Well, I'm relieved that today is over. Today was a big day for me; I assisted at worship in the seminary chapel for the first time, and I preached a sermon for my Homiletics class. Assisting worship was nerve wracking, although I've helped with worship many times before—it's a little harder when all your seminary professors are there.
As for the sermon, it seemed to go over pretty well; I'm just happy it's done. I've posted it below, for your reading pleasure. We were supposed to remain under five minutes of time (although I went a bit over), which is why it's quite short. The text I was assigned to preach on was Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus walking on water.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t like scary things. Ghost stories, scary movies, and nowadays even horror video games—they’re not for me. I don’t like being scared. You see, the key to all these scary things is suspense. Someone jumping out and startling you is only scary for a moment; waiting for someone to jump out and startle you—now, that’s fear that can last for hours.
If you’re like me, and you don’t like scary things, then you have probably made the same mistake I have. It’s some windy night, you’re sitting in front of the TV alone, and some horror movie comes on. “How bad can it be?” you think to yourself, and start watching. Half an hour later, you’re curled up in a blanket, looking at the immense distance between you and the nearest light switch, and praying someone will come home and turn off the TV for you—not that that would do any good, because you can’t stop a scary movie halfway through. Either way, you’re going to have nightmares.
The disciples had it way worse than I ever did. They didn’t just get swept up listening to a ghost story; they found themselves in the middle of one. Jesus remains behind, sending them on without him. Night falls. Caught out on the sea, the wind blowing around them, the water getting rougher, unable to get back to land, they see a figure walking across the water toward them. They cry out, “It’s a ghost!”
Now, if this were really a ghost story, the figure would vanish, maybe with a bone-chilling laugh, leaving the disciples awaiting its reappearance with rising panic. Or maybe it would pick them off one by one. But that does not happen. What do we hear in the gospel? Immediately Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid.” He turns on the lights, so to speak, banishes the imagined ghosts, and he does so immediately, not leaving the disciples waiting in fear.
The strange events do not end there. Peter speaks up, saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus calls him out onto the water, and Peter follows; but when Peter notices the wind, he begins to sink. He cries out for help, and again, Jesus responds immediately, reaching out to catch the sinking Peter. The two return to the boat; the wind dies down; and the disciples worship Jesus as the Son of God. Just think of the relief, awe, and wonder the disciples must have felt, seeing Jesus taking care of them in their times of great fear. If only my experiences watching horror movies had ended this way! If only someone had come in the moment I began to be frightened and reassured me, destroying at once that fearful anticipation.
Indeed, in these two instances—verse twenty-seven, when Jesus reassures the disciples, and verse thirty-one, when he catches Peter—the immediacy of Jesus’ response is key. In the Greek, the word translated “immediately” is placed first in each of these verses, emphasizing its importance. Clearly, it was important to the disciples, too—though they have seen Jesus perform many miracles, it is in response to this episode that they worship him as the Son of God. Walking on the water, calling Peter out of the boat, and saving him from sinking are all miraculous, but perhaps it is not the events themselves that inspire the disciples; perhaps it is the immediacy with which Jesus responds to them. It is not merely that Jesus can do miracles; it is that the miracle worker is there and then, immediate to the disciples. The greatest miracle, in fact, is that God became flesh and blood and lived in the world with these people.
Where does that leave us, two thousand years later and on the other side of the world? Are we able to have the same experience as the disciples of an immediate God? Of course, we know that our God was both there and then as well as here and now. Jesus is as immediate and present to us as he was to his disciples. Especially at Advent and Christmas-time, we proclaim Jesus as Emmanuel, God With Us. Our God is incarnate; we do not have to seek God in some distant reality, but we find God here among us. Like the disciples, even when we feel most alone and afraid, we discover that God is there with us. That does not mean that we will never feel frightened, or find ourselves driven across a stormy sea. But we, like the disciples, will always hear that voice in the darkness saying to us, “It is I; do not be afraid.”