Matthew, Mark, and John all tell the story of the storm at sea, though with some variations. The story occurs after the feeding of the multitudes (Matthew 14:13-21). Following the meal, Matthew tells us,
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land.
The journey should have only taken the disciples a couple of hours, were it not for the storm that came up, likely blowing them south and east. But with the storm, the little boat was being buffeted by the wind and waves, moving them a very long way from their destination, and it was all happening at night.
I’ve been out in the lake on many occasions when a storm blows in. But you know that storms on the water must be taken seriously. Today, most boats have the convenience of a motor to get us home and off the lake quickly in the event of a storm. But the disciples had only four oars, since the sail was likely brought down to protect the mast.
So the disciples were rightly anxious as their little boat was caught in the storm. There had undoubtedly been deaths on the Sea of Galilee that led the disciples to grave concern on that dark night.
I love what happens next in our story. Jesus, from the land, knew the disciples were struggling. They were too far from shore for him to literally see them struggling. But in his mind’s eye he could see them, and he knew they needed help. Matthew continues in his telling of the story,
Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terri ed and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Why were they terrified when they saw Jesus walking on the water? They assumed he was a spirit or a ghost. There was a tradition that, at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee, was a portal to the underworld, the realm of the dead. The disciples were already scared, but now they were terrified as it appeared a spirit had escaped from the underworld. Perhaps the spirit had come to take them to the realm of the dead.
Just then Jesus spoke up. I love his words, “Be encouraged! It’s me! Don’t be afraid.”
It is important to note that the Gospel writers also wanted their readers to see Jesus coming to his disciples in their hour of need. He was watching over them even when they could not see him. This is intended to be a picture of what Jesus still does in the lives of believers when we’re sailing through our own storms in the darkness.
We’re meant to recognize in these stories a metaphor for what happens in our own lives. We experience tempestuous storms in life, and they can terrify us if we allow ourselves to face them alone.
Every week during worship, people at Church of the Resurrection turn in prayer request cards. We receive well over one hundred of them in a typical week. One might be from a woman whose daughter is struggling with depression. Another might be from someone whose spouse just left them. Yet another might involve someone who is fighting an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Some are from people who recently lost their jobs. Others come from those who lost loved ones. All of these people are in the midst of storms in their lives. Some have been tossed about by the waves for months and are holding on with white knuckles for dear life. For others, the storm just blew in last week. For most, it’s a frightening experience.
When we’re walking through the storms that inevitably we will face, we should remember these stories of Jesus coming to the disciples on the sea. We can remember his words to them: “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” Those three little words—don’t be afraid—are the most frequently spoken words from God to human beings in Scripture. You’ll find that phrase more than 140 times in your Bible.
During the storms in our lives, when the waves are crashing up against our boat and we fear we won’t survive, Jesus still walks on the water to wherever we are. He gets in the boat with us. Jesus may not make the storm go away, as he did for Peter and the disciples. The cancer may still be there. The spouse may still be gone. But Jesus is riding it out with us, and somehow that makes the storm less terrifying. That is part of what the Christian’s spiritual life is about. Feeling Jesus’ presence with us enables us to be calmed, even if the storm is raging all around us.