Row, Row, Row Your Boat


Matthew 14:22-33

The day had been long and tiring. Multitudes of people had flocked to Jesus, looking for a miracle: “Heal my disease. Save my loved one.” In fact, so many people had come to Jesus that, according to the parallel account in Mark 6, neither Jesus nor His disciples had been able to rest or even eat.

Later that same day, because the location was remote and without any place to buy food, Jesus had miraculously fed the five thousand from meager provisions. Actually, the number was more like 20,000, counting women and children; and therefore equivalent to feeding the entire city of Brookings or Aberdeen, South Dakota, with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. Somehow, I think the same Savior can take care of us.

For the disciples, serving that meal had been arduous enough; but then came the task of gathering twelve basketfuls of leftovers. Imagine cleaning up after a banquet for 20,000. By the end of the day, the disciples had been laboring from sunrise to sunset. They were weary, and no doubt delighted when Jesus told them to “get into the boat and go on ahead of Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowd,” Matthew 14:22.

Envision the scene; how the disciples climbed tiredly into their boat, pushed away from shore, and set sail for the opposite side of Lake Galilee—a lake eight miles wide and thirteen miles long. Imagine the calm, blue water; the gentle breeze; the setting sun; and the inevitable small-talk. One disciple saying, “I’m glad that’s over.” And another, “I’m exhausted.” And another, “I’ve never seen the lake so calm.” And still another, “Does anyone feel like fishing?” A setting of relief and tranquility, of sandals off and feet up.

And then, without warning, a fierce storm struck the lake; as storms still do today. And suddenly, everything changed. Everything. The sky became black and ominous. The calm water became a white-capped cauldron, with the boat pitching and yawing like a child’s play-thing. Matthew wrote, “…but the boat was already a considerable distance from the land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it,” Matthew 14:24. The Greek verb for buffeted in that verse, BASINAZO, literally means tormented.

Chaos. Shouts. Confused commands. “Lower the sail. Grab the oars.” And so the disciples ROWED, ROWED, ROWED the boat, without making any progress. They were alone, adrift, and helpless in the middle of the lake. And when they saw what appeared to be a ghost walking on water—the Greek word is PHANTASMA, a phantom—they cried out in terror. And where was Jesus? Why had He left them? Why had He told them to cross the lake? How could matters have gone so wrong so rapidly: first calm, then storm?

Surely you have asked the same questions. We all have asked; because life is filled with unexpected storms in which we too, like the disciples in Matthew 14, have felt alone, adrift, terrified, and tossed about—as in the hymn: “Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt.”

Some storms in life have nothing to do with the weather; but they are just as ferocious and deadly. And these storms have names too; not Hurricane Andrew or Hurricane Donna or Hurricane Irma; but Hurricane Fear, Hurricane Worry, Hurricane Doubt, Hurricane Debt, Hurricane Illness, Hurricane Divorce, and Hurricane Death.

Some storms may start as small disturbances. Others may strike with no warning. But everyone here today has experienced such storms; whether in the unexpected death of a loved one; or in an unexpected divorce; or in an unexpected medical diagnosis; or even the unexpected loss of a church building, as happened to my former congregation in North Port, Florida.

And as we all know, these types of life-storms can occur anytime, anywhere, to anyone, even during a worship service. Thirty-seven years ago, as I was delivering a sermon on this same text, Matthew 14:22-33, at St. Stephen Lutheran in Mountain View, CA, one of the elderly members slumped over on his wife’s shoulder. My first thought was, “Oh, great. I put another parishioner to sleep.” But when repeated jabs to the man’s ribs produced no movement, I realized that more was involved than boredom. “Someone call 911,” I said from the pulpit, in the middle of my sermon. Unfortunately, most of the congregation thought this remark was part of the message “No,” I repeated, this time pointing. “That man needs help. Call 911.”

Until that moment, my sermon had been little more than a traditional presentation of a traditional text. But when the ambulance raced away from the church building with its siren screaming and red lights flashing—then, everyone was watching and listening intently. Everyone had been forcefully reminded during a worship service that storms are an inevitable part of life. How do we prepare for them? How do we survive them? How do we overcome them? The answer is: through the Word of God.

This is why we are here today—to hear the Word of God; and through that Word to deal with the storms we may be experiencing and to prepare for the storms that will surely come. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard my own sons say: “Dad, why is attending church so important? Why do we need to read the Bible? Why do you keep emailing us devotions and sermons?” What do I tell them? I tell them, “I don’t share the Word of God to bore you or annoy you. I share the Word to prepare you for the difficulties that I know you will face in life.”

Are you experiencing a storm today? A storm of health? A storm of doubt? A stormy relationship? Then be comforted by what today’s text teaches us through a real storm on a real lake involving real disciples with real problems. Disciples who were rowing, rowing, and rowing their boat, but getting nowhere.

First: Remember that Jesus is fully aware of your storm. He knows the type of storm you’re enduring. He knows its intensity, frequency, location, and name. He knows the force of the wind and the size of the waves. And He knows the precise distance you are from shore.

But unfortunately, you and I don’t always believe this, do we? When weathering personal storms, we often feel as alone, adrift, and helpless as the disciples did on Lake Galilee. And we ask the same questions too: “Where is Jesus? Why did He leave me? Why isn’t He helping me?” And then, like the disciples, we man the oars and row, row, and row until our backs ache and our fingers bleed; and still we go nowhere with our problems.

Only, instead of the sound of oars slapping water our rowing sounds more like this: “I just can’t shake that problem. I just can’t forgive that injury. I just can’t go on with things as they are. I just can’t put up with this situation another day.” Aren’t these fair descriptions of row, row, rowing, and yet never reaching a destination?

