Who is Jesus?
We are continuing to follow the narrative lectionary in the Gospel of Matthew. We have followed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he was baptized by John the Baptist and resisted temptation in the wilderness. We also learned about his first teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: we are blessed by God’s presence with us, we do not need to worry, and we shouldn’t judge others, but treat them as we would wish to be treated. Throughout it all, we have been learning to make God the focus of our lives, to make Jesus our firm foundation.
Today we have skipped a several chapters. Two important things happened right before our passage today. First, Jesus was rejected at Nazareth. Second, this is immediately followed by the murder of John the Baptist. For those of you who remember the sermon about the temptations in the wilderness, you will recall that these temptations foreshadowed things to come for Jesus. The same thing is true for the death of John the Baptist. That passage is constructed by Matthew to exactly parallel Jesus’ experience of going to the cross. So we have Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, followed by the death of John the Baptist, which is told in a way that parallels Jesus’ death on the cross. This is followed immediately by our passage, which is all about Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Matthew is foreshadowing the fact that the Son of God is going to be rejected and is going to be killed.
Our passage today is the first time that Jesus’ disciples recognize that Jesus is the Son of God. What I’d like to do today is go through the passage and show you what happened that made them realize who Jesus is. Because it wasn’t just that he did amazing things, like feed 5,000 people and walk on water. There was more to it.
When we encounter Jesus in Matthew 14:13, he is grieving the loss of his relative and partner in ministry, John the Baptist. He’s trying to get away and have some time to himself, but the crowds keep following Him. I’d like to point out that our passage today begins and ends with Jesus doing the same time. In verse 14, he has compassion on the crowds and heals them. And then at the end in verses 35-36, the crowds come to him again begging for healing and he heals them. These two passages show us what the Son of God does. The Son of God comes to respond to the ordinary lives of people and bring healing. Sometimes we think that our requests of God are too mundane or that God wouldn’t have time to answer our prayers. But here, Jesus has compassion on the crowds. He listens to them. He grants their requests, and brings healing. Even though he has grief on his mind. God is never too busy for us. And because, as we will see, Jesus is going to be identified as God in human form, the Son of God, whatever Jesus does in this world is what God does. God brings healing, in our own lives, and also asks us to go out to bring healing into the lives of others through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes physical healing, but more often a healing of the heart, that is received through love.
Let’s see now how Jesus comes to be identified as Son of God. We have two passages that do this: the feeding of 5,000 and the walking on water. The feeding of the 5,000 starts in verse 15. In this passage, Jesus is identified with God as the Shepherd. We read about God as Shepherd in Isaiah 40 and in Psalm 23. Psalm 23 starts like this, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Green pastures is green grass and that’s what the sheep eat. We saw in Isaiah 40:11, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd.” Sheep don’t figure out how to feed themselves. They follow the shepherd. It’s the shepherd’s job to look after them. God is our shepherd, we are the sheep. We follow God, and God will look after us. And that’s what’s happening here with Jesus and the crowds. The crowds have followed Jesus and He will look after them.
We have this wonderful conversation between Jesus and the disciples starting in verse 15, when they tell Jesus that the crowds don’t have any food - they are going to be "in want" - and Jesus invites the disciples into his work as shepherd. The disciples bring him the little that they have, five loaves and two fish. And then it says in verse 19, “Then [Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” ... “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Jesus is the shepherd. He has the food. He has them all sit down on the grass. Then it says in verse 19, “Taking the loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” Again, the disciples participate in this work of Jesus being God the shepherd.
And then it continues in verse 20, “And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” In Psalm 23, we also have this in verse 5, “You (meaning God) prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” Here we have Jesus, having just been rejected at Nazareth, having just heard of the murder of John the Baptist, preparing a table in that context, with enemies lurking in the background. This line from Psalm 23, “my cup overflows” means that against all odds (in the presence of my enemies), God has given me abundance. And that’s what we see in the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus doesn’t just feed people. He feeds an enormous amount of people, from a little bit, and they have abundance overflowing. Jesus is associated here with God as shepherd, feeding the sheep, against all odds, with enemies lurking in the background, with abundance. That’s the first association of Jesus with God’s powers, in this case with God’s powers as shepherd.
The next one is even more powerful.
It says in Matthew 14:25, “And early in the morning [Jesus] came walking toward them on the sea.” (I tried this one. I started at the back of the beach and closed my eyes and walked toward the sea. But when I felt the wind and heard the waves, I got scared and opened my eyes. I did not walk on the water.) Yes, walking on water is amazing. But, according to my commentary on Matthew, walking on the sea is something that happens in the Old Testament, but that power only belongs to God. In Job 9:8, God “trample[s] the waves of the sea.” The version of the Old Testament in our Bibles is translated from the Hebrew Masoretic Text. There is another version which was written in Greek and is called the Septuagint. This Greek Septuagint version of the the Old Testament is what the early Christians read, and in Job 9:8 in the Septuagint, it says, that God was “walking on the sea as if on ground.” Also, in Psalm 77:19, it says, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” (Also Isaiah 43:16, “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea; a path in the mighty waters.”)
In the ancient world, the sea was a symbol for chaos and evil. It was a symbol for the troubles that we experience in life, for the things that overwhelm us. According to Dale Allison (one of my seminary professors and the author of my commentary on Matthew, “By walking on the sea Jesus overcomes the powers of chaos and subdues them….Jesus’ walking on the water demonstrates his domination of the sea and all it stands for and brings salvation to those in peril.” (Davies and Allison, Matthew. ICC, vol. 2) Jesus is shown here to have powers that only God has. Only God has power over the sea, the ability to walk on the water. Here Jesus has that power. He is God in human form, the Son of God.
We see this intensified in the section with Peter. Peter tries to walk on the water with Jesus, too. Jesus invites him to participate in God’s power over the sea, just as Jesus invited the disciples into God’s power as the shepherd. Sometimes following Jesus is hard, that’s what Peter experienced. It says in verse 30, “But when [Peter] noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” Peter here faces the chaos, the storm of life and his faith falters and he begins to sink. How often this happens to us. We often take a leap of faith to follow Jesus, but then things seem chaotic and stormy and we become frightened and we start to sink, and we cry out to God, “Save me!”. Dale Allison says it’s like what we read in Psalm 69:1-2, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck...I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.” This happens to us a lot. Dale Allison goes on to say that “Peter’s actions...teach us that what counts is Jesus’ saving presence, not the Christian’s strength of will or courage.” This is important for us because we will falter and we will sink. What counts is Jesus’ saving presence. We’ve learned over the last few weeks that Jesus never leaves us. Here we see that Jesus has the power of God to subdue the sea. Jesus is God in human form. When we cry out to Jesus, he will always reach out his hand and catch us.
In Matthew 14:32-33 it says this, “When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” They make this declaration because they have seen that Jesus has powers that only God has. Jesus is God the shepherd, feeding his sheep with abundance. Jesus has the power of God to walk on the sea and when his people are in trouble on the sea (the chaos and storms of life) Jesus reaches out and saves them.
Jesus is Son of God. Jesus is God in human form, who just did these amazing things. And I want to remind you how this section of Matthew ends. In verses 35-36, God in human form is not too busy or important for the ordinary people. He does not deny the begging of the crowds for healing, but takes the time to answer their request. This is what God is like. God is revealed in Jesus to be a God who takes care of his people like a shepherd. God cares for us with abundance. God has power over the chaos of our lives and saves us when we sink in the sea. God invites us into this work with God in the world. And this same God hears us when we pray and always takes the time to respond. This God was revealed in Jesus. Truly, Jesus is the Son of God. Amen.