Christ And Nature

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When I worked in Africa for a year, I lived about 150 miles south of Mount Kenya. I'd heard about the mountain but never seen it. Until one exceptionally clear day, towards sunset. I was walking back to my house; and I suddenly noticed this huge silhouette on the horizon - two flanks rising, rising, rising and meeting in a beautiful three-summit peak. And it stopped me in my tracks. And I just stood there, feeling that mountaineer's mixture of attraction and fear. Because it was massive. In fact I couldn't believe how massive it was or how I hadn't managed to see it before.

If I had to sum up the message - or perhaps, rather, the impact - of this part of Matthew's Gospel I'd say it was this. Jesus is massive. More massive than we will ever get our tiny minds around - and far more massive than we have so far seen. And that massiveness is revealed in two events - one almost incidental, and one completely supernatural.

So let's look at the two events and see what they say about Jesus, and what response they call for from us. The first event is in vv22-24 and it tells us,

First, JESUS IS LORD (vv22-24)

If you were here last time we looked at Matthew, you'll know what happened in vv13-21. What happened was that Jesus supernaturally fed over 5000 people starting with five loaves of bread and two fish. Verse 21:

The number of those who ate was about 5000 men, besides women and children.

And then, v22:

Immediately, Jesus made [the original word is much stronger -'Jesus compelled'] the disciples [to] get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he 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. (vv22-24)

And, v25, that takes us up to 'the fourth watch of the night' - 3am onwards. Now, does any of that strike you as odd? Why, v22, 'immediately' - as if there was some sudden emergency Why did he suddenly send the crowd away? (Compare with vv15-16) Why the sudden need to be absolutely alone with his Father in prayer? Why did he order the disciples to get out of there - by boat, at night, onto the Sea of Galilee in bad weather? Something's going on. And if you read the account of the same event in John's Gospel, you find out what. John 6.14:

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, 'Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.' Therefore, Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself (John 6.14-15)

That was the emergency. A crowd of 5000 plus who wanted to make Jesus king in their movement (an uprising against the Roman government of the time). Ie, they wanted Jesus to serve their agenda; wanted Jesus to fit in with and bless their plans. And immediately, v22, they learn that Jesus is Lord. He orders the disciples away. And then he dismisses this crowd. Because if anyone thinks they can get Jesus to serve their own agenda, fit in with and bless their own plans, he dismisses them. Because Jesus doesn't relate to us on our terms. He didn't come into the world to negotiate. He serves no-one else's agenda, no-one else's plans but his Father in heaven's.

That's why, v23, he heads for the mountain to pray - presumably, as he taught us, 'Father in heaven…, Your kingdom come…' (Matthew 6.9) That is Jesus' agenda. He came to bring people back into God's kingdom - ie, to bring us back into relationship with God as our King - a relationship which lasts through death and into heaven. And he did that by dying on the cross so we could be forgiven for rejecting God as our rightful King, and start life over again with God in his rightful place. Before it's too late. Before we die and face judgement and get dismissed - for eternity. That's the Christian message in a nutshell. That's Jesus' agenda. And vv22-24 tell us: Jesus is Lord. So we either submit to his agenda - like the disciples in v22 - or get dismissed, like the crowd in v22.

Well, so what? What response does that call for? Well, on the one hand, you may still identify with this crowd. Interested in Jesus. Maybe asking, 'What does Jesus offer?', 'How would he fit into my life?', 'Would he make me happier?', 'Would he make me more fulfilled in my work or relationships or whatever?' But those are the wrong questions. Jesus didn't come to make us an offer or fit in with our plans, or add a bit of happiness here or fulfilment there. Jesus came to call us to get off the throne of our lives and let him have his rightful place back. In that context, he makes a marvellous offer - of forgiveness for having not done that.

But basically the question is: will you submit your life to him? On the other hand, we may already have done that. In which case, the question for us is: are we continuing to submit our lives to his agenda? Or have our own agendas slipped in again by the back door? Here's Jesus' 'parting agenda', after his resurrection, recorded in Matthew 28.18-19 - the so-called Great Commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [ie, evangelism] and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

That's his agenda. So, eg, it's not ultimately his agenda to reform Britain, but to bring people into God's kingdom. That may change Britain - but it's not his ultimate agenda. Equally, it's his agenda to bring people into God's kingdom from all nations. Which may mean our agenda to stay in our own country is wrong. He may want to move some of us. And maybe some of us are beginning to know that. Again, it's not his ultimate agenda that we get married or have children or have a career or two incomes or own nice houses and cars - or even own houses and cars at all. His ultimate agenda is simply that we know him and make him known. That's all that is of ultimate importance: that we know Jesus and make him known.

