Pentecost 16 October 20, 2020
767 (Worship Supplement 2000), 250:1,3-4, 521, 655
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
+ In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen. +
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from our Savior God—the God who has our lives well in hand, every moment of every day. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
Like so many other things in life, too much of a good thing can ruin all. Warning stickers come to mind. So many of them are just so silly and pointless that we tend to dismiss all of them. Is there really a pressing need to place a warning on a child’s Superman costume that “this cape does not make the wearer stronger and does not enable the wearer to fly”? Is it really necessary to warn the consumer that the contents of a propane bottle are flammable, or that a frozen dinner “may be hot when heated”? Some warnings are just self-evident.
Another curious thing about warnings is that a significant number of them are obviously designed to protect the one issuing the warning, not the one to whom the warning is issued. This is true not only of companies trying to prevent lawsuits, it applies also to parents. A significant number of parent-to-children warnings are more for the sake of the parent than they are for the children. Parents just feel much more comfortable and confident if they send their children off with a “Be careful” or “Drive safely.”
This morning the theme of our sermon seems like one of those ridiculously obvious warning that really doesn’t need to be articulated. My prayer is that God would not allow anyone to leave here this morning without a greater appreciation for just how much and how often we need to be reminded of what at first might seem painfully evident: “Don’t Play God.”
The text that will guide us in our study is found in the 14th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (ESV)
These are the verbally inspired words of our God. Far from silly or ridiculous, these are the very words of life eternal, and by them we seek to be refreshed, refocused, strengthened, and comforted. That our God would grant us such great gifts this morning through the study of these words, so we pray, “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
I have little doubt that a discussion about who is and who is not God might initially strike many of you as just about as obvious as a warning I once read “not to place lighted fireworks in mouth.” In fact, the danger here is that you may have found yourself ready to dismiss any explanation that might follow. Yet understand that while much in this life is silly, this most certainly is not.
By way of explanation, we first join the disciples in their storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee at the point where they believe they have just seen a ghost. To be fair to the disciples, the word translated “ghost” can also mean “apparition.” In other words, they were frightened by something that they saw but could not explain. Imagine yourself in their position. It is very dark, you are in the middle of a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee, and suddenly you see… what? A silhouette, a human form, something moving across the water toward your imperiled boat. I’m pretty sure that you and I, also, would have found that more than just a little disconcerting.
But set that aside for now and ask yourself what, exactly, do you suppose had been occupying the thoughts of the disciples just before Jesus arrived. One would assume prayers for deliverance would certainly be cast in the lead role. I can’t imagine that these men of God would not have been passionately petitioning their God in such an hour of obvious need. How could they not have been thinking specifically about Jesus at a time like that—the same Jesus who had only hours before offered a demonstration of his power by his miraculous feeding of the five thousand? My guess is that they were, one and all, yearning for the comforting, powerful presence of their Lord. And yet they are shocked and terrified when Jesus actually arrived on the scene— albeit in rather unconventional fashion.
This leads us to the first question raised by our text: What are human beings actually asking for when we ask our God for deliverance in the hour of peril or extreme need? Are we really asking for God’s help, or are we just making ourselves feel a bit better about our own chances—our own abilities to weather the storm (so to speak) by invoking the Lord? Interesting question. It is a telling question—especially if we ever find ourselves surprised by God’s divine rescue. I have heard more than one person express both joy and surprise that “My prayers actually worked!”
I am not God. You are not God. Yet more times than we care to admit we find that we trust more in ourselves for solutions than we trust in God’s divine rescue. Maybe the warning “Don’t Play God” isn’t so pointless after all.
The next striking aspect of our text is, of course, the fact that Peter had such trust in his Lord that he too was able to walk on water. Who here has ever demonstrated such faith and trust? Note that Peter would not attempt such a thing unless and until he was told by his Savior to do so. This is evidence of Peter’s absolute trust in his Lord. The clear message is that Peter fully believed that the command of his Lord carried with it the power to carry out that command.
