Just when you think the bible is giving you shallow travel directions it opens up a deep picture. The Gospel reading this week (Matthew 14:22-33) starts with those travel directions. The crowds have been fed, but as the disciples had remarked earlier, it is late in the day. Even later after 5000 have eaten. And Jesus knows what the crowds want to do – make him king. So, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side.” And, “after he dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself.” How exactly does Jesus dismiss the crowd that wants to make him King? We don’t know. Why does he force the disciples into the boat? Maybe because they would have been just as much caught up in making him king, but we don’t know. But if we stop to ponder the scene, it is quite a view of the Christian life.
First, Jesus has sent us out at night onto the chaos of the waters. And somehow this is for our good. Even though we might end up “a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, and the wind was against them, in the fourth watch of the night.” That fourth watch is the metaphorical 3 AM. If you are a horror fan, you know everything bad happens at 3 AM. If you are a worrier or an insomniac, and you are up at 3 AM, it has not been a good day or night and neither will the fast approaching day be good. We know what this feels like. It is dark and we are exhausted and all the creepies come out. Why did you send me to this place alone?
But the second part is the recognition that we are never really alone. Jesus on the mountain top – with apparently Moses’ 120 year old eagle eyes – has them on his disciples. Mark’s gospel is explicit, “he saw they were making headway painfully (Mark 6:48).” The eyes of God are always upon those he loves. And his compassion – his guts being churned – are not just for the crowds. “In the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking on the sea.” The chaos and darkness of the sea have no power over this one. He walks on them. What are our reactions when God acts?
The first one, “they were terrified and said ‘it is a ghost!’” We expect the bad. We expect the creepies that have come out to finish us off. This is what the world does; it finishes off the weak and exhausted. Of course lurking in the background there is that saying it is a ghost is easier than saying “our deliverance has come.” Because if what comes to us at 3 AM is God, that comes with demands, with strings attached. Not the least being that he has witnessed our state. Jesus answers all this with the affirmative, “Take heart; It is I.” And yes, our translators wimp out. “Take Heart, I AM.” The Almighty has been watching and has come for you.
The second one, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Ok God, I’m not sure about this, so tell me to get out of this perfectly good boat you placed me in, and walk by myself over the chaos to you. Yeah, we don’t think too good at 3 AM. But Jesus goes with it, maybe for the same reason he sent them in the first place. Of course we were not meant to be on the waters outside of the boat. And that is not because we can’t. Peter does manage it for a couple of steps. But then we always “see the wind” and the fear returns.
So what does Jesus do? Grabs Peter, puts him back in the boat, and joins the rest, who all then worship him. We are meant to be in the boat (please see the church). We are meant to be with each other. And yes the boat is sent out on rough seas, but God sees it. And Christ comes and is with us and the winds cease. When we see God at 3 AM, we know. He has not sent us out alone, and He Is.