The Impossible Step

MATTHEW 5 of 12

We’re going to be in Matthew 14 today. The last few weeks, we’ve said that Matthew is talky-teachy gospel, but today we get a little bit of an action scene. This is an action scene that drives home things that are really important to Matthew.

In Matthew 14, Jesus has just finished multiplying loaves of bread to feed a crowd of thousands and thousands of people, and then Matthew continues in verse 22:

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

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

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

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

“Come,” he said.

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

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

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

Matthew 14v22-33

This is a famous story. Jesus is this first-century Jewish rabbi—he’s a real person—a legitimate human being—but there are moments like this when we something more. There are moments when Jesus is doing the impossible, and those around him are driven to their knees in wonder and worship. He climbs into the boat and the wind dies down (v32) and then (v33) those in the boat worshipped him.

The worship of Jesus is at the center of the Christian faith. It’s not a late add-on. It’s not a later development. Good Jewish men are worshipping a man. Because one terrifying night centuries ago on a lake across the world Matthew and the other disciples saw a man do what only God does.

There are a lot of places we could see this, but Psalm 77 is as good as any:

The waters saw you, God,
    the waters saw you and writhed;
    the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
    the heavens resounded with thunder;
    your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
    your lightning lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
    your way through the mighty waters,
    though your footprints were not seen.

Psalm 77v16-19

In a world filled with all kinds of cults and religions and gods, the Jewish people were single-mindedly devoted to the one true God. And that includes the disciples. This is a song they would have sung. They’re good Jews devoted to the god before whom waters of chaos writhe and convulse, the god who created and ordered the world, and the god who walks through the sea.

But then suddenly—they had seen a man do what only God does. It’s a confusing story. It’s a mysterious story. It’s a ghost story. They think Jesus is a ghost (v26). Suddenly one terrifying night on a lake across the world, they had seen Jesus do what only Yahweh does.

And when they cry out: “Who goes there?”

Jesus has the audacity to say (v27): “Take courage. Ego Eimi. It is I.” Those are the words from the burning bush. And so when Jesus climbs into the boat, these good Jewish men devoted to the Creator are worshipping their friend. They’re worshipping a human being because they’re becoming convinced that this human being actually is their Creator.

It’s staggering, it’s unbelievable—to be sure—but it’s the reason why the Church began. It’s why Matthew is writing down the story. Both Mark and John also tell us this story, but Matthew is the only witness we have of someone following Jesus. Matthew is the only gospel-writer to tell us about Peter walking on water. Maybe it’s such an unbelievable story (“I mean, who’s going to believe what we saw?”) maybe it’s such a significant story (“do you know what this means about Jesus?”) that Mark and John didn’t want people to get distracted by how crazy ole Peter went surfing. The other gospels tell this story with a laser-focus on Jesus.

But there was something about that night that Matthew couldn’t let go of—that he couldn’t shake. Jesus was doing the impossible—Jesus did what only God does—that’s all well and good. But someone followed Jesus. That son of gun Peter—he actually followed Jesus. Out onto the water. Out onto the waves. Jesus was doing the impossible. But (for the briefest of moments) so was Peter. Jesus told him to come. Peter took that impossible step… and the water held his weight.

From a certain perspective, this is Matthew in microcosm. It’s the story of Matthew in miniature. In Matthew’s gospel especially, Jesus is talking and teaching and pushing us toward the most impossible kinds of things. We’ve been hearing it the last couple of weeks… He’s telling us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Let love in deeper. Let love burn away your anger, your lust, your double-talk, your anxiety. Let love burn away your hate. Love everyone. Neighbors. Enemies. Republicans. Democrats. ISIS. Difficult co-workers. Difficult family members. Be merciful to those people who actually, literally are part of the problem. Jesus has been talking, teaching, and pushing us toward the most impossible kind of life. The life of love. The life where love is all encompassing.

I might be the only one, but I’ll get vulnerable for a second: that’s impossible. Despite all my best efforts and best intentions, love is not all-encompassing in my life. I’ve tried it. I can’t even always muster up love all the time for the people that adore the most in the world—for my wife, for my baby girl. If I can’t love them all the time—I can talk a good talk, but let’s get honest—how can I love my enemies?

And it when it comes to loving people, I’m at the mercy of a thousand stupid variables of the moment. Have I gotten enough sleep? Have I eaten recently? Is everything digesting ok? How’s the temperature? If it’s even a few degrees too hot or too cold, kindness and mercy become in short supply.

And yet I’m being summoned by Jesus into a life where love and mercy are all-encompassing. All-encompassing. A life of entirely love. A life awake to God’s love for the world and for me, and a life consumed with giving love to God and to others. And it’s true—that kind of life would be a life where anger is gone, where lust is burned away, where all anxiety vanishes. But if I were to get honest with you guys for a minute:

Me living a life of entirely love feels as likely as me walking on water.

