The Sea, Chaos, and the Sovereign Creator

Here’s an edited manuscript of the sermon I delivered at Word of Life Baptist Church on April 19th, 2020. I have removed the introduction as well as a chunk of the conclusion as they were highly contextual and didn’t lend themselves well to this digital medium.

If you’d rather listen to this sermon than read it, you can find the link to the YouTube recording here (it starts at 20:25):

The Sea, Chaos, and the Sovereign Creator (Matthew 14:22-36)

Matthew depicts Jesus as One in control over the sea, just as God the Father was in the Old Testament (14:22-27)

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the first four books in the New Testament, all give unique portraits of the person of Jesus. That is, each of these authors wrote with a particular original audience in mind. An even though they do tell the same general story, they do so in a different way and for a different purpose.

Matthew likely wrote his Gospel for a primarily Jewish audience.

He uses different language than the other three Gospel writers and words that are more tailor-fit to Jewish converts. And, he stylized his book to reflect components of the Old Testament that Jewish believers would have immediately picked up on. In fact, Matthew quotes the Old Testament about 100 times, which is about double that of other Gospel books. And he tries very hard to explain to his audience how Jesus was the fulfillment of certain passages of the Hebrew scriptures which speak of God’s Messiah.

But Matthew also does something else pretty regularly, too, which we find an example of here in chapter 14. Matthew almost goes out of his way to make sure his audience knows that the Jesus he’s talking about is actually God Himself, YHWH God, the God of the Old Testament, the creator and sustainer of the world.

In 14:22, we see that Jesus has just sent the disciples out on a boat into the middle of the sea of Galilee. They’d just got done witnessing Jesus miraculously multiply bread in order to feed a very large crowd of people. But Jesus wanted to stop and have a quiet moment to himself. He wanted to pray. But while he was praying, it seems that a storm had begun to stir up upon the sea, and the boat that the disciples were in was being jostled by the wind and waves.

And this actually wasn’t the first time something like this had happened in Matthew’s gospel. In chapter 8, there’s another story recorded where the disciples were out in a boat on the sea of Galilee when a terrible storm arose which made them fear for their lives. In that one, though, Jesus was sleeping in the boat. He wasn’t out on top of a mountain somewhere.

But, in both Matthew 8 and in Matthew 14, the outcome’s the same: Jesus is depicted as having mastery over the storm. He can stop the waves. He can walk on water.

He, like YHWH God in the Old Testament, has complete control over the sea.

I grew up in Muskegon Michigan on the west side of the state.

And Muskegon’s similar to Alpena in that it’s a lake town. It’s right on the coast of Lake Michigan, and I spent a lot of my summers at the beach. And I’m really not that great of a swimmer, but because of my close proximity to water, I have learned to really love lakes. It’s fun to be out there on the beach soaking up the sun, making sand castles, fishing, boating, skim boarding, trying to find cool looking rocks and shells, and stuff like that.

Water’s great! And I consider myself rather blessed to be living in a place where I can see the shores of a Great Lake from my driveway. But this sentiment wasn’t really shared by ancient Israelites or those in first-century Palestine.

To Israel, the sea was the embodiment of chaos.

And according to a lot of the cultures that surrounded ancient Israel, the gods themselves were created in a primordial sea and they still lived within it. Rahab, Lotan, Yam, the great sea monsters of near Eastern mythology were thought to live just beneath the depths, and would take any human’s live whenever they pleased.

The sea was dangerous.

So, whenever authors in the Old Testament wanted to show God’s sovereignty, or God’s powerful rule over the elements of chaos, they would commonly depict Him as doing battle with sea. In Jeremiah 5:22 and Job 7:12, God is depicted as putting barriers around the sea. In Nahum 1:4, Habakkuk 3:8, and Isaiah 44:27, God is depicted as rebuking the waters. Psalm 29 paints a portrait of a God who sits enthroned above a cosmic sea, and Isaiah 51:9-10 very literally uses a metaphor which describes the Lord fighting those mythological sea monsters that Israel’s neighbors’ thought were a reality.

In scripture, the sea is often used as a metaphor for chaos, but God is always portrayed as sovereign over it.

And I kind of get it, actually…

Yes, growing up next to a beach was a wonderful blessing, but you who’ve lived here next to the shores of Lake Huron are also likely familiar with the late-night horror that is ambulance sirens and search and rescue divers. It’d be really hard for me to forget about that one night in High School where I was receiving real time text updates from my now wife Tori and she sat in the hospital with the family of her good friend who had just drowned trying to save her sister from an undertow.

Beaches are fun, but it doesn’t take much imagination for us to see why the ancients viewed them as sources of chaos. Who knows what lurks under the surface of their waters? Who knows if they will take or spare a life?

But Jesus, here in Matthew 14, is shown to be simply walking across the top of the stormy water of Galilee.

And the disciples think he’s a ghost. They’re scared.

But Jesus calls out to them, tells them to take courage, and reminds them that it is He, the “I Am,” the God who sits enthroned over the waves.

Peter’s failure walking on the water reminds him that he isn’t the one in control (14:28-31)

It seems that Peter was the first to realize that this person walking on the water was Christ. He was the first to cast aside his fear, at least partially. And it seems that Peter really did start to make some connections between Jesus and YHWH God as he calls Jesus “Lord” there in verse 28.

And then, Peter does something kind of unexpected…

Peter calls out to Jesus, and exclaims that if it’s really him, he should invite him out onto the water too. And Jesus obliges. He tells Peter to “come,” and he does. So, the disciple steps out onto the waves, and miraculously begins to walk! But almost immediately, he gets a bit distracted.

Verse 30 tells us that when Peter saw the wind and the waves, he became terrified and began to sink. What once was solid footing was quickly dissolving underneath him. The sea had opened up its maw to swallow the disciple whole.

However, and before Peter could go completely under, Jesus reaches out a hand and saves him from drowning into the depths of the Galilee. 

Now, when we normally read that portion of the story, our focus is usually on Peter, his faith, or the lack thereof. And that is appropriate. There is a good lesson there, one that we should spend some time meditating on. But consider for a moment this scene from a different angle.

Like we talked about earlier, the writers of the Bible chose their words carefully.

And so, it probably wasn’t a mistake on Matthew’s part that Peter here spoke the same words as Satan in Matthew 4:3. In asking “if it is you…” Satan was challenging Jesus and his authority. The High Priest in Matthew 26:63 also said something similar: “tell us if you are the Messiah.” And the mockers at the cross in 27:40 exclaimed “if you are the Son of God, come down from there.” I don’t think that Peter was attempting to challenge Jesus like these other negative characters were in Matthew’s Gospel, but his question in 14:28 wasn’t a neutral one.

It’s almost as if Peter, instead of just standing in awe of the sovereign creator and resting in the peace He provided, was unintentionally and maybe even unconsciously trying to place himself in the control seat. In a way, he made Jesus’ display of power about himself. And even though Jesus accommodates his disciple in that moment, I’m not completely convinced that Peter’s walking out on the water is meant to be read as a primarily positive act.

But Peter’s walking on the water wasn’t completely negative either.

Jesus’ disciple was courageous in the moment. And he did display some faith in Christ. In fact, for a bit there, he was successfully walking on the water. By keeping His eyes on the One in control of the sea, He was being enabled to do that which Jesus invited him to. He was participating in the miraculous.

But when Peter remembered the storm and felt the waves and wind, something snapped him back into reality. He couldn’t walk on water. He couldn’t do this by his own strength. He wasn’t in control of the sea.

Only Jesus was.

So, Peter’s next few words were the best words that he could have said in that moment: “Lord save me.”

And spoiler alert, those are the best words that we could ever say in the midst of a storm too.

When we find ourselves stuck in the middle of something chaotic, when we find ourselves overwhelmed or over our heads, we should turn to the One who’s both in charge and is powerful enough to pull us from the depths of the sea.

Jesus is worshiped as the Son of God and again displays His power over chaos (14:32-36)

Jesus’ saving Peter from sinking would have been a fitting end to this episode of scripture on its own, I think. But Matthew doesn’t grammatically shift his focus until a bit later. He adds a few more concluding details that help us frame this story within its wider purpose and context.

After Peter is rescued, he and Christ jump back into the boat where the rest of the disciples had been. And, overwhelmed with the reality of both the storm and the miracle that Jesus had performed, they couldn’t help to do anything but worship.

In fact, this is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that the disciples seem to completely realize that Jesus is who He claims to be. They don’t necessarily get all of the implications of this yet, but they do recognize Him as the “Son of God” for the very first time. There was only One person they knew who had complete control of the wind and waves. There was only One person they knew who could save, and that was God Himself. So, the disciples did what was proper and they bowed in reverence.

But the episode doesn’t end even there. It keeps going.

14:22 started with Jesus asking his disciples to get in a boat so that they could cross the sea while He prayed. And 14:34 tells us that they have now successfully landed in the plains of Gennesaret.

When they arrive, Jesus is immediately recognized by the people living there. And the word spreads fast. It says that people began to bring the sick to Jesus for healing. And even those who touched the edge of his cloak were healed. In other words, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom-rule upon the earth had started in the person of Jesus. The forces of chaos, sickness, and death were no match for the Messiah. This was yet another example of God’s sovereign rule over all things.

Neither the waves of the sea nor the ailments of the people of Gennesaret were powerful enough to stop the Son of God.

Modern Application

That’s Matthew 14:22-36.

And we payed special consideration to the Gospel writers’ intent in telling the story the way he did. We’ve now looked deeply at the context of Matthew’s original audience. But what about our context?

How might Matthew 14 help us here in Alpena in 2020? How might knowing that Jesus is enthroned above the waves of the sea help us here and now?

Well, consider with me two last points of application.

We are not in control. But we don’t have to be afraid if we know the One who is.

Sticking with our water theme, a few years back, my family rented out a cottage right on Lake Macatawa in Holland Michigan for a week long family reunion type of thing.

And this cottage was about a mile from the Holland State Park. It had a fishing dock right in the backyard. And it was walking distance from this really cool rental place that had things like kayaks, peddle boats, and those paddle boards which you’re supposed to kind of stand up on and propel yourself with a skinny oar.

It had been a bit windy in the beginning of the week. There had been a bit of rain. But on the third or fourth day of our family’s reunion, the sun had come out and we were given a great opportunity to take advantage of our prime location. And a lot of us younger folk went over to that rental shack and got a few of those stand-up paddle boards. And I quickly found out that those things are extremely hard to balance on. But I was pretty determined to master the craft as my cousin’s at-the-time girlfriend from California was staying with us that week, too, and I couldn’t let her one up me with her California surfing experience.

But as we continued to mess around with these paddle boards, the weather started to turn. The wind started to pick back up, and things were quickly becoming unfavorable for us again.

And so, we thought that the best idea was to just return them. If it was going to rain, we couldn’t use them. And we weren’t too far from the rental place at this point, so we figured that it would be safe to just paddle them over on the water instead of carrying them on land. I mean, what’s a little bit wind, right?

We were wrong.

It wasn’t too long into our trip back that the waves on lake Macatawa started to grow larger. And as they grew, they kept pushing us farther and farther from the shore. And no matter how much we paddled, we couldn’t get enough momentum to get back. Even my cousin who wasn’t on a paddle board but in a kayak couldn’t muster it. We were being taken out into the middle of the lake and we couldn’t do anything about it.

I think that I paddled for a good 45 minutes to no avail. All I did was tire myself out. I could not get anywhere on my own strength no matter how much I tried.

But thankfully, a boater saw us struggling. He was probably a bit confused why there was a group of paddle boarders in the middle of Lake Macatawa. But he drove over, picked us up, and after teasing us a little bit took us back to shore.

I share that story to again illustrate the point that there are times in life when we are just not in control.

It might be when we make the mistake of paddle boarding during a wind storm. But it might be when we lose a job or a source of income. It might be when a friend or family member gets sick. It might be when we find ourselves stuck in our houses during a global pandemic. 

And it’s especially in those times when we need to remember that, despite us having no control over our own reality, there is One who is still in charge. There is One who’s still on the throne reigning on high. Because if we don’t remember that, we can really get ourselves in trouble.

Peter forgot this when he started to drown in the sea of Galilee. You could even argue that him getting out of the boat in the first place was an act of grasping for control. He wanted to make Jesus’ miracle about personal assurance. But ultimately, his fear distracted him from the One who was keeping him afloat and he began to sink.

And we can have moments like this in our lives too.

How easy is it to give in to anger when we don’t get what we want in life even in those times when there’s really no way to force our needs to be met? How easy is it to let anxiety overwhelm us when what we thought was giving us security is removed from the equation?

It’s hard. But when we do this, we ourselves become sources of chaos instead of beacons of God’s peace.

So, again, Peter had the best response when he realized that he was over his head: “Lord save me.” And those are the best words that we could ever say when we inevitably find ourselves in the midst of a storm too. 

When we find ourselves stuck in the middle of something chaotic, when we find ourselves overwhelmed or over our heads, we shouldn’t grasp for control but trust in the One who already is.

Creation might seem out of control. But there is One who is committed to its restoration.

In Matthew 14, there were several ways that Jesus was depicted as One in control over creation and chaos. He walked on top of the waves. He healed the sick. He enabled Peter to walk on water for a time. And He accepted worship as YHWH God.

That’s a big deal in and of itself. But if we were to look at the end of the story, we’d find even more.

Consider Revelation 21:1-4.

And notice that line in Revelation 21:1 which says that one day there will be “no more sea?”

That isn’t just a throwaway thing. And that wasn’t because John hated the sea when he was exiled on the island of Patmos. No, that’s a declaration that God in Christ has marked for death the chaos we experience in this current world. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made a mockery of the powers of darkness, and His resurrection declared that they will one day be no more.

Instead, and for those of us who believe, we will live in God’s kingdom, a reality in which sin, sickness, death, disease, and chaos will not exist any longer. The tears we shed in our moments of struggle will be wiped away. They will be replaced with indescribable joy and the peace of the presence of God.

Our world, at this moment, might seem a bit out of control.

And the barrage of news about the pandemic is tiring, it is overwhelming, it is consuming, it makes us feel like chaos itself is lurking right under the surface of the water. And because of all of this, we might even feel like we are drowning from time to time.

But remember that we know a God who is in charge even when our reality might seem like it’s coming undone. Remember that we know a God who is powerful enough to save.

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