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Swimming Lessons

August 8, 2014

Photo by Chris Nickels

A sermon on Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 14:22-33

This summer we began taking the boys to swimming lessons. We have a community pool in our neighborhood, which is a really convenient place to do this important learning experience. The lifeguard who is teaching them is one of our neighbors. The boys are learning things like how to kick their legs the proper way so they can move through the water and stay afloat, and how to jump into the water from the side of the pool.

At swimming lessons they are also learning more challenging activities, like how to float on your back and how to hold your breath so you can go underwater. These activities were not as popular with the boys, and included some responses like, “Help me!” “Save me!” “I don’t wanna!”

Despite some natural fears, they are making good progress and my wife and I are very proud of how much they have learned in a short amount of time.

Swimming lessons can be an exercise in faith as much as swimming. You learn to trust that you can do something that doesn’t seem natural.

For the audience of these gospel stories, the sea was not a natural or a particularly good place to spend one’s time. In the minds of some ancient peoples, the sea was something to fear. It was thought to be an abyss, a threatening, chaotic place where mythical gods and monsters battled.[1] We can find some of this thinking in the Bible:

On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1 NRSV)

In Ancient Near Eastern mythology “Leviathan” was a primordial sea serpent. Ancient peoples—who didn’t have the benefit of modern scientific discoveries—thought that untamable sea monsters were the cause of chaos at sea. Today, with our modern advances, we no longer worry about Leviathan. Instead, we are more concerned with the Sharknado. So we may or may not have come a long way.

A few of the Psalms give this impression of the sea as an abyss or place of danger:

1 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. 2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. 3 I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (Ps 69:1-3 NRSV)

By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. 6 By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. 7 You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples. (Ps 65:5-7 NRSV)

While we can sense their fear of the sea in these passages, we might also notice another idea held by the people who wrote these psalms: even though they were frightening the waters were not more powerful than God.

That sounds great. But it can be difficult to believe when your alone out on the water. Which brings us to two boat stories from Matthew’s gospel.

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him? (Mt 8:23-27 NRSV)

 In the first story, the disciples and Jesus were out in a boat on the sea. With the feelings toward the sea that may have been common, I would guess that not everyone in the group was comfortable with this course of action. But they followed Jesus anyway. And just their luck, they got hit by a storm. It’s so bad that “the boat was being swamped by the waves” (8:24).

And Jesus was asleep.

This story contains a lot of interesting details and it is certainly about more than Jesus’ sleep patterns. But I wonder if there’s a lesson here in this little sentence about the sleeping Jesus. Perhaps what we see as a catastrophic storm may, in reality, be something that is not worrying God so much. Rather than worrying excessively, God may instead be resting comfortably within creation. And we stress ourselves out.

What if we shifted our focus to noticing what God is doing rather than fixating on our fears?

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Mt 14:22-33 NRSV)

The second story has some similar elements to the first, but there’s one big difference: this time Jesus was absent. He told his disciples to go on ahead of him, sending them out into the sea. By themselves. And just their luck, they got hit by a storm. It’s a bad situation: “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them” (14:24). Oh, it’s at night too. Another chaotic situation.

But into the chaos Jesus walked. Verse 25 reads, “And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.” Into the struggle his followers have been experiencing during a chaotic night, Jesus walks.

They were trying to stay afloat.

They were wave-battered.

They were terrified (Of ghosts walking on the water. Of the Sharknado potential. Maybe).

They were worn out and exhausted.

They were sleep deprived.

They were alone.

But then they were not.

Into that place Jesus came to them, and spoke the words they needed to hear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Have you ever had an experience where Jesus showed up when you least expected? Have you ever been in a difficult place, and somehow felt that Jesus was with you?

These stories are examples of what is called a theophany: a visible appearance of a god to human beings.[2] Jesus’s actions match what only the Creator is supposed to have the ability to do. Psalm 89 reads, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” In Jesus, the disciples saw their sacred stories of God being acted out in person.

The image of the sea in the Bible points to the world being a sometimes scary and chaotic place. Yet these same scriptures also place God in the midst of that place, joining us there.

Jesus forms and prepares his disciples—he gives them swimming lessons—in the midst of a sometimes dangerous place. And by sending his disciples out and inviting Peter to “come” out onto the water, Jesus emphasizes his faith in his followers.

He trusts us and he encourages us to not be afraid. There is danger in this world, but there is also the Jesus who has overcome the world (Jn 16:33). It feels like Jesus is teaching his followers how to be at home in the “seas” we find ourselves in each day.

As individuals and as a church we find ourselves in difficult places from time to time. I’ve walked with members of our congregation through chaotic situations where we had to radically trust that in some way Jesus was going to show up. As a congregation we sometimes enter unpredictable situations to help and to serve others. We offer support and encouragement to one another. We do this because we trust Jesus, who is at work among us, forming and sending us.

Finally, there’s a question from the first boat story that’s answered in the second:

“What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (8:27)

And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (14:33)

Who is this man who gives order(s) to creation? It is Jesus, the Son of God. In Jesus we personally meet the God of all creation. “God with us.” Chaos and challenge will not keep God away, but instead will be the context where God is and where God brings peace.

Jesus sends us into this world as ambassadors of a new creation. And we can learn to swim here. When we find ourselves swamped and battered by the waves, let us look for Jesus coming toward us, let us take heart, and let us not be afraid.

[1] “The Sea and the Abyss.”

[2] Carla Works points out the revelatory nature of these stories in her commentary on the Matthew 14 pericope.

  1. Anne Yoder permalink
    August 18, 2014 9:31 am

    I preached on this passage a few years ago, but I don’t think it occurred to me that the sea was so fearful to the people of Jesus’ day. Thanks for sharing your sermon.

  2. August 18, 2014 9:03 pm

    Thanks so much for reading, Anne. We should have you come back to SMMC to preach again so you could share yours!

  3. Anne Yoder permalink
    August 19, 2014 8:49 am

    Sure!! Anytime . . . on this or another subject.


  1. August 14, 2014 | Franconia Conference

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