On Troubled Waters
(1Kgs.19:9a,11-13a; Rom.9:1-5; Mt.14:22-33)
Some people love the sea. It reminds them of sunshine, surf and swimming. For others, the sea is the great unknown, filled with shipwrecks and sharks.
In 1823 the English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, ‘I hate to be near the sea … to hear it roaring and raging like a wild beast in its den …’
The people of ancient Israel disliked the sea, too. They thought it was full of danger and nasty surprises – calm one moment, but fierce the next. They were sure that monstrous ghosts and whales lurked below.
Scripture had taught them that on the second day of Creation, God established dry land by separating the seas (Gen.1:9). They also knew that God had helped the Israelites escape Egypt by parting the Red Sea (Ex.14:21-31). So they were convinced that only God can control the sea’s frightening power.
In Matthew’s Gospel today, after feeding the 5,000, Jesus tells his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee while he goes into the hills to pray.
Now, the Sea of Galilee is a large inland lake surrounded by steep hills. It’s usually calm, but violent storms do suddenly occur, especially when the cool mountain air meets the hot air above the lake. One storm in 1992 produced waves 3m high.
It’s night-time when the disciples’ boat crosses that sea, and a wild windstorm whips up the waves. They become terrified, especially when they notice someone walking towards them on the water. ‘It must be a ghost!’ they cry. But Jesus says, ‘It is I. Don’t be afraid’.
They’re astounded. How can Jesus do that? Only God can control the sea.
Jesus then invites Peter to join him. Peter is mesmerised, and steps out of the boat, walking towards Jesus. He’s not afraid; his faith sustains him. But suddenly the wind distracts Peter and he looks away from Jesus. He panics and starts to sink. ‘Lord, save me!’ he cries, and Jesus reaches out to grab him. ‘Oh man of little faith,’ Jesus says, ‘why did you doubt?’
As Jesus steps into the boat, the storm disappears.
This story is a wonderful metaphor for our lives. We do like peace and calm, don’t we? But we’re so often battered by unwelcome storms.
In one sense, that little boat represents the Church, the Barque of Peter, which has certainly been buffeted by turbulent headwinds in recent times.
Jesus is inviting us all to stay calm, to remain with the Church and to keep our eyes firmly fixed on him. He will guide us through this passing storm.
But that little boat also represents our own selves, as we try to cross the troubled seas of our individual lives. Like the disciples, we often worry about the dangers around us and whether we can cope on our own.
But we don’t have to cope on our own! Jesus is in control. He wants to help us.
Just as God’s spirit hovered over the waters at the time of Creation, so Jesus is hovering over our troubled world right now. He’s inviting us to rise above the chaos and to walk with him. He doesn’t promise that there’ll be no more storms, but he is offering to hold our hand to guide us through.
When times are tough, this is our choice: Do we look inwardly in fear? Or do we focus on Jesus and draw strength from him?
Peter, the disciple, could walk on water because his eyes were squarely fixed on Jesus. But as soon as he looked away, he started to sink. It’s the same with us.
It’s not enough for us to say we have faith. We actually need to live by our faith.
The French Jesuit writer, Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), explains what this means in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence. To live by faith, he says, is to live joyfully, to live with assurance, untroubled by doubts and with complete confidence in all we have to do and suffer at each moment by the will of God.
So, we must trust Jesus. But why must we suffer all these storms?
We must realize, de Caussade says, that in order to stimulate and sustain this faith, God allows the soul to be buffeted and swept away by the raging torrent of so much distress, so many troubles, so much embarrassment and weakness, and so many setbacks … [i]
In other words, if we never suffered stormy seas, we’d have no reason to find God. We would simply rely on ourselves.
So, today, are you in calm seas or troubled waters?
Whatever your answer, always keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.
We surely need him.
[i] Jean-Pierre de Caussade Abandonment to Divine Providence, Cosimo Classics, New York, 2007:281-285.