And we need to look at everything we do - in our personal lives, and in the life of our church - from that perspective. Eg, are we living out the Great Commission in our parenting - the mission under our own roof? Or in constantly seeking to make new non-Christian friends? Or in our missionary support? Or in contemplating job plans or job changes that keep us or make us freer for unpaid gospel work? Or in moving into financially supported gospel work here or overseas? Jesus is Lord. Which means submitting to his agenda as our agenda. The second event is in vv25-33 and it tells us

Secondly, JESUS IS LORD (vv25-33)

Jesus has ordered the disciples away in their boat and he's prayed for long enough that the boat is well out on the Sea of Galilee. Verse 25:

During the fourth watch of the night [which began at 3am] Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.

Now if you're just investigating the Christian faith, you may be saying, 'Human beings cannot walk on water. Therefore this didn't really happen.' But all you've done is beg the question - which is: was Jesus just a human being like us? Or was he God's Son become a human being? Which is what he claimed. You can't just dismiss the evidence by begging the question. Onto v26:

When the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said and cried out in fear.

I remember some friends at school using a ouija board one night. I don't know exactly what happened, but it scared them witless and they never touched it again. Whatever happened, it convinced them that some power was there. And there's nothing more frightening than unknown power. Because you don't know whether it's good or evil; you don't know what it's going to do to you. Which is what the current spate of films about the paranormal trade off. And that's what confronted these disciples in v26. They didn't believe people can walk on water, either. So to them, this is unknown power. Until it speaks. Verse 27:

But Jesus immediately said to them, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."

The OT book of Job says this about God: He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. (Job 9.8) Psalm 77 says about God: Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. (Psalm 77.19) From Genesis 1 onwards, the OT says that God created water, separated water from land, used water to judge the world, divided water to rescue his people out of Egypt. Unlike us, God is not subject to the so-called 'laws of nature'. Nature is subject to him. And because he governs it so consistently, we see things happening with such regularity that we talk about 'laws of nature'. But He is Lord. And so is Jesus. By virtue of his unique relationship to God as God's Son.

Just think about that for a moment: Jesus is Lord.

First underline the word 'Jesus'. Jesus is Lord. The power behind the scenes of the universe, responsible for the way things are in your and my life right now, is not some nameless, faceless, unknown, unpredictable, maybe good, maybe evil, Force or Spirit. But Jesus. That's why in v27 he says, "It is I. Don't be afraid." And he's not saying, 'Don't be afraid of the storm.' He's saying 'Don't be afraid of me. I'm not some unknown, unpredictable power. It is I - the person who's called you and committed himself to you.' And from our perspective, after his death and resurrection, we would add, 'The person who gave up his life for you on the cross.' That's who the ultimate power behind the scenes of the universe is. And therefore we know that he's good. And we know that he'll harness his power to do us good. So even if we can't perceive exactly how he's being good to us through circumstances right now, Romans 8 says (and I know it isn't always easy to get our faith round this):

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8.28)

And a bit further on:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8.32)

Jesus - who gave up his life for us - is Lord. Which means our lives are in good hands. And we needn't fear him. We needn't fear that he'll mismanage our lives or misjudge what we need. If God didn't spare his own Son but gave him up for us all to meet our greatest need, then rest assured: he'll manage the rest of what we really need this side of heaven. But then underline the word 'Lord'. Jesus is Lord. Think again of what he said in his parting agenda, the Great Commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matthew 28.18)

He said that after his resurrection from the dead and before his ascencion back to heaven. So I assume that as Matthew recorded the walking on the water, he would have thought of it as a sort of cameo portrait of Jesus now having all authority at all times and in all places. This event took maybe just a few minutes in one part of the Sea of Galilee. But looking back after the resurrection and ascencion of Jesus, Matthew would have thought, 'That is a little cameo of Jesus' present sovereignty over everything, every second of the day, in every corner of the universe.' Jesus is Lord.

