“The Central Answer to Fear”
November 15, 2015
The greatness of ‘I Am’ is the central answer to fear.
I. Alone in the boat (Matthew 14:22-24)
II. “It is I” (Matthew 14:25-27)
III. The response to “It is I” (Matthew 14:28-33)
Melinda Zeek has been pursuing God’s call on her life. She’s been to Slovakia with the team four times. She did a YWAM Discipleship Training in Denver and Nepal, and most recently she has gone back to Slovakia, solo, to teach at a Christian school called Narnia. In October she wrote an update that said, in part, “I have been sort of settling into a routine with school and life here, sort of because something seems to come up every week that changes my schedule and I’m always kept on my toes. . . . Getting used to living here has been a process, at first just being super excited, then a phase of major frustration at not being able to understand language and missing home and comfortability, and now starting to feel more at home and more comfortable, getting used to not always understanding, and learning how to communicate. I have started attending a college age small group at the local Baptist church, helping with a youth group at the local Brethren church, and occasionally taking part in what we like to call "English classes” with some of the teachers from Narnia, basically just going out for coffee and talking in English.”
This week, as we continue to look at instances of the command ‘do not fear,’ we are going to be with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. We’re going to see him walk on the water and hear him say “Take heart, I AM, don’t be afraid.” We’re going to see that Peter responds by stepping out of the boat and we’re going to learn that for us the greatness of Jesus, the “I Am,” is the central answer to fear.
Melinda went on to say in that post: “In closing I would like to say…even though I love it here and I am so glad that I came, living and teaching here is really hard sometimes. These past few months really haven’t been a piece of cake, but I wouldn’t change that for anything. Jesus has been teaching me so much through the struggles and victories, in the good times and the bad, whether I’m laughing or crying. I’ve gotten to spend so much time with him and get to know him on a deeper level. I’ve had to rely on him more than ever, and continually find my joy and strength and rest in him every day.”
That just sounded to me like someone who has stepped out of the boat and is finding in Jesus the central answer for fear. The text we’re looking at is Matthew 14:22-33. Let’s get an overview of the story by looking at one of the better video versions that I found on YouTube:
(video, sound, walking on water, 2:07)
Matthew 14 begins with the beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus, knowing it is not yet his turn, withdraws from Galilee to a desolate place across the lake. But he’s followed by a huge crowd, and has compassion on their hunger. He feeds them with five loaves and two fish. This excites the crowd so much that, according to John, they want to make him king. But it’s not time. So, Matthew 14:22-24. Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.
He puts the disciples in the boat and dismisses the crowds: “move along, folks, there’s nothing more to see.” Then goes on the mountain to pray. Despite the fact that Jesus is God the Son, in the incarnation he lived in daily dependence on God the Father. In Mark 1, after Mark’s thumbnail of a full day of ministry, Jesus gets up in the morning, goes out to a desolate place, and prays. Before choosing the disciples, he prays all night. He teaches his disciples to pray because they see him praying. Before Peter denies him, he tells Peter that he’s been praying for him. Before the crucifixion, he goes to the Garden and fights the upcoming battle in prayer. And Jesus is now at the Father’s right hand interceding for us. I wonder if we make as much to do about prayer as Jesus did? Do we, on the one hand, have seasons of focused prayer? And, on the other hand, do we pray in every circumstance? Jesus did.
In this case, while Jesus is praying, the disciples are struggling. They are alone in the boat, a long way from land, beaten by the waves and the wind. This is the first of two or three pictures of our fears in this episode. Here the fear arises because Jesus seems far away – why did he makes us come out in this storm by ourselves? Safety seems far away – we’re a long way from land. And circumstances seem to be cratering – this wind, these waves. None of the three Gospel narratives say that the disciples were desperate at this moment – that was a different occasion, when Jesus was asleep in the boat. But they must have been exhausted. They had been rowing most of the night and the wind and waves kept pushing them back, probably also pushing them off course.
This is the way fear works. It looks around at our actual circumstances and reads them as fearful. Jesus seems far away. Safety seems far away. And the things that are happening, that are very close and very immediate are exhausting and daunting. The disciples knew the dangers of the wind and the waves, and if fear wasn’t dominating them as it did in that other storm, it was at least the undercurrent as they strained at their oars in the stormy darkness of the night.
