A Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold
When temptation is at its severest people invariably think despairingly. It is the final phase of a temptation. At that time they are on a slope, so to speak, or slipping down to hell. Yet thinking in that way at such times does not harm, and the angels take no notice of it; for each persons power is limited, and when temptation stretches him to the absolute limit of his power he cannot stand up to anything further and starts to slip.
At that point however that is, when he is on the slope and starts to slip he is raised by the Lord and thereby delivered from despair. More often than not he is then brought into a bright state of hope and the comfort this brings, and also into a state of bliss. (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 8165)
PETER SINKS as he, too, like Jesus, tries to walk on water.
From the gospel through Matthew, friends, chapter 14, Im reading these verses, from 28 to 32:
“And Peter answered Jesus and said, Lord, if it is You, then command me to come to You on the water. So Jesus said, Come. And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, Lord, save me! And immediately, Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt? And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.”
Friends, it speaks volumes of this incident that I just read again, or part thereof; it speaks volumes of the way He touches people, or has touched people in the past. It speaks volumes of the way He has captured peoples attention and imagination, that one of the greatest artists of all times, the great Dutch artist Rembrandt, did a number of sketches, one of which was on the back of the cover of your order of service. A number of sketches: obviously Rembrandt was fascinated by this incident. And although you may not see it as clearly as the picture on the front, you can see the Lord there bending down to Peter who got out of the boat; that’s only one of the drawings or sketches that Rembrandt is known to have done.
When it comes, friends, to incidents such as these, it’s sometimes very difficult for us to say why it is we resonate with them, or how it is we respond to them, in the way that we do. Obviously, Rembrandt was deeply touched by it all. We don’t know why. The very sketches have come down to us, but we don’t know why, we don’t know in what way, it spoke to him: but it obviously did. We can imagine having pieces of paper scattered around him every now and again, this incident on his mind, turning to those pieces of paper and almost doodling the sketches as he turned it over: it’s significance, it’s meaning, the way it touched him and moved him. As I said, we do not know, and cannot know; either way it did touch him.
Was it, I ask myself, was it that he saw in it the big picture? Because there is a big picture here about the human race. If you start to think about it, and reflect on it, it is not difficult to see that you have here, in these dozen or so verses, the most amazing summary of the Lord’s work on earth. The disciples in the boat are clearly the human race: unable to go forward, not sure what to do, no longer able to help themselves and being buffeted around by forces that were bigger than they could control or manage. So here’s a picture, as I say, of the human race as a whole at the time the Lord came on earth: buffeted like I say by seas and influences which had been whipped up and over which, as I also have just said, they no longer felt they had any control over.
The Lord came to the disciples, but not being recognised by them, is a picture of the way the Lord Himself came on earth but was not recognised by people in general at that time. Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, the doctors of the Law: “Who are you?” Even the disciples, scratching their heads and wondering, “Who is this man?” The disciples in the boat looked at this person coming across the waters and said, “It is a ghost!” They didn’t recognise Him any more than the human race, as a whole, recognised the Lord.
And when the Lord came into the world, what did He do? He vanquished, and He overcame, and He settled down those forces and influences which were buffeting the human race, which had risen up from hell, which were threatening to overwhelm and drain humanity.
Well, was that in Rembrandt’s mind? We don’t know: for all that it fascinated him and for all that he doodled these drawings about this amazing incident.
But what it’s personal application, which it obviously carries for you and me, what its personal application is, this incident of the Lord walking to the disciples, who are being tossed around by seas and winds that are being whipped up beyond anything they can manage and which was scaring and worrying the daylights out of them: what does that tell us of ourselves?
Well friends, much as we might wish it to be, and yearn for it to be, the truth is: life is never a calm sea. Not constantly, not unendingly, not consistently. As I said, we might yearn that it be that way, we might wish that it be that way, but it never is. It never is an unending calm sea. The truth is, of course we are all at times beset by disappointments and resentments, worries and anxieties. There are times when we feel put down by others. There are times when we also feel put upon by others. And life becomes tumultuous and tempestuous, as we try to handle what at times seems beyond our handling and managing. This incident speaks to each and every one of us at that level about life and those occasions when things seem to be beyond us to manage. And when we feel as if were being sat down and overwhelmed by them. At such times, of course, it seems to us as if the Lord is remote, looking on perhaps from a distance; and even that we doubt, we question, we’re not sure that He is mindful of us in those predicaments and situations that arise in our lives.
But He comes to us. He comes to us and settles things down for us. We are open, willing, prayerful, and aware of our need for Him.
Life has it’s tempestuous and tumultuous times, and were living in a fools paradise of denial if we don’t think it does.
The incident as a whole, friends, is about temptation. I talked about life’s tempestuous and tumultuous times, when we go through disappointment and anxiety and worry, when we feel put down, misunderstood or put upon, when there are feelings that arise within us of resentment, of being neglected or overlooked, all that sort of thing, which come sweeping in us like wild storms which threaten to carry us away we are in times of temptation.
