Way before I was a pastor, before seminary and serving churches and ordination, I was a volunteer with the youth group. Dave and I both were, and we worked with the youth group every week, helping to lead games or give a talk or sing songs with them. Then the time came to plan for the middle school summer trip. The trip was scheduled for just 3 days after we would return from our honeymoon, 2 weeks after our wedding. This particular year, we were doing the 8th grade plunge, which involved about 15 eighth graders and 4 leaders sleeping under tarps and going to the bathroom in the woods for a week.
I can probably think of a more romantic way to have started our married life together.
But off we went as newly weds to help that group of eighth graders learn to love Jesus, even though it didn’t involve flush toilets or electricity or even tents. When we left for the trip I had been camping maybe twice in my whole life. But there we were, out in the woods of Tennessee. Just us, a sleeping bag, and a tarp.
And I. Was. Terrified.
It was all so …. naturey. But then, to really take it up a notch, we not only camped but did high adventure wilderness activities, everyday. One day, we hiked several miles into the woods. Another day we went deep into the depths of a natural cave, moving through tunnels way underground. And then, on the last day, we set off to go white water rafting.
I was a little nervous (a lot nervous) to go rafting (I had never been) and then the guide got up to give us the safety talk. And I thought, “Safety talk. Good! This should help me feel better and more prepared.” But by the time he was done, I couldn’t feel my feet, I was so scared. He spent the better part of ten minutes talking about all the ways you could get hurt, or worse, by going rafting. He even peppered his talk with a few anecdotes of things that had gone wrong before. And then we handed him our money, put on a life jacket, and GOT IN THE BOAT. For fun, apparently.
The first few minutes sailing down the river went smoothly enough, but then we were deep into the rapids. The boat was going up and crashing back down, the water was splashing over us. The eighth graders were having a blast. I was frozen Like a deer in the headlights.
Fear does that to us.
We all have things that we are afraid of. Some people are afraid of white water rafting. Some people are afraid of heights. Or taking trips on airplanes. Public speaking or snakes or spiders. Small spaces. These are the fears we see in top ten lists when we ask people “what is your greatest fear?” As we go through our lives, sometimes we tackle these fears. Sometimes we don’t, and instead we work out ways to avoid the things we are afraid of. But most of these fears aren’t really that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. You might be afraid of spiders, but unless you are going to have a pet spider, or reenact Charlotte’s Web, or go into a career that involves hanging out with spiders, you can probably do just about anything you would like to do without facing up to it. It’s not holding you back in your life (and I might argue that here in Florida a healthy respect for spiders is kind of a survival instinct). Or you might be afraid of white water rafting, but I can tell you, at least to me, it’s overrated.
But there is another kind of fear. The real, deep fears. The fears we would never admit to if asked on a survey what we are afraid of. These are the ones that whisper to us, defeat us, paralyze us. The ones we feel, and can’t always put a name on.
These are fears of things like failure. We are afraid of failure, because we believe if we try and don’t succeed that there won’t be another chance, or that a failed attempt means we are a failure as a person or employee or parent.
Or we are afraid of losing power. We look around and see people rising up into positions of leadership and worry that we won’t have the influence we used to.
We are afraid of the unknown, and it keeps us up at night as we wonder what will happen in a future we can’t see.
We are afraid to commit to something, because we might find we have made a mistake and look foolish or we might get hurt. So we are afraid to commit to really being a Christian. Or to commit to a specific job, or to a relationship with a person. Because we simply aren’t sure.
The list of these fears goes on. We are afraid of pain. Of death. Of being forgotten. We are afraid of loneliness, or rejection. We are afraid of change, or of being insignificant. These fears are even more real than the ones we talk openly about. Most of us, if we were asked, would be honest if we are afraid of spiders. But we don’t talk about these other fears so much. It’s too personal, and easier to not think about them at all.
But easy isn’t the way to find the life we are longing for.
And these are the exact fears we can’t ignore, because they are the ones really holding us back from living our lives to the fullest. I can go the rest of my life and not hold a spider or repel off a bridge or even go white water rafting again, and it wouldn’t really change much. But those deeper fears can derail everything God would want to do with my life. They are that dangerous. They paralyze us to follow Jesus where he wants us to go.
Today, we are looking at a story about some followers of Jesus who know what it means to be afraid, to be terrified, and how Jesus responds to them. Let’s take a look at this story from Matthew 14:22-36.
Immediately he (that’s Jesus) made the disciples (those are his followers) get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
Matthew makes sure to set the scene. The disciples are alone in the boat, that has blown way out in the water and away from the shore where Jesus was. The wind has picked up, blowing hard against them, and the boat is being hit by the waves on all sides. (Kind of sounds like my white water rafting trip. Or at least how it felt in my head). The story goes on:
And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.
