Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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“Déjà Vu All Over Again”

Matthew 14:22-33

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit. Amen.

Déjà vu. You have the feeling you’ve been here before. In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we have déjà vu because we have been here before. In chapter eight, Matthew tells us about the disciples and Jesus on a boat in a bad storm. Jesus is sleeping soundly, but the disciples are dreading death. “And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord, we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:25-27, ESV) And now déjà vu; the details are different, but we can’t help thinking that we’ve been here before: “the [disciples’] boat was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them” (Matthew 14:24, ESV). After Jesus, walking on the water beside the boat, told the terrified disciples that it was really Him and not a ghost, Peter wanted to try. So he got down out of the boat and began to go toward Jesus on the water. “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 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'” (Matthew 14:30-31, ESV). Déjà vu: a boat on a rough sea; scared and then awestruck disciples; calm Jesus doing things only Yahweh can do. Haven’t we been here before?

Memory is a strange thing. It can play tricks on you; you remember things that never happened and you forget things that did. You may not think that memory is such a frail thing. You know that you know that you know that that thing happened, without a doubt in your mind. And then you talk to someone who has a completely different memory of the same thing, or someone whom you thought was there who doesn’t remember it at all. You can begin to distrust your memory. Which is what happens to Guy Pearce’s character, Leonard, in the movie Memento. He has a severe form of short-term memory loss that keeps him from making new memories, so every few minutes he forgets what he was just doing or where he is. He can remember everything before his head injury, or so he thinks, but between that point and the present time, everything fades. He believes he is chasing his wife’s murderer, so in order to keep track of things, he gets tattoos of the “facts” he thinks he knows and takes Polaroids on which he writes important information. But there is a twist for the viewer of the movie: it happens in reverse chronological order, and the scene fades out every few minutes, just like Leonard’s memory. By the end of the movie, or rather, by the beginning, it’s not so hard to doubt your own memory. “Memory is treachery,” one of Leonard’s tattoos says, and no matter how firmly you trust your memory of some particular event, doubt can always be introduced; often, it’s self-inflicted.

For the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, doubt is constantly being introduced, even though they should be very clear by now about who Jesus is and what He can do. How can the disciples be so dense? How can they fear Jesus, who graciously stilled the wind and waves? How can Peter doubt the Lord who stands upon the water? It’s déjà vu all over again. And in this déjà vu, doubt and fear go together. They are the opposites of faith and trust. And doubt comes so easily! It is not hard to wonder if Jesus will do what He has promised to do, to wonder if what He has already done has any actual bearing on our lives here and now. We look around us at the violent winds of this world, and the frailty of our flesh, and we doubt. How many distractions there are! We turn our heads, we take our eyes off the Lord, the Son of God who has conquered this world. Before we know it, we’re going down. Because we are sinners, doubt can always be introduced. Memory is treachery. If people were looking at a written record of our life in Christ, would they say about us what we say about the disciples? How can they be so dense? How can they doubt the goodness of God in light of what they know He can do? How can they have forgotten that Jesus’ Word must be their only confidence, both in the midst of their worst problems and when things seem to be going well? What diseased memories we have! Like a dog that returns to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11) or a clean pig returning to the mud (2 Peter 2:22), we forget the forgiveness and faithfulness of God and go back to the same tedious sins, the same tired rebellion. We complain in the midst of plenty; we gossip about other people’s sins, ignoring our own; we get comfortable in so-called grace, thinking that our holy God won’t mind if we indulge just one sinful fantasy, or speak just one idle word, or think just one damning thought. It’s déjà vu all over again.

The trouble is that you and I do not really believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Or, rather, we put our faith in false understandings of who the Son of God should be. We take Peter’s experience as if it was a metaphor for the Christian life. We expect that when we have problems, God will always pull us out of them. Or we pretend that as long as we’re “stepping out on faith,” God will bless what we do. The problem is not with our faith, but with where we put it. Notice that the disciples are not afraid until Jesus comes walking on the water. They’re not worried about the wind this time. But their fear at the appearance of Jesus in that way shows that they do not really understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of God. The question that confronts you in Jesus Christ, as surely as it confronted those disciples, will always be: what sort of man is this? What kind of Jesus, what kind of God, do you have? If you have a ghostly God who is hard to grasp, who passes in the night with shivers of dread, then there can only be unspeakable terror. A God who is merely your Creator, who is only holy distance and absolute transcendence, who exists only in the vast unknown blackness beyond your sight, is not a God who can be loved and trusted; such a God can only be feared. If that is your God, you are simply sailing in the dark. And what’s more, you do not want to see that God coming toward you.

If you stand before that unknown and silent God, the only response is terror because you doubt Him. Repent in dust and ashes, like Job did. Realize you are going nowhere by your own strength. But: see that your Creator is also your Savior, the only Son of God. Jesus is God, not off in some distant heaven, but here and now. He appears immediately-not a ghost, not a spirit-but in real, physical flesh to save-as real and physical today as He was to those fearful disciples. In fact, we know of no other God than Jesus. A God who comes to you outside of Jesus Christ is not a God you want to deal with. But: “The Christ who comes to men across the waters is not content to be recognized, in terror, as an apparition, a Someone or even a Something. His coming is no blankly” mystical appearance of God. “He speaks and identifies Himself and replaces terror with faith: ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear'” (Franzmann, Follow Me, 140). “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” Only Christ Himself can change the appearance of God into a merciful one for you and me sinners. And only if He is truly the Son of God can He call timid disciples to come to Him on the water. Caught up by the Word of the Son of God, the disciple “walks on unstable and stormy waters, firm only in the voice which says, ‘Come'” (Franzmann, 146). Come to Me, Jesus says. Your life is life only insofar as it is life in Christ. Your faith is only faith insofar as it is faith in Christ. And yes, it’s déjà vu all over again: the same sins all over again, but the same forgiveness now and forever; the same heads turned by distraction, but the same holy Hand that will not let you go; the same lapses in memory, but the same, consistent, unchanging God who never forgets the promises He has made to you. “The cure for little faith lies…not in whipping up within [your]self a higher energy of believing but in a desperate turning toward the Person who is faith’s object: ‘Lord, save me,’ Peter cried, and ‘Jesus immediately reached out His hand and caught him'” (Franzmann, 142-143). A desperate turning and an immediate saving. Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved! You may have trouble remembering, but He never forgets where He has put His Name. Memory is treachery, so Polaroids and permanent marks are always necessary. But they are not produced by you and so infected with your doubt. No, the Triune God has marked your head and heart with the sign of Christ, whose power in crucifixion and resurrection identifies Him as the very Son of God. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” the Lord says. Over and over again, as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes, to yourself and to everyone else. And exactly as often as His people gather, He says, “Come.” So come, secure only in the fact that it is the Son of God who calls you. And, for a few moments in a quiet church, the wind stops whistling through the holes in your mind. And here we kneel together and here we confess as one the answer to the question, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Truly, O Lord, you are the Son of God. Your mercy never ceases to amaze. Déjà vu all over again.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/6/08

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