When was the last time God scared you? I mean truly frightened you?
Perhaps with this question, I’m treading some dangerous waters. After all, fear of God is not something that we like to indulge in. God is our loving Father; Jesus is our friend, our constant companion, the guy who likes long walks on the beach, sunsets and lambs.
I think it’s easy to look at today’s gospel reading and just skim the surface. “Sometimes we have storms in our lives and Jesus is there to calm those storms.” This is a perfectly valid interpretation, but if it’s the only lesson we get from this story, it becomes a little too simplistic, a little too trite. And frankly, it falls short.
Where is Jesus when the real storms come? When the hurricane bears down on the coast or the earthquake flattens a city or a tornado blasts through a neighborhood? It would be great if Jesus would show up at the first sign of trouble and saves the day like Superman. But it doesn’t seem like that happens, does it?
If we’re just looking to Jesus to defy the laws of physics or control the weather, we’re going to be disappointed. This story is about so much more. It’s telling us just who Jesus is and who God is and how that God works in this world.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. It can be said that the Gospel of Matthew is the most Jewish Gospel. It was originally written for a Jewish community of Jesus followers. The people who heard this story for the first time were intimately familiar with the Hebrew Bible, what we often call the Old Testament. It was internalized, ingrained in them, in much the same way that our culture has absorbed tales of superheroes and wizards and vampires into our collective conscious.
So for Matthew’s audience, the story is laden with powerful symbols and signs. The image of water would immediately unleash a deluge of associations: There is God’s breath blowing over the waters at creation or the Flood that engulfs the wicked or the deliverance from Pharaohs army through the parting of the Red Sea. Water gives life but too much water is dangerous. In the Book of Job the sea is the home of Leviathan, a monster that is the embodiment of chaos and destruction. Water, the sea, the river—in the Hebrew Bible, these are powerful forces that only the Creator of the universe can control.
So with all of that in mind, what are we to make of this man from Nazareth who calms the sea and lords over the water? Do you think there’s a connection here?
But, just in case we missed the point the first time, Jesus says this: “Take heart, it is I.”
“It is I.” This doesn’t quite click with us, but to Matthew these few words are packed with significance. In the orginal language, in the Greek, it’s ego eimi—ego (I) eimi (am). In other words, Jesus is saying, “Take heart, I am.”
If we were Matthew’s audience, our minds would immediately flash all the way back to the story of Moses at the burning bush.
Moses said to God, “What shall I say your name is?”
God said to Moses, “I AM who I AM. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”
I AM is a title, it’s what we call the divine name of God, a name so powerful that even today devout Jews do not utter it.
Here again is the man from Nazareth who calms the sea, who lords over the water and call himself the mighty name I AM. Do you think there’s a connection here?
“I AM is here trampling victoriously over the waves,” as one writer puts it. “In these brief but charged words and in the awesome vision that unfolds before the disciples, Jesus is identifying himself with God, the liberator and redeemer of Israel, who is at the same time the creator of the world and the victor over chaos.”
Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid.
In the center of the storm, in the middle of the lightning and the thunder and the wind and the rain, there travelling through the waves, there is the one who made us, who loves us, who saves us, and calls us out of the safety of our boats to walk onto the waves and into the chaos.
“Come,” he says to Peter.
And Peter obeys.
God is calling each and every one of us to get out of the boat.
I AM is bidding us “to follow Peter’s example and be willing to step out of the comfort and security of the boat and head into the troubled waters of the world to proclaim the love, mercy and justice of God that we find in Jesus Christ.”
This is dangerous. This is risky. This is uncertain. God should frighten us a little bit everyday because God’s call is frightening.
But like Peter, even if we doubt, even if we fall short, even if we sink in over our heads, Jesus is there to pull us out and lift us up again. Peter and Jesus return to the boat, sopping wet but very much alive. And at that moment, the disciples know who Jesus is: “Truly you are the Son of God,” they say to him.
And to his disciples then and now, the Son of God says: “Get out of the boat. Follow me. Believe in me. Trust in me. I AM who I AM.”
When we put our faith (what little there may be) in the great I AM, we place our hope in the promise of a new exodus out of death into life. We embrace a new creation. And we know that no matter the chaos of our lives and the chaos of the world, we will find the Lord of Heaven and earth, standing like a rock in the middle of the storm-tossed sea.