Gail and I were talking early this week and we agreed that our enemy frequently whispers what we call counsels of despair to lock us into fear and inaction. A counsel of despair is the conviction that everything is wrong, and nothing can change or better it. Everything is wrong with me and I’ll never get any better, or everything is wrong in my circumstances and they can only lead to disaster, or everything is wrong with that person and they will never be any better. On a stormy night, exhausted and far from safety, seemingly far from Jesus, and with the wind and the waves stopping progress and pushing us off course, it would be easy to begin hearing these lying counsels of despair.
But what was the reality? First while they were in these circumstances, Jesus was back on the shore praying We don’t know what he was praying about, but it seems reasonable, given his habits, that at least part of his prayer was for the disciples. While we are feeling alone in the boat Jesus is at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. He is at work on our behalf even when we can’t see him. Sometimes you don’t feel his presence, you are bombarded by counsels of despair. But Jesus has not taken his hand off the wheel. Though you may be going through trial or testing, Jesus is on your side, praying you through this trial that is intended for your good and his glory.
But there is an even greater, more comforting reality. In the midst of trials and fears Jesus is not far off. He is near and will be powerfully with us if we recognize him. Verses 25-27: In the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27Immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
The fourth watch of the night is the last watch. If you get up early, as I do, you come to feel that the dark before the dawn is the darkest, the stormiest. That may just be perception, but I’m pretty sure it’s the perception the disciples were having. But in that darkness Jesus came, miraculously, walking on the sea. By human reasoning they were far from the helping hand of their Lord, but human reasoning is wrong. He’s right there, to provide for them or to rescue them. He, Jesus, is a God of miracles. He walks on the water because he is the author and the master of creation. He isn’t subject to its rules, its whim or its dangers.
And the disciples more or less see that. The word fear has not been used so far in this passage. But when they see Jesus walking on the water, they are terrified. This mastery over creation, this power over the all-powerful laws of nature suddenly penetrates their dull minds and they realize that the one who can do this is something more than they had thought, not just someone blessed by God, but someone himself divine, himself deity.
And their minds recoil in fear from such a conclusion. They grasp, perhaps, for some alternate explanation. Oh, this is a ghost, a phantom, an immaterial presence. The Greek culture around them believed in sea gods and wind gods. Maybe they thought this was one of those vengeful spirits. So they may have cried out in fear at what they thought this was, but it was also in fear of what they couldn’t believe this might be, a man who could do what only a god could do.
But that’s exactly what Jesus affirms. He says ‘take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.’ Five words, in Greek, but rich with meaning. The first is tharseo, a command, ‘be of good cheer,’ or ‘have courage.’ The hymn we sang says it well: “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps on the sea, and rides upon the storm. Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, The clouds you so much dread, are big with mercy, and shall break with blessings on your head.” When you’re in the boat, in the storm, when Jesus seems far away and emotional or even physical safety a phantom, take fresh courage.
The last two words are ‘me phobeisthe,’ do not be afraid, the command that we’ve been studying for weeks. But between these bookends are two more Greek words that I’m calling the central answer to fear. ‘I AM,’ ‘ego eimi.’ In context this can mean something as simple as ‘It’s me,’ or ‘I’m here.’ Even that’s pretty profound. But ‘I am’ is also, in the words of one commentator, the decisive self-disclosure of God. “I am that I am,” God said to Moses “I am has sent me to you.” It is this Hebrew word, Yahweh, that was the sacred personal name of God, so sacred a Jewish person wouldn’t say it aloud, but substituted the word ‘Adonai,’ Lord, out of respect for ha shem, the name. So on the lips of Jesus this was not an everyday phrase. Believers, especially on this side of the resurrection, recognized it as a claim to deity.
I rabbit trailed into the Old Testament revelation of this name in Exodus and came across a comment that fits so well in this context. One of my old seminary professors, Walter Kaiser, writing in the Expositors Bible Commentary, asks “what is the meaning of “I AM.” He says “The most natural explanation, that does fullest justice to the context, and the fact that this name is connected with the verb ‘to be,’ is to see it as expressing the nature, character, and essence of the promise in Exodus 3:12, "I will be with you." What, then, was his name? The answer was: "My name in its inner significance is I am, for I am present."
Jesus is saying ‘I’m here,’ not in a common way at all, but in the most profound way. Take courage, don’t be afraid, I’m here. It the midst of your fears, I’m here. In the midst of your storm, I’m here. In the midst of your exhaustion, I’m here. In the midst of your doubt, I’m here. In the midst of your need, I’m here.
When I asked Melinda Zeek if I could quote her post, I also asked her if she had any thoughts about fear and about the passage we’re studying. She graciously gave me her thoughts about the passage, including a list of her fears. “I am afraid of failure, of not being good at things and of disappointing people . . . Most of the time I won’t even try something if I think I won't be able to do it. Teaching is one of those things. If you had told me in January that I’d be teaching in September I’d have said "Uh uh! Ain’t doing it!” In fact, I did say that. I was not going to do something I just knew I would be horrible at.”
“I am afraid of feeling alone. I like to be alone, because sometimes silence is the most beautiful sound in the world, but I dread feeling alone, out of place, or unwanted.” “I am afraid of rejection. Confidence is not something I have in abundance, and so it has been difficult for me to always be completely myself around people, or to share my difficulties, or object to something my friends do, because I am afraid that if I do then they won’t want to be around me.” “I am afraid of not making a difference. What if I never do anything noteworthy? What if no one ever gets saved because of me? What if my story never changes someone’s life? I’m afraid of waking up one day and realizing that I didn’t reach my full potential. That I didn’t do enough. That I wasted valuable time on worthless pursuits. That my life was meaningless.”
But if it is Jesus, coming to us when we thought he was far away, coming to us when safety seemed impossible, coming to us when we were exhausted, coming to us when circumstances seemed to blow hard against us, what should we do? Well, what does he say? Take courage, and do not fear. If it’s really Jesus who is constantly saying to us ‘I am here’ then we may need to step out of the boat.
Verses 28-33: And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33Those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
The last time Peter was mentioned was chapter 10, where he was listed with all the other disciples. But here he sets himself apart, both by his faith and by his fear. He sees that it’s Jesus, whose ‘I am here’ is freighted with meaning. He’s this close, with the other disciples to saying ‘This is the Son of God.’ But unlike the others, he wants it to make a difference. Since, and the Greek has that implication, Jesus is the ‘I am’ then taking a step of faith in imitation of Jesus is reasonable. Getting out of the boat is this step from fear to faith.
Peter says “If it’s you, since it’s you the divine Son of God,’ then you command me to do what only you can enable. The response to fear often needs to be a step of faith. Our trust is mere words until we take some action that reflects it. So Jesus commands, “Come,” and Peter gets out of the boat. I can’t imagine what it felt like when he put his foot on the water and it didn’t yield.
But the practical question is, what does it look like for us to get out of the boat? Melinda Zeek had some good thoughts. “In this passage, two things stick out to me; fear and comfort. Peter asked Jesus to call him out, he wanted to be brave and step out of his comfort zone. He wanted to know that he could face his fear, that he had enough faith. . . . I imagine that when Peter stepped out of the boat and felt the wind and waves he really wanted to hightail it back to his comfort zone, back to where he wasn’t afraid. But Jesus called Peter to him and asked him to trust that if he kept his eyes focused, not on the storm, not on the uncomfortableness of the situation, not on the fear, but on the One who has control over all of those things, he would be safe.”
Melinda says “I guess I feel a bit like Peter in a way. I was pretty much terrified of moving to a foreign country by myself, and teaching, which is something completely outside of my comfort zone. But I wanted to come. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to see Jesus work. . . . It’s not like I didn’t know it would be hard, that there would be my version of wind and waves. I knew that I would be lonely at times, that it would be hard not being able to communicate very well, that teaching would be a huge responsibility, and that as an introvert, meeting new people and building relationships would be a big challenge.