We may not always have the comfort of understanding what he's doing, why he's letting life be the way it is. But we do have the comfort of knowing he is absolutely in control. If something happens, it's because he meant it to happen. Nothing happens because he couldn't help it. Nothing happens because he lost control. Jesus is Lord. And Jesus is Lord. Absolute goodness governing absolute power, to do good to those who know and trust him. Again, so what? What response does that call for? Well, if vv25-27 is a cameo of what Jesus' Lordship looks like, then vv28-33 is a cameo of what faith looks like. Verse 28:

"Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."

It would not have entered my head to say that in a million years. Almost certainly I'd have said absolutely nothing. But if anything, I'd have said something like, "Lord, if it's you, how about calming this storm as an added confirmation?" I don't understand why Peter said what he did, but what follows is a cameo of what faith in Jesus looks like. Verse 29:

"Come," he [Jesus] said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately, Jesus reached our his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "Why did you doubt?" (vv29-31)

What do we learn about faith in Jesus?

Well, faith is acting on the basis that Jesus is Lord. "Come" onto the water, says Jesus in v29. So there are at least two key players in Peter's life at this moment. There is a large volume of water. And there is Jesus.

And faith is acting on the basis that, of all the players, Jesus is Lord. So that if Jesus has said, 'Do it,' it can be done - because Jesus is Lord, and can and will exercise his power for us and against any other power that is against us. Supremely he did that for us in his death and resurrection, where he took on himself the judgement we deserve for our sins and overpowered and exhausted it. So that if we're trusting in him, we can say, 'Sin is not Lord. Sin can no longer master my destiny, and separate me from God and ultimately take me to hell.' Likewise, in our temptations and struggles against sin, we need to say to ourselves that Satan is not Lord. In whatever's happening to us, we need to say that circumstances are not Lord. Other people are not Lord. Even sickness and death are not Lord. Even in that department, Jesus is Lord. And whatever reprieves and recoveries we experience in this life, he will ultimately exercise his power for us, over against sickness and death, by raising us from the dead into heaven.

Faith is acting on the basis that Jesus is Lord. And it would be easy to exercise faith in Jesus if there were no other powers in our lives apparently threatening us. But we're always exercising faith in Jesus in the face of other powers that often seem more tangible, more real than Jesus. And we easily revert to thinking that they, not Jesus, are in control. As Peter did, v30:

But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately, Jesus reached our his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "Why did you doubt?"

'Why did you doubt?' could mean, 'What caused you to doubt?' And the answer is: he reverted to thinking that something other than Jesus was in Lord of the situation - in this case, the wind. Yet he could see Jesus. And as Matthew wrote this, after Jesus' resurrection and return to heaven, he must have thought, 'If exercising faith wasn't easy with Jesus visibly present, then exercising faith with Jesus back in heaven is also not going to be easy.' We'll need the mental discipline of saying to ourselves, 'Jesus really did live, really did die, really did rise from the dead, really is ruling this universe, and really did promise to be with us to the end of the age (see Matthew 28.18, 20). So that we act on the basis of those things - which are not visible, but are nonetheless real.

But, v31, 'Why did you doubt?' would literally be translated from the original as, 'To what end did you doubt?' Ie, 'What was the purpose of your doubt? What did you aim to achieve by taking your trust out of Me and putting it back in yourself?' It's a striking question, isn't it? When we doubt Jesus' Lordship - his goodness, or his power, or both - where does it get us? The answer, v30, is: into fear and panic. Because if we stop trusting him, we're only left with ourselves to trust. And fear and panic and anxiety are the symptoms - because deep down we know we have no absolute control over the things that concern us; and often we have no control at all. Verse 32:

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him saying, "Truly, you are the Son of God." (vv32-33)

I only saw Mount Kenya on a couple more days. The rains were on their way and the horizon clouded up. But I never forgot it was there. And that it was massive. Jesus is back in heaven. He won't be walking on water in any of our lives this week. But he is there. And he is massive. Jesus is Lord. With an agenda massive enough that it should sweep away all our lesser agendas and small ambitions. And with goodness and power massive enough that, if your trust is in him, your life could not be in better hands.

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