The Night Rescue by John MacDuff, 1818-1895

    Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
    During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear.
    But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Matthew 14:22-27

It is night on the Sea of Galilee! a night of tempest—the Lord of the sea and the storm walks majestically on the waves. "He made darkness his secret place-his pavilion round about him are dark waters and thick clouds of the sky." We know of no subject in the inspired picture-gallery which exceeds this in sublimity and grandeur. If there be poetry in any part of the Gospel story, it is here. It forms an episode in a Life which itself was the grandest and most sublime of Epics . Let us approach the scene with sanctified imaginations; and as we contemplate the Creator of all worlds—His head wreathed with tempests—the restless surge his pathway, approaching the laboring vessel of the Apostle-fishermen, and revealing himself as their God and guide—be it ours with triumphant faith to exclaim, "This GOD is our God forever and ever, He will be OUR guide even unto death."
 The miraculous feast to the crowd of five thousand being over, Jesus dispersed the multitudes to their several abodes. As the night-shadows were falling, they might be seen in straggling groups winding their way round the northern shore to their various hamlet-homes. We can think of the Passover pilgrims, too, accompanying them—their voices attuned to some of those psalms and sacred songs they were in the habit of singing by night on the occasion of this solemn anniversary! Would not the melody be all the sweeter on account of the gracious words they had heard proceeding a few hours before, from the lips of the wonder-working Prophet, whom the entire crowd, John tells us, had He permitted, were ready to hail at that moment as their Messiah-King "the hope of Israel and the Savior thereof?"
 Before dismissing the multitude, however, He gives directions to His disciples to enter their vessel and re-cross the lake to Bethsaida. He gives no indication as to how or where He may rejoin them—whether He will follow next morning in the steps of the crowd, and meet them in the streets, or at the port of Capernaum—or whether He will avail himself of some other vessel crossing the lake at early dawn. On all this He maintains a mysterious silence.
 From the words "He constrained them to get into the ship," (Matt. 14:22) we may almost gather that it was with fond reluctance the disciples assented to this separation. They may have attempted even a gentle remonstrance, pleading either that He would still accompany them, or else permit them again to drop anchor, and suspend their voyage until He was prepared to go. The sky may have already been wearing a threatening aspect; the hollow moanings familiar to the fishermen's ears may have been premonitory of a coming storm; lowering clouds may have been wreathing the brow of the Gadara heights and the headlands of Tiberias.
 On a former occasion when the disciples encountered another storm on the lake, they felt that all was safe when their Master had said, "Let us pass over". Their adorable Lord—the Heavenly Pilot—was with them in the vessel. Now it was different. They had before them night on a tempestuous sea; and he, whose voice alone could hush its fury, was leaving them to brave it alone!
 But His word and will were paramount. That great Lord, whose power and tenderness were so recently manifested to the fainting multitudes, commands them to depart. It is enough; they ask no more. Though the storm may have been already beating high-like brave soldiers, who, at the bidding of their Captain, rush on to the assault, determined to conquer or perish—they are in a moment launched on the deep, encountering the crested waves and the gathering darkness.
 It was twilight (about six o'clock) when they set out. A fair breeze would soon have run them to the western side; but when midnight came, it found them little more than half way on their voyage. Owing to a furious head-wind, their sail was useless; and though for nine hours they toiled manfully at the oars, three o'clock (the fourth watch of the night) found them still pitching in the midst of that roaring sea the fitful lights (their only compass) glimmering distant as ever on the longed-for opposite shore. The former cry of faithless unbelief may now have been often on their lips as they thought of last evening's mysterious parting, "Master, master, care You not that we perish?" "If He had been with us," we may picture them saying to each other, "If He had been with us, asleep as He was before, in the hinder part of our ship, then we could have rushed to His side, invoked His aid, and, in a moment would the storm have been changed into a calm. But where He is now, we cannot tell; our cries are inaudible, our prayers are vain; they are drowned in the rage of that tempest." "Surely our way is hid from the Lord, and our judgment is passed over from our God!"
 Let us pause here and learn a twofold lesson.
