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Sunday, November 27, 2016

If it is You (HOPE) (Matthew 14.22-33)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; November 27, 2016
Text: Matthew 14:22-33

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Testimony :: Marlis Littleton testimony (audio link)

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes)
Hymn of Praise: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (arr. Austell)
The Word in Music: Choir, Come, Abide with Us (Mock/Lopez)
Hymn of Sending: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (STUTTGART)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a ‘season’ in the life of the church in which we look forward to Christ coming, mysteriously to his coming again and also in anticipation of the celebration of his birth. Last week we talked about the importance of knowing God in cultivating a thankful life. And indeed, knowing God is more foundational than that; it is the basis of our faith and practice. During Advent I am going to look with you at four stories of Jesus inviting people to know him better. Those stories will focus through the four Advent themes of Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. Each week we will also hear a personal account of how people in this congregation have come to know God through Jesus Christ. Today, Marlis Littleton will share part of her story with us as the offering is taken (audio link above).

Today we focus on HOPE, and how Jesus is worthy of our hope and trust. I chose the story of Peter trying to walk on water. It contains a phrase that jumped out at me as a hope-statement, and that is where I’d like to start with you.

Great Hope

This scene takes place after the miraculous feeding of the 5,000. After that miracle, Jesus sent the disciples on across the water in a boat and he withdrew to have some time alone to pray. But then Jesus caught back up with the disciples, not by skirting the sea and meeting them on the other side, but by walking out across the water to meet them on the water. They were already battered by a storm in the middle of the night and were terrified when they saw him, crying out in fear and thinking he was a ghost. But he reassured them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (v. 27)

And then come the hopeful words, spoken by Peter: “Lord, if it is You…” (v. 28) What an interesting thing to say. You could read it as a test, I suppose; but I think it is something a little different. Peter didn’t say, “If it is you, prove it” or “If it is you, show us a sign.” Peter had a specific request that hinged on the power and person of Jesus: “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to you on the water.” I do not know why Peter chose that, but what is striking to me is that Peter didn’t ask Jesus to do something miraculous; he asked Jesus to include him and invite him in the miraculous. Jesus had included him and the other disciples in the feeding of the 5,000. I’m not sure why walking on water seems more miraculous than that (it does, doesn’t it?!); but I think Peter wanted to be part of what Jesus was doing.

I think that is a point worth pausing and pondering over. And I don’t think I’ve quite sorted it all out yet. But there is something powerful there – something that moves me. Peter has seen Jesus manifest the power of God – healing people, feeding people, teaching people. He is surely frightened along with the rest.  But what I hear him asking for here is something else that touches on faith and miracles and power, but runs deeper still. He seems to want to be a part of what Jesus is doing: “Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus did! He said, “Come!”

As many of you may have, I just returned from time with family. I was in South Carolina with my parents and brother’s family, in the home where I grew up. It’s amazing how those familiar places bring back such strong memories. I was reminded of childhood, though it was long ago now. And I was reminded of one of the great longings of childhood, to be in relationship with my parents – to know and be known, to love and be loved. Though actually growing up (or parenting) seems to focus on rules and behaviors and grades and curfews and a hundred other things, perhaps the most formative part of growing up is our experience of relationship with parents, whether that is full or missing, good or bad, or whatever it’s like. It’s one of our deep longings, played out again in dating and marriage relationships and then again as we parent our own children.

And I believe that deep longing is at the heart of knowing God. God is not an academic subject or a list of do’s and don’t’s; knowing God is relational and is ultimately about being a part, belonging to a family and to God. I hear echoes of that in Peter’s words, echoes of the great hope, “Can I be part of your life and what you are doing? Will you invite me to come to you, as impossible as that may seem?”

It’s a childlike question, the kind Jesus appreciated – and we’ll look at that story in two weeks. It’s saying, “God, if you are there, can I belong and be a part?”

Little Faith

I kind of wish the story ended there, without telling us what happened. But it goes on: Peter got out of the boat, walked on water, and came toward Jesus. Don’t miss that. For some undefined amount of time, he was part of the power and the miracle and the God-moment. But also don’t miss this: he got frightened and began to sink – which Jesus would name just a little later as doubt, as “little faith.” But don’t miss this: he cried out, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus IMMEDIATELY stretched out his hand and took hold of him.

Though Peter’s faith faltered, his hope was not in vain. Jesus did call out to him and grabbed hold of him just where he faltered, where he was weak. Peter’s great hope was not, I think, to walk on the water. It was to get to Jesus’ side. And he did, with Jesus’ help.

That is a good word. The great hope, to know God and be a part of what God is doing, is not dependent on your faith, strength, or power. It is God’s desire to know you and to grab hold of you, even where you are weak.

Take that to heart! You may be struggling at just that point, saying, “My faith is weak; I’m full of doubt; God doesn’t have any use for the likes of me.” But God DOES want to know you and use you. And knowing God is not dependent on your faith or strength or power. Call out to Him and God will respond. In fact, God may already be grabbing hold of you; do you see it? Do you perceive it?

Knowing Jesus: Teacher to Ghost to God’s Son

There’s one other development I’d like to track with you across this story. It is the growth in knowledge of God among the disciples. Coming into this story, the disciples knew Jesus as their Rabbi, their teacher. Some had suspicions that he might be more. Despite many miracles – amazing things – when they saw him on the water in the storm, they thought he was a ghost, some kind of spirit. But look where the story ends up. After the interaction with Peter, Jesus gets in the boat and the storm stops. And those who were in the boat WORSHIPED Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” (v. 33) Worship is a strong word here; he clearly is no longer simply Rabbi to them. Jewish people were rightly very particular about their worship, with the most foundational belief and commandment being, “Worship God alone; there is no other God but the LORD.” And they recognized Jesus as God and offered him worship. They were coming to know Jesus in a deep and personal way.

Advent is about “coming to Jesus” and that’s what I want to try to do with you this month. Do you know Jesus? Do you know Him as Lord and God and Savior? Do you know him personally? His invitation is that great hope that runs in us – to know and be known, to love and be loved, to be a part and to be family… with God Himself! It doesn’t matter if you have questions or doubts or struggle with faith. Consider the invitation to “Come!” and see what God does from there. My prayer is that each of you come to know God in a deeper and more personal way. Amen.

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