In Awe of Christ’s Power
Quarter: Acts of Worship
Unit 1: In awe of God
Sunday school lesson for the week of Dec. 28, 2014
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture: Matthew 14: 22-36
The author of the Gospel of Matthew is a Jewish Christian writing to Jewish believers showing Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. He demonstrates this in many ways, but mostly by quoting Old Testament scriptures. Another clue is his use of “the kingdom of heaven” in the parables Jesus told rather than “the kingdom of God.” For Jews, God’s name was not to be used in any way! Like Luke, Matthew relies heavily on Mark for the sequence of events and even the exact wording. In fact, more than 90 percent of Mark is repeated in these two Gospels! There is another general characteristic of Matthew important to remember: the Pharisees are presented in a very negative way with their pride, legalism, hypocrisy and lack of compassion – the very opposite of the community of faith Jesus is building with the apostles.
Today’s lesson begins in progress, and the context is important to remember! The chapter begins with the report of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of the king. For Jesus, the death of his cousin is a devastating blow. Not only has he lost his kinsman, but also a vibrant voice in the messianic movement. He needs time alone to deal with his grief and ponder the future.
He is denied this solace because the crowds came, and he spent the day teaching and healing. The disciples urged him to send the people away because it was late and time to eat! Instead, Jesus performed one of his most memorable miracles – the feeding of the multitude. When all had eaten and left, finally, he could find some time for himself. Telling his men to go across the Sea of Galilee “to the other side” (Gentile territory), he went into the hills to pray. The need of our Lord to stay in touch with the Father surely reinforces the importance of prayer for each one of us. (By the way, the next unit focuses on prayer!)
Jesus prays all night. Meanwhile, the disciples have been battling contrary winds. Only those of us who have ever sailed know the frustration of trying to get from point A to point B when the wind is in your face and you must tack back and forth to gain even a few yards toward your destination!
At this point Jesus comes – walking on the water. One of the gospel songs Sam loves to sing is “When Jesus Comes.” In all the circumstances of our lives, when Jesus comes, what a difference he makes! The same is true here.
At first, the disciples are afraid. To them, he appears as a ghost. They cry out in fear, but Jesus gives the same benediction repeated again and again in both Old and New Testaments: “It is I! Be not afraid!” A good exercise for you or your class would be to look up those words and see how often they are used. From the angel to Mary, the shepherds, the women at the tomb, the refrain comes with the power of God’s voice: “Be not afraid!” “Fear not!” In the presence of God with us, there is nothing to fear. Paul picks up the refrain in Romans 8:15: “You did not receive the spirit of bondage to fall back into fear.” John continues the chorus in his letters: “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Peter hears and responds with his own challenge: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus gives the gracious invitation: “Come!” Thus, begins one of the great moments of the Gospel story. What a picture Matthew paints for us! We see compulsive Peter stepping out of the boat onto the Sea of Galilee and actually taking steps toward Jesus. But then he notices the reality of the circumstances around him and, in fear, starts to sink. Was there ever a moment in the story when the beautiful chorus we sing would re-establish the focus? “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
Peter is an example of our incomplete faith. We want to be adventurous for Christ, but the storms of this world blind us and cause us to fear and sink in frustration and despair. Christ pulls Peter out of the water and safely restores him into the boat. One of the symbols of the church is the boat with the mast in the shape of the cross. The church is certainly battered by the storms of this world, but with Jesus in the boat with us, all is well.
At that moment, fear and bewilderment turn into awe and adoration. Falling down at the feet of the Savior, the disciples, and we, recognize Jesus. Truly, he is the Son of God.
Today is the last Sunday of 2014. During the next week, we will enter a New Year. As this lesson is being written, our Jewish friends have just experienced Rosh Hashanah – their New Year, and 10 days later they celebrated Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Perhaps we Christians might adopt that same pattern of celebrating a new year with the deep introspection of seeking the One who made the atonement for all of us possible.
The reality of a sinful, storm-tossed world can easily disturb our focus on him who takes away the sin of the world. Who can do that but Jesus? The disciples stand in awe of the One who walks on the water and stills the storm. We recognize who he is and worship.
The story does not end there! We might like to keep Jesus in the boat with us, safe and secure, but as they arrive on “the other side” once again, they encounter people with their hurts and needs. The church must always move from worship to service. Like our Lord, we meet the world and do the work of healing and restoring life. So let it be – for now and forever. Amen!