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Learning to Walk – Our Spiritual Journey

May 18, 2008

Matthew 14:22-32

Sometimes people ask me where sermons come from, and some of you know that Holly has been away on vacation with her family. The week before she left, she prepared the Order of Service. She asked me if I had a sermon title and Scripture passage, and I answered, “No, Holly. I am still working on Mother’s Day.” Holly gave the title of the wonderful anthem our choir sang today, “Psalms for the Journey,” and I thought that maybe I should preach on a topic that relates to that anthem.

Then on Monday morning, I was walking down the hall here behind the Sanctuary and saw on the bulletin board a poster for the WMU. The verse of Scripture on that poster came from Paul’s letter to the Colossians; “We pray this in order that you may walk worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). I thought, “Psalms for the Journey” and “walking worthy of our calling”…Maybe I need to preach a sermon about walking.

Through the week, I have tried to pay attention to walking. I saw a paraplegic veteran confined to a wheelchair who was unable to walk at all. I also heard a news story about a South African man who was born with a deformity. He had no bones below the knees, and he has won prosthetic limbs all of his life. Now, his appeal is to run in the Olympics, using blades. Though that appeal was granted, he has not yet qualified. It will be so interesting to see if this athlete is able to run at some point in the Olympic games with those prosthetic limbs. At the public library this week, I saw a poor soul struggling with crutches, trying to maintain balance just to get in the door. Then on Friday, my dear friend Charlie Tubb died. Charlie was the Scout Master for all four of our sons when each earned his Eagle Scout Award. I had been hiking and backpacking with Charlie a number of times, and his death somewhat confirmed that I needed to talk about walking this morning.

We should never take the ability to walk for granted. That gift really is a gift of God. Most of us develop this physical skill early in life. The very word toddler is a description of the way we walk early in our life. People who can walk can choose, if they would like, as our own David White did last year, to walk from Georgia to Maine. He hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, a total of 2,200 miles. Those who can walk may choose to walk across America or hike the Pacific Crest Trail. What an amazing gift!

I have chosen a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that may seem unusual to you, the story of Simon Peter, attempting to walk on water. By almost any measure, his attempt was a failure, so why would I choose such a passage? Why not choose the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul who walked across Asia Minor into Europe and finally into the city of Rome? Certainly his endeavor seems more successful that Simon Peter’s attempt to walk on water.

For those of us who are Christians, the real issue is not the physical ability to walk. Whether we are physically fit or physically impaired, the real issue for us is our spiritual walk, the way we “walk in the Spirit,” as the apostle Paul words it in Galatians 5:16. This type of walking is for everyone. It seems to me that we can find no better place to look for guidance about our spiritual walk than Matthew 14, beginning at Verse 22. Hear now the Word of God.

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it is you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said. “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.

Let me take a few moments to put this passage into context for you. The scene, of course, is the Sea of Galilee, sometimes called the Sea of Tiberius or Lake Gennesaret. Gennesaret is the word for “harp.” If you stand on the Golan Heights and look down at the Sea of Galilee, this large body of water has the shape of a shepherd’s harp. Jesus planned to take his disciples away to get some rest; but when they came to a place that was typically isolated, a large crowd met them. It was on that occasion that Jesus fed the multitude. Scripture mentions 5,000, but most commentators say that that number was 5,000 men. At least 15,000 growling stomachs – probably a conservative figure – were on the hillside that afternoon. A boy had brought his lunch, consisting of five loaves and two fish. It is a miracle that he had not already eaten his meal. Jesus took this meager amount of food and blessed it. Then he multiplied it and gave it back to the disciples who fed everyone there.

The crowd’s reaction was an attempt to make him a king. They did not want “the King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” that God had in mind. Instead, they desired a king that could meet all their needs, a king who could do whatever needed to be done. That is usually what people want from leadership. Jesus’ response was to send the disciples on ahead of him across the lake and to disperse the crowd. Then Jesus himself went up on the mountain to pray.

