I have a text for you this morning: – Psalm 25: 5 :”Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.”
I think the story of Jesus walking on the water, and of Peter jumping in faith out of the boat, his faith faltering and his experience of sinking and being caught just in time by Jesus, is a favourite incident in the Gospels for many of us. And, whether we are conscious of the connection or not, I think the reason is that it rings so many bells. We unconsciously identify with Peter. We too set out in faith and some confidence, only to find ourselves falling flat on our faces. Our lives, too, go through many ups and downs. Times of faith, times of doubt. Times when things go well, times when things go badly. Times of joy, times of great sadness. Lives and faith which begin well and then go downhill. Lives and faith which begin very badly, but from which God produces wonderful miracles.
I have three life stories to illustrate how God’s guiding hand can do great things with even the least promising material; and how that hand that reaches out to catch us and hold us, works in many different ways. We see also how – once Christ’s hand has taken hold of ours – he never lets go entirely. As Jesus tells us in John 10: 27,28: “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”
1. Peter is perhaps the best known example of this in practice. Jesus calls him and Peter responds, and follows eagerly. But this story of him jumping out of the boat in enthusiastic faith only for him to begin to sink in doubt, is a very good illustration of his life as we see it in the Gospels. He is absolutely adamant that he will never deny Jesus as his master and lord, only for him to do just that no less than three times within the space of a few hours. His bold faith and certainty suddenly – in the face simply of a waitress’s challenge – turn not just to dust and ashes, but to vehement denial, and then to bitter tears.
But Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, just as he did as he sank in the water. And on the shore-line, over breakfast some days later, Jesus re-commissions him and sends him out on a life’s work that will be fundamental to the foundation of the infant Christian church. Peter may have had many faults, like most Christians, but God never lets go, and uses him in wonderful ways.
What was the problem when Peter jumped out of the boat? I think what happened was that Peter took his eyes off Jesus and started looking at the water beneath his feet, and feeling the wind blowing him about. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes in Chapter 12:2 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith...” Perhaps if Peter had fixed his eyes totally on Jesus, to the point where he ceased to be conscious of the water and the wind, he could have walked to Jesus.
In times when the circumstances around us fill us with anxiety, uncertainty, doubt and indeed fear – whatever those circumstances may be – at home, at work, concerns to do with major decisions, relationships, money, or health – we need to take our eyes off the presenting problems, and look to Jesus. We can ask him to save us, as Peter did, and Jesus will stretch out his hand and catch us and bring us safely through – even if sometimes we find ourselves landing in unexpected places.
2. If we turn to Joseph we see a very different life story. I wonder what it was exactly that made his brothers hate him so much. He was manifestly his father’s favourite child – the youngest, the most cherished and cosseted and indeed paraded as the favourite. That can hardly have been good for him, or for good sibling relationships. Perhaps he preened himself in a way sure to wind his brothers up to the point of fury. No doubt it was partly dad’s fault, giving him pride of place, signified by the coat of many colours. But also, no doubt, Joseph was partly to blame too, trying to lord it over his brothers. When he was sent out to see what they were up to, did he tell them they were in the wrong place, or not working hard enough? Something brought a simmering hatred that had been boiling away for a long time, to a vicious head. It’s one thing to want to knock someone’s block off – quite another to want to commit murder.
The outcome was that the proud and obviously handsome youngster, who had enjoyed every privilege in life, found himself a slave in Egypt. Someone with no rights of any kind at all, and totally at the mercy of his owner. He ends up in jail with his life seriously in danger. Riches to rags in one easy move. It may not happen to us quite like that. But it happens. Our lives can suddenly be turned upside down in ways which can be quite devastating. Something happens which threatens everything we held dear, everything we thought was safe, everything that gave us our sense of who we are.
But God has a purpose for Joseph – actually a quite magnificent purpose. Not only is he restored as a person and given a vital new role, but God uses him to fulfil an essential part in his plan for Israel and hence his plan for the whole world. If you don’t know the story – read on in Genesis 37! It’s a truly great tale!
Life can deal us cruel blows – sometimes apparently almost mortal blows – but God can do great things if we wait on him and keep our faith alive.
3. My third case study for this morning is Jacob, whom we have been thinking about over the past few weeks. I’m not going to tell you about his life, because you have been hearing about it, and – if you missed bits – again it makes a great read in Genesis – I recommend it strongly!
Suffice it to say that Jacob was not, for the most part, a very attractive character. My Old Testament tutor at theological college used to say that if Jacob had swallowed a nail, it would have come out a corkscrew! Having stolen his brother’s rightful birthright and blessing, he runs for his life. But he has a dream in which he is assured by God that he has a plan for his life through which will flow blessing. It takes a long time to work out, and has many twists and turns, but God never deserts him, and eventually conquers his stubborn will and there follows reconciliation with his brother and much besides.
Jacob provides us with a remarkable psychological study that goes right back to his birth as a second twin ferociously hanging on to his brother’s heel. There’s much to learn. But you will be relieved to hear that I’m not going to embark on a psychological study this morning! But he provides us with a type that we might recognise. Someone with an inborn chip on his shoulder – a sense that life has treated him unfairly – and a burning desire to get even, if necessary at the expense of others close to him. Not, you would think, very promising material for God to use. But God’s hand is over his life, God never deserts him or gives up on him. And – in the end – God is going to confront and challenge him – and from that is going to come immense blessing.
So what do we learn from these three case studies? Perhaps you have recognised yourself somewhere as we have looked at these three characters. But even if you haven’t, there comes through the abiding message that God’s hand can be over your life through thick and thin, and just when everything seems to be falling apart, God is close by, and can bring good out of the least promising people and the most disastrous circumstances.
The most important thing is to make contact. When Peter felt himself sinking, he will automatically have stretched out his hand. And the moment he did, Jesus took hold of it, and from that moment he was safe, no matter how strong the wind and how fearsome the waves. Your faith may be reduced to the merest flicker of a flame, but it’s enough, and when you come to look back over the years, you will see that all the time, God was there with his guiding and protecting hand. I can certainly say that from my own experience, and I’m sure there are many here this morning who will have that same sense of life in the hands of God, whatever the circumstances. So, if life at the moment is at a low ebb, take heart, stretch out your hand, and make contact with the risen Lord.
Do you recall the text with which I began? Look it up in your Bible at home, and mark it – or write it out in bright colours and pin it up in a prominent place. It’s a guide and a promise in all circumstances. Psalm 25:5 - : ”Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.”