If you visit Hillsboro, Illinois and drive through town on state route 127, you’ll see the Presbyterian Church. I don’t remember why I was invited to lead the worship there on a Sunday during the late 1970s (I was in my early 20s). But I remember that I preached on Matthew 14:22-33. I remember making the point that Jesus never lets us “sink” amid life’s troubles.
What a wonderful story! Jesus displays his calm and calming power to the disciples. Peter responds in faith but his faith falters, and Jesus is ready to catch him. No matter whether our faith is weak or strong, his help is readily available.
I believe what I preached, but I might add some things about what to do when Jesus’ help doesn’t seem forthcoming. A person may have a very great faith and yet feel that no divine aid is forthcoming; life seems to spin into trouble. A sermon, of course, can’t cover all aspects and implications of a text.
This past Sunday, the guest preacher also used this text and added that Peter got into trouble when he looked down, rather than at Jesus. That made me think of a sweet book by J. R. Miller entitled Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, published by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. in 1899. I’ve enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago--my grandparents were children in the 1890s--and the strength another person had derived from Psalm 121 as he read them in a different time.
Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay I the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God.
We speak of “looking within”. When we look within, we try to examine our feelings, ideas, and motivations, or we may try to gather strength to face some challenge. Looking within in order to examine ourselves is fraught with difficulty, because all of us are excellent at explaining away and justifying our worse qualities. We also tend, unconsciously, to react most angrily to the traits in other people which are, in fact, our own unrecognized traits!
Although “looking within” has benefit, perhaps we should say that “looking up” is even more important. This is Miller’s point, drawing upon the psalm. You meet plenty of people who may “look within” but they also “look down” a lot. They can't see the bright side of things. Anything that is wrong is always someone else’s fault. Unfortunately, these kinds of people attract each other and become powerful in their mutual griping and unhappiness!
“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. I tend to be a terrible worrier; it’s a reflexive psychological reaction which I’ve given to the Lord a number of times, but with which I still struggle. I realized a long time ago that worrying never changed a single aspect of the situation and, in fact, left me fearful and tired instead of energized in dealing with the situation. I’ve tried to adapt a “looking up” attitude wherein I’ve a good sense of realistic optimism about whatever situation I’m facing.
Miller writes, “We grow in the direction in which our eyes habitually turn. We become like that on which we look much and intently. We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen” (pp. 8-9).
We should always be careful in our thinking about these things: remember, we’re not saved because of our spiritual efforts and our positive, faithful outlook. Luke 24 is a wonderful scripture to illustrate how Christ takes the initiative even when we’re not looking up. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone. In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” And yet that was the time when Jesus spent time for them and broke bread with them.