Here’s the promised sermon by Rev. Dr. Karl Böhmer on the gospel of Matthew chapter 14:22-27:
“It all started just before WW2 – the superhero craze, I mean. Oh, there had been heroes before, popular heroes, superheroes even, champions of legend and mythology like Hercules and Thor and Neptune/Poseidon, the god of the sea. But fictional heroes waned in western culture until just before WW2. That’s when Superman and his fellow superheroes made their first appearance, back in 1938, followed by Captain Marvel, Batman, The Phantom, and all the rest. Recently, the superhero genre has experienced a massive boom in the film industry. X-Men. Spiderman. Batman vs. Superman. And there is a whole whack of superhero movies in the making.
What does this phenomenon tell us about the human psyche? It tells us that there is a connection between the weal and woe of the times, and what people want. Consider the connection between the turmoil of WW2 – and the creation of the superheroes. Or the connection between the rise in terrorism, Islamism, the economic collapse, and the global uncertainty of the present. It seems to me that when people face great difficulty or uncertain times, they instinctively resonate with stories of superhuman saviours who are generally benevolent, extremely powerful, and willing to intervene in world history for the benefit of mankind. One might almost think that we are programmed that way. That when danger threatens, we look to the skies for help, for help to come from above, to neutralize evil, make things safe, and ensure a nice, satisfying “happily ever after…” Could it be that this yearning was planted in us? We read in Acts that the God who made the world and everything in it … made from one man every nation of mankind… that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us… (Acts 17:24-27) God has made all people so that they would seek Him, but you find God only where He comes to find you. That’s what’s going on in our reading. The events we hear about today happen immediately after the feeding of the 5,000. This is the second time in Mt that Jesus is with the disciples out on the water at night in adverse conditions. But this is not just another stilling of the storm.
First, Jesus is personally responsible for the separation between disciples and himself. They are out on the water in a boat at night, away from him, because he sent them there. He made the disciples get into the boat and go before him while he dismisses the crowd and goes up on the mountain to find rest in prayer. Jesus is clearly in charge of the scene. Why send them out like this into a headwind? Sailing in a headwind can be done, but it takes hard work. Now, the lake is big, and the night is long, but it’s not as if they are in great danger. It’s not life-threatening – it’s just difficult. These are experienced sailors. So Jesus lets them go until they are about halfway. And then he comes to them walking on the lake between 3 am and 6 am. The men are not afraid – until Jesus shows up. Why?
The way Mt tells the story, you have to notice that Jesus is doing all of the verbs. He created the situation, he is in charge of it, and he is showing himself in this way to make a point. He is doing what God does whenever He offers a theophany, God showing Himself. Think about the time Moses asks to see God. Moses has to hide in the cleft of a rock – and God passes by, demonstrating who He is. What Jesus is doing is a demonstration of deity. Forget superhuman. Forget superhero. This is a manifestation of supreme authority, this is the amazing truth that he, the man from Galilee, is the master of the storm. Forget Neptune and Poseidon. Jesus is the God of the storm. That’s the first point. Jesus sends the disciples out and he comes to them in this amazing way because he wants to show who he is. But the thing is – they don’t get it. They didn’t recognize him for who he is the first time he stilled a storm. They didn’t recognize him for who he is earlier at the feeding of the 5,000, and they don’t recognize him now. Try for a moment to see Jesus the way they would have. The wind is blowing in your face, hard. It’s been doing that all night, and you’re really tired of it. In fact, you’re tired, period. You’re just about halfway, it’s 3 am, and it’s not smooth sailing. You keep having to duck as the sail snaps past to the other side and the boat changes direction, yet again. Back and forth, back and forth. Nobody gets to sleep. The wind is blowing something awful. And then suddenly, you notice a figure inserting himself into the situation, approaching the boat, walking over the waves, straight into the wind. A vision that is out of this world. But what really gets you is that this figure is absolutely calm, absolutely in control, even as the wind whips at him, and he’s headed in a fixed direction while you struggle to maintain any direction at all. He’s resolutely striding, very determined, a picture of total control. It’s totally eerie. It’s incredible, unbelievable. The sailors think he’s some kind of apparition, something like Neptune riding on the roiling sea. Here their Lord who stunningly mastered the storm, now walks on the storm. In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form, and that body walks on the water. They are totally freaked out. And so they cry out, in fear.
