Keep Your Eyes on the Prize – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 19th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today is about faith and about focus. It teaches that though storms and struggles inevitably arise, we have a choice whether to focus on them, or on Jesus. The  admonition of this Gospel is clear, “Keep your eyes on the Prize – Hold on!”

Let’s look at this Gospel in Four stages: Perceived Distance, Produced Distress, Point of Decision, and Process of Development.

I. PERCEIVED DISTANCE – The text tells us that Jesus drew back from the disciples and sent them to make the crossing of the lake on their own, intending to rejoin them later. During their crossing they encountered a storm: After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

In this brief text we encounter the mystery of God apparently hiding his face. Jesus, in drawing back from his disciples, exhibits the mysterious truth that God sometimes seems to hide his face. Scripture speaks elsewhere and elegantly of this human experience:

  1. Ps 13:1 How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
  2. Ps 30:7 By your  favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; then you hid your face, and I was dismayed.
  3. Ps 44:24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body cleaves to the ground. Rise up, come to our help! Deliver us for the sake of your steadfast love!
  4. Psalm 22: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.

And thus Scripture attests to the human experience that God hides his face.

But does He actually do so? There is no doubt that, to us, he seems to hide his face. But has he actually done so in such a way that he is forgetful of us?

It will be noted in this text that Jesus is not away on vacation. Neither is he on the golf course. Rather, he is praying. As such he is in communion with his Father, but surely also with his disciples. And while the storm grows, he makes his way in stages toward them.

At first they cannot see him. Be he surely sees and knows them. Later, even when they do see him, they cannot understand, at first, that it is him. They even mistake him for a ghost, for someone or something that means them harm.

And so it is with us. For it often happens too that we conclude that God has hidden his face; that he is not mindful of the troubles we face. It seems to us he is distant, perhaps unconcerned, and surely not visible to us.

But it is not always that God has simply hid his face. It is often that we simply cannot see him for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is simply that our minds are weak and easily distracted. Sometimes it is our flesh which demands to see everything in a natural, fleshly manner, and refuses to accept the reality of spiritual seeing. Sometimes it is our prejudice that demands to see and understand only in ways acceptable and pleasing to us, as if God could not possibly speak through our enemy, or through a child, or through a painful circumstance. God is there, he is not likely hiding, but we struggle to see him for these and other reasons

So if God is hiding, it is usually in plain sight. For in the end where can we run from God? Where could we go that he is not already there? Scripture says:

  1. Psalm 139: O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar….You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. You hem me in–behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of hell, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
  2. Jeremiah  23:24 Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.

God permits us to humanly experience his apparent distance, and our experience of the hiding of his face is clearly attested to in Scripture. But this hiddenness is mysterious for, though God seems hidden, he is in fact more present to us than we are to our very selves.

What God offers us in this gospel is a faith that grows to understand this and to see God always; a faith that permits us to be in living conscious contact with God at every moment of our day. This is the normal Christian life that Christ died to give us. And if we will be open to receive it, our faith will grow. As our faith grows, so does our ability to experience this presence, beyond what our senses may or may not perceive. Yes, even in the midst of storms, as our faith grows,  we can still know he is near and draw strength and courage.

And this leads us to the next

II. PRODUCED DISTRESS –  Added to the disciples experience of distance from the Lord is the distress of a storm that assails them. The text says, Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.

To the degree that we do not see the Lord, we will anxious about many things. In the perceived absence of God, fears increase and shadows grow longer. In this sense, many of our distresses are produced. That is, they are the product of our lack of faith and our lack of awareness of God’s abiding presence.

Bishop Sheen used the image of the red sanctuary lamp near the tabernacle that signals the presence of the Lord. Near the light, we bask in its glow and enjoy its comforting warmth. But as we walk away from it, the shadows grow longer and the darkness envelops.

And so it is for us who lose a sense of God’s presence, or willfully refuse to acknowledge that presence: the shadows lengthen, the darkness envelops, and the storms become more terrifying.

We now see why it is so important for us to accept the “normal Christian life” of being in living conscious contact with God. For knowing God does not mean that there will be no storms. But it does mean that we can face them with courage and trust.

There is an old saying, Stop telling God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is. This can only come as we grow in faith and the experience of God’s presence.

An old Gospel hymn says,

When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me;
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me.

In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me;
When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou Who never lost a battle,
Stand by me.

