When the Path Seems Pointless – Matthew 14:22-36

This is the seventh and final message in our sermon series, The Faith-FULL Life.

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Just a few weeks ago, a 23-year-old Canadian woman drove her car straight into a bay on Lake Ontario. Since it was a dark and rainy night, so she was paying especially close attention to her GPS. Thankfully, she was able to roll the windows down, crawl out before the car was totally submerged[], and swim about 100 feet in sub 40 degree water. One article that I read connected it to the hashtag #dumbthingspeopledo. But before we judge, can we admit that we all have our own GPS stories.  Haven’t you ever found yourself thinking, “Why am I on this road? This path can’t possibly be the right way to go.”

Sometimes life feels that way. When the path leads us into the bay and we feel like we are submerging under the stress, grief, fear and strain, it is easy to conclude that if God really directs our paths, either God doesn’t care, or he isn’t wise, or he isn’t loving, or he is just plain against us. When the path is filled with so much grief, sorrow, frustration and shattered dreams, the path can seem pointless.

But what if there is a point to the path? What if we are on a specific path for a specific purpose, even if we can’t see it right now?

Matthew 14:22-36 is a passage that is going to help us see God’s purpose on the path, even in the midst of struggle, fear and despair.

You know the context. Jesus has just “fed the 5,000” on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee. In human terms, it was a tremendously successful event. The people were so enamored with Jesus that they wanted to declare him to be their King. He is peaking in popularity and gathering a huge following. Then, Jesus sends the disciples on an unexpected path in v. 22.

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”

Apparently, Jesus had to persuade the disciples to leave, as the word “made” in the original Greek can be translated “forced, or coerced.” They didn’t want to leave. On one hand, they were becoming popular. They were Jesus’ inner circle. But on the other hand, they probably resisted Jesus’ directives because the Sea of Galilee was a lake known for unpredictable and violent storms with high winds and dangerous swells. And they were being told to set out on this lake… at night. I think I would have resisted, too.

23 After he had dismissed them, Jesus went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat was already a considerable distance[i] from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

This passage reinforces the fact that…

I. Sometimes, the path Jesus requires us to take feels misdirected and pointless. (vv. 22-24)

This would have been especially true for the disciples as they are cast onto a sea where the waves were beating upon them. The word “buffeted” in the NIV really is not strong enough to convey the sense of a word that also can be translated “torment, or even torture.” The ESV translates the word, “beaten,” which I think is helpful, as it speaks to how we often feel.

Maybe that is how God’s present path for your life feels right now. You feel beat down and that the winds of God’s providence are against you. For some, it feels like torture. I think about the family who is barely making ends meet when a needed automotive repair shatters the budget. I think about the couple struggling with infertility, and the mother who loses her daughter in a car accident. I think of the teenager who wasn’t planning on being a mother at 17 and the folks who lost their home in a fire.  I think of the couple whose fire has gone out, or woman who wants to be married but isn’t and those who suffer with chronic pain. Whatever the cause of strain or distress, we all will find ourselves on an unwelcome path that none of us would choose. If we are honest, the path seems pointless.

We may even cry out through tears, “Why this path? Why now? Why me?


II. Sometimes, there are lessons for us to learn on that path that can only be learned on that path (vv. 25-29).

25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. [3 am]  26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.

At 3:00 a.m., the disciples would have been utterly exhausted – at the end of themselves physically and emotionally.

It is at that point that Jesus draws near to them to be with them and encourage them. In the Greek, the phrase “Take courage” is in the imperative mood. It actually is a command, which is followed by a second imperative, or a second command, “Do not fear!” Of course, a reason is given in 3 words for why they should have this stance of courage in the face of fear. “It is I.” The Greek reads eimi ego. Jesus is saying more than, “Hey, it’s not a ghost. It’s just me, Jesus!”

Ego eimi is the Greek phrase used to translate a Hebrew phrase in the Old Testament which we find in Exodus 3:13-14, as Moses is being called to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM (ego eimi) has sent me to you.’ ”[ii]

That phrase “I am” in Hebrew is a derivative of the tetragrammaton, a Hebrew word composed of 4 letters which is usually translated in our English Bibles with LORD in all caps. The Jewish translation of the tetragramaton is either Yahweh or Jehovah, which was the personal name of God vs just the generic, God.

What Jesus is saying that he is the bodily incarnation of Yahweh, the God who had showed himself supremely powerful over the gods of Egypt during the days of Moses and led them on a path that they would not understand, to face challenges that would require faith, such as the Red Sea crossing. If you remember, the Israelites were being pursued by the Egyptian army and came to the sea. Many Israelites cried out in fear, wishing they had never left, but remained slaves rather than escape and be killed by the sea. But, if you remember the account, God parted the waters and provided an unexpected route to safety. The Lord was sovereign over the sea then, just as Jesus was sovereign over the wind and waves.

I wonder if the lesson they needed was to be freshly reminded of their weakness in contrast to Jesus’ power. They had been straining at the oars while Jesus had been praying to the Father. For Jesus to be near, all they would have needed would have been to call to him. They thought he was inaccessible and distant. But he had been watching them the whole time as he prayed. In fact, I wonder if Jesus had been praying for them.