So what went wrong with Peter? How or why did he fail, after succeeding so spectacularly? We know that he began to sink when he looked around and saw the power and danger of the raging storm, but what was the real source of his doubt? It was in himself, wasn’t it? It doesn’t appear that he doubted his Lord. He began to doubt his own abilities. We have evidence that this was the case given the fact that, when sinking, Peter called out to his Lord for rescue: “Lord, save me!” It was the perfect thing to do, wasn’t it? Hard to argue that it wasn’t, given the fact that it worked. The power was God’s, not Peter’s. Peter acknowledged as much by calling upon his Lord for help and rescue. You know the final result: “Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and took hold of him.”
We should give Peter high marks in all of this. Not only did his faith allow him to do something that we would never even attempt, he also demonstrated a perfect trust in his Lord as the only reliable source of rescue when things started to go wrong.
Yet Jesus didn’t exactly give him high marks, did he? In fact, he called him a “Little Faith.” Where does that leave you and me? Again, I could never imagine myself having the strength of faith to walk on water, yet Peter did. And still Jesus labeled his faith as small, and chastised him for doubting. This makes me wonder just what Jesus would say to me, today, here and now. If Peter was a “Little Faith,” what does that make me? I suspect everyone here would find themselves in the same boat.
What all of this teaches us, once again, is how great is the gap between us and our God—and therefore just how foolish for any human being to “play God.” It teaches us not only how far we are from the faith-filled Christian that we are supposed to be, but just how our Savior-God is far above and beyond us. Jesus never doubted, never lost faith or confidence, never slipped up or fell. This makes us appreciate all the more just how incredibly difficult our rescue really was. Time after time the mountainous waves of despair rose up to threaten Jesus, but he never wavered.
Had Jesus wavered, you and I would have been lost eternally. Had Jesus slipped up, just once, all would have been lost, all would have been condemned. The sum total of all of the cunning and fury of hell charged maniacally again and again and again at Jesus, only to be defeated every single time. It was that perfect, flawless record that Jesus offered to God the Father as the only adequate payment for our sins. God the Father accepted it for one reason and one reason only: it was absolutely perfect in every way. No flaws, no failures, no deficiencies. Perfection was the only thing that could earn our pardon.
This represents the greatest reason we need to be reminded not to play God: we could never have paid the bill. We could never produce anything perfect enough to offer as a sin payment to a holy and just God. Sinners have no such currency, no such bargaining power. We know that we are not God if for no other reason than that it took God to produce what we could not—the payment great enough to pay for my sin, and thereby save me.
There remain, however, countless areas of life where we also need to be reminded not only to not play God, but to let God be God. When you lie awake into the wee hours of the night, filled with anxiety about one thing or another, remind yourself who is and who is not God. When you are fretting about the safe return of your beloved children after a night out with friends, be reminded that you are not God. You cannot preserve your loved ones by worry and anxiety, but God can. And more than that, God does. Carry the matter to God and let him be who and what he is. When financial needs seem overwhelming, who then is God in your life? Do you trust God and his promise to supply what you need when you seek first his kingdom, or do you, by default, take such challenges upon your own highly incapable shoulders? Marriage and other relationship issues? Child rearing? Business challenges? The threat of sickness? Whom do you really turn to for such needs?
And those are just secular things. What about your struggles against those sins that seem to be so frustratingly successful in your life? Are you yourself the god from whom you seek strength to overcome them, or do you reach out like Peter and cry, simply, “Lord, save me!”
As independent-minded Americans, we have a strong history of hard work and self-sufficiency. God surely does expect us to work hard and to enjoy the labors of our own hands. Yet the temptation is always there to forget who really provides all that we have, who it is that maintains our health, who protects and defends us every moment of our lives until he decides to call us home, and who it is that has rescued us from the unspeakably horrible misery of hell.
What a tremendous comfort this is intended to be. How foolish not to take full advantage of this truth. Not only can’t you take responsibility for those things that God alone controls, God makes it clear that he is well-pleased when his children take his advice to “be still, and know that he is God.” (Psalm 46:10) When the storm clouds of your life gather and threaten—as they surely will in a world as sinful and perverse as ours—then look up and recognize the powerful, capable, glorious presence of your God. Hear him speak to you as he did to the disciples in our text: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” The God who sacrificed his own Son will never, could never, let you down. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.