What I want to do with you now, friends, is just to highlight two or three things which are said and highlighted here about temptation.
The first is that the Lord made the disciples get into the boat. In actual fact, the Greek says He compelled them; He forced the issue. They didn’t want to, but He said, “Get in, and get away!” He pushed them away from Him, even though He would have known what awaited them a few hours later. And what this highlights is this: that we cannot friends, we cannot forever live our lives, so to speak, in the presence, in the awareness of the Lord. The Lord compels us to get out there. He pushes us away. He compels us to get in a boat and go out onto the sea of Life, and to deal with the challenges which it holds for us. He doesn’t want us clinging to Him. That’s the first thing that I’m asking you to note, in regard to what is highlighted here in connection with temptation. The Lord made the disciples, He compelled the disciples, He forced the issue: that they should push off in that boat and get away onto whatever the future held for them.
The second thing I want you to note friends, is that although the disciples, as I said to the children, were out on the lake, the Lord remained ever mindful of them. He stayed, it says, on a mountain and He looked out over the sea and sees whats going on. And as I tried to say to the children, even in life’s most tempestuous and tumultuous times, when it seems to us that the Lord is nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, He is mindful of what is going on, monitoring what is going on, and aware of all the nuances and subtleties and developments of the situation thats unfolding. The Lord is forever watching and aware of the predicaments and situations that may from time to time almost threaten to overwhelm us.
And the third thing I want you to note is that the Lord came to the disciples in a boat in the fourth watch of the night. The nights in those times were divided into four watches of three hours: from six til nine, from nine til twelve, from twelve to three, and from three to six in the morning. The fourth watch of the night, the beginning of the fourth watch of the night, three AM onwards is the darkest part of the night; and yet it is the time at which the dawn breaks. In your darkest times friends, always remember that it is at the darkest of times that dawn is about to break. Its so useful to remember that in yourself personally, that it is also something you can share with others and encourage others with: that at the darkest point, when they feel as if they can no longer hold on to the situation, that they are drowning in the situation that has arisen for them, tell them: “This may seem like the darkest part of your experience, but always remember that the darkest part of the night is the point at which the dawn breaks.” And that’s exactly what we’re being taught here by the Lord coming to the disciples in the fourth watch of the night, as dawn was about to break in on the situation. The Lord came to people at their darkest, most difficult, most challenging, most despairing point; that’s when the Lord comes to us.
Why didn’t He come sooner? Why doesn’t He come sooner? Because He knows that we need to go through the experience and come to the point where we have seen for ourselves that a power greater than our own is needed for us to be able to respond to and manage whatever the predicament is that has arisen.
It’s like the alcoholic. They won’t even be received onto an AA program until he or she has come to the point at which they acknowledge that they are helpless, and that their situation is hopeless; and at that point they can begin to be helped. And so it is spiritually in our relationship with the Lord.
Friends, a sea of course is the boundary of continents and islands. And I want you for a moment to hang on to this word “boundary” or “boundaries”, and think of this in terms of your life: what are the boundaries of your life? What are the outermost things in your life? What occurred to me: a shopping list on the fridge door, or three appointments in your diary for a Tuesday afternoon after you pick the children up. The boundaries of your life are that you get a telephone call when someones in dire need of your assistance in one way or another. These are the outermost things of your life. That’s where the storms and the tumults arise. How can I cope? What shall I do? Will I get there in time? This is where it all happens: at the boundaries. And that’s where the Lord can come to us. The shopping lists on the fridge door, the appointments in your diary, the telephone call that comes out of the blue. Pressured though you may feel as a consequence of all this, stressed; that’s where the Lord will come along side of you and help you deal with and respond to what it is that is arising for you.
And the Lord calls us, as He did Peter, to come to Him over the sea. He’s quite happy for us, because He wants us to be able, so to speak, to walk across the shopping list on the fridge door, the appointments in our calendar, the telephone call that comes out of the blue; He doesn’t want us to be sucked down by them and overwhelmed by them, to feel as if we are being drowned by them. So He said, when Peter said, “Shall I come?” “Yes, you come Peter because that’s what I want you to do; I want you to have a confidence to be able to walk across the sea of everyday life and affairs!” But we soon find, don’t we, that we can’t do it ourselves. We need a greater power than what we possess to enable us to do so. The Lord helps us come through, and to the other side, where there’s peace and stillness. And as the gospel says, a lovely renewal of healing, of the healing of what has been malfunctioning in our lives.
And just to take it back then folks, to those words with which I started:
“And Peter answered Jesus and said, Lord, if it is You, then command me to come to You on the water. So Jesus said, Come. And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, Lord, save me! And immediately, Jesus stretched out His hand [isn’t that a wonderful picture: the Lord stretches out his hand to us] and caught him, and said to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt? And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.”