Why? The temptation here to Jesus is very much the same as it was earlier in the wilderness. You remember that he was tempted in three ways: to turn stones to bread, to throw himself down off the top of the temple in order to prove he could be rescued in a spectacular way, and to instantaneously to claim all the kingdoms of the world. These people wanted to make him king because he had fed them. The temptations were almost the same – to be a miraculous messiah, a spectacular messiah, an expedient messiah, an economic messiah. Jesus went away by himself to pray, to once again ponder his calling to be the “suffering servant” that we read about in Isaiah.

Meanwhile, the disciples are in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Ordinarily fairly calm, that body of water can have some ferocious storms. The wind can come down out of those mountains to the north and really churn up the lake. These disciples knew the peril before them because they had been in a storm in these waters before. Matthew 8 tells us about a storm in which Jesus was in the boat with them, asleep on a pillow. Frightened, they woke him up and he spoke those words, “Peace. Be still.” The waters became calm and the wind still. They certainly understood the danger of a storm in these waters. Remember that at least four of these men were seasoned fishermen who had a respect for the water.

From his vantage point on the mountain, Jesus could see the Sea of Galilee and their boat. A very important point is that he knew about the storm. From his vantage point, he could see the trouble ahead for them. Jesus knew about the storm in this instance, and he knows about the storms in our life. He came to these disciples during the fourth watch, the darkest part of the night – between 3:00 A.M. and 6:00 A.M. Seeing Jesus walk across the stormy water, they become frightened and thought he was a ghost. Jesus spoke words that are reminiscent of those God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who I am.” Jesus told these terrified men, “Take courage. It is I.” Here, the Son of God, the divine Son of God, spoke words that basically claim, “I am Yahweh. I am sovereign. Do not be afraid. I am in control.”

Even if we were not given his name, we would still know which disciple issued a challenge. Simon Peter confronted Jesus, “If it is really you, let me walk on the water to you.” Jesus answered, “Come on.” He must have done so with a smile on his face. I can only imagine that the others were thinking, “Here he goes again” when Peter stepped over the side of the boat. It is a wonder someone did not yell, “Man overboard!” When he actually took a few steps on the top of the water, everybody except Jesus must have been surprised. After just a few steps, however, Peter became distracted and took his eyes off of Jesus. Maybe he looked down to see how well he was doing. Whatever happened, he began sinking and cried out, “Lord, save me!”

This week I found a verse in Psalm 138:7 that sounds just like Simon Peter’s experience on that occasion: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life…with your right hand, you save me.” In the midst of trouble, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out, took Peter’s hand, and lifted him out of that sea. Jesus did not drag him like a fishing lure through the water. They walked together and got inside the boat.

Jesus chastised Simon Peter, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” Obviously, Peter had little faith, but at least he stepped out of the boat. Jesus probably said those words to all the disciples. The others had not even made an attempt and seemed stunned by what they saw. Jesus’ words, “You of little faith,” speak to us, too. Have you ever tried walking on water?

Last year, an African pastor told his congregation that he thought that if he had enough faith God would allow him to walk on water. On an appointed day, he and his entire congregation walked to the bank of an estuary that flowed into the ocean. He chose a point in the river that would have taken twenty minutes to cross to the other side by boat. The congregation gathered, sang songs, and prayed. When this pastor stepped out into the water, he disappeared, never to be seen again.

I do not recommend that you try this unusual event that we read about in the Bible. Hollywood was able to accomplish this feat; I have seen a movie where a ninja master walked on water. No one else has been able to do so. In Capernaum, someone has created plans for a possible tourist attraction to replicate Jesus’ walking on water. The proposal is to build a Plexiglas platform into the Sea of Galilee. The top of the platform would be just an inch or so below the surface of the water. Buying a ticket would allow a person to walk out on that platform and appear as if he or she were walking on the water. The platform would parallel the beach for a little way so that family and friends could stand on the beach and take pictures. I firmly believe in gravity and do not even recommend that.

I do recommend that we look at Simon Peter’s experience and at other passages of Scripture to understand what it means to walk the spiritual life. As we do so, I will mention seven concepts about the spiritual life.