But notice today’s text. Notice that though the disciples were miles away in the center of the lake; that though Jesus was alone on a mountainside, praying; that though it was late, dark, raining, blustering, lightning, and thundering, Jesus Christ still knew exactly where His disciples were and exactly what His disciples were experiencing. Why should this surprise us, when we confess Him to be the all-knowing Son of God? “Lord, you know all things,” Peter later said to Jesus on the shores of the same lake, after the resurrection.

And if this text isn’t enough to convince you that Jesus is fully aware of the storms in your life; indeed, of every detail in your life—read Psalm 139 after church today. “O Lord, You have searched me and You know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down”—this is true whether you are going out to buy groceries at IGA or lying down in a hospital room in Hettinger; “You are familiar with all my ways,” Psalm 139:1-3.

We’ve all lamented at one time or another: “Oh, I can’t talk to her. She doesn’t get me.” Or, “I can’t talk to him, because he processes things in a completely different way. Nothing bothers him.” Dear friend, let me assure you that no one, absolutely no one, knows you like the Lord Jesus Christ knows you. He knows everything about you, including the storms you may be facing today.

Second: Remember that Jesus is always with you in your storms. When I was two years old, my dad saved me from drowning. At the time, we were living on Lake Howard in Winter Haven, Florida. And one Sunday, as soon as we arrived home from church, a neighbor stopped by to chat for a few moments. And that was my opportunity.

While my parents were momentarily occupied, I raced down a nearby dock and jumped into the lake—but not before hearing pursuing footsteps and frantic cries of “Mark! Stop!” I didn’t stop, of course. And all these years later, I can vividly recall the murky lake engulfing me; and then my dad diving in after me, still wearing his Sunday suit, shirt, tie, belt, socks, shoes, watch, and wallet. I won’t tell you what happened to me afterwards. That part is purposely fuzzy. But I never jumped into the lake again, until I had learned how to swim

That was the type of father I had; a father who dove in after me with no thought for himself. And that, my friends, is the type of Savior we have. The Savior who came to rescue us by sacrificing Himself. The Savior who gave no thought to His own rights or glory; but instead, as stated in Hebrews 12:2, “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” And the joy set before Him was saving us.

Once again, notice today’s text. When Jesus saw His disciples struggling in that storm, what did He do? Did He say, “Row harder or bail faster”? No. Did He say, “Give me a break. Do you know how busy I was today”? No. Did He snap His fingers and dissipate the storm? No, though He most certainly could have. Instead, He went into the storm itself to be with His disciples, walking on water. Why? Because He wanted His disciples to view Him as the God who is always with them, in every problem, in every storm; and as the God who does the impossible. And the Lord Jesus Christ wants you to view Him in the same way.

Third: Remember that Jesus will deliver you from your storm, but at the right time and in the right way. And you may be thinking, “Pastor, I was fine with the first half of that statement. I like the part about ‘Jesus will deliver you.’ But did you have to add the part about ‘when the time is right’?” Well, yes; I did have to add that part, because that part is in the text—though, in our haste to be out of the storm and safely on shore, we often miss it. Listen to Matthew 14:25. “During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.” When was the fourth watch of the night?

The Jews divided their evenings into four watches. The first watch was 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM. The second was 9:00 PM to Midnight. The third was Midnight to 3:00 AM. And the fourth was 3:00 AM to 6:00 AM. Looking at the text, when did the disciples set sail for the opposite side of the lake? According to Matthew 14:24-25, “After He had 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.”

           So, the disciples set sail before evening, that is, before 6:00 PM. And Jesus walked on water to the disciples during the fourth watch of the night, that is, between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM. Consequently, the disciples may have been fighting the storm, tossing, turning, rowing and rowing and rowing for up to twelve hours. Why would Jesus allow such a thing? That is the question you’d like to ask, isn’t it?

And the answer is—as much as we may not like to hear it—at times, you and I need a storm. You and I need to struggle with our own limitations before we are eager and willing to take Jesus into the boat. On their own, the disciples got nowhere. But with Jesus in the boat, not only did the storm cease; but according to another parallel account, John 6:21, “Then they were willing to take Him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.” Immediately. With Jesus in the boat, the disciples instantly reached their destination.

Can the lesson be any clearer? What storms have you struggled with in recent months? A tempestuous relationship? Serious illness? Debt? Loss? Have you rowed, rowed, rowed, and yet gone nowhere? Could it not be that through these experiences, these storms, the Lord is teaching each of us our own limitations? Could it not be that He is telling us: “My child, to reach your destination, you need Me in the boat?”

Why do we need to learn such a lesson? Why did the disciples need to learn it? They forgot, as do we. Did you realize that Matthew 14:22-33 actually records the second deadly storm the disciples were in on Lake Galilee? Only four chapters earlier, we read this: “Then He got into the boat and His disciples followed Him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke Him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey Him!’ ” Matthew 8:23-27.

You would think the disciples would have remembered this first storm when they encountered the second storm. But they didn’t. You would think we would remember all the times and ways in which God has faithfully delivered us from every problem, every storm, in our lives. But we don’t. “You of little faith,” Jesus told His disciples in both storms. Could He not say the same to us?

At the center of every hurricane is an eye; a place of calm, safety, and sunshine, though the storm itself rages all around. At the center of every storm in our lives is another kind of “I.” The personal pronoun “I.” The “I” Jesus described when He told his disciples in the middle of storm: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” Matthew 14:27.

Many years ago, I wrote a poem based on Matthew 14:22-33. These are the closing lines: “You knew that storm was coming, Lord. You knew. Yet, you sent me out to meet it—to learn from it, that whether in calm, quiet moments or foul, hostile weather, I am never, ever alone.”