The storm was not the problem, not in chapter 14, at least. The disciples did not ask for help weathering the weather and they showed no relief when the wind ceased. This is important to notice, because it is easy to conflate this text with the calming of the storm in Matthew 8. There, the disciples were afraid of perishing as the boat took on water. Here, the wind was against them and the waves were tormenting (βασανιζόμενον) them, but that is not what caused their fear. The problem was Jesus, or more precisely, a lack of faith in Jesus.
Last week I suggested a three-part series of sermons exploring three of Jesus’ miracles in Matthew 14 and 15. I also recommended Francis Rossow’s options for handling miracles in a sermon (see last week’s reflection for the details). If the feeding of the 5000 invited an emphasis on Jesus’ COMPASSION, this week’s miracle invites a sermon focused on Jesus’ AUTHORITY. His rule over creation was both the source of the disciples’ fear and the reason for their worship. This suggests you might work with the “evidential function” of Jesus’ miracle (again, see Rossow’s categories from last week). As you do so, you will want to ask these four questions:
1. What will the sermon do, theologically speaking, with the miracle?
2. Which details of the text will you highlight? Which will you ignore?
3. What will you promise to your hearers based on this text? You will want to make sure, of course, you do not promise your hearers something the text does not authorize promising for hearers of all times and places.
4. What do your specific hearers need to hear on this specific occasion?
Jesus’ authority is particularly significant to notice at this point in Matthew’s gospel. At the end of chapter 13, Jesus found nothing but unbelief and dishonor in His hometown. He did not do any miraculous works. Then, at the beginning of chapter 14, John the Baptist loses his head. Things are not going well for Jesus and His followers. It is reasonable to imagine His disciples were wondering about the extent of His authority.
Things are not going well for Jesus and His followers. It is reasonable to imagine His disciples were wondering about the extent of His authority.
The text follows immediately after Jesus feeds 5000 people. Having provided compassionately for those who were hungry, Jesus now sends away the disciples in a boat while He dismisses the crowds. He continues by finally finding some time alone with His Father. It is not until early the next morning (probably between 3-6 am) that the action in our text begins. Jesus initiates the encounter by walking to them on the sea. Their initial reaction was understandable: Confusion and terror (ἐταράχθησαν). They thought it was phantom (φάντασμά), which is similar to their reaction when He appears in the upper room on Easter evening (Luke 24:37; see the variant reading for πνεῦμα). They could hardly be blamed. Unlike Easter evening, Jesus had not promised He would walk to them on the water. He simply showed up unannounced, which may be why He does not chastise them. Instead, Jesus encourages them: “Take heart; it is I (ἐγώ εἰμι). Do not be afraid.”
That is when Peter opens his big mouth. He poses a question (a challenge?) to Jesus. Doubting Jesus’ words of assurance, Peter wants evidence. Surprisingly, Jesus obliges. Unsurprisingly (given Peter’s impulsivity), Peter accepts the invitation and steps out of the boat. Doubts quickly rise-up again, however, and Peter begins to sink. This leads him to call out to Jesus a second time. Not to challenge Jesus, but to find salvation (Κύριε, σῶσόν με). Jesus responds immediately by reaching out His hand and taking hold of the sinking doubter. But that is not all. He also has words specifically for Peter alone (notice the singular pronouns in verse 31). “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The text concludes as the disciples (Matthew does not explicitly include or exclude Peter) respond with worship and confession.
Your sermon might invite your hearers to identify with Peter. They certainly have had their own questions about Jesus’ authority. Is He really who we say we believe He is? Can He really do the things we believe He can do? His words of assurance are nice. But can they really be trusted?
Peter’s lack of faith in Jesus manifested itself in fear. The same happens for your hearers (as it does for you and me). Jesus promises He rules over all creation. He promises He will deliver us from all adversity and provide for all our needs. But we do not always see it, which leads to doubts, as it did for Peter. The result is often fear, as it was for Peter. Fear is powerful. It leads us into all manner of foolishness.
Jesus promises He rules over all creation. He promises He will deliver us from all adversity and provide for all our needs. But we do not always see it.
What is causing your hearers to fear? Which promises of Jesus are they struggling to believe? To what foolishness is their fear leading? You could name the current regulars—financial instability, questionable governmental leadership, the pandemic—but some local specificity might be more helpful. If you are not sure what your specific hearers fear, ask them throughout the week in meetings and conversations.
To address their fears, you have the same word Jesus initially said to the disciples. “Take heart. Jesus is the one. Do not be afraid.” He comes to us as He came to the disciples on the boat; unasked for, sometimes unrecognizable, but always with authority. His stroll on the sea gave them a glimpse. His resurrection from the dead sealed the deal. His promise to return will provide the final assurance.
As you proclaim Jesus’ promise to return and to manifest His authority for all to see, invite your hearers to worship Jesus without fear; not only on Sunday morning, but throughout the week as they live under His gracious rule.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 14:22-33.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 14:22-33.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 14:22-33.