We are continuing in our worship series called “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life.” Last week we looked at the journey of Abram when God called him to travel to an unknown place. This week’s travelers are going to a known place: the promised land. God delivered God’s people out of slavery in Egypt to go to the land God promised to give them. There they would worship God and be God’s holy nation. Unlike Abram, they knew the geographic coordinates for the land. Like Abram, they didn’t know what the land was like – what the terrain and agriculture were like and, more importantly, who were the land’s current tenants. When they got to their destination, the Lord told Moses to send some spies to check out the land – is it good or bad, are the people few or many, strong or weak – and then report back. Listen to their report, beginning in Numbers Chapter 13, verse 25. Listen for God’s Word. Read Numbers 13:25-14:4.
In the New Testament, we read about a journey on water – first by boat, then by foot. Jesus had just miraculously fed 5,000 people. Then immediately he told the disciples to get in the boat and go to the other side of the water while he dismissed the crowd. The disciples probably expected Jesus to charter another boat and meet up with them later on the far shore. But Jesus had other means of transportation. Listen again for God’s Word. Read Matthew 14:22-33. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Whenever I travel, I always look forward to visiting other congregations and hearing other preachers preach. One of my favorite preachers I’ve had the opportunity to hear several times is a man named Father Tom, a Catholic priest in Kenya. I’ve had the privilege of going on several missions to Kenya, and each time I look forward to being with Father Tom and his congregation.
The congregation’s sanctuary is a little unique. They meet in the corridor of a Catholic hospital located about an hour’s drive from Nairobi. One of my favorite parts of worship in general and especially in that setting is the pastoral prayer. It feels like holy ground. There’s something powerful about praying for healing for the sick or comfort for those who mourn when at any moment someone might be wheeled on a gurney right through the center aisle of the worship space on the way to surgery or sometimes the morgue.
That’s the context in which Father Tom preaches every week. I always glean some wonderful insight from his sermons that tends to stick with me for a while. My favorite of all time is this: “In life, it’s not about what you do. It’s about what you see, out of which you do.”
In our texts today, we have various people who saw things, and what they saw prompted what they did. The Israelite spies went to see the promised land, and the land was everything God promised it would be – it was a land flowing with milk and honey. But rather than talking about all the great things of the land, their report focused on the people they saw. They were strong, agile, mobile, and surely hostile.
Only one of the spies Caleb was convinced that they could overcome them and take the land. God promised them the land, and God would keep God’s promise, no matter how strong their opponents were.
The others weren’t so convinced. After Caleb dared to interrupt them with his little Pollyanna pep talk, they continued their report, this time focusing, not on what they saw in the land’s inhabitants, but what they saw in themselves. “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers.”
And here’s my favorite part: Without likely having had any conversation with the people in this foreign land and certainly without having asked them, “Hey, what do you think – do you think you could take us in a fight?” they assumed they knew what the people thought of them: “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Numbers 13:33).
To assess an organization, leaders often perform what’s called a SWOT analysis – an in-depth study of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. When considering the threats to an organization, good leaders look at both external and internal threats – often finding that the internal threats are the bigger obstacle.
Such was the case for the spies and, in turn, the entire congregation of Israel.
We each have two faith tanks: Faith in God and faith in ourselves. When one or both faith tanks is low, we see everything through a lens of fear.
Such was the case for the spies and, in turn, the entire congregation of Israel.
They may have had faith in God, at least in theory. But they didn’t have faith in themselves. When one or both faith tanks is low, we see everything through a lens of fear. That’s how they saw the future and how they saw themselves – through a lens of fear: “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we. To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
While they saw the future and themselves through a lens of fear, they saw the past through rose-colored glasses. What was once their biggest fear now didn’t seem so scary in comparison to what they were about to face. “Remember Egypt?” they said. “Slavery wasn’t all that bad. Let’s go back there!”
They could easily have gone back to where they had been. It wasn’t that far. People often ask, “Why did it take the Israelites forty years to get to the promised land?” It didn’t. The most direct route was about an eleven-day journey. They took a more scenic route and traveled for sixty days, not counting the very important, roughly two years they spent at Sinai where they received God’s law and learned how they were called to live as a people of faith in God.
