Jonah 2; Psalm 29; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33
The ancient Hebrews had a thing about the sea, and if we understand it, a lot of things in the Bible take on a much deeper significance. To them, the sea was, like, the embodiment of evil, of the forces that work against God’s designs. And from their perspective, it made a lot of sense. Their primary idea of God was of the One who created the world by bringing order out of chaos. And to a nation of nomads in the desert, nothing seemed more chaotic than the sea.
So their first creation story in Genesis 1 isn’t a story of God creating everything out of nothing, but of God pushing back the waters of the sea to make an ordered place for life. He separates the waters from the waters to make dry land appear. He later rescues the Hebrews from the Egyptians by separating the waters from the waters in the Red Sea and making dry land appear again; a new creation. This mythology about the sea goes all through the Bible to the end when, in the New Creation, there is no more sea. There’s not really any need to take this literally, but there’s a great need for us to take this figuratively if we want to understand the Bible.
We can see it pretty clearly in the Jonah story. In chapter 2, Jonah talks about the sea as if it were the grave itself. He’s not just in the belly of a fish, but in the belly of Sheol, in the land whose bars had closed him in forever. (In chapter one, we even get a glimpse of Jesus. When the sailors ask, “what shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” Jonah responds by saying, “Take me up and throw me into the sea, then the sea will quiet down for you.” Jesus made this same parallel in Mt. 12:40 when he says, “as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and nights in the heart of the earth.”)
The ancient Hebrews saw the sea as the embodiment of chaos, as evil, as death. And that helps us to understand this story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water.
Jesus had been pretty upset because his friend and cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by the king. The king had him executed because John had told him that it was against the Law for him to have married his sister-in-law; basically saying that any children she had would be illegitimate and couldn’t inherit the throne. This lady conspires to have John beheaded and King Herod goes along with it. So here we have an illegitimate government (a false king, or false Christ) maintaining its power by going against God’s laws, by throwing out order and justice and by bringing death to anyone who stood in its way. Basically, all of the things that the sea symbolized to the ancient Hebrews were being worked out in the current Jewish government.
So, when Jesus hears all of this, he wants to go away to a lonely place where he and his apostles can rest. But when they get there, the crowds have followed him, so he teaches them and feeds all 5,000 of them. Then he puts his disciples in a boat while he’s going to go up onto a mountain (you know, the opposite of a sea) so he can pray.
Meanwhile, the disciples are out in the boat afraid they’re going to die because a strong wind has got the sea stirred up into a frenzy.
And Jesus comes down from the mountain and walks right across the waters. The chaos is still there, but it’s under his feet.
And the disciples are afraid–they think they’re seeing some kind of apparition–but Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I. Have no fear.” And Peter says, “if it’s really you, then bid me come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.” And Peter goes out to him, right up on top of the water. But once he gets there, he starts looking around at the wind and the waves and he starts to sink. He yells, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus grabs him and says, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” and he takes him back to the boat and the wind stops.
Now here’s the deal: Even if we don’t go fishing on a lake that’s given to sudden storms, it doesn’t take much to know that there’s plenty of chaos around to keep us fearful. Sometimes, like King Herod, we see it in governments that are so hell-bent on obtaining power or keeping power that they’re willing to let people starve or get sick or even to outright blow people up in order to maintain their positions. What they should be doing is humbly bowing before the rightful Ruler of the world–the King of Kings– and submitting to his laws of justice, peace, and joy.
Sometimes, in a society like ours, we see the chaos in the way businessmen are willing to poison foods or turn people out of their homes in order to make more and more money. If the ancient worshippers of Molech sacrificed their children in the fire, their successors–the worshippers of Mammon–have done far worse since then. The economists should submit to the laws of their rightful King: never profiting from their brothers’ hardships by charging interest on loans, making sure the poor have enough to feed themselves. Unjust balances are an abomination. Woe to them who add house to house and field to field until there’s room for none but them in the land.
We see chaos in our relationships every time we love our own idea of who or what our brother should be rather than loving who he actually is: any time we allow our own fears or pride or partisanship or anything else to come between us. Our true King allows for only two loyalties in his Kingdom: our loyalty to God and our loyalty to our neighbor. Not even loyalty to Christianity is permitted to trump these two.
We see chaos in ourselves: our mixture of conflicting hopes and desires, our fears always at war with our love, our propensity to react against painful memories or uncertainties about the future rather than paying attention to the present moment and taking each situation as it actually is.
For now, we still see chaos.
We hear Jesus calling us to a higher life, but it’s a life that seems downright impossible. If we share our food with the hungry, how will there be enough for me and my family? If I forgive my enemy before he sincerely decides to change his ways, won’t he just keep doing wrong?
And that’s partly true. Evil doesn’t just go away because we quit thinking about it. The waves were still there when Peter stepped out of the boat. But Peter was enabled to transcend them when he looked to Jesus. And it’s the same for us. But this is what Paul meant in his letter to the Philippians when he said, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” He even gave us the beginnings of a list of things he could do: “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound…I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.” Keeping our attention on Jesus doesn’t make the chaos magically disappear. Rather, it gives us a steady mind so that neither the best nor the worst of circumstances can rob us of joy and peace nor cause us to transgress our Lord’s commandments.
Like the Three Holy Children said to Nebuchadnezzar, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace,” but even if he doesn’t, we still won’t bow down.
While chaos, evil, and death reign; we will keep our minds fixed on Jesus. But we also have a hope in the future. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were kept safe in the furnace, but they also came out, and were glorified as rulers of Babylon. When Peter and Jesus got back to the boat, the waves ceased. And when the Kingdom of God is fully realized on earth as it is in heaven, there will be no more sea.
He first calmed the storm inside of Peter, then he also calmed the storm around Peter. When our minds are fixed on him, he gives us his peace inside of us. But we also look forward to the day when there will be peace in the world around us.