A Ghost Story – Matthew 14:22-33

Well, we spent three weeks talking about gratitude leading up to Thanksgiving as we skipped right over one of my most favorite holidays: Halloween! I always look forward to the month of October because a lot of the streaming channels offer up a bunch of new scary movies throughout the month. This year was no different. There were scary movies and shows galore! I picked out the ones that intrigued me, and I enjoyed them! I did discover something about myself this year, however. I do much better when I allow myself to be afraid when I know this is all fake: Actors are doing their thing, and directors are using creative camera angles and music to stir up a feeling of fear, dread, and tension! But I have a much harder time watching something if I know it is based on a real event. My mind wrestles with all these questions of how this could happen and what about the real-life victims. But one movie that was a blast to watch that came out in the ’80s was a film by Steven Spielberg named “Poltergeist.” In this movie, we meet a family that discovers their house is haunted! They deal with ghosts and all kinds of weird stuff! It is a classic, in my opinion.

         We like manufactured fear. When we know that these are actors, props, music, lighting, and camera angles that are supposed to manipulate us to be afraid, we love it! Well, at least most of us do! There is a BIG difference between fake fear and real fear.

Over the past few weeks in youth group, we have been talking about our mental and emotional health, especially in how we handle emotions of joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. These are all normal feelings we deal with all the time. Today we are going to talk about FEAR.

I recently participated in an online conference by the Fuller Youth Institute focusing on Post-Pandemic Youth Ministry. In one session entitled “5 Critical Changes in Post-Pandemic Youth Ministry”, speakers Kara Powell and Brad Griffin explained that one of the biggest challenges with teens today is helping them with instability because of all that has happened with coming out of a pandemic. This caused a lot of instability, bringing about a crisis of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Quoting from the April 23 edition of the New York Times in an article entitled “It’s Life or Death: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens,” states that “Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking. These have fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern: soaring rates of mental health disorders.” When we let fear get the best of us, it can cause a lot of damage leading to anxiety, depression, and suicide. There is a lot to be said about this crisis that many are going through and how we are handling it. We have been confronted with many things that have stoked fear in and among us: the pandemic, the economy, inflation, politics, war, the threat of nuclear war, mass shootings, racism, nationalism, antisemitism, and any number of phobias. We are in a crisis as a nation. If our kids aren’t doing well, neither are we.

So, what do we do when we are faced with genuine fear? How do we manage that? I want us to look at a ghost story in the Bible. Yes! I said ghost story! At least, that is what the disciples of Jesus thought. Let me give you some context. Jesus begins his ministry with his baptism. He calls out those whom he chooses to be his disciples. Then Jesus begins doing ministry with the disciples. He heals people of disease and deformities; he miraculously feeds thousands of people with only a few loaves and fish; and now, in the context of the passage we will look at, Jesus found out about his cousin John being beheaded by Herod. So, Jesus is exhausted from ministry and mourning the loss of his cousin. He wants to be alone and process all that is going on. We pick up our story for today in the gospel of Matthew 14. It tells us that:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

So, we notice here that Jesus chose not to go with the disciples into the boat and instead opted for some time alone to process his thoughts and pray. But we also see that things did not bode well for the disciples. Keep in mind that a handful of these guys were fishermen by trade. They are very familiar with the weather and its effect on bodies of water, especially when boats are in it!

         At a previous church which was in a town right on the shores of Lake Erie, I got invited one time to go on an early morning fishing expedition. I was excited to go! Most of my early years have involved being very close to the Great Lakes. I love the lake culture up North. With my experience growing up near the lake, I was confident in my abilities to go on this fishing trip. I chose to ignore the other guys who were taking Dramamine pills to help prevent the possibility of motion sickness. Inside my mind, I was laughing and mocking them, feeling very confident in my lake experiences from my past. I had no fear! Bring it on! No pills for me!

As we went on our trip, I did happen to notice that the boat did seem to be rocking quite a bit. The water was choppy. I went below deck a couple of times to use the restroom, and in those moments, I noticed that the boat rocking seemed even more pronounced. Something started coming over me that I didn’t quite understand. I went back on deck, trying hard to brush it all off. The LAST thing I wanted to happen was for me to get sick in front of all these guys. Well, sure enough, after some time went by, I increasingly felt sick. I tried to ignore it, but I soon leaned over the boat’s edge, barfing into the lake. It was quite embarrassing while all the Dramamine guys were laughing at me. And that was just a somewhat choppy lake. This was not even a full-blown storm.