 Viewing this scene as a picture of human life, learn, first, How sudden are the transitions in human experience, from sunshine to storm, and from storm to sunshine. A few hours before, the disciples had been dealing out the miraculous stores to the joyous groups on the green grass, partaking along with them of this mountain Feast—the Great Shepherd of Israel Himself tending them with loving interest. Never did sun seem to go down more happily, or promise a more auspicious rising. But now the sky is clouded– night has drawn its curtains gloomily around them—and, worse than all, the Lord of the Feast is gone. The Shepherd has left, and the sheep are scattered like broken reeds on the trough of the sea.
 Let us not calculate too fondly or confidently on the permanency of any earthly good. Let us be "glad" for our gourds, but not "exceeding glad." When we may be saying, "Peace, peace, sudden destruction may come." Today God may be spreading for us a table in the wilderness; prodigal nature may be pouring her richest gifts into our lap—at evening; the sun of our earthly joys may go down in thick darkness, and the memory of our best blessings be all that remains.
 Learn, as a second lesson, that God often sends trials to His own people, from which the world are exempt.
 Who are these we here behold, tossed on that sea? Jesus had sent the multitudes quietly and peacefully away; no storm burst on them; no danger threatened them; no fear disquieted them. Of all the thousands who had a few hours before listened to His voice, His own beloved followers alone were called to contend with the tempest.
 And it is often so still, with Christ's people; often do storms visit them, from which the world are free; oftimes, when the world is in sunshine; they are in darkness. The bands of ransomed voyagers, now lining the heavenly shore, give their united testimony–"We are they who have come out of great tribulation."
 But God has always some wise end in view in sending His people into such a sea of troubles. In the case of the disciples, it was evidently to discipline their faith, and to prepare them for sterner moral storms, yet in reserve for them. That night at Tiberias would imprint on their inmost souls truths and lessons which never would be effaced in all their future apostleship, and serve to brace their spirits for many an hour of perplexity and danger.
 It is worthy of note, too, the progression in these trials of faith. The severity of the test is increased as the spiritual life advances. Just as a child is by degrees, step by step, taught to walk, so are these disciples tutored in the higher walk of faith. The previous storm had doubtless the same end in view (the testing and strengthening of this great principle), but there was on that occasion a gracious tempering of the wind by the Good Shepherd to His little flock-His shorn lambs. When the tempest then burst around them, He was at their side, though fast asleep on a pillow; yet the very fact of His presence must have calmed fears that might otherwise have overmastered them. But they are to graduate still higher in the school of faith. A severer test, therefore, now comes. On the former occasion, Jesus was like the mother seated by her infant's cradle, rocking it asleep with the tones of her well-known voice, or dispelling its fears by imprinting, with her own lips, kisses on its brow. Now, with the increase of spiritual and apostolic experience, He would subject them to a severer ordeal—a further step in His gradual process of discipline. And how does He do so? It is in the very way that same mother disciplines her babe, at a more advanced period of its infancy, when teaching it to walk. She places it by itself on the opposite side of the room, to let it feel that it is alone. The little learner, conscious that it is left to its own resources, and that even at the peril of a fall it must risk the tiny adventure, with outstretched hands makes its way across the floor to bury its head in that bosom of safety, and clings there more closely and tenderly than ever! It is not the tender vine, supported by its trellis work, which is the type of strength, but the oak of a hundred years, standing alone on the mountain height, wrestling with the storm the very buffetings of the blast only making it moor its roots firmer and deeper in its ancestral soil.
 "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you, but rejoice." "If need be, you are in heaviness through manifold temptations, that the trial of your faith being much more precious than of gold which perishes, though it be tried with fire, may be found unto praise, and honor, and glory, at the appearing of Jesus Christ."
 But to return to the narrative. As the disciples' dangers increase, so also do their fears. Sadder and stranger than ever seems their Master's absence. "Where is now our God?" mingles in thought, often and again, with the wild accents of the storm. It is unlike His kind heart thus to have deserted us, and consigned us to the mercy of this pitiless tempest.
