Rowing Against the Wind

 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 14:22-33

Many of you know that my favorite book of the Bible is Jonah.  There’s a lot of great stuff in that short little story – and if you haven’t read it lately, I recommend you crack it open this week.  You’ll get through it way faster than the sports section of the newspaper or your Facebook feed. 

Well, even if you haven’t read it since you were a little child, you’ll probably remember that God told Jonah to go to Ninevah.  Jonah didn’t want to go, so he hopped on a boat to go the opposite direction.  But God didn’t let him.  He sent a storm that threatened to tear the boat apart until Jonah realized what was going on and gave in to God. 

That makes sense, right?  Jonah is going the wrong way.  Jonah is disobeying God.  So God uses a storm to stop the boat, turn Jonah around, and get him back on track.   

And it stands as an enduring testimony that it is foolish to run from God’s calling.  When God tells you to do something, nothing good happens when we try to avoid that call.  And sometimes, God will actively prevent you from running away and will turn you around. 

So now we know how to interpret the metaphorical (or literal, maybe) wind and waves we face in our lives, right?  They are calls to repentance and returning to God’s calling. 

Except when they aren’t.   

The gospel we read today doesn’t work that way at all.  The disciples weren’t running from Jesus.  They weren’t avoiding his call. And yet they have to face the wind and waves. 

It doesn’t seem fair and it doesn’t seem right that the disciples would be doing exactly what Jesus asked of them, only to get nowhere.  Worse, actually, because if they had gotten nowhere they’d be close to shore.  Instead they were out in the middle of the lake. 

So, it’s possible that the first part of the trip was smooth sailing. They’re obeying; things are going fine.  But after they’ve committed to the trip and are out in the midst of the deep waters, then the wind and waves push back big time.  We aren’t talking about making the trip difficult; we’re talking about making it impossible. 

For literally hours, the 12 strained at the oars, trying to make headway.  They’re headed the right way.  They’re going where Jesus told them to, doing what Jesus told them to.  They’re doing the right thing and getting no results. 

Now, they probably could have turned the boat around and went back to where they started.  The wind would have been at their back.  I’m sure some of them wanted to.  It would have been the easier thing, and it would have been the sensible thing. 

But it wasn’t what Jesus asked of them. 

Have you ever been in that place?  It’s a difficult place to be.  You know what God has told you to do, and you’re trying but you’re getting nowhere.  Everything is stacked against you.  You can’t catch a break.  And you can’t understand why.  “Didn’t God tell me to do this? Why is He making it so hard?”   

And after you’ve been rowing all night – or maybe for months or years – it’s easy to second guess.  “Maybe I heard God wrong. Maybe I’m not supposed to do this. Maybe I should find another way, or maybe I should just give up.” 

You know what, though? The boat was right where it needed to be for the disciples to meet Jesus.  If they had made it to the other shore without incident, and Jesus met them over there… well, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it today.  We would have learned nothing about Jesus from a non-story like that. 

But instead we see Jesus, walking across the lake. He strolls along the surface of the lake like it’s solid ground.   The winds and waves are pushing the boat so hard that 12 men at the oars can’t make headway, but Jesus seems to be casually strolling against them.  What is insurmountable opposition for the disciples doesn’t phase Jesus one bit.  

Of course the disciples thought it was a ghost.  Shouldn’t a flesh and blood person be struggling?  Shouldn’t a real person be frightened?  They certainly were. 

So Jesus’ words to them are powerful. “Take heart. It’s me.” 

You’ll notice, he doesn’t say, “Why aren’t you over there?  I told you to cross the lake.” He understands why they haven’t made it.  He didn’t find them at the other shore, but He did find them obedient. 

You know, when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus… I’m not going to say that results aren’t important, but I’m confident that obeying Jesus is more important. 

See, they did get to the other shore – after Jesus met them in the boat and cleared away the opposition.  But I don’t think that arriving at the other shore is what really mattered that night.  What really mattered was seeing Jesus walk across the water, over the waves and against the wind.  Getting to the other shore was incidental; meeting Jesus on the lake at the disciples’ lowest and weakest point was crucial. 

Even when they couldn’t see Jesus, they were never beyond His reach.  Even when they felt alone and abandoned, He was closer at hand than they could have guessed. At their lowest and weakest, Jesus spoke over the wind and waves, “Take heart; it’s me.” 

You may be right there today: trying to obey, and pulling hard on the oars only to get nowhere.   Don’t doubt or despair.  Don’t be afraid.  You aren’t alone or beyond his reach. That same Jesus is closer to you now than He was to them then.  Your relief may come soon or it may be a long time in coming, but Jesus will meet you in the boat.  And one way or another, He will carry you to the other shore. 

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