Jesus sees that his followers are in trouble, and heads out on the water toward them. The way Matthew tells the story it wasn’t a stunt to show off his power. If I could walk on water I might be tempted to do it just as a party trick. But that isn’t what Jesus was doing – he went out on the water because he wanted to help them. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
In these two short sentences, we hear twice that the disciples are afraid. It says they were terrified, and that they were crying out in fear. I love this part of the scene because it shows how worked up they are. The storm is tossing the boat around and they see something and come to the immediate conclusion it must be a ghost and start screaming.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
I appreciate that Jesus doesn’t waste any time before trying to reassure them. The text says “immediately” he spoke. And what does Jesus say? “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” The phrase “take heart” can also be translated “take courage.” Notice that he doesn’t say “have courage, or have heart” but “take heart” or “take courage.” They need to reach out and grab their courage, not wait for it to be handed to them. It’s active, not passive. Which is courage, by definition, really. It’s an action, more than a feeling.
Courage doesn’t mean to not experience fear. It means to do something even if you are afraid.
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Peter has what seems like an unusual request – he wants Jesus to tell him to come out onto the water with him. I think I would rather stay on the boat in the middle of a raging storm. But look what happens next:
He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
It’s easy for us to be hard on Peter here. After just a few steps he becomes scared again, loses his focus on Jesus and looks at the storm and starts to sink. Psssh. Way to mess it up, Peter. But let’s not forget that Peter GOT OUT OF THE BOAT. And took several steps on the water. In the middle of a storm. Can you imagine? Look at me! I’m walking on the water like Jesus did! He may not have made it all the way across to Jesus, but he did make it a few steps, which is a lot more than any of the others who were still in the boat.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
That’s where our passage for today ends. We saw that the disciples were definitely afraid.
The story tells us not once, not twice, but three times that Peter and the others were scared of what was happening. What did Jesus say first to them? “It is I, do not be afraid.”
For some of you, that’s enough.
Some of you can read this passage and hear this teaching of Jesus, to not be afraid, and that does the trick. You can say “Okay. Jesus is here. He said don’t be afraid. So I won’t be. Done.” and then you can put your face to the sun and head off into the world to take on whatever is holding you back. You can set aside whatever deep fears you have and live the life you are meant to, by holding onto Jesus’ words that we don’t need to be afraid.
If that’s you, that’s fantastic. Keep it up, you crazy and fantastically brave warrior against fear.
But then there’s the rest of us.
For the rest of us, it’s not necessarily that you don’t trust Jesus. It’s not even that you don’t believe that you don’t need to be afraid. You know that Jesus is there. But in the boat, with the winds and the waves kicking up around you, fear wins out. Life throws things at you and fear whispers things to you that are pretty convincing so you freeze up or give in or run from it. There are probably more of us in this second category. Fear is powerful. But Jesus had an answer for that too. So if that’s you, here’s what you do.
Courage doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means doing the thing God wants you to do, anyway. Even if you are terrified. Take a deep breath, pretend you aren’t scared, and do it anyway. Your heart will catch up and find courage eventually, and then you won’t be afraid. But until that time, fake it, and get out of the boat. That’s what Peter seemed to do. Peter never said he wasn’t afraid. If I had to guess, I think he was terrified. You know why? Well, first, because he was in a tiny boat in the middle of a storm and his friend Jesus had just walked out over the water toward them like a ghost. But also because of what he asks Jesus to do. He doesn’t say “You’re right Jesus – I’m fine, I won’t be afraid!” And he doesn’t just hop out of the boat and start sauntering over. He says Jesus, if it’s really you, tell me to get out of the boat. Tell me to face my fear of the waters. Command me to come, and I will. But I need you to tell me to do it, because I can’t do it on my own. Jesus replies with one word: come. Peter wasn’t fearless. But he wanted to face the things he was afraid of so he could live the life Jesus was calling him to live. He wanted to take that step of faith. So he asks Jesus to eliminate the option of giving into fear instead and asks Jesus to command him to take his courage and get out of the boat. That’s exactly what happens. Jesus said, “come.” And Peter steps out of the boat.
Having courage sometimes means we fake it, at least until our heart catches up to our behavior.
The first step is asking Jesus to tell you that giving into fear isn’t an option for you. Because fear, it turns out, is pretty convincing. Fear keeps us comfortable. Fear will keep you in the boat, where things might be difficult but it seems a lot safer than things out there in the water. Those fears we talked about – of failure, of loneliness, of losing power, of the unknown – they may be unsettling, but it’s a lot more comfortable to nurse our fears than step out with courage and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.
But if we want to take on those fears, we start by asking Jesus to command you to get out of the boat. Pray and really ask for the command to be clear in your life. You can still feel afraid. But you do it, anyway.
Because out on the water, in the middle of all the unpredictability and the chaos, that’s where you will start to find that life you are meant to live. Is it scary? Yes. But it’s also the place where you will find what you are longing for.
Fake it, and take a risk, or make a change, that will open up a new opportunity for you, even when you are afraid of the unknown.
Feel that fear of failure, and then still try something one more time see if it work. Or if it doesn’t work, see how you grow in a way you need to to be the person God is making you to be.
Mentor someone into leadership, even if it makes you afraid you are losing power.
Answer God’s call in your life to do something good in the world, even if the change that will take for you is terrifying.
Commit to follow Jesus, even when you are afraid of what that will mean.
Stepping out of the boat is where you find that life you are longing for.
One more thing – the path to taking courage is going to have some setbacks. There are going to be times when fear wins the day. Peter didn’t get out and walk over to Jesus. He got out, took a few steps, and sunk – until Jesus grabbed his hand.
Jesus will grab your hand too.