Now comes stage three:

III. POINT OF DECISION – The text begins with the crucial point of the drama: During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Now the Lord presents them a choice. Either they will focus on the storm, or they will focus on him. He is not just saying to them, Be not afraid.” He is saying “IT IS I, be not afraid.” In other words, if they will focus on him they will not be afraid. If they will come to experience his abiding presence, many of their fears will dissipate.

It is the same for us. If we will accept the normal Christian life and come to more deeply and constantly experience the Lord’s presence our fear will dissipate. It is NOT that there will be no storms. Rather, it is that they will not overwhelm us with fear.

So we also have a choice to make. Either we will focus on the storms, or we will will focus on the Lord. And the result will be that we will either live in growing fear by focusing on the storms, or we will will grow in confidence and trust by focusing on the Lord.

There is an old saying, “What you feed, grows.” If we feed our fears and negativity, they will grow. If we feed our faith and trust, they will grow.

So, what’s it going to be be? What will we focus on, what will we feed?

Pray for the gift to focus increasingly on the Lord. Pray for the gift to feed your faith and starve your negativity and storm-focused fears.

IV. PROCESS OF DEVELOPMENT – The decision before the apostles is now clear, and one of them, Peter, accepts the Lord’s offer to focus on him, not the storm. But as we see in the text the decision to do this is, like most things in life, something that is a process of development more than a one-time decision. It is something we must grow into by making many small decisions that develop into greater capacities by a process of growth in the grace the Lord is offering. Let’s look at Peter’s process.

  1. AcceptancePeter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” – Things begin with Peter accepting the Lord’s call to shift his focus and to, thereby, accept courage, and see his fears diminish.
  2. ActionPeter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. It is a truly remarkable courage that Peter receives by shifting his focus to the Lord. It is astonishing to see him walk on the water and be almost heedless of the storm or the seeming impossibility of what he is doing. That he is walking “toward Jesus” is an indication that he focus is correct. Thus his courage is astonishing.
  3. AnxietyBut when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, – But here is where Peter gets in trouble. He shifts his focus back to the storm. At that moment his fear returns and he begins to sink. This is the human condition, that we seldom go from zero to 100 all at once. Rather we undertake a process of growth. Peter had done what was right. He had turned his focus to the Lord and his fear dissipated. But, as is often the case with the inexperienced, his execution of the plan faltered. It is almost like a young boy riding a bike for the first time. He rides twenty yards and thrills in his new found capacity. But, soon enough his thoughts turn back to the threats and his balance warbles and he falls. But he will be alright if he gets back up again, and tries again and again. And though he has failed for the moment, something in him has changed. For, having felt the capacity to ride move through him, he will build on this and gradually riding will become second nature. So it is for Peter and us. Faith and trust, at first are hard. We step out, but for a moment. And then we fall. But if we will get back up again, we know something in us has changed. And that change grows in us if we engage the process.
  4. Acclamationhe cried out, “Lord, save me!” Even in his fall Peter still does the right thing by calling on the Lord. If you’re going to fall, fall on Jesus. Thus, his failure is not total. His faith is weak, but his instincts are right, he fell on Jesus.
  5. Assistance Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, If we take one step, God takes two. Jesus says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37). Peter may have fallen short of the Goal, but he has made progress and, later in life, this moment of rescue will be an important ingredient in his bold faith. But more growth and the Holy Spirit will be needed to quicken his faith. But it will happen, Peter will grow and the process of his development in faith will continue by God’s guiding hand.
  6. Admonitionand [Jesus] said to him, “O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?” Be careful with what the Lord says here. He does not say Peter has no faith. He says he has “little” faith. Peter has stepped out in faith. He must continue to grow. His doubts must diminish. He must come to stronger faith. As God said through Isaiah, If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (Is 7:9) So Peter’s task is clear, he must continue to grow in his faith as must we. And if we do, we will see our fears dissipate and our courage grow strong. Peter has “little faith.” And that the problem for most of us too. But at least Peter has some faith and so do we. So our cry is that of the apostles: Increase our faith! (Lk 17:5)
  7. AmazementAfter they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Difficult though this trial has been, it has increased their faith. They still have a long way to go, but they’re on the way.

So, we have a decision to make. Will we focus on the storm, or on Jesus. We have to keep our eyes on the prize. The Book of Hebrews says, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:2).That’s right, keep your eyes on the prize….Hold on!