To which Matthew would say: “It is possible.” Following Jesus is going to come in fits and starts, you’re not going to make very far before Jesus will need to catch you, you may feel like an idiot as your start again and again, but it is possible. For the briefest of moments one terrifying night on a lake across the world, there was a group of people watching with jaws dropped—hardly believing their eyes—as Peter takes an impossible step—his toes touch the water

That’s the moment of the story that Matthew wants us to see. That moment when Peter sees Jesus as his Creator—the One for whom all of his life and soul aches and yearns—and I cannot get close enough fast enough.

“Bid me” come to you (v28). “Tell me” to come to you. “Tell me” isn’t quite a strong enough translation. Really the greek is “command.”

“Command me to come to you. Command me, Jesus, to do this impossible thing. Because if you command it, it won’t be impossible.”

At one point in his masterpiece called “Confessions,” one of the early church leaders named Augustine, prays: “Command what you will, and give what you command.” That just about sums up the life of faith. Command what you will—what you want—and then give what you command.

What exactly does that mean? In this story, it’s not enough for Jesus to simply command Peter. Jesus can command all he wants, but it’s impossible. Peter cannot walk on water; Jesus has got to give what he commands. He’s got to make the impossible possible.

I think the same is true for the rest of our lives. I am utterly incapable of living a life entirely of love. It’s impossible. And yet—and yet—God gives what he commands. If God commands a life of love, a life of mercy, a life of honesty, God must be willing to give us that life. What I find fascinating about this story is this: Peter asks to be commanded.

Command me, Jesus, to come to you. Command me, and I will take the impossible step. Command me, and it will not be impossible, because you give what you command. And then Peter starts doing it. The impossible becomes possible. Jesus gives what he commands.

But it doesn’t take long—like only a few moments—and the impossibility of it all begins to overwhelm him. He starts to doubt everything: “What am I doing? This is no place for me. Jesus couldn’t have been serious. This is impossible.” And the chaos start to swallow him. He cries, “Save me!”

And immediately (v31) Jesus catches Peter. Immediately. And Jesus says: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

We hear that as a scolding—as a reprimand—a lot of times, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to hear Jesus. Jesus is saying, “You had it, you saw me, you trusted, why did you begin to doubt? I’ve got you.”

And there’s actually something really encouraging about that “little faith” bit. Little faith is enough faith to follow Jesus. Peter had enough faith to say: “Command me” And Peter had enough faith to cry: “Save me.” Little faith is enough faith to ask Jesus to command us. Little faith is enough faith to ask Jesus to rescue us when we’re sinking. Little faith is enough to take the impossible step and begin following Jesus.

The impossible step of letting love in deeper—of allowing love to burn away everything that isn’t love. The impossible life of faith is held between—lived between—those two cries. Between verse 28 and verse 30: “Command me” and “Save me.”

The life-long journey of entering into true life involves learning to really, honestly pray these two small sentences. Entering into the life that Jesus wants to give us—into the best kind of life—means praying “command me” and “save me” with relentless regularity.

Command me: “God tell me the path to take—the road to walk, the choices I need to make—and I trust that you will always give what you command. God command me to take that impossible step.”

Save me: “I’ve taken the step, I’m walking the path, I trying to follow, and I need help.”

There’s enough for a lifetime in those two cries. The impossible step we will be commanded to take looks different for all us in the different seasons of our lives. But especially according to Matthew, following Jesus is always going to look like letting love in deeper and learning the way mercy especially when it’s an impossible step.

Sometimes it’s the impossible step with our family, with our career, with our personality. Sometimes it the impossible step of living a different way, of entering into something new, of breaking that destructive pattern, of letting go of control and beginning to trust others. Sometimes it looks like admitting that we were wrong and learning that we are still loved. Sometimes it looks like forgiving that person even when they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. For all of us who would follow Jesus, the impossible step looks like loving everyone—especially our enemies.

And in all of these impossible things—for all of these impossible steps—little faith is enough faith. It’s enough to begin—to take the first step. It’s enough to ask God to command us and it’s enough to ask God to rescue us—to save us.

May we be a people who see Jesus as Lord in the middle of wind and waves and be filled with hope. Throughout the week, may we pray small crazy prayers like “Command me,” and trust that God gives what he commands. He makes the impossible step possible. May we pray small desperate prayers like “Save me,” and have eyes to see the ways that God always is. He’s always saving. May we of little faith become the people learning to take the impossible step of love—and the next impossible step of love—until we discover that we’re beginning to follow Jesus.

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