 But where in reality was their beloved Savior in the hour they most needed His presence, and most ardently longed for it? He seemed to have hid His face from them, but it was in appearance only, not in reality. Upon the heights of one of these mountains that girdled the north-east corner of the lake, the Redeemer of the world, in the silence of midnight, is alone with His God! That mountain summit is converted into an altar of Prayer. His eye is at one moment on the distant sea, at another uplifted to heaven; the breathings of His soul are ascending in behalf of His disciples; He is watching every billow that breaks on their tempest-tossed bark, every fear which disturbs their fainting hearts. The darkness cannot hide them from Him; their troubled thoughts "He knew afar off." Though not praying with them, He is praying FOR them, that "their faith fail not."
 Oftimes are the people of God tempted, with repining Zion, to say, "My Lord has forsaken, and my God has forgotten me." But what says Zion's God, "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!" Isaiah 49:15. Storms and tumults may be raging without—temptations may be assailing within; besetting sins may now be disturbing the serenity of our spiritual joys; seasons of holy refreshment and peace may be gone; God may seem to be hiding His face, and we are troubled. But behind these temporary clouds there sits a Savior of unchanging faithfulness, who, though we may have forgotten Him, has not forgotten us. Yes! precious assurance! at the very moment when we may be thinking all to be lost– the vessel which bears in it our eternal destinies about to be foundered—when faith is beginning to fail, and hope to sink—all dark without, all trouble within—and worse than all, when our heavenly Pilot seems to have deserted us—there is above A PRAYING SAVIOR! He who watched the disciples' agitated vessel, from Galilee's mountain, and converted its lonely summit into a place of prayer, is now seated a great Intercessor on Mount Zion above, directing the roll of every billow that threatens His people's peace, and, though to them unseen, "praying that their faith fail not!"
 And as it was with the disciples of old, He will not always deny His people the sensible comforts of His grace and presence. Generally in the darkest hour of their trial, when they least look for Him, and least expect Him, He reveals Himself. Coming, too, in the very pathway of their troubles; going "through the flood on foot," and causing them "THERE" in the very place and experience of tumultuous sorrow)—causing them there to "rejoice in Him!"
 BUT, alas! in the narrative before us, we have a mournful testimony, how sad often is the contrast between the faithfulness of a Savior God, and the faithlessness and unbelief of man.
 Jesus comes! walking majestically with His radiant form across the troubled waves. He is so near His disciples that they can hold converse with Him. Dark as was the night, they might well have guessed that it was their Lord's form as well as voice that was upon the waters. The joyous utterance might well have passed "from tongue to tongue"—"The Master has come!" We expect to hear every moment, as He nears the vessel's side, the word of joyous recognition, "My Lord and my God."
 But strange! His appearance seems to trouble and agitate them more than that vexed and agitated sea. With those superstitious feelings so proverbially common among sailors and fishermen, they think they observe in the hazy darkness only some unwelcome messenger from the spirit-world—they imagine, possibly, in their dread, either that one of the spirits of darkness, roaming so lately the gorges of Gadara, is now evoked from the depths of the lake where it had plunged with the mountain herd; or else that the hour of their own death and destruction has arrived, and a premonitory herald from the regions of Hades—some terrible shape such as the Jewish fancy was wont to picture—has come from the world of the dead to give them warning, that that yawning sea is preparing their sepulcher, and these moaning night winds chanting their requiem! Faith is for a moment eclipsed by vain superstition. "They were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear."
 How great the contrast; the heaving waters, the perturbed disciples, and the calm majestic tranquillity of the Great Lord!
 And is not the experience here described often that of God's people still? When Jesus comes to them on some billowy night of trial—He comes radiant with beauty—His heart full of love—His hands full of blessing. But they can see nothing in the looming mist but a phantom spirit. Their eyes see of are dimmed with unbelief—the windows of the soul are darkened—they remember God, and are troubled. Or sometimes, it is even a sadder experience, when in the extremity of their unbelief all their former pledges of His faithfulness and loving-kindness seem to vanish, when for the moment the rush of despair comes over them. Religion is a lie; its comforts delusions—its fears tales of credulity and terror—its joys but phantoms—and the whole pillars of their belief seem to rock and tremble to their base. With others again, even when He is recognized, His dealings seem strange. As with the disciples in the text, He comes to their ship, but He makes "as if He would have passed them by." He walks, but it is towards the bow of the vessel. There is a strange delay in His intervention. He hears their cries, but He seems as if He heard them not. The sun is in the heavens, but there is no light in the sky—no break in the clouds.
