How Do We Know? - Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Matthew 14:22-33
August 09, 2020

Dear friends in Christ,

We connect with Jesus this today as He was wrapping up the feeding of the 5000. He urged His disciples to get into the boat and go before Him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He alone would dismiss the crowds. The disciples did so (Mat. 14:22).

Picture Jesus standing in front of the great multitude. To the extent they recognized what happened in the feeding, their eyes and the complete attention of their mind and heart must have been fixed on Him. He stood there as the Shepherd the Lord had promised would come to God’s people. He lifted His arms. He Himself spoke what we call the Aaronic benediction. This is the blessing the Lord gave to Moses to instruct Aaron to speak to the people of Israel. We speak it at the end of the Divine Service: “Now the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26).

What an electric thing that must have been to hear Jesus say that blessing. For when Jesus Himself spoke it, He was speaking it as the One who gave that blessing to Moses to have Aaron speak to the people. And now He was there speaking it Himself with His own human mouth standing amidst the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

After Jesus dismissed the crowd, He went up the mountain alone to pray. It was evening. The sun was setting. Jesus was there alone until the fourth watch of the night.

Meanwhile, the disciples were on the Sea in the boat. They were struggling to get very far. The wind was not at their back, but in their face. With the wind in their face, it could not fill their sails. So presumably they had to row to make progress. But the progress was hard because the wind was strong. It was blowing up significant waves. It was tough going.

In the fourth watch of the night, Jesus comes to them walking on the Sea. The fourth watch was between 3 and 6 a.m.

The disciples see Him. They are immediately disturbed. They think they are seeking a ghost. They become terrified.

Immediately Jesus speaks, “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid” (Mat. 14:27).

When Jesus says “It is I,” it literally says in the Greek, “I am.”

Then Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Mat. 14:28). Jesus gave the command, “Come.”

In the authority and power of that command, Peter climbed down out of the boat and walked on the water to Jesus. Jesus’s word is not an idle word. It does what it says. It has the authority and power of the Creator to do so. It creates faith and sustains it (Rom. 10:17).

In the power of that word and faith, Peter comes to Jesus walking on the water. But then Peter’s focus shifts. He sees the wind in the waves. He saw how big and powerful the waves were. He lost sight of Christ’s command. He became afraid. He began to sink.

He cried out for help. The Lord who remained strong and steady on the surface of the water, stretched out His hand and took hold of Peter’s up-stretched hand. Jesus kept Peter from sinking. Peter was saved.

This event teaches us about Jesus, who He is. This event teaches us about faith. And as we read, hear, and talk about this event today, a question may haunt us: “how do we know?” This is an even more important question today as government seems to be going in a direction of technocracy that is imposed upon all society through bureaucracy that seems to be getting more absolute everyday.

This question about how we can know in our time arises at the outset in regard to whether we can believe that this actually happened, according to the dictates of science and experience. Walking on water? Really, come on now, modern folk might say. We know that the laws of nature are absolute, even for God, and can never be abrogated, not even by God. This must be a myth. The early Christians must have borrowed it from Roman mythology to concoct such a story. Such is the point of view of higher criticism, which assumes that the scientific worldview explains everything.

Such a scientific view also makes people feel safe. We can have nature and our existence under control. It is not safe to have God actually invade our world like this, taking on human flesh and walking on water. Jesus walking on water upsets the apple cart of a nice, neat, scientific worldview, where “reason” reigns and we have things under control, and we can get rid of silly superstitions maintained by Christianity. And if religion is to be tolerated at all, then it must be rational, something within the control and power science. And religion, including Christianity, must be subservient and obey. But science is not so neat, because even the natural world keeps showing how it is beyond complete scientific control.

But if Christ really walked on water, then science must worship its Creator. This can be disconcerting for a culture that has placed its faith and hope in the power of human reason to explain all things, to give us all the answers, to save us from all perils.

Unfortunately, though, science cannot give you your humanity. It also cannot give a morality that restrains science and protects human life. Science cannot forgive your sins. It cannot raise the dead. If what science says is really all there is, then death is final.

This is not to knock science when it is operating in its proper sphere, with respect to things that are properly within the scope of its methodology, properly within the scope of what science can really do. And God has made the world an orderly place that makes science and learning from experience possible in the first place. But this is also to say that there is a battle for hearts and minds that has waged in our time and rages still: it is whether science will be servant or master with respect to the Lord and Master. Science operating as the servant of God and in the power of faith is a blessing. But there are huge problems when it severs itself from God, elevates itself to presume to judge what God can do, and takes upon itself the prerogative to judge and determine all things, absolutely.

When Peter came to Jesus in the power of Jesus’s command, and then looked at the waves, looked at the power of nature, he became afraid and began to sink, to perish. Then his proper humanness caused him to cry out to Jesus, whom he had lost sight of: “Lord save me.” And the Lord in His inexhaustible loving kindness heard His cry for help, and took hold of Peter, and kept Him from sinking.

So, setting aside scientifice prejudgments, what does this episode teach us about Jesus? It teaches us that Jesus is true God and true Man in one person. How do we know this? We know it from what happened. We know from Jesus’s action and then the testimony. The disciples saw Jesus the Man. The humanness of Christ was visible to them. But the man was doing what human nature can’t otherwise do: walk on water. But God can do that. So the Man was walking on water by virtue of also being true God.

I wonder if people misunderstand this story as intending to show us that Jesus can do wonderful magic tricks. But Jesus was not walking on the water to do a magic trick. The disciples were not concocting something mythological. He was walking on the water in a way that was entirely proper to His divine nature. The Lord reminded Job in the Old Testament reading today that the Lord walks in the recesses of the deep (Job. 28:16). The deep is the seas and oceans.

