Today’s Gospel reading resumes the narrative right where we left off last week with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. You will recall that after Jesus heard about the murder of John the Baptist, He went away by boat from the great crowds that were following him in His healing ministry in order to have some time alone in a remote place, presumably on the hillside above the fishing village of Bethsaida. But the crowds guessed correctly where He was going and hurried along by land, heading Him off and disrupting His plan for solitude. We saw that with His compassionate heart Jesus resumed healing the people while also teaching them about the Kingdom and, finally, feeding all of them from the scant supply of 5 barley loaves and two fish.
Now, after evening had fallen, Jesus sent the crowds away and asked His disciples to return by boat to Capernaum. At last He had the opportunity to go do what He had intended when coming to this hillside in the first place: spend some time in prayer without interruptions or distractions. And that’s where today’s account begins.
Those of you who know me at all know that I am a fervent believer in the power of prayer. I believe equally strongly in the importance of habitual prayer in our daily lives. We feed our bodies at regular intervals; we feed our appetites for entertainment as frequently as possible; we treasure our free time for pursuing whatever special interests we may have; but all too seldom do we feed our spiritual selves, our very souls, with Scripture and prayer. Those things that should sustain us from day to day and ground us in all that should be central to our lives are instead set aside for a more convenient time, a time that for many persons seldom comes at all.
It always has struck me rather forcefully that if Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the One Who is eternally the second Person of the Godhead, felt the need for prayer, it must be that prayer should be an indispensable part of my existence – that I should feel as though any lack of prayer in my life would cause serious diminishment of who it is that I’m meant to be. The prayer life of Jesus exuded intentionality. We read again and again that when He prayed, He went to secluded places, to hillsides, to the desert, to the Upper Room, to a quiet garden. We read that He did so habitually. It must have been one key to how He was able to endure all that was thrust on Him in the time of His incarnation. It must have been an essential ingredient in how He was able to pursue His ministry, drawing quite literally on superhuman strength to do the things that were required of Him on a daily basis. If this is what fueled Jesus spiritually speaking, it must be what we all need in order to be able to face our own life-challenges.
And, relatedly, we discover that Jesus’ knowledge of Scripture and His dependence on it was another constant source of His spiritual strength. His quotations from Scripture are impressive and exhaustive. Again, if Scripture was the key to all that Jesus taught and to how He lived, how could we imagine that it’s of any less importance for us?
In my 20 years of full-time college teaching students often would come to my office anxiety-laden and confessing that they had found my lectures to be challenging, even inscrutable. In every case I immediately asked the same question: have you been reading the text book in preparation for your classroom experiences? And in 20 years there was never a single student who did not admit to not having read the textbook regularly and, not infrequently, to not having read it at all.
As a minister, I would love to ask each of you personally whether your daily disciplines include reading the greatest of all textbooks and whether they include the daily refueling of a consistent prayer life. I know that there would be quite a continuum, from those who devote many hours each day to these fundamental spiritual disciplines to those who confess to having seriously neglected them. But I would rather exhort you collectively to apply yourselves to patterns practiced by the One Who is our great Example, Jesus Christ Himself, than challenge you individually as to how you are doing with what we could call Spiritual Living 101. The formula is so simple and so incredibly obvious, and yet its neglect is almost universal. How can that be?
So, returning to our narrative, Jesus has sent everyone away and is devoting Himself at last to prayer. Perhaps He was asking the Father why it had to be that his cousin John would be beheaded by order of Herod. Did Jesus ask His own “why” questions when He prayed to the Father? I think He might have done that at least on such occasions as this. Aren’t our own prayer lives full of our “why” questions? We discover again and again that while “why” is among our most frequently asked questions, it’s among the least frequently answered questions in Scripture. Why is that? I think it’s because it’s most often at precisely the moments we’re asking “why,” that God is providing the perfect opportunity for us to put faith to work. Faith accepts before it challenges.
What do we hear and how do we tend to feel when someone questions our own actions or statements by asking “why?” Often we become defensive, sometimes even angry. We’re inclined to feel not that we’re being asked but that we’re being challenged. Yet we don’t hesitate to ask God “why” over and over, and it’s we who become angry with God when He doesn’t always provide an immediate answer or the answer we desire.
And so our searching of Scripture and our lives of prayer must be bathed in the practical application of our faith in order for them to provide the maximum possible benefit. Yes, we can and will continue to ask “why.” But if the very asking is coupled with faith, we’ll find ourselves far more content with how God is at work in our daily lives. We read in Hebrews 11:8, “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him.” In other words, without faith it is impossible to access what God already has revealed in Scripture and what He is eager to reveal to us in our prayer lives. If you are among those who claim that Scripture reading and prayer have never “worked” well for you, perhaps the problem is not with Scripture and prayer but with your faith. Go to God with your faith before you go with your challenges, and you may find most of the challenges to be disappearing. Try it. You will experience the rewards of those who seek Him by faith!
Meanwhile, back on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples’ boat had sailed far away from the land. But with His perch on the hillside, Mark tells us in his Gospel that Jesus could see that they were having a rough time of it because of the strong winds assailing their small craft. And so Jesus strides forward to them on the surface of the turbulent water. Here we have the first in a cluster of miracles that occur during this single incident. Of course it’s the one that gets the most attention, since walking on water is something more than a few persons have tried with little success, whether literally or figuratively. Peter stands at the head of the line, as he decided to go to Jesus. But Jesus identifies Peter’s failure as a lack of faith. Does this mean that with sufficient faith I, too, would be able to walk on water? I have no intention of trying out that theory, as it seems impractical. But in Peter’s case, he was walking straight towards Jesus in obedience to the direct command of Jesus. Only fear prevented Peter from doing what Jesus Himself was doing!
Fear is a sub-theme of this story, as all the disciples were terrified when they first saw Jesus approaching, assuming Him to be a ghost. Frankly I find it hard not to let both the disciples as a whole and Peter in particular off the hook on this occasion. Ghosts and high winds at sea are viable grounds for terror. Most of us have heard sermons castigating the disciples for being fearful. But the only pejorative words from Jesus’ mouth have to do with Peter’s doubting, not with his or the others’ fear. In fact, I cannot recall any place in Scripture where Jesus criticizes anyone for being fearful. He acknowledges fear, and, when encountering it, He frequently offers an antidote: His own words of comfort. In other words, we should not feel guilty when we find ourselves feeling fearful. But we should remind ourselves of the many occasions when Jesus, having spoken the words, “Do not be afraid,” accompanied them with the right answers. For example:
“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you... Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
“Why are you so afraid? Do you still lack faith?” (Mark 4:40).
“Do not be afraid, only believe” (Mark 5:36; Luke 8:50).
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).
“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
“Do not be afraid; go and tell My brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see Me” (Matthew 28:10).
And in today’s Gospel as well as in both of its parallels in Mark and John, Jesus tells the disciples, “Take courage: it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27; Mark 6:50, John 6:20). I find it of particular interest that here Jesus uses the Greek equivalent of the unspeakable Hebrew covenant Name of God: “It is I,” “Eγώ εἰμι,” “I am.” The Name itself should calm their fears in addition to the fact that Jesus has come to them in their time of particular need. These are the same words that we find in the “I Am” sayings in John’s Gospel.
Up to now, we have had the central miracle of Jesus’ walking on the water, a second miracle of Peter’s joining Him, if only briefly, and now there’s a third double miracle: Matthew tells us that when Jesus entered the boat, the wind stopped at once; and John adds that immediately they found themselves at the land to which they were going, Gennesaret, near Capernaum. Mark tells us that the disciples were “utterly astounded” by this, and adds that they had not understood about the loaves because their hearts were hardened. No doubt this is the key to why John immediately follows up the feeding of the 5,000 with the Bread of Life discourse rather than continuing the narrative itself.
Nonetheless, accompanying this miraculous event comes the confession of the disciples, “Truly You are the Son of God.” This reminds us of the centurion at the Cross who, looking on Jesus, said nearly the same words: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” In his great confession at Caesarea Philippi, Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). And the apostle Thomas, when he sees the risen Christ, says, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Perhaps the disciples’ confession of faith in today’s Gospel could be viewed as yet another, final miracle in this account, as it coincides with Peter’s fleeting loss of faith and Mark’s admission that the disciples were still clueless about the miracle of the loaves.
Faith itself is a gift of God, a gift that is preceded by God’s work of grace in our hearts. But once this gift is received, it comes with a responsibility that’s our own: to exercise it regularly, to build our lives around it, to allow it to inform everything that we do and say and to embrace it as the key to our lives of prayer and study. In all of this we’re aided by the power of the Holy Spirit; but accessing that power is something we must do ourselves. In other words, the power of the Holy Spirit is ever available to us, but it comes when we seek it. Again, with the author of Hebrews, God “rewards those who seek Him.”
And so, what do I want you to take away from this morning’s message? Just three things:
1) first, make faith the foundation of everything in your life;
2) then, second, put that faith to work in your regular reading of Scripture and your prayer life;
3) and third, in the poetic language of a hymn that seems doubly appropriate for today’s Gospel account:
Give to the winds your fears; hope, and be undismayed.
God hears your sighs and counts your tears; God shall lift up your head.
Through waves and clouds and storms He gently clears the way.
Wait for His time; so shall the night soon end in joyous day.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen