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A Mind-Expanding Faith

Faith requires risk and choice, but it also brings big rewards.


Some time ago, my wife got me a unique birthday present: a ride in a hot-air balloon. We went together to the field where all of the hot-air balloons were inflated, and we met the one other couple we would go up with. We told them what we did for a living, and they told us what they did for a living. Then we got into the basket, and the pilot began the balloon's ascent.

It was beautiful. It was scenic. This was Southern California, and we could look out over the hills and see all the way to the ocean. It was a majestic sight. I was inspired and excited.

But I experienced one other emotion I hadn't anticipated: fear. The balloon basket went up about knee high. One good lurch, and you'd be right out of there. My palms were sweating, my heart was pounding, and I was gripping the ropes. I thought I was the most frightened person in the basket until I looked over at my wife!

I decided I would like to get to know something about the guy who was flying this balloon. I could've tried to psyche myself up into thinking everything was going to work out great. I could've tried to cultivate a positive mental attitude, chanting, "I believe; I believe; I believe." But we had placed our destinies in his hands; our lives rested on the competence and character of the man piloting the balloon .

So I inched over towards him and asked, "What do you do for a living? How did you get started flying balloons?" I was hoping he would say something like he was a neurosurgeon, that he started flying hot-air balloons because he used to be an astronaut and he missed flying.

I knew we were in trouble when his response began with, "Well, it's like this, dude." He didn't actually have a job, he said; mostly he surfed. He said he began flying hot-air balloons after he was driving his pickup truck and had too much to drink. He had gotten into a rather bad accident and had injured his brother, who was no longer able to get along too well. He started flying hot-air balloons to give his brother something to watch.

Then he said, "If, when we descend, the descent is bumpy, it's because I've never flown this particular balloon before. I'm not quite sure how it's going to go when we go down."

My wife said to me, "You mean we're a thousand feet up in the air with an unemployed surfer who started flying hot-air balloons because he was driving his pickup truck and got drunk and crashed it and crippled his brother, and he has never been in this balloon before, and he doesn't know how to get it down?"

(The other couple has not spoken a word this whole flight. Now the wife speaks for the only time during the journey. She said to me, "You're a pastor. Do something religious!" So I took an offering.)

The question is, "Can I trust the pilot?" You live on a giant balloon that spins around the sun. Every day when people wake up, the great question is, "Is there somebody piloting this thing, and can that somebody be trusted?" We live in a world full of people who try to psyche themselves up, chanting, "I believe; I believe, I believe," over and over. Sociologists tell us that people have begun to put their faith in faith: "If I just believe hard enough," we tell ourselves.

But that's all a game. The real issue is, "Is somebody piloting this thing, and can that somebody be trusted? Are his competence and his character such that I can, with confidence, place my destiny in his hands?" That requires faith. And faith is intimately connected to risk— there can be no faith without risk. And risk is intimately connected to fear—there can be no faith without risk. And sometimes failure.

Faith requires risking failure.

That brings us to the story of Peter in the boat. According to verse 24, a storm comes along, so rough that the disciples can't make it across this body of water—and these are professional sailors. Verse 25 tells us that Jesus comes in the fourth watch of the night—sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Picture in your mind the size of the waves, the strength of the wind, and the darkness of the night. Picture this little boat struggling to avoid being capsized. Matthew says the boat was "tormented" by the waves—that's the Greek word he uses. Cold, wet, exhausted, terrified. These are the conditions under which Peter is going to get out of the boat.

I don't know much about boats. As you might imagine, there is not much time in the life of the diligent pastor to lounge around sailboats and so on…. I would think it would be difficult enough to get out of a boat and try to walk on the water when it's calm, in daylight. That would take about as much courage as the average person can muster.

Imagine doing it when the waves are crashing, and the wind is at gale force, and it's three in the morning, and the night is black. Peter gets out, and he falls. He doesn't make it. It's a story of failure. Or is it?

Raise your hand if you've ever failed a test, if you've ever been cut from a team, if you ever did not get a job or a promotion you wanted, if you've ever been impatient with a three-year-old, if you've ever said the wrong thing or eaten with the wrong fork or worn synthetic fibers—if you've ever experienced failure of any kind.

All of us are "would-be water walkers." And God did not intend for human beings, his children created in his divine image, to go through life in a desperate attempt to avoid failure.

The boat is safe, and the boat is secure, and the boat is comfortable. The water is high, the waves are rough, the wind is strong, and the night is dark. A storm is out there, and if you get out of your boat, you may sink.

But if you don't get out of your boat, you will never walk, because if you want to walk on the water, you have to get out of the boat. There is something, someone inside us that tells us our lives are about something more than sitting in the boat, something that wants to walk on the water, something that calls us to leave the routine of comfortable existence and abandon ourselves in this adventure of following Christ.

Jesus comes to his disciples. The disciples see him walking on the sea, and they're terrified. Jesus says, "Have no fear. It's me." He says, "You can trust my character and my confidence. You can safely, without reservation, with no hesitation, place your life in my hands. You have this storm; you have me. Recognize which is more powerful."

