Is God only a fair-weather friend to us? Is He there for us in our times of need? Do we have the courage to take the leap of faith when He commands us?
Let us look for our own answers as we meditate on Matthew’s gospel: “22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. 23 After He had sent them away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, 24 but the boat was already far from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately spoke up: “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it is You,” Peter replied, “command me to come to You on the water.” 29 “Come,” said Jesus. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and took hold of Peter. “You of little faith,” He said, “why did you doubt?” 32 And when they had climbed back 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!” (Matt 14:22-33)
The haste and urgency with which the disciples were sent away, against their will, after the miracle of feeding the five thousand, is explained in John’s account. The crowd had been excited to a dangerous enthusiasm by a miracle so level to their tastes. So they were determined to make Jesus their king. Our Lord, fearing the outburst, resolves to withdraw into the lonely hills, that the fickle blaze may die down. If the disciples had remained with Him, He could not have so easily stolen away, and they might have caught the popular fervour. To divide would distract the crowd, and make it easier for Him to disperse them, while many of them, as really happened, would be likely to set off by land for Capernaum, when they saw the boat had gone. The main teaching of this miracle, over and above its demonstration of the Messianic power of our Lord, is symbolical. All the miracles are parables, and this eminently so.
The disciples had a short row of some five or six miles in prospect, when they started in the early evening. An hour or so might have done it, but, for some unknown reason, they lingered. Thus, night finds them but a short way on their voyage. A sudden breeze sprang up, as is common at nightfall on mountain lakes; and soon a gale, against which they could make no headway, was blowing in their teeth. This lasted for eight or nine hours. Wet and weary, they tugged at the oars through the livelong night, the seas breaking over them, and the wind howling down the glens.
They had been caught in a similar storm once before, but then He had been on board, and it was daylight. Now it was dark, ‘and Jesus had not yet come to them,’ How they would look back at the dim outline of the hills, where they knew He was, and wonder why He had sent them out into the tempest alone! He is on the mountain in prayer, and He sees the labouring boat and the distressed rowers. Does that mean indifference? So it might seem but for the words which follow, ‘the Lord working with them.’ He shares in all the toil; and the lifting up of His holy hands sways the current of the fight, and inclines the balance. His love appoints effort and persistent struggle as the law of our lives. Nor are we to mourn or wonder; for the purpose of the appointment, so far as we are concerned, is to make character, and to give us ‘the wrestling thews that throw the world.’ Difficulties make men of us. Summer sailors, yachting in smooth water, have neither the joy of conflict nor the vigour which it gives. Better the darkness, when we cannot see our way, and the wind in our faces, if the good of things is to be estimated by their power to ‘strengthen us with strength in our soul!’
Not till the last watch of the night does He come, when they have long struggled, and the boat is out in the very middle of the lake, and the storm is fiercest. We may learn from this the delays of His love. Because He loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus, He stayed still, in strange inaction, for two days, after their message. Because He loved Peter and the praying band, He let him lie in prison till the last hour of the last watch of the last night before his intended execution, and then delivered him with a leisureliness which tells of conscious omnipotence. Heaven’s clock goes at a different rate from our little timepieces. God’s day is a thousand years, and the longest tarrying is but ‘a little while.’ He comes across the waves. Their restless and yielding crests are smoothed and made solid by the touch of His foot. ‘He walketh on the sea as on a pavement’ (Job 9:8). It is a revelation of divine power. But it is also symbolic. We have here the symbol of Christ’s using our difficulties and trials as the means of His loving approach to us. He comes, giving a deeper and more blessed sense of His presence by means of our sorrows, than in calm sunny weather. It is generally over a stormy sea that He comes to us, and golden treasures are thrown on our shores after a tempest.
The disciples were as yet little lifted above their fellows; they had no expectation of His coming, and thought just what any rude minds would have thought, that this mysterious Thing stalking towards them across the waters came from the unseen world, and probably that it was the herald of their drowning. We too often mistake Christ, when He comes to us. We do not recognise His working in the storm, nor His presence giving power to battle with it. We are so absorbed in the circumstances that we fail to see Him through them. Our tears weave a veil which hides Him, or the darkness obscures His face, and we see nothing but the threatening crests of the waves, curling high above our little boat. We mistake our best friend, and we are afraid of Him as we dimly see Him; and sometimes we think that the tokens of His presence are only phantasms of our own imagination.
They who were deceived by His appearance knew Him by His voice, as Mary did at the sepulchre. How blessed must have been the moment when that astounding certitude thrilled through their souls! That low voice is audible through all the tumult. He speaks to us by His word, and by the silent speech in our spirits, which makes us conscious that He is there. He does speak to us in the deepest of our sorrows, in the darkest of our nights; and when we hear of His voice, and with wonder and joy cry out, ‘It is the Lord,’ our sorrow is soothed, and the darkness is light about us.
The consciousness of His presence banishes all fear. ‘Be not afraid,’ follows ‘It is I.’ It is of no use to preach courage unless we preach Christ first. If we have not Him with us, we do well to fear: His presence is the only rational foundation for calm fearlessness. Only when the Lord of Hosts is with us, ought we not to fear, ‘though the waters roar . . . and be troubled.’ ‘Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves’ can we face all terrors, and feel no terror.
The storm ceases as soon as Jesus is on board. John does not mention the cessation of the tempest, but tells us that they were immediately at the shore. It does not seem necessary to suppose another miracle, but only that the voyage ended very speedily. It is not always true that His presence is the end of dangers and difficulties, but the consciousness of His presence does hush the storm. The worst of trouble is gone when we know that He shares it; and though the long swell after the gale may last, it no longer threatens. Nor is it always true that His coming, and our consciousness that He has come, bring a speedy close to toils. We have to labour on, but in how different a mood these men would bend to their oars after they had Him on board! With Him beside us toil is sweet, burdens are lighter, and the road is shortened. Even with Him on board, life is a stormy voyage; but without Him, it ends in shipwreck. With Him, it may be long, but it will look all the shorter while it lasts, and when we land the rough weather will be remembered but as a transient squall. These wearied rowers, who had toiled all night, stepped on shore as the morning broke on the eastern bank. So we, if we have had Him for our shipmate, shall land on the eternal shore, and dry our wet garments in the sunshine, and all the stormy years that seemed so long shall be remembered but as a watch in the night.
Let us praise God with the song: “Be Not Afraid”: