I am a pastor, therefore I fear.
Before you read on, take a minute and ponder that statement.
With that still on your mind, I want to draw your attention to the story of Peter and the ghost from Matthew 14. Peter is a helpful figure for us pastors because here we have a brother who wore all of his fears on his sleeve. He’s the guy who, almost unbelievably so—rebukes Jesus, disagrees with Jesus, denies Jesus, and eventually dies for Jesus while still remaining a beloved apostle and friend to Jesus.
As we work our way through Matthew 14, we see that before Jesus took a night walk on the waves to meet His disciples, He preached a conference for 5,000 men. Everything was fine until it turns out that somebody forgot to book any food vendors for the event. So Jesus goes ahead and miraculously provides catering for all the attendees. Astonishingly, everyone eats, everyone is satisfied, and there are plenty of leftovers to spare. It’s a classic Jesus move.
Before I go any further, I wonder where YOUR head might be after experiencing something of that inexplicable magnitude? Would it have stayed with you, the miracle? How long do you think you would’ve remained dumbfounded and in awe? Reflect on that. At one point would you go shrugging your shoulders and say I mean…yeah…it was cool, but….? It causes me to wonder how much our fear is born from our forgetfulness?
Read what happens next.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea (Matt. 14:22-25).
So after He dismisses the crowds, Jesus tells his boys to IMMEDIATELY get in the boat and go BEFORE Him to the other side so he could take a brief mountain retreat for some time alone to pray. Let’s not miss the emphasis I put on those two words here because they tell us something about Jesus.
He is never arbitrary when it comes to timing. The disciples thought they were going on a boat ride without their captain.
In our fear, we forget how much Jesus works unseen, behind the scenes, yet ALWAYS SEEING. It’s just that sometimes, the lenses of our mind become foggy when the weather of our life changes unexpectedly.
Back to the story. By the time Jesus has finished praying, it’s late, the boat is long gone and it becomes caught in some rough waters. This is years before the advent of Wave Runners, so at 3am Jesus literally steps out on the water as a man unconcerned by lack of transportation or travel weather. He approaches them, it says in vs. 25, walking on the sea. Like, no big.
Of course, this wasn’t Jesus’s first miracle rodeo. He had just finished creating a banquet out of a NUMBER 4 VALUE MEAL, so this supernatural stroll on the surface of the water provides even further evidence that He is someone who rules over the elements, is supernatural in nature, because He happens to be Creator and Lord over ALL of nature.
Maybe we should pause so we don't miss the significance of the power of God in our lives, as displayed here. The disciples are completely at the mercy of the waves, while Jesus walks over the waves to become their act of mercy. Jesus, God the Son, unfamiliar with restrictions, and unfazed by what we describe as miraculous. A miracle for us is when we get to church on time, preach under 40 minutes, and wake up happy on Monday. Look at the reaction we get from the disciples.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:26-27).
These fearful, forgetful, pastor-like disciples go into panic mode. All of these rough and tumble dudes crying out in fear, forgetting all the fear-nots they’d been told. Forgetting that it was JESUS who had fed them and sent them out only a few hours earlier.
Do you remember that in your daily fears? That Jesus is the One who has fed you and sent you out, and will keep you by the gentle strength of His impossible-to-let-you-go-hands? He will also calm your fears when they seek to ruin you, and become the temporary ruler of your hearts. He does it here—
He says Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid. How many of you have that as your screen saver? Yet how often do we view Jesus like the disciples do here? We think He’s out to scare us, when in reality He’s out to secure us. We think He’s coming to punish, when in reality He’s there to preserve us. We think because we’re in a place of unsettledness and uncertainty that he’s abandoned us, when the truth is that it is precisely those moments He uses to banish our fears and build our faith. How forgetful do I become in my rational and irrational fears?
Curiously, Peter of all people speaks up.
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus (Matt. 14:28-29).
Peter answers just like I would, suspicious in nature, unsure if it’s really the Lord, doubting what he sees, even after Jesus lovingly assures them saying, IT IS I. So classic Peter. In his fear he flips the clear words of Jesus—Lord, IF it’s you. In our world as fearful pastors, we live a life of IF IT’S YOU’S before the Lord, don’t we? If you’re really the Lord, please show me you’re not here to scare me. Please reassure me that my doubts about your motives aren’t true.
And yet, the lack of rebuke in Jesus response almost breaks the heart. Come, Jesus says. No judgment over Peter’s fear or his doubts. Jesus calls labor-heavy Peter, the burden-bearing Peter…to…walk. To enter the dark waters with the One of whom the darkness is as light as the Psalmist tells us. That’s something to stop and think about, isn’t it?
Well, I don’t know what the mood in the boat is at this point, but things sure are moving fast. One minute you have grown men seeing ghosts, the next minute you have Peter getting ready to levitate on water like it’s Stranger Things Season 4. The problem of course, is that there’s still a storm.
Many of you began like Peter. You stepped out into the dark waters of ministry, eyes fully on Jesus and you thought, I think I got this. Until you realized that havoc and chaos were swirling all around you, beckoning you. You had no idea what you were stepping out into. I mean, you saw all the bad weather and brokenness around you, but you never thought it would cause you to tremble in fear.
But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me” (Matt. 14:30).
Now here’s a curious thing. Jesus doesn’t calm the waters before He asks Peter to step out into them. And it makes Peter afraid because there’s Jesus, RIGHT OVER THERE...but...there’s those waves, RIGHT OVER HERE.
When my grandpa used to stand in the pool and tell me to jump because he would catch me, it’s not like I didn’t see him standing there. It’s that I saw the water in between me and him. I was afraid that the water would pull me under faster than he could pull me out…IF…he failed to catch me. If it’s you, Grandpa. It’s not that we can’t see those waves when God asks us to have faith and believe Him. It’s just that we get so fixated on the waves that we forget who’s already standing on them.
It’s probably good to keep in mind that the only reason Peter was successfully wakeboarding on his bare feet was because Jesus called him, but his newfound awareness of the storm caused him to sink in it. But it was the wind, wasn’t it? That violent, invisible, uncontrollable wind. He could steady his step, but he couldn’t steady that wind. It was too powerful and you know what? It was. The wind was too powerful for Peter. But Peter forgot that he wasn’t being supported by his own stamina. When Jesus called Peter to come, he didn’t expect Peter to step up. He expected Peter to step out. There’s a monumental difference.
And Peter did step out. We’re real hard on poor Pete for sinking, but we give him no credit for stepping out, do we? Let me propose this thought. Would it have been better for Peter to make it all the way to Jesus or start sinking and need Jesus to save him? What did Jesus actually have planned for Peter in that moment? We’ll revisit that in a few minutes, but first…
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:30).
This is the good news. Peter, seeing the predicament he’s in, realizing his instability, inability, and powerlessness against the erratic and dramatic waves, cries out LORD, SAVE ME!
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once WALKED, BUT GOD, by GRACE, RAISED you up with HIM, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2.
Remember that Peter was always going to sink. And Jesus was always going to save a sinking man, by raising him up to be with Him. Jesus asks Peter, why so little faith, why did you doubt? What an interesting question to ask…as Peter’s taking generous gulps of saltwater.
But Jesus doesn’t get angry with Peter or do what my sister used to do in the pool which was keep dunking my head under the water over and over again. The picture here is one of Jesus carrying the boy with the wounded pride and the fearful eyes back…with Him…to the boat. Then, the wind ceases. Interesting that Jesus would keep the wind blowing until they got back to the boat. The disciples' response? Worship.
And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:32-33).
This story tells us some things about who God is and how he responds to fearful pastors like you and me.
GOD SENDS YOU THROUGH FEARFUL WATERS TO CALM YOUR FEARS
Jesus sent the disciples out to sea before Him, knowing that they would encounter a storm, and misidentify Him as a ghost. We say to people in our counseling voices, God is sovereign, now go and get better. And then the wind begins to swirl violently in our own life and Jesus becomes folklore.
I wonder what that tells you about all of YOUR ordained storms? What does it tell us about what Jesus is really interested in calming? The stormy waters or your stormy soul? Jesus could have calmed the wind, walked to the boat, and had a nice boat ride with his boys back to shore. But He didn’t. He waited for the storm. God is like that. When I am afraid, I will trust in you the Psalmist writes, acknowledging that the trust follows the fear, not the other way around. God puts you in a place of uncertainty to make you less certain about your abilities. He puts you in a place of unrest so you can be rescued. God’s purpose is always for your worry to be transformed into worship.
GOD’S CHARACTER IS NOT CHANGED BY YOUR FEAR
Peter wasn’t very reformed in this moment, was he? Neither are we. And yet God the author is still going to reach down to you in your fears and finish the chapter He began writing when he bound you to Himself through the obedience of His Son. You think your fears and doubts are that strong and powerful? You think all of your IF-IT-IS-YOU-LORD’S somehow have the power to change the reach of His hand to take hold of you?
That’s like standing underneath Niagra Falls worried that your opinion might make the water stop. It’s irrational. Our macro-fear and micro-faith are no match for the mission of Jesus.
GOD REVEALS HIS FAITHFULNESS IN YOUR FEARFULNESS
If the sea had been tranquil, well, there would’ve been no occasion for Jesus to do what He did. See, the big thing that people tend to center on in this story is that Peter took his eyes off Jesus, saw the wind, doubted, and started sinking, thinking it was Peter’s lack of faith that caused him to drown. The more important point here is not that Peter sunk, but that Jesus reached down and saved him. Why? Because Jesus already knew Peter was going to sink! He already knew the outcome of Peter’s doubts and fears.
Jesus sent Peter out to sea so He could save a drowning man. He did it in order to show Peter that He was God and that His faithfulness was not dependent on Peter’s macro-fear and micro-faith!
So that’s how we answer the question I posed earlier: what would’ve been better? For Peter to have made it across the water to Jesus, or to be saved from drowning by Jesus? The former would have shown a bold and unwavering faith, but it also may have plunged Peter into arrogance, and if you know Peter, that’s not a stretch!
But when Peter’s doubts and fears overwhelmed him, and he started sinking, he got to experience the saving arms of Jesus. What do you think was the more helpful experience for Peter when he started preaching the gospel and suffering persecution? What do you think is the most helpful experience for you, O fearful, doubting, but delighted in pastor?
If some of you were honest, you would look me in the eyes and say Ronnie, my faith is so weak. I don’t think I would’ve even gotten out of the boat. I have so many doubts, so many fears. You’re like the Psalmist when he writes, Psalm 69:1-2 Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
And yet, here you are. You clicked here. You came to a place where you knew you would hear God’s voice telling you to come to Him, and be reminded that when you’re too fearful to walk, He will be your shepherd and carry you forever like the Psalmist writes. And you’ll live to rejoice again like Peter would.
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)
Pastor, God doesn’t condemn you in your fears, He comforts you in them.