Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 13 August 2023.
• First Reading: Genesis 37: 1-4, 17-28 (Joseph flung into a cistern and then sold to Midianite traders)
• Epistle: Romans 10: 5-15 (With your heart you believe and are justified; with your mouth you profess your faith and are saved)
• Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-33 (The disciples sent on ahead; Jesus comes to them walking on the water; Peter’s faith – and his wavering)
I think that the technical term for him is a prat. Certainly a brat. The favoured youngest son, born during his father’s old age and spoiled rotten. Favours, some of them quite conspicuous – the famous coat, said to be of many colours (although I believe that biblical critics prefer ‘long sleeves’).
Given to dreams of fantasies of superiority over his brothers – that went down a real treat – and otherwise clyping on them. Not exactly the most welcome visitor, even when coming to see how they were and at his father’s request.
So they thought that they had a solution to their problem – a convenient water pit, now dry. Shove him into that and then decide what to do with him. He is certainly not going back to tell dad about them.
So the Midianite traders were quite useful and if you do not fear God then anything and everything has its price – even human life. Joseph was not exempt in this and so was easily sold off.
I remember an incident at school in a school debate when I stood up to speak. The intervention was brief, nervous and convoluted. The report of the debate was succinct: ‘Mr Maitland was incomprehensible.’
After that, there is only one direction that you can go and that is upwards. So also with Joseph. Coming out of the pit – a relational and emotional pit, never mind its spiritual dimensions – he also would find that there was only one direction to go. And this time his dreams would be so some use.
But isolated in that pit, for who knows how long and with little food or water, he was finding adversity as he had never imagined it. That there was more to come, there could be no doubt. But he was having to cope with the turn that life had dealt him.
Whatever anger and resentment he felt, it was going to be a question of whether these would master him. Would he define himself by the unfairness of life and the hurt he had sustained? Would these cripple him in all aspects of life, or would he find a way through?
Would he continue to trust and to worship God from within his adversities and all the insecurities they carried with them? This was going to be the real test of character, and it would define his prospects thereafter.
Would the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob be his as well?
Looking at the gospel passage, there is a little background to be noted. John the Baptist had just been executed and Jesus had withdrawn into the hills. The crowds had followed Him into that isolation and He had fed them. There were some 5000 of them.
After that He needed time alone and sent the disciples to the other side of the lake, while He withdrew for personal prayer. And so during the night He got up to find them, out on the lake. Why swim when you can walk? Boisterous weather was not a concern for Him – even if it was for the disciples trying to make headway.
Then they saw Him – was this a ghost? Was their time up? Did Davy Jones have an apartment in Lake Galilee? Were they going to see it?
This was the state of uncertainty facing the disciples when Peter recognized Jesus and had enough faith to be willing to step out to greet Him. After all only a few hours ago they had fed the 5000. They had seen the miracle and all things were possible.
So why not do as Jesus was doing and walk on the water? And Jesus honoured Peter’s enthusiasm. He would support him. And this was fine so long as Peter’s attention was fixed on Jesus. Trouble started when Peter stopped looking at Jesus and concentrating. This was perhaps a ‘Look at me!’ moment. Then he saw the waves and felt the wind. Then it became a little less certain and bit by bit he lost his focus.
The fleeting thought had become a trap. He as sinking. And yes, the water was cold.
Like Jospeh, Peter could have seen only the dangers. Instead, he called out for help and the help was given immediately. He was safe, even if a little damp and somewhat chastened.
For us the lessons are about keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. No matter what the circumstances and how adverse they may be. No matter how intimidating the situation, the risks of ridicule or insult or of open hostility.
I do not think that we have too many illusions about ourselves. We all have our stories and our memories of failure. Yet this is not the point. The point for us is also our focus on Jesus. And that focus applies when we are most under pressure. When the criticism is harshest and the company is most hostile.
This is when, for all our learning and standing, we also need to put ourselves under His protection. To find in Him our peace and security, our sense of being and of direction.
Above all, to rely on Him when we may be so undermined by doubt and insecurity. When our good works count for nothing and everything is vested in Him.
Jesus never came to establish a church of supermen and wonder-women. He came to save sinners and to be the righteousness that they could never achieve on their own.
As with Paul when beset by personal trial and sorrow, Jesus still says to us: ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’