The disciples path wasn’t pointless. Jesus knew what he was doing. There was a lesson for them on that path that they could only learn on that path. And the same is true for us.

When we stop to reflect, this makes sense, because aren’t the most important lessons learned in times when we are helpless, weary and at the end of ourselves?  What the disciples learned then is what we can learn now: That the place of grace is when we are at the end of ourselves and need to know Jesus as our sovereign Savior in the midst of the storm.

But even when we get this once…

III. Sometimes, the most important lessons have to be learned over and over again. (vv. 30-33)

30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry, writes “They knew before that he was the Son of God, but now they know it better. Faith, after a conflict with unbelief, is sometimes the more active, and gets to greater degrees of strength by being exercised.”[iii]

After all, this was not the first time they had witnessed the miraculous power and authority of Jesus. They had seen him heal physical sickness and leprosy, restore a paralytic, set demon-possessed men, raise a girl who had died, heal the blind, and they had already witnessed Jesus calm a raging sea with a spoken word. Not to mention, Jesus had just provided food for thousands out of a single basket of provisions. They had to learn to trust Jesus as a sovereign Savior over & over.

By the way, I don’t think that Jesus was rebuking Peter when he said, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” Notice that he was speaking with Peter, not the entire group. They had no faith! Jesus uses the singular form of you in that verse, as opposed to the plural, not to single out failure, but to emphasize an opportunity–for Peter to know and trust Jesus in an even greater way.  For a little faith to grow, for a, weak faith to become stronger.

He is saying to Peter, “You can trust me on the path, whatever it is that you face. Keep your eye on me and you will walk on water! It is when your fears get your primary attention, that you will begin to sink. But when you sink, call out for me and I’ll save you – every time.”

You see, it was Jesus’ grip upon Peter that rescued Peter from the sea. We are not saved by our hold on Jesus, but by his hold on us. And it is that hold that empowers us to trust him, to keep our eyes of faith on him – on his supreme authority and power… and to be confident of his purpose for us on the path. But the lessons of grace have to be learned over and over and over again.

IV. Eventually, we discover that the lessons we learn are not just about us. Our paths are part of God’s bigger story of redemption! (vv. 34-36)

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.[iv]

The disciples couldn’t see that the path they were on was taking them to a place where Jesus was going to do a great work of grace in the lives of many people. The path seemed pointless and misguided. But it wasn’t misguided at all.

Some of us have the scars—some literal, some emotional—that reveal our paths have been less than a bed of roses. Surgery, loss, failure, depression, divorce. You name it, folks at Creekstone have experienced it–experiences that we must not waste or discount as insignificant in the big picture of God’s plan.

What if just across the lake God has planned someone for you to encounter whose life is just as broken as yours is and in the very same places? What if God has directed your path in order for you to be part of God’s bigger story of redemption where God can bring hope, healing and grace to someone else through you? What a privilege to know that our experiences of brokenness can minister to others!

But still, I think that the main purpose of the path is not what God is going to do through you, but what he is doing in you and in me. What he is teaching you right now. I have a friend who asks me all of the time, “What is the Lord teaching you?” That is such a simple but helpful question. Every moment in our lives is a teachable moment. And the simplest lessons are usually the most profound. Like the lesson to keep our eyes on Jesus and trust him in the storm as our sovereign Savior.

Yet you may feel like you are sinking, or at least facing a storm so miserable and insurmountable that you can’t imagine how you are going to endure it, much less imagine any good coming from it.

That may have been how Jesus was tempted to feel on the cross. After all, the Father had sent him on a path that would lead to crucifixion! It is from the cross that Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, we know that he was quoting, Ps. 22:1. But he had taken on flesh and felt not only the physical anguish of crucifixion, but also the emotional and spiritual anguish of being the Father’s propitiation for sin. Nevertheless, he knew the purpose for his path. Although it would require in conceivable suffering, it wasn’t pointless or misdirected. He was being forsaken so that we would not be forsaken. He was willing to sink and drown in a sea of judgement, without being rescued, so that we could be. For them, the winds ceased as he stepped in the boat. For us, the winds cease when we see him nailed to a cross, knowing, and that the winds of judgement no longer blow against us.

Because of the cross, the winds we face now are not meant to beat us down, but to lead us to Jesus and keep crying out to him, like Peter, “Jesus, save me!” Be the strength in my weakness. Be the hope in my sorrow. Be the light in my darkness, and the One who stills the wind and gives me peace.

Some of us are ready to cry out like that. If you are, let me invite you to step out of the boat right now. As I pray in just a moment, some of you may even want to step out of your seats and come down front. Just stand with hands raised to receive. It may be the receive Jesus as Savior for the first time. It may be to seek his grace in a present storm. Whatever the reason you step out, coming down is just a way of responding to the call of the Risen Jesus to “come, all you who are weary, come to me and I will give you rest for your souls.”

[i] Greek many stadia

[ii] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Ex 3:13–14.

[iii] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1687.

[iv] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Mt 14:22–36.