Monday, February 23, 2015

A New Kingdom - Storm Art

Preached on Sunday, February 22, 2015 
Scripture readings: Psalm 69:1-21; Matthew 14:22-36

God is an artist. We are privileged to live in the sort of place where anyone who believes in him can see this clearly every day. We can watch his handiwork unfolding and we can see how he is never done.
Priest Rapids Lake, Columbia River
Desert Aire WA: February 2015
He is the painter who is never done with his painting and never leaves it alone. He is always blending his colors in a new way. This isn’t because he doesn’t love what he has already done, but it’s because he loves it so much.
God is also a sculptor. God is still carving this valley. How long has he been at it? He uses strange tools: mostly soft tools; such an odd thing for a sculptor. God uses the wind and the rain. God uses fires underground. God uses the river. God uses time. And here we are.
God uses storms to make sudden changes to his work of art. Even when those changes are sudden they may last forever.
It’s easy to see that this valley is a work of art. It can be much harder to see that each and every human being is a work of art: a work in process, a work of God.
The name Peter means “rock”: good material for sculpting. I think Jesus was joking when he took a fisherman named Simon and renamed Peter. A rock is strong, tough, and stable, and Peter wasn’t that, at all.
Of course Peter was physically strong. He was a commercial fisherman. He worked using his whole body to maneuver his boats, to haul in nets full of fish, and he lived in the days when everything was hard work.
He was physically strong, but he was unstable. He was constantly changing. You never knew what he might say or do next. Peter ran fast and slow. Peter ran hot and cold. Peter was brave and afraid. Peter was faithful and doubting.
It may be that Peter’s changeability never completely changed. There is an ancient legend about Peter’s last days. It was during the time when the emperor Nero began a huge persecution of the Christians in Rome. Nero loved to crucify them because they worshiped Jesus the crucified.
Peter was in Rome and he tried to escape from that horrible death. In the story, during his escape from the city, Peter met the risen Jesus. Jesus was walking into the city as Peter was walking away. Peter asked Jesus where he was going. Jesus looked at Peter and said, “I’m going into Rome to be crucified again.”
Hearing this, Peter plucked up his courage. He went back into Rome where he continued to serve his church until he was caught, and arrested, and crucified. So Peter finished his life with fear and courage, doubt and faith. He was Peter to the last.
There’s a story about the artist and sculptor Michelangelo. When he had finished his famous sculpture of Moses, someone asked how he had done it. He said, “I simply chipped away everything that was not Moses.”
The storm on the Lake of Galilee was like a soft chisel that Jesus used to chip away a bit of whatever wasn’t Peter, so that Peter could see himself better. Jesus used the storm to chip away a bit of what wasn’t Peter so that we can see ourselves better, in him. The poet George Herbert says this about the Lord: that “Storms are the triumph of his art.” (George Herbert, “The Bag”)
It’s not a bad thing to say that Jesus sent his disciples into a storm. There are storms. There are going to be big, nasty storms.
The only way for a world to not have storms is for that world to not have air, or a sun to warm that air. A world without storms would be a world without life.
Jesus sent them out into reality, out into the real world, out into life. Of course he sent them into a storm.
Jesus sends his disciples into storms. Some people claim that when you listen to the Lord and do what he says, you will have smooth sailing. But that was never true of the disciples.
They did as Jesus told them to do. They did it even though it made very little sense. Was Jesus going to walk around along the shore and meet them on the other side?
And they worked hard to do what Jesus told them. This put them in danger. This exhausted them. And they missed Jesus.
They rowed and they rowed against the wind, and they didn’t turn back. That was faith. When you have faith, you still have storms, and those storms are everything for you that a storm can be for anybody.
When Jesus has a purpose for you, things can still go badly. When you follow the calling of Jesus, things can be hard and joyless.
There was an amazing Christian woman who, many years ago, was my Sunday school teacher. Years later, I remember her standing up in church in order to give a testimony about joy. What she said was this: “You know me. If I don’t get joy out of doing something, you won’t find me doing it for long.”
The fact is that, as amazing as she was, if you did anything with her, you had to do it her way or she wouldn’t do it for long. Her testimony about her own joy wasn’t good Christian advice. But she was a good example of how many Christians are tempted to think. Jesus doesn’t send us into smooth sailing.
Another fact about the storm is that Jesus didn’t send a single disciple alone into the storm. Jesus sent a boatload of disciples into the storm.
There was a time in my life when I tried to be a solo Christian; a private Christian. There is no such creature in the Bible. The only solo, private Christian in the Bible was Adam, and God saw that it wasn’t good. (Genesis 2:18) The disciples worked together and sweated together. They even failed together, and they were the church of Christ.
The story of Peter walking on water and almost drowning had to be a shared experience. His friends never forgot it, and one of them put it into writing so that Peter teaches us about what it is like to be a Christian today. This is how Jesus arranged it. This is how he designed the life of those who follow him.
There is a saying that religion is what the individual does with his or her own solitude. This is convenient and a lot of people seem to believe it. I think they believe it because it is easier that way.
When we live out our faith with other people so many things can go wrong. We tell ourselves that most of these surely can’t be our fault. We blame others for what we say and do. We say that we are not really our true selves because of them, but this is not true. Belonging inescapably to others who are not our own choice of companions is precisely the perfect storm that either shows who we are, or allows God to chip away everything that is not truly ourselves.
This is why what we call the church, the body of Christ, is formed of people who are not members of a club but members of the Body of Jesus. In this kind of membership we are bound together like we are bound to Christ; by great, solemn, everlasting promises. If we are not bound to each other as seriously as we are bound to Christ what have we learned from him?
