Grace, mercy, peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There an old bit of folk wisdom that declares, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” Now, I’m not sure how many of you have had to use a mousetrap lately. Some of you younger people may never have even seen one. Now, in our house, the mousetraps have four paws, whiskers, and shed their fur all over everything. I haven’t used a mechanical mousetrap in many years. But I suppose the saying originates from a time when houses and food containers weren’t quite as well-sealed as they are today, and mice and the need for effective mousetraps were a lot more prevalent.
The main idea behind the saying, though, is that if you provide a product that people want, it’s going to become quite popular, and draw a lot of attention. Today, rather than for a better mousetrap, perhaps the world would beat a path to your door for a better tablet computer, or a better high-mileage car, or—if we could produce such a thing—a rain-making machine.
In His time on earth, Jesus was thought by many to have a better mousetrap, as it were. People flocked to Him, driven by their perceptions that He could provide what they desired—better health, abundant food, amazing signs and wonders, wisdom for living. Jesus had preached on many occasions to this point in Matthew’s Gospel account, including His Sermon on the Mount, His sending of disciples on their first mission journeys, and the telling of several parables. People wanted to hear what He had to say, for the most part, and the crowds grew and grew. Certainly by saying the right things, giving the right words, Jesus had built a better mousetrap.
Furthermore, Jesus had performed great miracles, some of them restoring the health of the infirm; some of them showing power over the things of nature like storms and trees. And—as we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson and sermon—just before today’ text, He had miraculously fed thousands and thousands of men, women, and children from a very modest ration of just five loaves and two fish. In fact, the words “and immediately” at the beginning of our text for this morning are the very first words after the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
Jesus had the better mousetrap, indeed. After this great miracle, however, He doesn’t permit the world that had beaten a pathway to Him to linger there. First He sends His disciples off in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. Then He dismisses the crowds and seeks solitude on a mountain so that He might refresh Himself in prayer.
These times of quiet reflection by Himself are quite telling about Jesus, really. They give us all the more understanding and assurance that Jesus was indeed a flesh-and-blood human being as well as the eternally-begotten Son of God. He needed these times to be refreshed in body, mind, and spirit. We would do well to remember and contemplate this ourselves. We who are merely human cannot be completely healthy without the regular refreshment of being re-connected to God. It’s not a matter of church attendance alone, or personal devotions alone. Jesus did both. He faithfully kept the Sabbath in worshipping regularly in the community of believers, and faithfully kept Himself connected to His heavenly Father through private prayer.
All that may seem to be merely the set-up for the real meat of this story, the coming of Jesus across the water to the disciples struggling in the boat against the wind and the waves.
But don’t ignore or neglect what was happening here, or think that it is insignificant compared to the rest of the text. Jesus was using this time alone to rejuvenate His own spirit, as well as to set the stage to once again demonstrate His divine nature to His disciples.
And so, after several hours alone, and after His disciples had attempted to sail and row across the lake but had only made modest progress, Jesus comes to them. He doesn’t suddenly appear in the boat, as He would later in the Upper Room in the days following His crucifixion and resurrection. This time, He comes to them in a way that lets them see His approach.
Their reaction to His coming is both normal and surprising at the same time. Normal, in that seeing someone walking across water they knew to be quite deep is, well… not normal at all. It’s completely unexpected, disturbing, and unexplainable. Certainly is we saw anyone walking across water, we’d be shocked, possibly quite frightened.
On the other hand, these men had spent considerable time with Jesus and had been first-hand witnesses to many, many wonders and signs that were every bit as unnatural and unexpected as seeing someone walking on the water. Who else could it be; who else would it be, other than Jesus, after all? Not twelve hours earlier, they had seen him turn a picnic basket into an H-E-B warehouse, providing food for 15 or 20 thousand from a mere armful of supplies. It’s not as though they hadn’t seen Him defy the laws of nature as we normally understand them, was it?
But let’s be fair and generous in our treatment of the disciples. We regularly love to shake our heads and click our tongues at their continual unbelief and their outright density sometimes—especially at Peter—but we’re no better, really. We often forget from week to week, day to day, even hour to hour the miracles that we have witnessed, too.
For example, we often forget—or at least fail to continually appreciate in its fullness—the cleansing we received at the font, the binding to Christ’s death and resurrection, the re-birth and the eternal adoption all given to us there. We also drop the ball on absolution, letting our minds dwell on past wrongs done to us and done by us, long after they have been purged and eradicated by God’s declaration of forgiveness, and the granting of His perfect, divine forgetfulness in the Confession of sins and faith.
What’s more, we fail to realize that while the turning of five loaves and two fish into a feast for thousands is miraculous indeed, the greater miracle is that a smidgen of bread and a sip of wine brings Jesus and all that He is, all that He means, and all that He does. Not just to us, but it even puts Christ—God Himself—within us. Those are the miracles we experience; those are the miracles we ought to remember.
Think of some of the language Paul and the other apostles used to describe the effects of these miracles of Word and Sacrament: “Since we are united with Him in a death like His; we shall surely be united with Him in a resurrection like His,” are words we hear and trust about our own baptismal burials.
“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation,” we hear about the ministry of the Word, including the absolution of our sins for Jesus’ sake.
And of the Supper: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
In all these gifts, these miracles beyond compare, note how we are connected to God, reconciled to God, participate with God! Not by our own efforts, but by His coming to us and giving us Himself—first on the cross, and now continually in His gifts.
The world wants to beat a path to the god that has the better mousetrap; the god that has what they think they want. But we don’t have a God that requires us to seek Him out, to look for the right product that meets our desires. He is a God that comes to us and seeks us out, finds us in our time of greatest need, and provides the remedy for our greatest need.
Jesus comes across the water to His disciples, and whether some of them realize it is Him or not, they still tremble and cry out in fear. And well they should, for whether it is an evil spirit or whether it is Jesus coming to them, they are sinful men. They have no hope of mounting a defense against the prince of darkness or of justifying themselves before the King of Light. Unlike a ghost or demon that Satan might send to torment them, however, Jesus is quick to address their fears. Note that once again, it says “immediately”. Jesus is ever ready to provide His comforting words of assurance to those who are filled with fear. “Take heart,” He says—that is, ‘be of good courage.’
But why should they? They are facing the strange and unknown, in the darkness of the night, in a storm-tossed boat on a raging lake.
They can take courage for the same reason we can take courage—on account of the next words the Lord speaks to them: Ego eimi. “It is I.” I am who I am. I am the One who has always been. I will always be. “Do not be afraid.”
Perhaps they breathed a sigh of relief at hearing the Lord’s voice through the howl of the wind. Yet Peter is not fully satisfied that the Lord has come to them. He wishes for more; he wishes to come to Jesus. The Lord invites Him to do so, and Peter boldly steps out of the boat and onto the roiling waters. Things go well for a short time, as Peter moves across the surface to Jesus. Once there, however, Peter makes a mistake. He loses focus; his fear of the things of creation begin to overshadow his trust in the Creator Himself, and his faith wanes.
As he slips beneath the waters, he calls out in desperation, “Lord, save me!”
What happens then? What does Jesus do? Pay close attention now! He immediately reaches out His hand and takes hold of Peter. A gentle chiding of Peter for his doubt, a loving reminder that the Lord will never abandon his own, and Jesus brings Peter into the boat. The Lord is now there with them. God has come to His people. Yahweh Immanuel. Kyrios theos ego eimi. He is the Son of God, indeed, and all is well. The storm is calmed, and Jesus is worshipped.
The account of Jesus walking on the water comes at a pivotal time in His life and ministry. He had done miracles before, and would do them again. He had also met opposition from people before, and that opposition would continue and even increase. But something fundamental is changing.
It won’t be too long in Matthew’s Gospel until Jesus reveals the true purpose of his coming: To suffer and die on the cross to atone for the sins of all mankind, and to be resurrected to bestow upon all believers the gift of eternal life. When He foretells of His death and resurrection, He will be opposed and even rejected by many. They have different wants and desires, and cannot see the dangers and consequences of their true needs. They want a savior who is going to provide them a better mousetrap. That’s the savior to whose doorstep they are willing to beat a path. They don’t want or understand a Savior who will allow Himself to be destroyed in order that the vermin of their sins might be exterminated forever.
It’s not much different today, really. People look for gods and saviors that they can seek out, approach, and come to, like a product in a store display to be evaluated and purchased if it meets their approval. “What god, what savior, has the better mousetrap?” they wonder. Is he a god that makes me comfortable, or a God that provides comfort? Is he a lord that merely fills my belly with created things, or a Lord that occupies my very soul with His own, true presence? Is he a savior that only gives worldly comfort and merely rescues me from the perils of this life, or a Savior who surrendered His very own life that in all perils and death, we might not die eternally?
The crowds had come to Jesus, and gone away filled with food and wisdom, but not yet really understanding Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God. Peter had attempted to come to Jesus across the water, but came up short and nearly perished.
It works so much better when we stop trying to find the better mousetrap; when we stop trying to come to Jesus on our own terms and instead let Jesus come to us on His terms.
We can attempt to walk on the water with Peter, but in the end there will always be something that distracts us—the sin of that makes us fall short of Jesus. We may get pretty far, but until Jesus takes our hand, we’re going to sink and die.
How much more blessed we are when Jesus comes to us. He doesn’t let us slip into the water to flail about, founder, and sink in our own doubts and unbelief. Instead, He takes us and puts us in the water Himself, killing the doubting unbeliever and pulling the new, trusting soul from the watery grave to be His forever. We live, as the catechism teaches us, to be His own. To live under Him in His kingdom. To serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But what does that mean, exactly?
You see, after He has brought Himself to us, part of serving Him is to be sent to bring Him to others. There are many, many people who continue to seek a better mousetrap, when what they really need is an exterminator. Only Jesus can fully eradicate their infestation of sin. Only Jesus can remove the foul stench of their rotting corpses of iniquity. Don’t let anyone struggle in a quest to find a god, a lord, a savior. May Jesus come to them, through you, and may He continue to bless you and comfort you with His forgiveness, salvation, and everlasting presence, as He says each moment, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”
In the name of Jesus (+), Amen.