Uniform 12.28.2014: Faith for the Unexpected

Matthew 14:22-36

One of my favorite movies to watch at Christmas is The Bishop’s Wife. In it, a frazzled bishop, played by David Niven, prays for God’s guidance as he struggles to raise funds for a new cathedral and maintain a healthy relationship with his wife (Loretta Young). He expects God to help him understand how to convince wealthy church members to donate to the cause, which he believes will solve all his problems. Instead, God sends an angel named Dudley, played by Cary Grant. Dudley doesn’t show the bishop how to raise money. In fact, Dudley is hardly interested in the cathedral. Rather than schmoozing rich widows, Dudley spends his time breathing joy back into the bishop’s family. The bishop notices such a change in his wife that he sees Dudley as a romantic rival, and he asks Dudley to leave. He would rather not have God’s help at all than for that help to come in a threatening way. His expectations for where God should be and how God should work prevent him from seeing God in surprising places.

Even at Christmas, when we celebrate God’s coming into the world in a radically surprising way, we are similarly guilty of limiting God’s work to what is familiar and comfortable. We often look for God’s presence among us in the formula Luke 2 sets out. We see God’s signature in the night sky, in boisterous carols, and in the faces of newborn babies. Finding God among us in these ways feels cozy and affirming, like sitting in a tree-lit room surrounded by loved ones.

But limiting God’s work to a baby in a manger deprives us of the complex ways that Jesus reveals God beyond the Christmas story. Matthew 14 reminds us that encounters with God-made-flesh can be frightening and intense. God’s glory is not confined to a starry night in Bethlehem; it can also be seen in the wild, ghost-like figure that walks across a choppy sea.

Like Peter in this week’s lesson text, and like David Niven’s bishop, we must decide how to respond to Jesus’ surprising revelations of God. Both men want to react with faith but struggle to maintain their enthusiasm when they realize the implications of what God is doing. When an angel makes his wife happy in a way he cannot, the bishop wants God’s help to come in a less emotionally complicated way. And when Peter understands that Jesus has called him to walk on deep water, he is overwhelmed by what might happen if his faith is misplaced.

If we only expect God to come in peaceful snapshots of the nativity, we won’t be prepared when God is revealed to us in other ways. Instead, we’ll sink into our doubt and confusion like Peter and the bishop.

This Christmas, let’s marvel at the baby in the manger. He is, after all, God with us. But let us not forget that God is with us in many challenging and surprising ways all year long.

Discussion

1. Have you ever been disappointed by the way God offered you help or guidance? What was that experience like?
2. Where did you recognize God’s presence in your celebration of Christmas? Did you see God anywhere new this year?
3. How have you seen Jesus beyond the manger this week? How can we continue to search for God’s human presence all year long?
4. When has a new experience of God made you uncomfortable? How did you resolve your discomfort?
5. How do you respond to new discoveries of God’s character? How can we step out in faith to meet God in unexpected places in the coming year?

Reference Shelf

Verses 28-31, like Matthew 16:16-19 and 17:24-27, focus on Peter and his relationship with Jesus. Since the passage is marked by typical Matthean vocabulary, most scholars think the First Evangelist composed this passage, but most also think it is based on oral tradition. First of all, it needs to be said that Peter is the only disciple in this story who initially overcomes fear and is prepared literally to step out on faith and come to Jesus on the water. He asks Jesus to tell him to come to him. Jesus simply says, “Come.”

If we ask what went wrong, Hagner is probably right in concluding that Peter lost concentration, distracted by the wind. His nerve and his faith failed as he gave way to fear. He panicked when he began to sink and cried out, “Lord, save me.” The story says that immediately Jesus reached out to him and caught him, and then after the rescue he said, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The sequel to this is that they both climb back into the boat. Peter then has become the poster child of both faith and too little faith, of faith giving way to doubt and fear but also of faith overcoming one’s initial fears.

Notice the parallels between this
 story and the stilling of the storm in 
Matthew 8, where the cry for rescue in both stories is identical— “Lord, save.” Peter here, like all the disciples in Matthew 8:26, is said to be of little faith. The verb often translated “doubt,” diastazein, is found in the New Testament only here and at Matthew 28:17 in the post-Easter appearance story. It literally means to be of a divided mind. This was precisely Peter’s difficulty. He had some faith, but he also had fears. Concentration and single—mindedness and trust in Jesus are required. In this case, Peter needed to keep his eyes on Jesus and not focus on the frightening wind and waters. Real faith requires real concentration and not focusing on the difficulties. But when one is sinking and there seems to be no remedy, as Hagner says, “In the moment of most dire human need, there is but one cry, just as there is but one source of salvation.”

According to v. 32, when they got into the boat, the wind ceased, not in response to a command but simply in response to Jesus getting on board. All of this taken together suggests we are to see the story as theophanic in character, and the First Evangelist makes this far clearer than Mark by concluding with the worship of Jesus right in the boat and the acclamation “truly you are the Son of God.” Only God’s divine offspring could do what the disciples had just witnessed. We should contrast this ending with the ending to the stilling of the storm story in Matthew 8:23-27, where the miracle simply prompts the question “Who is this masked man?” We should also note that all the disciples make this acclamation in a moment of worship; this makes Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi in Matthew 16 less singular than it is in the Markan account. But in fact, we are building to the climax of confessions in Matthew 16:16, which is a major turning point in the whole Matthean narrative. What one will say impromptu when caught up in a moment of miracle and worship is one thing. What one says in the presence of pagan idols outside one’s comfort zone of Galilee, and when one is actually questioned about one’s faith in Jesus is another matter, as we shall see.

Reference

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 292-94.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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