First, a spiritual walk with the Lord requires simplicity. “Travel light” is a backpacking motto. If you are going to travel by walking, you must unburden yourself. Take only the necessities, and cast off anything that creates a burden. Jesus told the rich young ruler, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” because he realized that the ruler’s possessions were too important (Luke 18:22). We must disengage ourselves from material possessions. They belong to God anyway. Everything belongs to God. None of it is ours. The more material possessions we have, the more encumbered we are. We must also unburden ourselves from emotional cares and anxieties. Peter counsels in his letter, “Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Material possessions, as well as apprehension, worry, and emotional concerns, weigh a person down and interfere with the spiritual walk.

A tourist wanted to visit a Russian rabbi who was quite a famous writer. Upon arriving, the tourist was appalled at the neighborhood where the rabbi lived and even more appalled at the rabbi’s home. He saw just a simple hotplate to cook meals on, a pallet rolled out on the floor, and a few books. There was no place to sit except on the floor.

The tourist asked, “Where are all your things?”

The rabbi answered, “What things are you talking about?”

“Your bed, your desk, your chair.”

The rabbi asked the tourist, “Where are all your things?”

“I don’t have my things with me because I am traveling.”

The rabbi explained, “I am traveling, too.”

We are all on a journey, a spiritual pilgrimage. We must travel light.

Second, this spiritual walk requires humility. We cannot do anything in our own strength. The single most important mistake that people can make is thinking they can live life without any help from God. Micah 6:8 says, “Walk humbly with your God.” Thinking that we can face life with all of its complications, sorrows, and storms in our own strength is absolute foolishness. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). God walks with us. The offertory this morning came from the hymn “In the Garden”: “I come to the garden alone…And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am his own…” We must realize that we can do nothing in our own strength.

Third, this journey requires endurance. We must never quit. We must keep going, keep trying, by putting one foot in front of the other.

One year I was with Charlie Tubb on a fifty-mile hike. Charlie always walked at the front of the line with the boys who were fast, the mountain goats, we called them. A plodder myself, I stayed at the back of the line with the slower boys having a hard time.

Five miles into the hike, a young Scout removed his backpack, sat down by the trail, and complained, “I cannot go any further.”

I answered, “Okay” and kept walking up the trail.

He called out, “Wait a minute, Dr. Kirk! You cannot leave me here!”

I answered, “I have forty-five miles to go. What am I going to do, put you on my back and carry you? I have to go on with the group.”

He moaned, “I can’t do this.”

I asked him, “Would you like me to teach you how to hike fifty miles?”

He said, “Yes.”

“Come up here by me.” He put his backpack on and walked to where I was. I asked, “Do you see that big pine up ahead? Do you think you could make it to that tree?”

“Yes, I can make it that far.”

“Let’s walk to the pine tree.” When we reached that point and turned a little bend, we saw that the hill went straight up. He moaned, “Oh, no.”

I asked, “Do you see that big rock up on the hill? Do you think you can make it to that rock?”

“I think so. I’ll try.”

“Okay, let’s go to the rock.” We got there and realized it was a peak. We looked down a long ridge and saw a bridge over a creek. I said, “Do you think you can make it down to that bridge?”

“I think so.”

“Let’s go to the bridge.”

We continued hiking the rest of the day and set up camp that night. I asked the young man, “Have you learned how to walk fifty miles?”

“I think the trick is that you do not have to do it all at once.”

He was exactly right. He realized that he did not have to complete the journey all at once, but he did have to keep going, keep moving toward his destination. We must do the same. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Eugene Peterson has written a wonderful book about this part of our spiritual pilgrimage. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction focuses on sticking with a purpose, having spiritual endurance.

Last year, I attended a wedding for my nephew in a Catholic church. The priest gave a homily to this young couple. (I am always a little suspicious of a priest that gives marital advice, but what do I know? I have been married forty-three years, and I am still trying to learn.) Father Hernan had some good advice for this couple. He told them that when he was in Rome, he wanted to go to Milan. He told a friend, and that friend encouraged him, “You ought to go. It’s a wonderful place.” The rabbi asked, “What do I need to take with me?” This person replied, “If you go to Milan, you need to take a companion.”