 Be assured there is some wise reason for such postponement—such apparent "passing by." You remember, how strange seemed His delay to the family of Bethany, when He lingered among the mountain glens of distant Gilead, instead of at once responding to their message and hastening to their relief. But in the end it was all "for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby", issuing in a glorious proof, that "the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him." You remember in that memorable walk with the two disciples at Emmaus, when he reached the village, "He made" apparently, "as though He would have gone farther." Why? It was, as on the occasion before us, to draw forth the fervid invitation of burning hearts, "Abide with us. . . and they constrained Him." How often does He thus delay His succouring mercy—postpone deliverance—just in order to draw forth the music of importunate prayer?
 Yes! not the least memorable lessons in this scene on the midnight sea, are those of PRAYER. We see our blessed Lord Himself, as the Man Christ Jesus, occupied in prayer. He Himself comes forth from the mount of Prayer to tread the waters. As the great ideal of Humanity—the Exemplar of His people, He would teach them, that if they would overcome the greatest difficulties, if they would tread triumphant on waves of trial and persecution, they must come from their bended knees. In walking thus majestically from His mountain oratory across the raging sea, He seems to speak this parable unto them and unto us, that "men ought always to pray and not to faint." The cry of the disciples, on the other hand, arresting as it did the ear of their Master, and evoking the word of support and love, tells us in the depths of our extremity never to despair. Each of these voyagers on GENNESARET was a witness to the truth of words which their great ancestor uttered in olden times, not far from the scene of their present terror "I hear the tumult of the raging seas as your waves and surging tides sweep over me. Through each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life." Psalm 42:7-8.
 The earthquake, and the whirlwind, and the fire, being now past, there comes "the still small voice." Loud above the riot of the storm sounds the well-known, gentle, soothing, familiar tones, "Be of good cheer, It is I, be not afraid." Their Master's form they had mistaken in the lowering darkness, but the voice was well known to them. Just as the sailor, when owing to the dense fog, he is unable to find the beacon in the light-house; hears the sound of the bell, swung on its top, by the force of the tempest.
 That brief but beautiful word of comfort is fenced on either side with "Be of good cheer," "Do not be afraid." But the ground of consolation is in the middle clause. That fear-dispelling, comfort-giving, "IT IS I," must have fallen on their ears like a strain of celestial music. "It is I." I your Lord and Master. I who have oftimes before spoken peace in your hours of trouble. I who have bidden the weary and the heavy laden come to have rest. I whose word has given light to the blind, and health to the diseased, and comfort to the mourner, and life to the dead. I who but a few brief hours ago had compassion on the multitudes, "because they were as sheep not having a shepherd." Do you think I will not much rather have compassion on you, My own sheep, who "follow me, and know My voice?" "Be of good cheer, It is I"—Fear not.
 It is the same brief utterance with which He has calmed the storm-tossed in every age. When Paul, in an after year, was in imminent peril of his life, shut up in the Roman barracks in Jerusalem, in the Castle of Antonio, that same Lord, at the same midnight hour, stood by the bedside of His desponding servant, and repeated the same peace-giving word—"Be of good cheer, Paul." Again, at a subsequent period, one of those very disciples now in this vessel had a sublime vision vouchsafed to him of his Lord! It was so overpowering and glorious as to lead him to "fall at His feet as one dead." But the same right hand was extended, the same gentle voice was heard, saying, "Fear not."
 And who has not felt in the storm-night of the soul the soothing power of that voice, and that presence, and that word? "IT IS I." Jesus lives. O! It is the felt presence, and power, and love of a Savior God which is the secret of the Christian's strength—not Jesus, a distant abstraction—Jesus, some mythical Being of superhuman might, soaring far beyond human conception and human sympathy—but Jesus, the personal Savior—the Living One—the Acting One—the Controlling One—(ay, and to as many as He loves,) the Rebuking One and the Chastening One! The hand of Jesus, and the will of Jesus, and the love of Jesus, is to him seen in everything. "It is I," is to him penciled on every flower, murmured in every breeze, waving on every forest branch. It is the superscription in every event in Providence. It gleams in gilded letters in prosperity. It stands brightly out in the dark and cloudy day. It is written on every sick pillow—on every death chamber—on every vacant chair, and vacant heart. Yes! that little word which rose from the bosom of Tiberias has gone forth to the end of the world, circling in undying echoes wherever there is a soul to comfort and a tear to dry. It gave peace to the chained Apostle in his Roman dungeon. "All men forsook me," says he, "Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me, and delivered me out of the mouth of the lion." And that same Divine Attraction that tuned the lips of those lonely tempest-tossed fishermen to songs in the night, is able still to allay every anxious fear—every trembling misgiving. "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" "The floods have lifted up their voice, the floods have lifted up their waves; but the Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yes, than the mighty waves of the sea."