So Peter says, "All right, Lord. If it's really you, what do you want me to do? Command me."

Jesus says, "All right, Peter, out of the boat."

Peter lifts one leg over the side. He puts his foot on the water, and then he lifts his other leg over the side of the boat and puts that foot on the water. And then he lets go. He is still standing, and he turns and takes a step toward Jesus. Then he takes another step, and for the first time in the history of the human race, an ordinary, mortal man is walking on the water. And for just a moment, it's just Peter and Jesus.

Then, all of a sudden, Peter realizes what he is doing; he sees the waves; he feels the sting of the water. And his faith gives way; he is afraid again, and he sinks.

Question: Did Peter fail?

This text, I believe, radically redefines failure in the life of a follower of Christ. Failure is not so much an event. It is the way we interpret or judge an event. It is a label we attach to it.

Jonas Salk attempted 200 unsuccessful vaccines for polio before he came up with one that worked. Somebody asked, "How did it feel to fail 200 times trying to invent a vaccine for polio?"

This was his response: "I never failed 200 times at anything in my life. My family taught me never to use that word. I simply discovered 200 ways how not to make a vaccine for polio."

Somebody asked Winston Churchill, "What most prepared you to lead Great Britain through World War II?" For a period of time, Great Britain stood virtually alone against Nazi Germany as it dominated the Western World.

This was Churchill's response: "It was the time I repeated a class in grade school."

The questioner said, "You mean you flunked a grade?"

Churchill said, "I never flunked in my life. I was given a second opportunity to get it right."

Did Peter fail? Well, yes, in one sense. His faith gave way. He could not stay locked in to Jesus. He sank. He failed. But there were eleven bigger failures in the boat. They failed privately. They failed quietly. Their failure was safe, unnoticed, uncriticized.

Only Peter experienced the shame of public failure. But only Peter knew the glory of walking on the water. And only Peter knew, in a way that the others never would, that when he sank, Jesus would be there; he knew that Jesus is wholly adequate to save. Peter had a shared moment, a connection, that nobody else could have. They could not have had it because they never got out of the boat.

Faith means choosing to follow Jesus.

Perhaps you are wondering tonight what it means to get out of the boat. It sounds exciting. You're for it. But you're wondering what you do. The heart of it is the choice to become a disciple of Jesus. A disciple is not simply somebody who believes in certain things so he will get into heaven when he dies. A disciple is someone who says, "It is my ultimate goal to live the way that Jesus would live if he were in my body." A non-disciple is somebody who has any other goal. And you're not likely to drift into discipleship. You have to choose.

The next step will look different for different people because we're all different, because we all need to learn different things.

I think of a seamstress, a member of the Dexter Avenue Baptist church, a devoted Christ-follower, who believed that Jesus had something to teach a segregated world about love and justice and community. One morning in December of 1955, a bus driver told her she must vacate her seat and move to the back of the bus because she was an African American and a white person needed the seat. In one of the most courageous choices of the twentieth century, she did not move. And she started a revolution. The next Monday night 10,000 followers of Christ gathered together at her church to pray and to ask God, "What do we do next?"

Because of that choice, a revolution started that was not easy; it had a high cost; many were beaten; many were imprisoned; some even died. But it changed the conscience of a nation. It didn't change it enough, but it changed it. All because a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, Christ-following seamstress got out of the boat.

This brings us to an aspect of discipleship that a lot of people don't like. I don't always like it myself. A commitment to a life of following Christ is a commitment to the constant recurrence of the experience of fear. It'll happen over and over again.

Jesus commands the disciples to get into the boat. They do. A storm comes, and they're afraid. Jesus comes to them on the sea, and when they see him, they're terrified. Jesus says, "Take heart, don't be afraid." Peter asks what he is supposed to do. Jesus tells him to take the next step. Peter gets out of the boat, walks and then sinks. What does he experience? More fear! But Jesus rescues him once again. And that's not the last time Peter is going to face panic or fear.

To be a disciple is to be a learner or a student. It is to choose to grow in Christ. And growth means entering new territory, getting out of the boat. Every time you do that, you experience fear.

Here is the amazing thing about discipleship: Fear will never go away. Every time you get out of the boat, every time you enter a new challenge area, you experience fear. Discipleship is always a choice between comfort and fear. To be a disciple is to renounce comfort.

That's bad news for many of us because our society is into comfort. We like to come home and say, "I just want to 'veg out'" —usually in front of a television set. And people who do that we call "couch potatoes." Not good training for discipleship.

The eleven other disciples were "boat potatoes." They did not want to run the risk. They did not want to experience the fear.

Churches are full of folks whom we might call "pew potatoes," people whose religious faith amounts to little more than spiritual padding that will add comfort to their lives. You've got a really nice boat. You've not been out of it in a long time. Maybe your boat is pretty comfortable. Maybe you remember a time when you stepped out of the boat on a regular basis: "Jesus, you give me the word, and I'll come." But maybe you've gotten comfortable in there now.