My fourth suggestion is that on this spiritual pilgrimage, you should have a companion. I suggest you take a church full of companions because there is strength in numbers. I love how you serve as companions to each other on this spiritual pilgrimage. Walking together on this spiritual pilgrimage is wonderful. Companions give encouragement when times are difficult and also make the journey more enjoyable.

The companion on my spiritual journey is my wife, Clare. At times, I feel like quitting. I know that it is hard to believe your pastor would feel this way. I have a good wife, and she says, “Let me give you something refreshing from my canteen. Let’s keep going.” At times I have to encourage her, as well.

My favorite American fairytale, as I have told you before, is Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Four characters in that story travel together, each searching for something. Dorothy wants to return to her family in Kansas, the scarecrow desires a brain, the tin man wishes for a heart, and the lion longs for renewed courage. The group follows the yellow brick road and in the end receives their wishes because of their companionship along the way.

Our spiritual pilgrimage works the same way. We do not need faith to walk on water, but we do need faith enough to endure the storms together. That is the nature of the church, and that is the beauty of companionship.

Fifth, this spiritual journey requires faith. “We walk by faith and not by sight,” the apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:7. We sometimes walk in the dark and cannot see all that is ahead of us, but we can use a light. In the same way we use a flashlight to light our path in the dark, we have the light of Christ. A flashlight puts forth enough light that allows us to see the next step. Christ does the same for us. He does not necessarily illuminate the whole pathway all at once, but he does illuminate the next step. That is what it means to walk by faith. Simon Peter did a good job walking on the water as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. When he became distracted, however, he started to sink.

Have you watched the way children learn to walk? They pull up on the coffee table and bounce a little bit on those legs, trying to keep them good and solid underneath them. Then maybe without knowing it, they let go of the table but grab it again quickly when they realize they have turned loose. Sometimes when they wake up in the middle of the night, they grab the side of the crib and bounce on those little legs, trying to gain strength. Finally, they walk when someone encourages them, “Come on.” A parent or a grandparent will hold out an arm, persuading the child, “Come on. You can do it.” Why does that child walk? The child trusts that person and knows that the person bidding them to walk loves them. They know that if they fall, that person will help them.

This example is very much like Jesus’ statement to Simon Peter, “Come on.” If you walk this spiritual walk, you, too, will fall; but the Lord Jesus will lift you up as surely as he did Simon Peter, as surely as a caring parent loves the child learning to walk. Trust is essential along this journey.

Sixth, we must have a distinct purpose and destination. Rick Warren’s book A Purpose Driven Life reminds us of this fact. Lewis Sherrill’s book entitled The Struggle of the Soul says that some people live by saga. He means that they are always looking for the thrills they can find in life. It reminds me of a beer commercial that promotes, “Grab all the gusto you can. You only go around once.” Some people spend their whole life, looking for the gusto, looking for one thrill after another, with no sense of purpose. For others, life is nothing but a treadmill, nothing more but the same old tedious life. They have no sense of purpose or destination. Sherrill proposes a third way to live – as a Christian, traveling with others on a pilgrimage, a long journey. We are walking by faith, but we have a purpose to follow Jesus wherever he leads. “Footprints of Jesus that make the pathway glow; We will follow the steps of Jesus where they go” is our definition of destination and purpose. A successful spiritual journey requires that we keep that goal in mind.

Finally, we have a responsibility to be faithful to this journey. We must be faithful in our obedience to the Christ who calls us to follow him. Others are following us, looking at the way we do this. Clare and I love the song by Steve Green, “May all who come behind us find us faithful. May the fire of our devotion light their way. May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe and the lives we live inspire them to obey. May all who come behind us find us faithful.”

I invite you to join together on this spiritual journey. We have good reason to travel together; we are following the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have never accepted him as your Savior, the journey begins there. Accept him as Savior and Lord of your life.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely


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