“I faced a lot of fear to come here, and I am still overcoming fear while living here. It’s a process. There are some days that I really want to go back to the boat, in my case Texas, and be comfortable. I want to be "safe" from the wind and the waves. But His grace abounds in deep waters, in the uncomfortable, in the terrifying and seemingly impossible. I know that when he says “come”, he’s also saying ‘I will always be right here, I will never leave you to do what I’ve called you to on your own.’ My fears of failure, not living up to other’s or my own expectations, disappointing people, not making a difference, being alone, being rejected, these all fade when I focus on the One who called me here.”
Peter shows us what it’s like when we don’t keep our eyes on Jesus. “When he saw the wind, he was afraid.” This is the second mention of fear. The first was at the greatness of Jesus as he walked to them on the water, but that awesome reality of Jesus’ deity was masked by the thought that it was a phantom, maybe a sea-deity or wind-deity. This, is plain old fashioned fear. I’ve taken a step of faith, but as I look around at my circumstances, all of a sudden I’m terrified.
And when the fear grips me I begin to sink. My circumstance threaten to overwhelm me. I can’t do this. I can’t carry this load. I can’t be who I want to be in the lives of others. I can’t live up to expectations. I can’t stand the loneliness. I can’t make a difference. I’m tempted to give up, to sink, to drown, to turn back and lunge for the boat where even if I was fearful at least I was safe. But Peter, though he is not given credit for it, does the only sane thing that anyone can do in that circumstance. He cries out “Oh Lord, save me.” “Oh Lord, help.” “I can’t do this” is a perfectly valid and powerful prayer when it is accompanied by the prayer help, rescue, be the ‘I am here’ that I need.
And in a move completely unsurprising that ought to be life changing for us, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and takes hold of Peter. “I am here” That’s the central answer to fear. Yeah, I may take my eyes off him and start to sink, but he’s here. And when I retain the minimal shred of sanity and faith that allows me to cry out to him, he takes hold of me. Notice that he does not accuse Peter of no faith, only of little faith, of allowing his eyes to stray so that his doubts overpower him. The faith that allowed him to step out of the boat was great, but the faith that allowed him to cry out for help was enough.
And when they got into the boat the wind ceased. Again, that’s not the central point of this story. Yes, Jesus does have power over all creation. He showed that through the feeding of the 5000 and through the other storm episode and in something Matthew doesn’t record but John does, that they were also miraculous transported to land, to their destination. All those things are testimony to the greatness and the deity of Jesus. It’s the cumulative effect of those things plus this walking on the water and not being a phantom that causes them to worship right there in the boat. “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Notice two things. The disciples probably do not yet have a full comprehension of the deity of Jesus or the mission of Jesus. Peter will confess him as Christ two chapters down the road and his Messianic deity will become the crux of the Pharisees accusations against him way down in chapter 26. But what they have just seen moves them in the direction of seeing his deity. Second, Jesus understands his own deity. No pious Jew would accept worship. Worship was reserved for God alone, or it was pagan blasphemy. The fact that Jesus accepts worship tells us a lot about his self-understanding. He knew that as God the Son he was worthy, with the Father and the Spirit, of worship. He was fully God and fully man.
So it is in fixing our eyes on Jesus that we find the central answer to our fears. He says “I am here.” Step out of the boat. Don’t look at the wind or the waves. But fix your eyes on me.
Off and on over many years I’ve mentioned something I consider very important, and that’s that the evidence of Scripture should have as much impact on us as the evidence of our eyes. We’ve never seen a man walk on water, except by special effects. We’ve never seen a man multiply bread or raise the dead. But we see Jesus. Not on film, not in the flesh, in this season, but on the pages of Scripture. And to the part of our brain that processes reality, the part of our brain that steps out in faith, and the part of our brain that worships, Jesus doing what he does in the pages of Scripture should be just as convincing as if he appeared here in the flesh and did it again. I’ve seen Jesus calm the sea. I’ve seen Jesus walk on water. I’ve seen Jesus speak to the widow’s son. I’ve seen Jesus forgive the harlot. I’ve seen Jesus the I am, in the words of Scripture.
So I want to close by just re-reading the passage. And I want you to treat it not as a story or even an account, but as a reality that you are seeing and hearing. Let’s walk into the presence of Jesus and see the central answer to our fears.
Matthew 14:22-33 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.
25And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
28And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”