Faith versus doubt


Sermon: Sunday, 4th September, 2022 Video
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Mathew 14:22-36

An ancient Egyptian symbol for something which was impossible was that of two feet walking on the sea. Was that a good symbol? Yes! I was out fishing off Anstruther a few weeks ago and was out in a fishing boat for 6 hours, and at no point did I fancy trying to walk on the water. In fact, when I dropped my line over the edge of the boat and the lead weight sunk towards the sea bed, I was struck in a fresh way by just how deep the sea is.

So, when the disciples are out on the sea at 4am and see the figure of someone walking on the water towards them, perhaps just partially visible in the light of the moon, we can understand why they would be terrified. People cannot walk on water. But Jesus can, and Jesus did. Yes, Jesus is a true human being, but he is also God. He made the seas and the mountains and the wind and so he is in total and utter control of all things, including the sea. He has just taken 5 loaves and 2 fish and fed 5000 people, and now he’s walking on the water. What a wonderful encouragement to us all to know that there’s nothing in all creation which is out with his sovereign control. This has such a profound impact on those witnessing these events that we read, ‘Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ (Matthew 14:33)

This event brings Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God into sharp focus. Why do we gather to worship the risen Jesus each Lord’s Day? Because he is God. Jesus truly is the Lord over all creation and so the only fitting response is for us to worship him.

This passage not only deals with the identity of Jesus, but also has a huge amount to teach us about living faith. And these two themes are strongly connected, because the more we understand the power, grace, love and sovereign control of the Lord Jesus, the more we are enabled to trust him. After all, Jesus is the object of our faith.

This morning, I want to focus on the theme of faith, all the while keeping the fact that Jesus is God very much in the foreground. I think a focus on Peter is being faithful to the passage, because this miracle is recorded in all four gospels, but only in Matthew do we read of Peter walking on the water. I also think it’s important for us to mark the beginnings of a new work in our church, both in terms of Geoff’s work in the church family here, and also the beginnings of a new church plant in Levenmouth. Peter here stands for all of us as followers of Jesus. We find in him a real mixture of faith and unbelief. Isn’t that what it is in each one of us today? We can learn from his both his success and his failure.

1. Faith takes risks

Peter makes an unbelievable request. This takes great courage. Why does he ask to walk out on the water? Is he just impulsive? Showing off? We don’t know all of his motives, but we do know that he loves Jesus and wants to be near him; ‘You know all things, you know that I love you.’ (John 21:17)

His confidence is in Jesus. He believes Jesus can empower him to do what he could never do on his own. That is just as true for us here in church this morning: in Jesus’ power, we can do what otherwise would be impossible for us to do.

As a congregation, along with Cornerstone and other churches and people, we are seeking to plant a new church in Levenmouth. From a human point of view, that is a risk for us. I don’t think we can do this relying on our own strength. I don’t think Geoff can either, but he is taking a risk of faith. He doesn’t have a core team yet, nor all of the funding. Endeavouring to plant 30 churches by 2030 involves stepping out in faith. From a human point of view, we don’t have the finance, nor do we have enough workers. But faith takes risks and we step out believing that Jesus can enable us to do that which would be impossible for us to do ourselves.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Geoff and I were at a church planting conference in Cumbernauld. There was a time when we were discussing in regional groups, wondering what the Lord might do 10 to 15 years from now. A new church is launching this coming Sunday in Galashiels. Already, we are wondering if the Lord will lead us into neighbouring places such as Peebles and Jedburgh. We have a new church in Montrose, but what of Arbroath and Brechin? Faith takes risks. Faith believes that Jesus can enable us to do what we cannot do on our own, so our vision must factor that in.

Perhaps you think you will never get over a particular sin which you seem to fall into again and again, and feel gripped by. Jesus can set you free from it. You might think, I could never pray out loud with other Christians. Ok, but can Jesus enable you to do it? You might even feel that you cannot carry on living the Christian life. It seems impossible. You have so many doubts and are surrounded by unbelievers. Jesus can enable you to remain true.

Peter leaves the safe place, the comfortable place (the boat). Faith enables you to come out of the easy place, and go to the harder place. Faith always means coming to Jesus, and that’s what Peter illustrates here.