Peter had learned a lot from Jesus. He had learned wonderful things and he wanted to imitate them. Walking on water was one of those wonderful things that Peter wanted to imitate. I don’t think he understood that faithfulness was the truly wonderful thing; more wonderful than walking on water.
Faithfulness was the reason why Jesus came to them in the storm. Peter did a better job imitating the walk on water than he did the faithfulness of Jesus. Faith involves faithfulness. That is why Peter sank.
How can we claim to follow Jesus when we don’t let him send us into some sweaty boatload of disciples rowing against the wind? How can we know who we truly are or who Jesus truly is, unless we let him define the terms of faithfulness that he set for his disciples in the gospel?
It was because they shared the boat together in the storm and the darkness, it was because they saw Peter walk (and nearly drown) and be rescued, that they were able to bow down and say to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:33) “Storms are the triumph of his art.”
 The storm teaches us that the Lord never sends us beyond his reach. The Lord never sends us beyond his help.
Some people will say that if you doubt the Lord then the Lord will not work in your life. They say that if you have doubts the Lord will not answer your prayers. This is not true. The Lord came to them when they were afraid of the storm. Even when they were afraid of Jesus and doubted who and what he was, he still came to them. He said “Take courage! It is I! Don’t be afraid!” (Matthew 14:27) When Peter doubted and sank, Jesus saved him.
This is what happens when you are afraid and when you have doubts. Listen for that voice. Wait for him to come. Trust that he will work. The faithfulness of Jesus is greater and stronger than your doubts.
The disciples were of little faith all through the gospels and what did Jesus do? He took them with him everywhere and showed them wonderful things. They saw people touching the hem of his cloak and being healed. That’s what happened when they doubted. Jesus always warned his friends about what they might miss because of doubting, but he was always better than his warnings.
This really is the secret of faith. Faith is the proper use of your eyes. Faith is looking at the faithful Jesus, and not at the storm. Peter knew more about Jesus than we do, by experience. Peter had seen much more of Jesus than we ever have. But experience and the knowledge that comes from experience are not enough. They don’t make you immune from doubt.
Seeing is not believing. Looking is believing. Peter should have kept on looking at Jesus. Looking would have served as faith.
When Peter sank under the waves of the storm it was a hand like his own hand that grabbed him and lifted him up. It wasn’t only the stormy water of the lake that Jesus crossed to help them. He crossed over from heaven to earth and became human to help and to save them and us.
I think I have told you the story of Psalm 69 and its connection to the time I drowned. To make a long story short, I drowned on my senior class “Senior Skip Day”. Our class took the school bus up to a lake in the foothills, and I drowned.
I wasn’t breathing. I was purple when they got me out of the water. When I got home at the end of the day, I opened one of my Bibles.  (It was really my Dad’s old Sunday School Bible.) It opened straight to these words in Psalm 69: “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. (Psalm 69:1-2)
The way that Bible opened was a sign. It was a small and clear sign that God was there with me in my room, and in the Bible on my lap. It told me that he was there when I was underwater and couldn’t get to the surface. It told me that it was his small, still voice that told me to trust him when taking one more breath would mean death. He could make me live when I should have died. He could even bring me back when I had left this world. I could trust him.
The truth is: I don’t always trust him, but he is always better to me than I am to him. He is that faithful.
The most interesting thing about this Psalm is that it is about two people at the same time. The Psalm is about David being surrounded by enemies. It’s also about Jesus being surrounded by enemies. Jesus lived out the words of this Psalm when he was dying for the sins of the world on the cross.
When Jesus drove out the “money changers” (the currency exchange officers) from the Temple in Jerusalem, his disciples looked back and remembered this Psalm and the words: “zeal for your house consumes me.” (Psalm 69:9; see John 2:17)
The Temple was the place where people came into the presence of God. Because of the cross, Jesus is now the place where people come into the presence of God. On the cross, Jesus was consumed with our sufferings and sins. His zeal for opening the way to the Father is what consumed him on the cross.
On the cross the guards gave Jesus vinegar to drink. (Matthew 27:48, The Psalm says: “They…gave me vinegar for my thirst.” He came to cure our hunger and thirst. He was hungry and thirsty for us, in our place.
In the story of the storm where Peter nearly drowned, Jesus’ hand was the hand of God saving him when Peter yelled for help. In this Psalm Jesus is also the drowning man crying for a saving hand.
Jesus became human in order to cry out and reach out for the hand of God. God, in Jesus, cried for the help that only God can give.
We ask for help, but we don’t even ask for help very well. Our cries for help, our cries for God, are full of pride and full of blame. Even our hand reaching out for another hand is half full of ourselves. In Jesus, God reaches out for salvation and for rescue on our behalf. In Jesus God does what we cannot do. When we are under water, in whatever our storm may be, Jesus does our reaching with us. He helps us do our reaching out, with a degree of humility and a whole heartedness that we can never match.
Christ is God reaching out his hand to those in need. Christ is Peter reaching up to the hand of God for us. He does this on the cross.

The Psalm is like a bridge on which we meet ourselves and God, in Christ. The cross is also the bridge. Christ is the bridge, the bridge of hands holding on to each other. This is God’s word about storms, and about faith, and about us, and about how God makes us his storm art.


  1. Put your hand in the hand of the Man who stilled the water.
    Remember that song? This reminded me of it.

    1. I remember that song very pretty well. There was also a chorus that goes "Here comes Jesus, see him walking on the water..." etc.