So, as we look at our story, these former fishermen were in a boat in the middle of a lake when a storm came upon them. Nowhere to go, dealing with the winds and the waves. Then something very unusual happens! Something that throws them all off because it is nothing that they ever expected and anticipated. Let’s pick up the story:

25 Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said and cried out in fear.

Jesus does something that defies logic and science. He walks out on the water towards the boat. Since this would not be a logical option for the disciples to consider, they immediately conclude that something paranormal is happening, and they think they see a ghost approaching the boat. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to run. They are trapped.

One time while in college, I was invited by some friends to go to a haunted house and hayride. We split into groups when it was our turn to go through the house. I was with a girl who was a friend of mine. From what I remember, most of this haunted house was pitch-black darkness as you tried to find your way through it. But suddenly, I saw a lighted area coming up. As we entered the hallway and began to walk through it, there was a person dressed up as Freddy Krueger, the Nightmare on Elm Street bad boy. There was a rail that separated us as he leaned towards us, swiping at us as we walked by, holding on to each other tightly. As we left him behind us, thoughts started going through my mind as all the Nightmare on Elm Street movies began to repeat themselves throughout my mind. Just when you think Freddy Krueger is gone, he always finds a way to get you when you least expect it! With that going through my mind, I casually glanced behind me to ensure the creepy, bad guy was not stalking us.

Sure enough, as if it were in slow motion, he leaped over the rail that was separating us from him, and he began to run toward us. I immediately did what any Alpha Male would have done. I dropped the hand of the girl and began running as fast as I could, leaving her in my dust. Little did I know that the next hallway we were to go down was all painted black, so I did not notice the turn, and I ran full steam into a black wall. I landed on the ground, and both lenses popped out of my glasses. The girl casually caught up with me with a look of surprise and disgust! So that’s how it is, huh?!?

As we look at the disciple’s situation, they did not have anywhere to go. They were trapped. A ghost was approaching the boat. What were they to do? Jesus finally speaks up as he might be sensing that things are not right with the disciples, who were all pointing at him and panicking. The Scripture says that:

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Jesus identifies himself and tells the disciples not to be afraid. Easier said than done. There must be questions and doubts going through their minds as they wrestle with this new information. Peter was the first to reply with a strange request. He says:

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

There are so many other things Peter could have requested to know whether this was truly Jesus. He could have asked for the secret handshake! He could have asked Jesus a question only he would know the answer to. What number am I thinking of right now? What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow? African or European? Any question would have done better than what Peter ended up doing. Peter says, “If it is you, tell me to come out on the water!” When you think about it, this is either crazy or gutsy!

Jesus responds:

29 “Come,” he said.

Now I want us to appreciate what Peter is doing here. How many disciples are staying in the boat and holding on for dear life? All of them! How many would have never thought to jump out of the boat? The rest of them, except Peter! How many tried to stop Peter because this seemed like a crazy test? None. 11 disciples held on for safety and security, never once thinking that going out to Jesus was even an option.

Trust me! Peter gets a lot of flak in scripture for shooting his mouth off, denying Jesus three times, and arguing with Jesus against going to the cross. But I love what Peter does here! If it is really you, tell me to come on out! And Jesus tells him to come. Let’s see what happens with the rest of our story:

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

So, there is a lot to unpack here. Peter does the unthinkable and impossible here. He lands his feet on the water, maintains his balance without sinking, and begins to walk out to Jesus. A miracle is occurring that is defying science as we know it. Peter is walking out to Jesus. But then, Peter looked around at the winds and the waves, and that is when fear gripped him as he began to sink. He cries out to Jesus, and Jesus catches him and brings him back to the boat. This had to be an outstanding and unbelievable event for all the disciples but especially Peter.

Now, let’s wrestle with the question of did Peter fail. Was he the loser in the story here? In the book “If You Want to Walk on the Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat,” by John Ortberg, the author states that,

“I suppose in a way he did. His faith wasn’t strong enough. His doubts were stronger. ‘He saw the wind.’ He took his eyes off of where they should have been. He sank. He failed. But here is what I think. I think there were eleven bigger failures sitting in the boat. They failed privately. Their failure went unnoticed, unobserved, uncriticized. Only Peter knew the shame of public failure. But only Peter knew two other things as well. Only Peter knew the glory of walking on the water. He alone knew what it was to attempt to do what he was not capable of doing on his own, then feeling the euphoria of being empowered by God to actually do it. … And only Peter knew the glory of being lifted up by Jesus in a moment of desperate need. … The worst failure is not to sink in the waves. The worst failure is to never get out of the boat.” (23).

