As we hear your word today, Lord Jesus, may we remember that you are always with us, even when we face the storms of life and the challenges they offer. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Judges 6:1-15, 36-40, GW
6 The people of Israel did what the Lord considered evil. So the Lord handed them over to Midian for seven years. 2 Midian’s power was too strong for Israel. The Israelites made hiding places in the mountains, caves, and mountain strongholds to protect themselves from Midian. 3 Whenever Israel planted crops, Midian, Amalek, and Kedem came and damaged the crops. 4 The enemy used to camp on the land and destroy the crops all the way to Gaza. They left nothing for Israel to live on—not one sheep, cow, or donkey. 5 Like swarms of locusts, they came with their livestock and their tents. They and their camels could not be counted. They came into the land only to ruin it. 6 So the Israelites became very poor because of Midian and cried out to the Lord for help.
7 When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help because of what the Midianites had done to them, 8 the Lord sent a prophet to them. He said, “This is what the Lord God of Israel says:
I brought you out of Egypt.
I took you away from slavery.
9 I rescued you from the power of the Egyptians
and from the power of those who oppressed you.
I forced people out of your way.
I gave you their land.
10 I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God.
You must never fear the gods of the Amorites
in whose land you will live.’
But you have not obeyed me.”
11 The Messenger of the Lord came and sat under the oak tree in Ophrah that belonged to Joash from Abiezer’s family. Joash’s son Gideon was beating out wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The Messenger of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, brave man.”
13 Gideon responded, “Excuse me, sir! But if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all the miracles our ancestors have told us about? Didn’t they say, ‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and has handed us over to Midian.”
14 The Lord turned to him and said, “You will rescue Israel from Midian with the strength you have. I am sending you.”
15 Gideon said to him, “Excuse me, sir! How can I rescue Israel? Look at my whole family. It’s the weakest one in Manasseh. And me? I’m the least important member of my family.” …
36 Then Gideon said to God, “You said that you would rescue Israel through me. 37 I’ll place some wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the wool while all the ground is dry, then I’ll know that you will rescue Israel through me, as you said.” 38 And that is what happened. The next morning Gideon got up early. He squeezed out a bowl full of water from the wool.
39 Then Gideon said to God, “Don’t be angry with me. But let me ask one more thing. Let me make one more test with the wool. Let the wool be dry while all the ground is covered with dew.” 40 During the night, God did what Gideon asked. The wool was dry, but all the ground was covered with dew.
Matthew 14:22-33, GW
22 Jesus quickly made his disciples get into a boat and cross to the other side ahead of him while he sent the people away. 23 After sending the people away, he went up a mountain to pray by himself. When evening came, he was there alone.
24 The boat, now hundreds of yards from shore, was being thrown around by the waves because it was going against the wind.
25 Between three and six o’clock in the morning, he came to them. He was walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. They said, “It’s a ghost!” and began to scream because they were afraid.
27 Immediately, Jesus said, “Calm down! It’s me. Don’t be afraid!”
28 Peter answered, “Lord, if it is you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 Jesus said, “Come!” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed how strong the wind was, he became afraid and started to sink. He shouted, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately, Jesus reached out, caught hold of him, and said, “You have so little faith! Why did you doubt?”
32 When they got into the boat, the wind stopped blowing. 33 The men in the boat bowed down in front of Jesus and said, “You are truly the Son of God.”
SERMON Water Walking
We are going to spend several weeks on this same Bible story, but I will read it to you from a different translation each week. We’ll focus on different verses as the series progresses. Each of you will relate to it in your own way from your own life story, perhaps experiences in your past, challenges or decisions in your present, or things you might anticipate in your future. As we continue through this series, I’d also like you to meditate on it as a congregation, as it may suggest to us concepts to consider in the choices we have ahead of us. You may also find some aspects of it relevant in terms of community or environment or national or world issues.
Today, I simply want to introduce you to the concept of water walking as John Ortberg, a Presbyterian pastor and writer sees it in his study and teaching of this Bible story. His book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat will be the basis of my preaching for the next few weeks. I’m on my third time reading through it. The Wednesday morning study group completed the DVD and discussions that go with it just before Christmas, and that DVD is what the Adult Class will be using. He has a great teaching style, so I hope many of you will take advantage of this opportunity. I am also giving the book to Session members. I’d really like you to read some of it as we go along, in preparation for the work you have ahead of you this year. It’s a fun read; he tells good stories; it is not boring. Otherwise I wouldn’t be reading it again!
So, to begin, I’d like you to sit back and imagine with me. Close your eyes if that helps or just pick a spot in the room to focus on for a moment. Imagine that you are in a boat out on a very large lake. It’s dark, but there are lamps on the boat. The wind picks up and the waves start to get rough. As the wind gets stronger and the boat is rocking it starts to rain. You and some of your friends do know how to handle a boat, but this storm is getting fierce. It crosses your mind that you might not make it to shore, because you are so far out, and the waves and wind are too much. Between the rain and the waves water is sloshing in the boat faster than you can bail it out. You glance at the faces of your friends, and you know they are just as scared as you are becoming. Then you see someone walking towards you. You are no where near the shore. This person is not in a boat. The figure is literally walking toward you on the water, and you wonder if you are seeing a ghost. Then the person calls out to you, “It’s me; don’t be afraid,” and you recognize the voice of Jesus.
I want you to pay attention to what you are feeling right in this moment. What are your physical reactions to this situation? Did your pulse quicken? Did your stomach churn or your thoughts race? Do you feel any sense of anxiety or panic? Did those sensations change at all when you recognized Jesus’ voice? What effect did that recognition have on you? What would you do next?
Now as you come back to this moment in the sanctuary, realize that whatever you just experienced, at least one of the twelve disciples in the boat probably had a very similar reaction. Perhaps you now have a more real sense of what it was like for them in this story. You may also recognize other situations in your life when you have this kind of reaction. For me it’s any situation that feels somewhat threatening and over which I have no control, where my limited skills won’t be enough. It could be fear of a car accident in a tight traffic situation or bad weather conditions. It could be as simple as a doctor or dentist appointment. It could be the pile of paperwork or the boxes I’ve been avoiding. Or it could be as big as my upcoming retirement. Any of those could make me anxious as the storm at sea made the disciples feel. Ask yourself right now what can cause that kind of anxiety for you.
Where I left you in the guided meditation is right before Peter makes a decision. Peter asks Jesus to command him to get out of the boat and walk to him on the water. Water walking is the determination to get out of the boat, to walk toward Jesus. Eleven of the disciples stayed in the boat, and the gospel lesson doesn’t put them down for that, although John Ortberg does call them “boat potatoes.” (title of chapter 2) The question you are going to be asking yourself throughout this series is, “Will I/ will we get out of the boat to walk to where Jesus is inviting us?”
Ortberg begins the initial chapter on water walking with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who, at best, knows in the end the triumph of great achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So that his place will never be with those cold timid souls who know neither victory or defeat. (p. 11)
By Roosevelt’s definition, the eleven are timid souls while Peter at least dared greatly.
Ortberg lists several characteristics or qualities of water walkers. I have shared some of this chapter previously when I first read this book, but it bears repeating as we look at our own future choices.
- Water walkers recognize God’s presence. (p. 13ff) Jesus identified himself, and Peter clearly believed it was indeed the Lord. Do you have a sense of when it is God nudging you to do something? There are times especially in my teaching and preaching ministry when I know it is God leading me or speaking through me. There are times in my devotions or here in worship when I know God is in the room with us. When you are floundering like a boat in a storm at sea, perhaps that is a good time to ask, “Lord, where are you in the midst of all this?”
- Water walkers discern between faith and foolishness. (p. 16) Not every opportunity is an appropriate risk. We need to prayerfully and carefully discern where God is guiding us. We’ll look at Gideon’s method of discernment later.
- Water walkers get out of the boat. Ultimately that discernment process can’t take forever. If you spend your life waiting for the right moment, that may mean the opportunity will pass, and you have been a boat potato after all. Boats seem safe and secure; they represent our comfort zones. But in a storm that boat could just as easily capsize. Even the Titanic sank. Those who survived got off that boat. Ortberg puts it this way, “Your boat is whatever represents safety and security to you apart from God himself.” (p. 17) That may be your home, your insurance policy, your pension, your family, your job, whatever. But nothing in this world is fully secure, only God. So, Ortberg asks himself, “What is it that most produces fear in me – especially when I think of leaving it behind and stepping out in faith?” (p. 17) However you answer that question, that’s your boat.
- Water walkers expect problems. You start any new adventure filled who hope and high ideals, but when reality sets in, what then? That’s Peter seeing the wind in this Bible story. That is when he begins to sink. No adventure, no life choice is going to be without its tough moments. That’s just the way life is in our world. There will be obstacles. You will have moments of doubt. Some things will go wrong. Science philosopher, Larry Laudan, writes about risk management. His first principle is this, “Everything is risky.” (quoted by Ortberg, p. 20) There is risk involved whatever decision you make.
- Water walkers accept fear as the price of growth. Ortberg quotes Susan Jeffries, “The fear will never go away, as long as I continue to grow.” (p. 21) Our human tendency is to stick with comfort and assume that means we are doing well. Comfort is fine for a time out, a healing break, rest, but it is not a lifestyle for growth. Or as Mike put it with regard to my retirement, “Don’t just sit in your chair watching your shows.” As I realized Jessika and others had hopes for what I might try next, it was a real wakeup call, because sitting in my chair watching my shows is exactly what I had planned to do with my retirement, that and enough pulpit supply for supplemental income. I was fully prepared to be a boat potato, but now I’m looking forward to staying out of the boat and walking with Jesus.
- Water walkers master failure management. They have the attitude of Jonas Sauk who after 200 unsuccessful attempts at the polio vaccine finally succeeded. When interviewed he said, “I was taught not to use the word ‘failure.’ I just discovered two hundred ways how not to vaccinate for polio.” (quoted by Ortberg on p. 22) You might think you are a failure if your plan doesn’t succeed on the first try or the tenth or hundredth try. But each attempt is an opportunity to learn and to grow. One might think Peter was a failure when he began to sink, but Ortberg says no. “The worst failure is not to sink in the waves. The worst failure is to never get out of the boat.” (p.23)
- Water walkers see failure as an opportunity to grow. That is precisely the point. So the next time you tweak your plan a bit and try again. Sir Edmund Hillary knew that every time he didn’t make it to the top of Everest, he grew as a climber, and eventually he would grow enough in his skills to make it to the top. As Ortberg says, “Failure does not shape you; the way you respond to failure shapes you.” (p. 24) Elsewhere he writes, “Failure is not an event, but rather a judgement about an event…It is a way we think about outcomes.” (Participant’s guide, p. 21)
- Water walkers learn to wait on the Lord. That means trust. That means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. That means discernment of God’s timing and not rushing ahead just because you are eager. Isaiah 40 teaches us “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” (Is. 40:31) To fly with the eagles, to run or even to walk without fainting, it’s worth waiting on God’s timing and trusting God to guide us.
- Water walking brings a deeper connection with God. Since a water walking type of adventure requires total trust in God, leaning into God’s presence, fixing our focus on the Lord, and knowing that if we falter, the Lord will reach out to us, these all lead us to a much deeper connection and commitment to God. Don’t you think this experience walking on water is part of what set Peter aside for the leadership Jesus eventually gave him? He would have to fully rely on God to lead the church. That deep faith connection with Christ is available to all of us if we are willing to develop it and if we are willing when Jesus tells us to step out of our boat.
To look at one more biblical example of this today, our Old Testament reading takes us to a story we don’t tell very often other than Sunday School. It is Gideon’s story from the book of Judges. Gideon would eventually succeed in some great battles but only when he faithfully follows God’s instructions. Here we see him at the beginning of his relationship with God.
Gideon grew up in a time of turmoil with attacks coming from the land of Midian and internal upheaval as many have left worshipping and obeying God to follow the religions of their neighbors. God’s Messenger came to Gideon with a greeting that might remind you of Gabriel’s approach to Mary. “The Lord is with you, brave man.” Gideon did not see himself in this way at all. He claimed to be the weakest member in the weakest family of a tribe that is not the greatest. He doubted his own potential.
But Gideon didn’t give up in spite of his excuses. To use water walking language, he wasn’t cowering in the back of the boat, but he was trying to figure out how to test the waters before climbing out of the boat. What Gideon proposed to God’s messenger was a discernment process some have since called “putting out a fleece.” In very practical everyday terms, Gideon laid wool on the threshing floor and said, “If this is really you God asking me to do this, tomorrow morning let the wool be wet and the ground be dry.” It was. Then just to be doubly sure he requested the opposite scenario the next day. It was as he asked. To me Gideon’s story says there is nothing wrong with asking God to confirm what we think God is asking of us.
In Peter’s case he asked Jesus to command him to come out of the boat. If Jesus had remained silent, Peter would have remained in the boat. As you approach decisions especially as they relate to new adventures or taking risks, take time for discernment. Ask God for clarity. One of my favorite prayers is “Make it so clear I can’t miss it.”
Whether it is for something in your personal life or our life together, I invite you into a time of discernment before making decisions. I would especially ask this of Session elders and Deacons before their meetings later this month and for those who will attend the faith sharing training as well. Discernment includes intentionally taking time for prayer, for waiting on the Lord. Ask God for clarity and for direction. Ask for wisdom and discernment. Invite someone else to pray for you as well. Spend time reading your Bible and other devotional materials. God may well speak to you through these. Come to the Adult Class to go further discussing this Bible story and Ortberg’s take on it or attend another study/discussion group. Make use of our sanctuary or chapel to pray and remember that a lot of prayer is actually just sitting and listening for God to speak to your inner spirit. My coach talked about our need for discernment this week and to just be silent in God’s presence. It calls to mind Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” To strengthen that spiritual connection you might also fast for part of a day. On Thursdays I am doing a liquid fast until either lunch or supper. As you consider what it means for you or for the church to get out of the boat, take time for discernment. Then when you trust that God is inviting and leading, keep your focus on Jesus, and dare to get out of the boat.
Our current series for Jan. 12 - Feb. 16, 2020 is based on Rev. John Ortberg's book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get out of the Boat. This is a great book if you are stuck in a rut and wondering about the possibilities of a new adventure OR if you are facing some stormy challenges in your life and need to move forward. You'll find the gist of it here in these messages.