Maybe you're afraid. I know that feeling. A few years ago, I had a queer sense of leading to get involved in planting a church. God connected my wife and me with a wonderful core of brothers and sisters who shared a common vision. We said, "We're going to do it. We're going to go for it."

Not long into the venture, we were at a conference, and I woke up in a hotel room at four o'clock in the morning and looked up at the ceiling. Do you ever have that kind of four-o'clock-in-the-morning moment?

We had no buildings, no land, no clerical staff, no handbell choir, none of the stuff that makes a church a church. We had enough money in the bank to pay off the bills for six weeks. I thought to myself, What am I doing?

I laid there and worried a while. I tried to discern what was troubling me exactly. I realized that it wasn't survival issues. We had three kids, but I wasn't worried about feeding them—I knew they weren't going to go hungry. My fear, to be candid, was about failure: "What if the people whom I'm close to, the people important to me, see me fail?"

I didn't like seeing that about myself. Getting out of the boat for me was not just about starting a church, it was dying to this crazy obsession of needing to appear successful. Sometimes I want to walk on the water to impress the boat potatoes. But that's not what walking on the water is about.

Walking on the water is about coming to Jesus, and if you try it you may sink. But I have a secret for you: it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because Jesus is adequate to save sinking people.

Peter gets out of the boat. He noticed the strong wind, became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord save me!" It's a confession of the lordship of Christ and a plea for deliverance. Jesus immediately reached out his right hand and caught him.

The point is not that Jesus will instantly, always bail people out. It is that he is always ready to respond. There is no failure that can place you beyond the loving care of the hand of God. Jesus is adequate to save sinking people.

Faith results in remarkable things.

As a result of Peter's having gotten out of the boat, and as a result of his failure and the redeeming hand of Christ, those in the boat worshipped Christ. When people get out of the boat, the power of God is put into play and remarkable things happen.

Let me tell you about Bob. I learned about Bob from a friend named Doug Coe, who has a ministry in Washington, D. C., mostly to political types. Bob became a Christian (Bob, though, is not involved in politics; he sells insurance). He didn't have any church background. He didn't know anything about Christianity. Doug was teaching him the basics, and he taught him about prayer.

Doug told him, for instance, that Jesus says, "Ask whatever you will in my name, and it will be yours." Bob was amazed at this. Doug told him he would have to understand it with common sense, but Jesus is ready to respond.

Bob decided he wanted to pray for a certain country in Africa. So Doug said, "All right, You pray for a month for this country, and at the end of the month if nothing has happened, I will pay you $500. But if something remarkable happens, you pay me $500. And if you don't pray every day, all bets are off." Bob agreed to do it.

So Bob started to pray. It was getting to the end of the month, and nothing had happened. He was at a dinner. People at his table were saying what they did for a living, and one of the women said she worked at a medical facility, a kind of hospital orphanage in the country in Africa Bob had been praying for.

Bob sat up, and he started pumping her with questions. She asked him, "How come you're so interested?" He told her about this strange prayer arrangement. She said, "Would you be interested in visiting this country and seeing these folks?" Bob said yes.

So he flew there and toured the facility. As you might imagine, in a third-world country, they were desperate: short of supplies and medicine. When Bob came back to the United States, he started writing and calling pharmaceutical companies in America and ended up raising over one million dollars worth of medicines to be sent back to this place in Africa.

Afterwards, this woman phoned him and invited him to a big celebration, and Bob went. While there he met the president of the country, who had heard the story and had come for the celebration (it is a relatively small country, and this was the largest medical facility in the country at the time). He met Bob and invited him to the capital to give Bob a tour. So Bob went with the president of this country and toured the capital.

They went past a prison facility. Bob said, "What are the prisoners in there for?"

The president said, "Those are political prisoners."

Bob said, "You know, that's not a good idea. You should let them out."

They finished the tour, and Bob flew back to the United States. A few days later, he got a phone call at two o'clock in the morning from the State Department of the United States government. The official said, "Were you recently in … " and he named the country Bob had visited. Bob said yes. "Did you say anything to the president of that country about political prisoners?" Bob said he had.

"Well, I don't know what you said, but they have been released. We have been trying at the State Department for years to get these prisoners released, and now they've been released. What did you say?"

Bob said, "Well, I told him it was a bad idea to have political prisoners."

When people get out of the boat, amazing things happen. What if everybody here were to say, "I want to get out of the boat." What if everybody in this room were to say, "Jesus, command me. I'm yours." Can you imagine the kind of power of God that would be released in this community and this nation?

Jesus is still looking for people to get out of the boat. If you go, you will face problems. A storm is out there. Your faith will not be perfect, and you will sink.

But I know two other things.

I know that when you fail—and you will fail—Jesus will be there. He will pick you up. He will not leave you alone.

And I know that every once in a while, friends, you're going to walk on the water.

© John Ortberg
Preaching Today Tape #126
A resource of Christianity Today International

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Faith requires risking failure

II. Faith means choosing to follow Jesus

III. Faith results in remarkable things