See, I fear that we have more in common with the other disciples than with Peter. We like our safety and security. We like comfort. We resist opportunities to put ourselves out there where we must put our full trust in God and what He wants to do with our lives.

Our story picks up when Jesus and Peter enter the boat, and the weather dies down. At this point, the disciples recognize that Jesus is much, much more than just a good teacher who can do some miracles, but that he is truly the Son of God. In other gospels, we see Jesus rebuke the winds and the waves, and the elements obey him. This had to really push the boundaries of what the disciples thought about Jesus. Many were hoping for a political leader to overthrow the Romans and establish the Jews as their own people. Little did they know that Jesus’ mission was much, much bigger than that. He came to be the Savior of the whole world, which had to be accomplished through the cross.   

Jesus said to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I think that many of us find ourselves in the same situation that Peter is in. We see the winds and the waves around us, and it causes fear. You might have looked at the election results, and some of it brought on a sense of anxiety and dread. Or maybe you are heading into the holiday season with much fear and anxiety. It is so easy to get caught up in all that is going on in our communities and country and think that if we just had the right person, all would be better! When we focus our eyes on the winds and waves of politics, work, and family, we will always sink.

So, what about you? What makes you afraid? What are the storms going on in your life that have you feeling anxious, nervous, and afraid? You may have a very basic fear that we can all relate to, like the fear of being hurt, physically or emotionally; a fear of the death of a loved one; a fear of war. Whatever our fears are, we need to teach ourselves how to focus on Jesus and give over any fears we might have to Him. Peter was able to do the impossible with his eyes focused on Jesus. When he focused on his surroundings, he began to sink and become afraid.

Church, this is what we need to do! We need to stop treating Jesus as just some part of our life. We need to realize that He is the author of our life, and He created us for such a time as this! We are here for a purpose. He designed us for a reason. There is a lot in life that can cause us to live in a constant state of fear and anger. We can give into those fears, or we can trust our whole life over to God, who is our Rock, our Light, and our Salvation! Do we truly believe this? How can we keep our focus on Jesus and what he is doing with our lives instead of caving into the fears that are all around us?

         In the book I previously mentioned, the final chapter is titled “How Big Is Your God?”. The author John Ortberg writes:

“I strongly believe that the way we live is a consequence of the size of our God. The problem many of us have is that our God is too small. We are not convinced that we are absolutely safe in the hands of a fully competent, all-knowing, ever-present God. When we wake up in the morning, what happens if we live with a small God? We live in a constant state of fear and anxiety because everything depends on us. Our mood will be governed by our circumstances. We live in a universe that leaves us deeply vulnerable. … When human beings shrink God, they offer prayers without faith, work without passion, service without joy, suffering without hope. It results in fear, retreat, loss of vision, and failure to persevere.” (192-193).

Is your conception of God big enough for you to step away from your sense of safety and security and trust Him in all areas of your life? Or have you dwindled down your idea of God to the point where He is merely an accessory to your life, only available when you need Him? We need a much bigger vision of Jesus and how he comes into our lives. Remember the reaction the disciples had once everyone was in the boat and everything finally calmed down. They worshiped Jesus and realized then that he was truly the Son of God. Even their previous idea of Jesus needed to expand. He was more than a teacher. He was more than a good person. He was more than a leader. He was God in the flesh. He calls us to step out in faith and trust Him with the impossible. Are you doing that with your time? Your giving? Your work? Your family?

What needs to change for you to step out of your boat and give up all your fears and anxieties to Jesus, trusting that He will guide your path; that He will do amazing and incredible things with your life once you surrender to him? Let’s commit ourselves to expanding our view of Jesus to understand that he is with us in our pain, grief, and fears. He tells us to FEAR NOT and follow him. Are you looking at the winds and waves of our culture, or are you focused on Jesus, who is our Rock, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever? As Christ-followers, we must find our foundation in him and stand firm with courage, knowing that our faith will produce good fruit when we trust in Him.

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