Based on Genesis 37:12-28, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
The adult Sunday school class that I taught at my home church in Arlington was made up of some of the oldest members in the church. The class met together from 1946 to 2016 and began as the young married couples’ class. When they began, they made the daring move to use the “new” 1939 hymnal instead of the older hymnal currently in use in the Sanctuary. They began each class by singing a hymn from that collection of songs, and they never changed even when newer versions of the hymnal were published. The 1939 hymnal contained a number of hymns that no longer exist in the current 1989 hymnal. One of those hymns was “Love Lifted Me”.
“Love Lifted Me” was published in 1912 and is one of the most often requested songs of those not included in our hymnal. The hymn lyrics are derived from our Gospel story today of Jesus walking on the water and Peter wanting to be just like Jesus. The difference in the lyrics and the Gospel story is that the hymn personalizes the story to the situation of many (if not all) of us. Think about the lyrics, they start, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore; very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea, heard my despairing cry; from the waters lifted me now safe am I.” All of us at one time or another have needed the hand of Jesus to lift us up out of the miry bog and to put our feet on solid ground (to paraphrase the Psalmist).
This is what our scriptures teach us today. Joseph is thrown into a pit by his hateful and jealous brothers, seeking to rid themselves of his presence. Paul writes of our need to profess our faith and thus be saved and then lift up more people into the presence of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew brings us to the saving hand of Jesus which lifts us up when storms surround us and our faith is filled with doubt. Let us go to God now in prayer, giving thanks that God through Jesus is always there when we need a lift…
Paul is reiterating the message that salvation is available to all persons through heartfelt belief and by confessing out loud that Jesus is Lord. Paul notes that it doesn’t matter if one is a member of the elect (i.e., a Jew) or a pagan (i.e., a Greek), as long as confession and belief in Jesus are present, then salvation is all but guaranteed through God’s grace. However, Paul notes that individual belief is not the role of the disciple. This is because there are people in the world in need of the saving power of Jesus who have never heard of Him. Thus, we are to be bearers of the good news (i.e., the gospel) as a blessing to those who don’t know about the saving hand of Jesus.
Prior to our reading for today, Joseph, the last child born to Jacob/Israel and Rachel has had two dreams where he is raised up and all of his family (including mother and father) bow down and show him honor. Because of this dream and its implications for the youngest to be in the place of honor (and for the obvious favor their father showed to him), his brothers were jealous and they hated him. In our reading for today, Israel sends Joseph out to check on his brothers as they shepherd the flocks. The brothers take the opportunity to get even with Joseph and throw him into a pit – initially thinking they would kill him before deciding to sell him into slavery. Reuben was hoping to save Joseph, but the Ishmaelites had lifted him out of the pit before he returned.
After the miracle of the feeding of the 5000+ people, Jesus places the Disciples into a boat and he goes up the mountain for a little alone time. In the evening, he notices that the disciples’ boat is battling the wind and waves of a storm that often beset that body of water. Jesus allows them to battle all night and then in the morning He comes walking toward them on top of the waves. The Disciples’ brains lock up at the sight and they are certain it is a ghost – a harbinger of death. However, Jesus speaks to them and tells them to not be afraid. Peter, ever the impulsive one, states that if it truly IS Jesus that He should command Peter to come to Him…so that is what Jesus does. All is good until Peter takes his eyes and mind off of Jesus. At that moment Peter begins to sink and cries out for Jesus to save him.
It is fair to say that by the time we all get some distance into our lives we have had the experience of trusted persons betraying us. It may not have been family (like in the case of Joseph) but it was someone who we had thought we had built trust with who leaves us alone and cut off from friendship and what once was a nurturing relationship – all but dead to the life we once knew. Likewise, I suspect that many of us have known times of doubt in our faith when we find ourselves battling the storms of life – rowing against a wind that always seems to be against us. We may have thought that we were prepared for the storm, but in the midst of it we forget that Jesus is near if we would just call out to him.
This is what the Disciples learn in the morning after a long night of battling the storm. They had done their best and had made little headway towards their destination. Panic had begun to set in as their fatigue began to get the better of them. Most of them were seasoned sailors and even those were beginning to doubt that they would ever make land. When Jesus comes walking across the storm-tossed sea, their weary minds could not fathom what was happening. It just didn’t make any sense – no human could walk on water, their eyes and minds were playing tricks on them. Now a healthy fear may remind fishermen to guard against contingencies like a storm, but in the spiritual life fear can lead to the inertia of hopelessness – it can paralyze us, destroy our trust, crush our hope, and turn us inward in unhealthy ways. Unchecked, it can lead us into despair – if we conclude that we are unable to get ourselves out of the mess which we find ourselves under our own power, which is an implicit denial of God’s ability to do the impossible and miraculous. Just when all seemed to be lost, the apparition spoke to them in a voice that they all recognized saying, “…Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid….”
There are some lessons to be learned from this story that will aid us in our faith journey. First, when God shows up in your life in the middle of the storm, God is never some harbinger of catastrophe, for God always comes in love seeking to lift us up out of the situation in which we find ourselves. Second, we should not fear the unexpected or irrational. God’s unannounced entrance into your life will change things for the better, and it may be challenging to understand in the moment, but it will get clearer with time. Third, God doing something that is impossible for humans is what makes God – God. If it comes from God, even the mysterious should hold no terror – in fact, God is expecting you to join in with what God is doing. You may not understand fully what God is asking, but this is no reason to stay in the boat in the middle of the storm. God is asking you to have faith in God and to stop doing what is not working for you. God is asking for you to get out of the boat and to trust that even if you do start to sink that Jesus will grab your hand, lift you up and calm the storm.
The hymn, “Love Lifted Me” continues with these words, “…Souls in danger look above, Jesus completely saves; He will lift you by His love, out of the angry waves. He’s the Master of the sea, billows His will obey; He your Savior wants to be, be saved today….” This is all possible, as the Chorus reminds us because, “Love lifted me, love lifted me; When nothing else could help – love lifted me…” This is why God doesn’t leave us alone in the midst of the storm or at the bottom of the pit. God has a plan for us that includes us accomplishing what God has gifted us to do. Therefore, God’s ever-present and unconditional love comes to lift us up and set us on “The Way”. All we have to do is believe in our hearts and confess the lordship of Jesus with our mouths. God’s great love will handle the rest. Thanks be to God, amen!