So the demonstration isn’t working – because of their unbelief. And so Jesus identifies himself. He comes right to his exhausted, terrified followers and he speaks those bracing words: Take heart. Ego eimi! That is how the Lord identified Himself to Moses, it is the name of God. It is the presence of the eternal God, it is how Jesus identifies himself: I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door for the sheep, the Good Shepherd, the way, the truth, the life. The words of Jesus are never empty phrases. They are always connected with who he is and what he does. And just like the disciples, when you are being battered and you have the wind head-on, when it’s dark and it seems things couldn’t be worse, this same voice that you know and recognize speaks out of the water of your baptism, right beside you: Take heart; Ego eimi. Your Lord is right there, the great “I am”, who chose you, who called you, who has been guiding you, who has given you proofs of his power and love. Do not be afraid. Now with these water stories in the Gospels, pastors love allegorizing and drawing parallels to the storms of life. But that’s really dangerous, because you often end up saying something that’s not true. It’s not true that Jesus calms the storms of life, or at least, by no means all of them. Here, he has sent his people into the wind and weather! He is testing them. Every believer knows that Jesus sometimes sends you into raging headwind. The events of our reading tells you something about Jesus, something that blows your socks off and puts even the best superhero movie to absolute shame. It is this: Jesus is in fact the Creator. He is the Word through whom all things were made (John 1). He is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1). He has absolute power over the whole creation. But more: This Jesus graciously identifies himself to disciples who don’t get it when they should. So who is Jesus? He is the good shepherd – not some willowy figure wending his way through woolly landscapes, but the powerful defender of the sheep, the expert smasher-in of wolf skulls. Jesus is not your warm and fuzzy buddy, or always gentle Jesus meek and mild. He is God. Not merely a superhuman being born on a different planet, but the Creator who made all the planets and the solar systems and who came here to be born in this one. He is God, so powerful and so majestic that his own disciples don’t even recognize him and cry out in fear. There are times when we need to remind ourselves, especially in today’s culture, where everything is casual and we’re all buddy-buddy and we have lost the ability to distinguish between occasions that are formal and those which are informal: This is not healthy for human beings. There are things we ought to fear, and there are times and places when we ought to be silent and to show respect.
Now, here’s the deal: That same Jesus, that God, is willing to come and reveal himself patiently and repeatedly. He does not reject his followers when they don’t get it. He does not reject you when you don’t get it. He is willing to come to you and bear with you and reveal himself to you for who he is. The greatest event of course when our Saviour does this is when he cloaks his majesty, hides his power and reveals himself in the unexpected death – unexpected for us – death on the cross, only to have it revealed when he is raised from the tomb and shows himself yet again to these same disciples. It seems to me that we need to recapture the wonder, and the shock, and the surprise, and the joy in this promise that Jesus is who he is, he is who he says he is, and graciously reveals himself to us. Because in the long night of your headwind and struggle you get angry at God for sending you this distress, and demand that He prove himself to you and explain Himself to you. But this is the height of pride, the height of hubris and idolatry. Set your pride and hubris aside and repent. God is God – you are not. The Lord does not deign to explain everything He does, every difficult event that takes place in the creation, in your life; you do not know the ways of God. He has not revealed his hidden ways to you. But he has condescended to reveal to you his identity in Jesus Christ, and he invites you to believe in him, the powerful Good Shepherd of the resurrection. The disciples didn’t yet. They couldn’t understand him. But in light of his self-revelation and Good Friday and Easter, and the Word that comes to you week after week, day after day, you can marvel that the great, amazing, incredible, superhuman, all-powerful Creator God would be so kind, and so patient, and so loving as to reveal himself to you in his cross and in his empty tomb and resurrection presence. When the headwind rages, do not look to any superhero or human creation. Their power is nothing. Look to Him who created you. The injustice of his death spells the death of injustice, and you receive the power of his life for the triumph of righteousness and the real happily ever after. Amen.