and the waves.  “30 But when he (Peter) saw the wind, he (Peter) was afraid and, beginning to sink.” (Matthew 14:30a).  I genuinely love the stories of Peter because he is so human.  We see here amid this miracle of Jesus walking on water and Peter now walking on water, this high point of spiritual life, Peter shifted his attention back to things that make him fearful.  The wind made Peter fearful.  The waves made Peter fearful.  Peter, the experienced fisherman, knew that winds and waves could overcome someone leading to them drowning.  Peter went from faith to fear.  Peter feared something that had not yet happened.

In shifting his attention back to fear, Peter began to sink beneath the waves.  What was he going to do?  Peter knew could not save himself and so it would seem Peter had only two choices.  Either Peter could call out to his partners in the boat, “Throw me a line and pull me back into the boat!” or Peter could appeal to Jesus for help.  Fear of drowning again sharpened Peter’s understanding of his priorities.  We see Peter express his priorities with his cry, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30b).  Peter chose faith to resolve his fear.  “31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:31).  Jesus’ words acknowledge Peter was the only one of the disciples to have expressed faith to overcome their fears and lamented that Peter did not stay in faith but returned to fear.

Matthew concluded the scene this way, “32 And when they (Jesus and Peter) climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat {the disciples) worshiped him (Jesus), saying, ’Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:32).  This miracle changed the disciples.  They no longer saw Jesus as just a great teacher, or just as a miracle worker.  The disciples saw Jesus as the Son of God in whom it was proper to offer worship reserved only for God himself. 

What then do we make of this miracle for our lives? What was the purpose and meaning of the miracle?  There are three things I would like us to consider.

First, this miracle was the longest one to date and a miracle done only for the benefit of his disciples.  In all previous miracles, something happened instantly.  In the past, the disciples witnessed someone’s eyesight immediately restored, leprosy cleansed, or a demon expelled at Jesus’ command.  This miracle occurred only in the presence of the disciples and extended over many minutes or perhaps even hours.  I think the extended time was needed because Jesus was working with his disciples who were beset with powerful emotions of grief and fear.  John the Baptist, Jesus’ closest ally and friend of the disciples, had been murdered on a whim.  There was grief, uncertainty, regret, and fear.  We all understand these emotions because we all have experienced these emotions when a loved one has died.  These emotions can prevent us from seeing God clearly or understanding God’s purpose for our life.  Jesus needed to address the needs of his disciples.  We need to look at this miracle to see how our own emotions born in suffering can prevent us from seeing God clearly.

Second, the miracle of Jesus rather than at first developing awe, wonder, and amazement instead produced fear as the disciples believed at first that Jesus walking upon the water was a ghost.  Fear, that terror of things not yet happened, caused the disciples, particularly Peter, to sort through what was the most important thing in life.  Peter concluded that nearest to Jesus was the most important thing in his life and Peter asked Jesus to empower him to come closer.  Peter discovered that we can either believe by faith in Jesus or we can focus on our fears in life, but we cannot do both.  When Peter focused on faith, Peter walked on water.  When Peter shifted from faith back to fear, Peter began to sink beneath the waves.  Our choice then is either faith in Jesus and pursuing a closeness to him or we can pursue our fears, but we cannot pursue both.

Third, the ultimate purpose of this miracle was for the disciples to work through their grief and fear and by faith come to realize that Jesus is the Son of God and to see that Jesus is worthy of worship. After the news of John the Baptist’s murder, Jesus sought solitude for he and his disciples.  But the crowds followed.  In compassion to the crowds, Jesus taught the crowd and then miraculously fed them all.  Now finally, in the solitude of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus ministered to his disciples teaching them that John was as who he said he was, he was the messenger calling people to make straight the paths for the Messiah, the Son of God.  Now on the tumultuous Sea of Galilee, in solitude, guaranteed that there would be no interruptions, Jesus showed the disciples that faith in him, not in John the Baptist, not in miracles themselves, was the ultimate satisfaction for their hearts.  In that realization of all that Jesus is, was, and will be as the Son of God, the response from the disciples was to worship Jesus.  Worship is a foundational practice that helped the disciples remain focused on Jesus and stave off humanly fears.  We must come to see the same, that faith in Jesus as the Son of God is our ultimate source for overcoming our fears.

Yes, it was amazing that Jesus walked on the churning waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Yes, it was amazing that Jesus empowered Peter to walk on those same waters.  Yes, it was amazing that Jesus calmed the winds and the sea.  But all of those miraculous events happened in a matter of minutes or even an hour and then those events were over.  The enduring meaning and significance of the miracle on the Sea of Galilee was the transformation of fear to faith and faith to worship.  We must not let the miracle of the Sea of Galilee pass us by.  What is it that we fear?  Whatever it is, it has not happened.  Whatever it is, whatever we fear, prevents us from seeing God clearly. Is whatever it is that we fear worth not seeing God the way God intends?  If we want to leave our fears behind, we need only say to Jesus, “Ask me to come to you.”  And Jesus will say to us, “Come.”  And when we move against our fears we can be strengthened through our worship of Jesus. Amen and Amen.