After those roughly two years and sixty days, they arrived at the promised land – hence, their ability to send out spies because they were in close proximity. Because of the spies’ lack of faith and the resulting lack of faith of the people – based on what they’d been told by human naysayers, not based on what they’d been told by God – they were to wander in that wilderness for forty years until the present generation was gone. The present generation never saw the promised land; only the future generations did.
It may sound like punishment. But as a parent disciplines a child for a purpose, so God disciplines God’s children for a purpose. They’d already spent two years learning what it meant to be a people of faith in God. Now they needed to spend time learning, not just about faith in God, but about faith in themselves. They needed to learn to see, not how they or others saw them, but how God saw them.
Peter at times seemed to think a lot of himself. Of all the disciples, I think Peter is my favorite. Yes, we read a lot more about him in Scripture and, thus, know more about him. But he’s also very relatable. Like me, Peter, suffered from foot-in-mouth disease. You know, “Open mouth, insert foot”? Peter had a tendency to speak before he thought. In passages of Scripture we read during Lent, Jesus predicted Peter’s denial of him, and Peter said, “I’ll never deny you” (Mark 14:31). Never say never, right?
Here I can imagine Peter’s words coming from one of two – or perhaps both – mentalities. He was with his buddies. He liked to sound confident and self-assured in front of them. So when Jesus told Peter, “It is I,” Peter thought, maybe even whispered to his buddies, “Watch this!” and then said to Jesus, “OK, Jesus, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Or perhaps he was lacking confidence, but he didn’t want anyone to know he was lacking confidence. (Again, someone we can all relate to sometimes, right?) So he asked what sounded like a brazen statement, but also was a cry for a sign: “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Whatever the motive, Jesus called his bluff. “Come.” And Peter started to walk on the water.
He was doing just fine for a while …when suddenly he began to sink. Notice when he started to sink. It’s found in verse 30, and to me it’s one of the most significant phrases in all of Scripture, in all of faith. “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened.”
The previous verse talks about his walking on water and coming toward Jesus. He was doing fine when his eyes were on Jesus. But when the wind picked up, he had to make a choice about what he saw. Everything hinged on whether he focused his eyes on the Savior – or whether he focused hie eyes on the storm.
When he took his eyes off the Savior and turned his eyes to the storm, fear crept in, and sinking began.
Do you remember the first time you jumped off the high diving board at the pool? I don’t remember my exact age, but I remember the feeling. Do you? All your friends were doing it. You wanted to look cool and confident – even if you were anything but – so you climbed up that ladder, walked the length of the board, and then looked down. Somehow, when looking up from down below, the board didn’t seem that high. But when looking down…whew!….that’s a big jump! The longer I stood on the end of the board, the more my knees started shaking, which made the board start shaking, which, in turn, made both my knees and the board start shaking all the more. That first time I probably didn’t so much jump off as I did fall off. Either way, the result was the same – I got through that first jump, which made every jump after that a little easier.
Pastor and author John Ortberg says jumping into a pool is a parable of courage. In his book titled If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (the title is a sermon in and of itself), Ortberg tells the story of a two-year-old girl standing by the side of the pool. “Jump!” her father says with open arms. ”You can trust me. I won’t let you fall. Jump!”
She is, in that moment, a bundle of inner conflict. On the one hand, everything inside her is screaming to stay put. The water is deep, cold, and dangerous. She’s never done this before. What if something were to go wrong? Bad things could happen. After all, it’s her life at stake here. On the other hand, that’s her daddy in the water. He’s bigger and stronger than she is and has been relatively trustworthy up to this point for the past two years. He seems to be quite confident about the outcome: “Jump! You can trust me!”
The battle is between fear and trust. Trust says, “Jump!” Fear says, “No!”
She cannot stand on the side of the pool forever. Eventually she comes to the moment of decision. She is more than just her fears – or her confidence, for that matter. Inside is a tiny spark of will, and with that little spark she determines her destiny: She will jump, or she will back away. Whichever this little girl chooses will lead to significant consequences. If she chooses to jump, she will become a little more confident of her father’s ability to catch her. She’ll be more likely to take the leap the next time. The water will hold less terror for her. Ultimately, she will come to see herself as the kind of person who will not be held back by fear.
If she decides not to jump, that will also have consequences. She will lose the opportunity to discover that her father can be trusted. She will be a little more inclined toward safety next time. She might learn to see herself as the kind of person who does not respond bravely to challenges. She will work hard to make sure she avoids being faced with decisions involving fear in the future.
Ortberg concludes the parable by saying, “I want my children to have an appropriate fear of the water. There is a place for fear. But I want trust to be stronger. I never want the ‘no’ of fear to trump the ‘yes’ of faith.”
My childhood fear of water may have been overcome on a diving board. My adulthood experience of water has come from learning how to do stand-up paddle boarding. If you ever want to grow in both humility and confidence (it’s funny how those two often go together), I encourage you to try stand-up paddle boarding. Two life lessons I’ve learned from it: The faster you decide to take a stand, the better off you are. And if you keep worrying too much that you might fall, chances are you will.
“In life, it’s not about what you do. It’s about what you see, out of which you do.”
Which do you and I see? Do we see the storm – or do we see the Savior?
Don’t let the “no” of fear trump the “yes” of faith.
But when we do…know that the Savior is still there. Jesus has more faith in us than we do in ourselves. When Peter saw the storm, not the Savior, and began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” When we find ourselves neck deep in water, sometimes that’s all we can think to cry out – “Lord, save me!” – and all the time, that’s all we have to cry out. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Sometimes in our fears, our fallings, and our doubts, we, too, discover new faith.
Fear says no. Faith says yes. To what will our faith say yes today?
That overarching question “To what will our faith say yes today?” leads to this week’s application questions. Question #1: In what situations right now do you see yourself as a grasshopper? Think of some big, new, maybe even scary situation or change or decision that you are facing or that your family is facing or that our congregation is facing. Some situation that makes you think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s too risky. I don’t have what it takes. What if people laugh? I don’t want to embarrass myself. What if I fail?” Think of some situation in your life that makes you, like the Israelites, feel like a grasshopper compared to how ginormous that situation or change or decision is.
Now listen to how God sees you. A child of God. His chosen one. God’s servant with whom God is well pleased. The light of the world. By God’s mercy God has commissioned us to carry out God’s mission. You and I are plan A. There is no plan B.
If that causes your knees to shake, then consider Paul’s words when he faced persecution and even death in his quest to carry out God’s mission. Paul wrote to the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He wrote to the Philippians, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
Now think again of that big, scary situation, change, or decision you are facing. When you are tempted to see yourself as a grasshopper, repeat Paul’s words to yourself: “If God is for us, who can against us? I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
A related, but similar, question: Question #2: What’s your diving board right now? What’s that crossroads in your life that seems like a defining moment – a moment where you have to choose between faith and fear? Like that little girl standing on the edge of the pool, to choose to jump means to grow a little more confident in her father’s ability to catch her. To choose not to jump means to lose an opportunity to discover that her father can be trusted.
If there’s anyone who can be trusted, it’s our Heavenly Father. And the only way to grow in our trust and faith is to take that jump.
Now put yourself in Peter’s shoes. When you’re tempted to focus more on the storm than on the Savior – there’s no if we’re tempted to focus more on the storm than on the Savior, because we all do it – when you’re tempted to focus more on the storm than on the Savior, what do you need to do to turn your eyes back to Jesus? What’s one thing you can do this week to focus your vision more on Jesus?
What’s one step you can take this week to say “no” to fear and “yes” to faith?
God, just like our Israelite ancestors, we often see ourselves like grasshoppers when it comes to the challenges that we face. Help us to see ourselves the way You see us. Help us to see You for who You truly are: The Mighty God, the Lord of the universe, the One for whom nothing is impossible. May we trust You with new possibilities today. In the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen.