Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28: Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
Ordinary 19A; Proper 14
I once had someone tell me that he didn’t believe in God.
He didn’t believe in God because to imagine that God cared about him, his daily life and his well-being was the height of self-aggrandizement. Further, he wouldn’t want to believe in a God concerned with such trivialities. To believe in God, he posited, was to make himself too big in the face of clearly much bigger issues. I considered his perspective. Christianity has long denounced the sin of pride, and I suppose his argument at least took that human tendency seriously. Nonetheless, I responded to him that perhaps he wasn’t making himself too big so much as making God too small. Could God not be capable of giving attention to both the personal and the cosmic?
I thought of those lists of divine descriptors in several our confessions: omnipotent, all-powerful, eternal, maker of heaven and earth. The list, of course, goes on.
Had I not been on the defensive, I might have shared the gospel story appointed for this Sunday, a story where Jesus reacts to an immediate human crisis while also taming creation. Personal and cosmic. Our God is that big and that good.
Let’s first set the scene. Jesus has just fed the 5,000. Finally, he gets that time alone for which he had been longing. He goes to the mountain to pray. Matthew gives us detailed information regarding the timeline. Evening comes. By this time all hell has broken loose on the ocean, and the apostles’ boat is battered by waves. (The boat that Jesus directed them to board and sail, no less.) The boat is far from land and safety. It isn’t until early in the morning that Jesus comes down and ventures out to meet the disciples on the sea. It seems relevant that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel gives these particulars. As evening comes, already the disciples are in the throes of a fierce and potent storm. All night long they battle wind and waves.
The other disciples must have looked to the experienced fishermen in the boat – Peter among them – to get them through the storm. The experienced fishermen, Peter among them, knew all too well how limited their resources actually were in the face of nature unleashed. The story of life on the ocean is told as a series of shipwrecks, storms and drowning. A veteran fisherman like Peter knew he could quickly become the next chapter in that long, sad narrative anytime they set sail from shore.
All night long, pilloried by water, battered by waves, far from land, the disciples rode the storm. Where was Jesus all this time? In the previous storm they’d been in together, Jesus was asleep, but at least in the boat with them. Now? He was nowhere to be seen. He was off on some distant mountain by himself. Useless by his absence to those who feared they were about to succumb to a watery grave. God can’t possibly care for the personal, right? What kind of God intervenes in the lives of fishermen, tax collectors and everyday people?
Our God, Jesus Christ.
Is the saying “it is always darkest before the dawn” true? As dawn finally arrives, Jesus comes walking on water amid the lashing wind and the tumult of the waves. The disciples, afraid and exhausted, fearing for their lives, think at first they are seeing a ghost. Can you blame them? What other being would enter this fray? They cry out, terrified, and finally we get an “immediately.” Immediately, Jesus tells them to take heart, announcing his presence. They have witnessed before his command over the humanly un-commandable, so his arrival ought to be a great relief. But Peter, that experienced fisherman, demands proof. (Past experiences don’t always increase our present understanding.)
Jesus, caring very much about the pressing personal needs of his followers, obliges Peter’s request. Peter, the experienced fisherman, very well aware of the power of the ocean to give and take away, steps out of the boat. I give Peter much credit for that first step even if he doesn’t make if far past it. Now, here is where it gets very, very personal – think personal salvation even.
“Lord, save me!” Peter cries.
Hallelujah, we get another “immediately” here. Immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand towards the disciple. Whoa! Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter. Does God care for us in that intimate a way? Our God does.
I was watching a National Geographic show on PBS the other night about the Photo Ark project. Photographer Joel Sartore is on a mission to photograph as many of the animals in danger of extinction as he possibly can before they are gone forever. His photos are taken close up – with the intention of helping viewers connect to these creatures, so that their empathy will precipitate intervening action to keep the species alive. Sartore does this, he says, because “you won’t save what you don’t love.”
Jesus loves Peter. And the other 11. And the 5,000. And the world. And us. It is personal – as personal as it gets. Jesus reaches out his hand, snatches Peter from the depths and pulls him to the boat, hand-in-hand and very personally.
Then the wind stops. It’s cosmic, too. The disciples have knowledge of the cosmic. The last time they were tossed around the sea, Jesus calmed the storm and they wondered what sort of man Jesus was. This time when the sea overwhelms that experienced fisherman Peter, the others watch Jesus save their companion. Then, because it is personal and cosmic, they worshipped and proclaimed, “Surely, you are the Son of God.”
Until the cosmic concept of God meets the personal experience of snatched-from-the-brink-salvation, we won’t fall down and worship. When that happens, we instinctively get the connection between heaven and earth, creation and redemption, omnipotent and intimate. Then we won’t feel obliged to defend or explain our God, only to worship and bear witness.
Our God is so big and so good that there is nowhere we can go to flee from God’s Spirit. Nothing, no one, is God-forsaken. There will be long, stormy, terror-inducing seasons, but Jesus has not abandoned us. There may be times when we’re betrayed by those closest to us, thrown in a pit and sold, but God has not forgotten us. The God of all works through the family of Jacob, dysfunctional as it is, and God works through our imperfect families too. Exile. Estrangement. Grief. Fear. Questions of purpose, plan and providence are part and parcel of life. We are bound to make God too small because God is too big for us to ever fully comprehend. We can’t help but have little faith, no matter how many miracles we’ve seen.
But when the cosmic meets the personal, we never, ever forget it. When we’ve been saved by grace and know the love of God, we can’t help but worship and bear witness to the one who reached out when we were the most scared and caught us. We proclaim the storm-story that fishers of people must tell.
- Jesus prays a lot. How does Jesus’ practice of prayer inform our understanding and practices of prayer?
- Have you ever experienced anything akin to being snatched by Jesus from the stormy sea?
- Are you comfortable talking about personal salvation? Why or why not? How does personal salvation fit into our Reformed theology?
- The Genesis text begins with this sentence: “This is the story of the family of Jacob.” What is your family story and where do you see God working through it?
- Compare this story of the calming of the storm with that in Matthew 8, and note the similarities and differences.
- Look in the hymnal index for the hymns that relate to the Matthew 14 text and make note of the imagery used. Used one or more in your personal prayers this week.
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