2. Faith’s victory

Let’s not be too harsh on Peter. For a time, perhaps a considerable time, he manages to walk on the water. It is astonishing to read of Jesus walking on the water, but it is arguably more astonishing to read of Peter walking on the water. Impulsive, unstable, weak and foolish Peter walks on the water.

Are you prepared to step out in faith at home? Perhaps you think you could never possibly speak to your neighbour about the Lord Jesus, or explain to someone what it means to be a Christian. But Jesus can enable you to do just that. You invite someone round for a coffee and to read a short Bible passage and talk about it. But you’ve never done it before. They ask you a few questions and to a few of them you answer, ‘That’s a good question, I’ll get back to you on that.’ But at other times you are amazed that the Holy Spirit gives you the words to say. You are walking on the water.

Perhaps you’ve just had a terrible diagnosis from the doctor and you know there’s going to be a lot of physical pain ahead, and you wonder how you are going to cope. But your trust is in Jesus, and even in your pain and suffering the love of Jesus shines out from you, and Jesus enables you to cope.

Perhaps you’re being treated unfairly by your boss at work and have felt like retaliating several times, and are tempted to join in the gossip about him and speak badly of him- after all, he deserves it. You ask God for grace, and are amazed that you manage to show love to him, and speak kindly, and the bitterness you first felt has begun to dissipate. This is faith’s victory.

3 Faith’s failure

What causes Peter’s faith to fail? Jesus was still there. I don’t think it was because the wind got any stronger. ‘But when he saw the wind, he was afraid…’ (Mathew 14:30) Peter begins to forget about the sustaining power of Jesus, and his gaze moves to his circumstances, and that’s why he starts to sink. He takes his eyes off of Jesus.

It’s a golden rule in so many sports: keep your eye on the ball. The same is true in the walk of discipleship: keep your eyes on Jesus. If Geoff and Maddie start to look at their own abilities, or focus on the weakness of the church in Levenmouth, then they will begin to sink. And that’s bound to happen to a certain extent, unless they have perfect faith.

Robert Murray McCheyne: ‘For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.’

And that’s the best advice we can give to Geoff and Maddie and they venture out in faith. And that’s the best advice we can give one another too.

I’ve often been like Peter here, focusing on the wrong things, whether difficult circumstances or my own weaknesses and I certainly know what it is to plunge into the water.

It can be that we go through months and even years in a spiritual wilderness, becoming cynical about the Christian faith, doubting that God is in control, doubting his promises, such as that all things work together for our good. These periods of spiritual drought do not mean that we are not Christians. Peter’s faith is mixed with doubt.

JC Ryle: ‘…doubting does not prove that a man has no faith, but only that his faith is small; and even when our faith is small, the Lord is ready to help us.’

I can guarantee you that if you are constantly thinking about examples of hypocritical Christians, and the evil within the world, and all of the things we don’t understand or find hard about the Christian faith, then you will begin to sink. It is vital that we keep our focus on the beauty, sacrifice, love and grace of Jesus. It is vital that he and he alone is the object of our faith.

Westminster Shorter Catechism
Q86: What is faith in Jesus Christ?
Answer: Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

We must start the Christian life with our focus on Jesus alone, and this is also the way we must continue our lives as disciples of Jesus.

4. Faith restored

The cry of Peter as he sinks into the sea means a lot to me personally. Often, I’ve taken these words and made them my own when I feeling I’m plunging into a place of doubt or disobedience: ‘Lord save me.’ I love picturing Jesus responding immediately to Peter’s cry and in his love and grace reaching out his strong hand, and pulling Peter to a place of safety. This is our God. Even when his children are of little faith, he remains strong and faithful. This speaks of the mercy of Jesus on weak Christians, as we often are.

Peter’s cry: ‘Lord save me’ is one of fear mixed with faith. And yet it’s a beautiful picture as immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand. ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out…’ (Isaiah 42:3)

Let’s be clear, when you are sinking spiritually you must cry out Jesus, and you will find the same hand, we take a grip of you and will not let you go.

JC Ryle: ‘If we fall back, he will raise us again. If we err, he will bring us back. But his mercy shall never altogether be taken from us.’

If you are not a Christian yet, but are starting to see that you owe God a huge moral debt which you cannot possibly pay back, then why not make this prayer your own? Lord Jesus, save me! If you do, you will experience his strong hand taking hold of you and changing your life forever.