Back in 2006, I began to really experience God’s call to ministry. At the time, I was living in North Carolina and was starting to make a name for myself as a public policy writer. It also came during a time when I was coming out of a difficult season of life, where I had dealt with the failure of my first marriage and the harsh realities of some bad financial decisions.
As soon as I began to sense this call to preach, teach, and lead, I tried to find all the reasons I could to suggest I wasn’t actually hearing God. I went to a public university and didn’t go to a Christian school. I had never led a large group of people. I had never read a book of theology. I am not the best singer in the world. I kept going on and on with these reasonings to the point where my initial reaction to my calling was that there was no way that I could do it. It would be too difficult and too challenging.
Sound familiar? I think all of us, from time to time, have found ourselves thinking that there was no way we could do certain things in our lives, whether it involves our faith in God, our personal lives, or even something involving our careers. We are most likely to find ourselves believing our given task or challenge is too difficult. When that is the case, we start to think about what is being asked of us and wonder if there is any way we can actually do this. In doing this, we might even believe that we cannot do it, so we will say things like, “I can’t,” or “We can’t.”
Have you ever wondered what is really going on when we believe we cannot do something? At least for me, and perhaps for you, I think we get so overwhelmed by the challenges that we fail to see the possibilities before us. We think there are too many obstacles that stand in our way. That there are too many problems we have to address. That doing what might be asked of us could lead us to risk something of ourselves or make us become vulnerable. So, we take all of this together and say “I can’t,” or “We can’t.” In doing so, we allow the challenges or problems to be our primarily focus instead of anything else, especially the things God asks of us.
Our passage today from Matthew 14:22-33 forces us to look at our tendency to see the challenges in a situation before we see the possibilities. This is Matthew’s account of the story of when Jesus walked on the water towards the disciples as they were overwhelmed by the wind and the waves. I believe this passage asks us to find ourselves in the boat with the disciples as the wind and the waves splash around us and make it difficult to move forward. We might even join the thinking of the disciples, who I have to believe were asking themselves where is God through all of this. What I think is that we will find that God is with us in the midst of the storm, walking towards us, and giving us reasons to have faith and confidence in ourselves and our communities.
In order to join the disciples in the boat, we have to see how they got to the sea in the first place. The story comes after the feeding of the large crowd that we examined last week. If you remember, we said that Jesus came to this area looking for rest, solitude, and protection after hearing about John the Baptist’s arrest. That need is still present for Jesus, even after the massive miracles of healing the sick among the crowds and then feeding them. So, he dismisses everyone so he could be alone. He tells the disciples to leave and head towards the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus also dismisses the crowds, who possibly wanted to make him a political king then and there. Jesus is finally alone and spends a considerable amount of time by himself praying.
This is an important point, because as the text returns to the disciples, we find that it is somewhere between 3 and 6 a.m., the fourth watch of the night in those days, and the conditions are rough. The disciples are having to fend for themselves through dangerous conditions. The text leaves us the impression that the disciples were fighting the currents and the obstacles and it was not an easy trip.
These conditions help us think about our lives today. We might not be sitting on a river or on a lake dealing with the elements, but we know what it is like to face challenges and obstacles. That is why Matthew includes the description about the elements in his narration. It reminds us that we all face challenges and obstacles, especially as we seek to follow the Lord in our lives. The disciples sitting in the boat are indicative of our lives and the life of the church. We seek to follow God in our lives and as a church, even as there are many challenges and obstacles that stand before us that prevent us from having confidence in ourselves, our faith, or our communities.
When the challenges become overwhelming, we begin to wonder what hope there is. We start to ask if we can really live this life out. We wonder if we can really live truly vibrant and faithful lives. We wonder if God is really by our side. Like the disciples, we ask these questions and wonder where is God in our troubles.
As we ask them, we see something coming towards us in the distance. We begin to see Jesus walking towards us. He is walking on water towards the disciples in the boat. Jesus has left the shore, seen that the disciples were in trouble, and he begins to walk towards them. When they first see Jesus walking, they initially think that he was a ghost. Instead, it was Jesus, himself, walking towards the disciples to offer them grace and hope.
Grace and hope can be seen in the words Jesus says to the disciples and to us as we face various challenges and obstacles. He begins by saying, “Take courage!” Jesus looks at the disciples and tells them that there is no reason to be overwhelmed by the challenges of life. There is no reason to fear the challenges, stresses, or difficulties that can come our way. What he says is that our faith and hope in the Lord give us confidence and courage to take on the challenges and difficulties that often defeat us. Think about what this means. Jesus walks out to the disciples, and to us, in the middle of a challenging situation and says, “Have confidence in yourself. You can do it.”
The reason we can have confidence comes in the next phrase from Jesus. He looks at the disciples and announces that he is the one who is coming towards them. Jesus uses a phrase, “It is I,” similar to other divine announcements of God’s presence. What Jesus announces is that no matter what challenge comes before us, God is with us. Jesus walks with us in the challenges and obstacles that plague us. We are never alone through the various difficult moments or challenges we face. The Living Presence of God surrounds and guides us by showing us the way forward and giving us someone to depend on. When Jesus announces his presence, he announces that there is no challenge, no moment, no difficulty that we encounter on our own. God is always with us.
We have no reason to be afraid. Jesus tells the disciples and us that we have no reason to go through life, with all of its obstacles and challenges, with fear or the feeling that we cannot live this life out. Instead, Jesus encourages us to live out our faith boldly with the confidence and assurance that no matter what challenge is before us that God is with us. Jesus tells the disciples that we can face the storms, the obstacles, the challenges, the things that often hold us back through the guidance of our faith. Our faith strengthens us and gives us the hope that allows us to encounter the Living Presence of God in all things and the confidence to know that no matter what, God is with us.
Even when we think the challenges are too difficult, God equips us to live boldly and to take on the challenges with faithful assurance. As we seek the Lord’s guidance and presence in our lives, we find that God gives us the tools and means to face whatever challenges lie before us, whether it is dealing with a difficult situation at home, finding the provisions to make it through the week, or taking on the desires that God specifically has asked us to live into. There is not a storm or challenge that we face that God is not actively training us, through our faith, to engage and make it to the other side.
If this is true for our personal lives, it is also true for us as a church. As we see that Jesus is encouraging us through the challenges, that his presence is with us, and tgat he is calling us to live out our faith in a mighty way, we see that there is no challenge or obstacle that faces our church that God is not already at work in and working with us. Instead of seeing the challenges of living out our faith and being the truth today as too much, Jesus encourages us to see the challenges as possibilities to engage the presence of God, trust in the Lord, and go where he leads us.
Our faith in the Lord is trusting that the presence of God is with us in every situation. Jesus is with us through the challenges and difficulties that we all encounter. There is not a situation that we have to say “I can’t” to. In every challenge we face, in every obstacle we encounter, we find that walking towards us is our Lord, who gives us the guidance and confidence to live with hope and to engage the possibilities before us, whether in our personal lives or in the life of the church.