“Mountain Tops and Valleys”Dr. James M. Pitts Matthew 14:22-33 Year A - Tenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 14
Always it seems that Jesus and his disciples were on the move. As an itinerant rabbi, Jesus was on the road with his twelve disciples. They were chosen and enrolled into an awesome travel study experience. One that literally had highs and lows, mountain tops and valleys.
The trip reported in Matthew 14:22-33 began with sad and bad news. John the Baptist, a forerunner of the Gospel had been imprisoned and then killed by King Herod who saw him a critic. John had told Herod it was unlawful for him to have married Herodias, the wife of his brother. Such criticism infuriated Herodias and she wanted to kill him. Herod had placed him in prison.
At a birthday party, Herodias daughter’s entertaining dance so impressed everyone, that the king promised her a prize … “Whatever you want, I will give to you!” Upon the instruction of her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist to be served on a dish and presented to her. While sad but because of his promissory oath and need not to appear weak before his guests, Herod did not want to deny her. The King sent his bodyguard and ordered that John be beheaded. So, the young lady and her mother’s wish was granted.
When Southern Baptists were debating ballroom dancing, I remember a preacher telling a convention that “a praying knee and a dancing foot cannot go on the same leg.” And we needed to remember that “John the Baptist lost his head at a dance!”
Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, John was preparing the way for ethical living within a community of faith. With the baptism of Jesus by John, Jesus’ messianic mission and message was confirmed. John’s death marked a crossroad of sadness and sorrow.
In Matthew 14:11-14 we are told “The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.” Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
Not wishing to send the crowd away hungry, we learn of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14:15-21). When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land for the wind was against them.
And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he 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, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
- Matthew 14:22-33
Impulsive Peter claims this moment as an opportunity to walk on water. As he approached Jesus, the wind and water were frightening and he began to sink. He cries out for the Lord to save him. Jesus reaches out and steadies him and asks “why did you doubt?” Upon getting onto the boat, the wind ceased and the disciples on the boat were awed and said to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
To me what is awesome is that this high and holy and miraculous moment occurred in a time of sadness and grief. In the shadows of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, Jesus was on this way to a place to be alone, grieve and pray and experience reconciliation and a healing peace.
The phone rang a 5:30 in the morning. Awakening I answered, the caller identified herself as the Coroner and asked if I was the father of my son, Stewart. She had some heart-breaking news; he had died in a fire at midnight. Shocked and numb as the conversation concluded, I reminded myself of my pastoral commitment later that morning. The evening before, I had conducted a funeral in the chapel of a funeral home. The family had requested we have a graveside committal service the following morning. Being retired and not part of a ministerial staff, I realized that I had no back up, but needed to show up and follow through with my morning responsibility.
That crisis reminded me of Jesus’ need to grieve and pray, but also to embrace his calling and commitment to move through the valley and to the mountain top, from sadness and sorrow to a disciplined discipleship of faith, hope and love.
As we conclude, I would like to offer the following prayer voiced by Dr. Hardy Clemons, former pastor at First Baptist, Greenville, SC (05/28/1933 – 07/01/2020) who recently died.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things, I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
About the Writer:
Dr. James M. Pitts is university chaplain [retired] and professor of religion emeritus, Furman University. A native of Washington, DC, Jim is a graduate of Furman University in Greenville, SC, Southeastern Seminary at Wake Forest, NC, and Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.
An experienced pastoral counselor, he has worked in both congregational and hospital settings. His professional expertise includes crisis counseling, substance abuse intervention, and career guidance for persons in ministry.
His sermons and essays on biblical and pastoral themes are published in books, magazines and on NextSunday.com. One of the founders of Smyth & Helwys, Jim serves as Chairman of the Board, principal photographer and editor of www.NextSundayGallery.com an educational resource with a comprehensive collection of high quality photos illustrating the geography and archaeology of the Biblical world.
Jim and his wife Nancy are the parents of two sons and two daughters-in-law: Stewart (deceased) and his wife Kelley, and Jonathan and his wife Jackie. They are the proud grandparents of three grandsons, Will, Jon Walker and Colton, and a granddaughter, Lilli.
Scripture and Music:
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalms 105:1-6, 45
O Day of God, Draw Nigh
O Sing A Song of Bethlehem
Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said
At the Name of Jesus
I Love to Tell the Story
Only Trust Him
We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations
I Know Whom I have Believed
Many Gifts, One Spirit — Allen Pote
Here I Am, Lord — Daniel Schutte
At the Name of Jesus — Cindy Berry
If My People — Jimmy and Carol Owens
How Beautiful — Twyla Paris
If My People – Owens
Sing unto the Lord A New Song