When God walks in the recesses of the deep, in His own almighty nature, in which He is present everywhere, if we could see that, we would not be watching a man walking on water. We would be watching God exploring His creation as the Creator in His proper power and sphere and jurisdiction. Of course we could not really see that.

When the Son takes on human flesh in womb of Mary and becomes born as a man as Jesus, however, the Son always takes His human nature with Him, because the person of Christ is not divided. Thus, when the Son does what is proper in His divine nature, the human nature is there. Thus, we see His human nature walking on the water. Christ’s human nature is making visible this otherwise invisible operation of God. But He is visibly walking on water because His divine nature is doing what comes naturally to it and is making the human nature do something that it could not naturally do.

This is only true for Christ. How do we know? We hear the testimony of those who were there. They saw it. Their testimony is credible for many reasons.  But there is one important reason that makes it credible: they completely misunderstood what they were seeing, until Christ set them straight. The testimony of someone is generally credible when that testimony makes that someone look like an idiot. People don’t usually testify against themselves that way.

Now we hear their testimony through the written word. The Spirit caused it to be written for us, so we too could hear, since the disciples are long dead.

Why is this so unbelievable?  Since God is doing it, it isn’t unbelievable unless one comes to it with a pre-judgment that science explains all things and determines what could possibly happen. But if science really has no ability to determine everything, and if science is to serve the Creator rather than be judge and master, then science’s pre-judgment of what Christ can do must be surrendered.

And how did Peter know to walk on the water? Jesus gave a command: “Come.” In the power of that command, Peter did what he could not otherwise do. Jesus command was full of the power of the Creator. The Creator made the water and wind and human bodies and gravity and all things in nature in the first place. They obey His command. It is not as if Peter knew he could walk on water if knowing means the investigation and verification of reason. He knew it, if knowing is the right word, through Christ’s word and action. In the power of such faith in Christ’s word, Peter climbed out of that boat and walked on water.

Now I think it is safe to say that there is only one man in human history that has been commanded by God to walk on water; that was Peter. He has not commanded you and I to walk on water, though He does call you and I to believe. True enough, other human beings throughout human history have been commanded by God to do things that science and human experience do not regard as possible. And those things, for the most part, only happened once. But God commanded those things. Those people did what they did in the faith that God’s command generates. And in this way they did what could not otherwise be done and walked in the Spirit of our God: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6).

Your sins are forgiven. How do you know? You know it because Christ has died for it and Christ has said it to you. You believe it as a result. Through these words and the comfort of faith, there is comfort and peace and the strength to walk and not sink.

 Christ says that He will raise you from the dead. How do you know? Because Christ Himself has done it and has promised.

I am with you always Christ says. How do you know? Do you see it? No you don’t. But He has promised and His word of promise generates faith that knows it, as faith knows inspired by Christ’s word. And so you walk in a confidence the world does not know and cannot understand, in the midst of the turmoil and dangers of this world.

But what happens when the eyes of our hearts and minds lose their focus on Christ’s word, then all we see is guilt; then all we see is the power of death; then all we see is the storm raging around us. And in that seeing, though we may think we are gaining in knowledge because we are seeing, we are also sinking in fear. It is not a matter of being foolhardy and reckless. It is a matter of not being driven by fear. It is a matter of trusting our Creator, who has come near to us so wonderfully in Jesus Christ and reveals these things to us through His word and action.

Now the divine nature being able to cause the human nature of Christ to walk on water is something that should cause us, our reason, science, and all humanity to bow the knee of the heart and will and mind to Jesus and worship Him, like the disciples did in the boat that day (Mat. 14:33). Their worship was speaking, and their speaking was speaking the truth about Jesus and God and our salvation as God the Spirit teaches it to us from God’s written word: truly you are the Son of God, they said, and we say it today.

But there is something even more deserving of our worship that Jesus has done, or rather, that Jesus allowed to have happen to Him. On that Good Friday of that particular week of the Jewish Passover nearly 2000 years ago now, Jesus hung on a Roman cross dying. He was the same Jesus Christ we see today walking on the water. He was the same Son of God. Only on that day, the human nature was communicating something to the divine nature that was not natural to the divine nature, and the divine nature was allowing it to happen in the deepest humility, in the deepest love: this something was death. He was dying for us.

On that day, a greater miracle than walking on water happened. It is the miracle upon which the destiny of every human being rests. It is the fork in the road between the road to life with God, or an eternal, hellish death separated from the only Good. On that day, God the Son died. The Creator died for the creature in redeeming death of self-sacrifice, to atone for the creature’s guilt.

And in that miracle of miracles, the miracle of profound grace and love, you and I were redeemed by Him. He reached out His hand to take hold of us in a grace and mercy and pardon by which we live and have the promise of an eternal future in God’s grace and mercy, in life and peace, in eternal joy.

Reason cannot fathom this either. But the word of Christ tells us so and has generated your faith in this grace and salvation. And in this faith you know as faith knows. And in this faith you are secure. And in this faith, we place our lives in His care and follow Him. All this is because Christ has done it, and the Spirit has said it, and your heart rests in it. And this is something nothing can take away from you, not even technocracy ruling through the decrees of bureaucracy. And we lift our hearts toward heaven and speak and sing in worship in unending confession and praise: “Truly you, my Lord Jesus Christ, are the Son of God, my Savior.”

Amen.



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