 Let us learn from this entire passage, that we are always safe when following the will and directions of our Lord and Master.
 Notwithstanding the momentary terror and lack of faith on the part of the disciples, it was, as we have seen, in obedience to the express command of Jesus, they had left the shore and braved the storm. "He CONSTRAINED them to get into the ship." With such a warrant as this, they had no cause for fear. Come darkness—come tempest—come ship-wreck—come death—come what may, they launched into the deep, "for the Lord had bidden them!" If they had left the shore unbidden by Him, they might have had good cause for alarm. The first breathings of the tempest would have disquieted them, but with this gracious encouragement, even though we are told that "the wind was contrary" they heeded it not. Their own doubting hearts might have prompted them to relinquish the voyage, and, since "all these things were against them," to return to shore. But the Lord had given the word! They pursued undaunted their onward course, and this was the helm by which they steered through the adverse waters" The Lord has bidden us."
 If we, too, when seasons of trial overtake us, thus hold on amid all difficulties, cleaving faithfully to Christ, he will at last cause light to shine out of darkness, and bring us unto a quiet haven.
 There is a very striking contrast between the case of the disciples in the narrative, and that of Jonah—the former obeying the directions of their Lord, the latter fleeing from His presence. How did it fare with each? For a time God seemed to prosper the journey of the disobedient prophet. Everything at first seemed to concur in his favor, and promised him a speedy and propitious voyage. He accomplished his land journey in safety, he found a vessel just ready to embark at the very time he needed it, and, with a serene sky and unruffled sea, he holds on his way. Look, again, to the disciples. They scarce have left the shores of Galilee, when the shadows of night begin to fall—a storm arises—opposing winds, and an adverse tide defy their seamanship, and seem to tell that obedience to their Lord's command is impossible. But how did the respective voyages terminate? The faithful disciples, struggling fearlessly on through winds and waves and buffeting elements, at last found, what we shall also find, an ample recompense for every storm we encounter, amid every trial we endure—they found the Lord. The other, in his guilty flight, was at first borne on by a propitious breeze, but speedily the calm was changed into a storm; and, engulfed in the raging elements he had madly braved, he was led to feel, in his sad experience, what "an evil thing it is to depart away from the living God."
 Or, take another still older example: Look at Lot, at the bidding, not of his God, but of his own worldly ease and selfish ends, seeking the rich inheritance, while his more self-denying kinsman and uncle is content with the poorer portion. At first, all seems prosperous with him; the man of pleasure revels amid his well-watered plains and his luscious vintages; his cattle browse on richest pastures; the sun of heaven shines not on a fairer climate, on statelier dwellings—or nobler flocks. But, mark the end! Abraham, the unselfish, God-fearing, falls asleep full of years and faith. The noblest of epitaphs is to this day read by millions on the old cave of Machpelah—"The Father of the Faithful, THE FRIEND OF GOD!"But go to yonder height at Zoar, and note the contrast. See the proud home of Lot. The place that once knew it knows it no more! A canopy of fire is its winding-sheet; the depths of a bituminous lake its sepulcher—a calcified pillar, with a terrible history, stands overlooking the scene of perpetual desolation; and sadder far than that calcified pillar in front– and blacker far than the blackened ashes beneath—the Temple of his own Soul has been blasted and withered with infamy and shame! He who ("a righteous man") might have stood forth in these early ages as a glorious monument of primitive faith and virtue—a bright beacon-light to guide—became a glaring balefire, in the light of which the most distant ages may read the awful warning—"Let him that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall."
 Once more, THE CHURCH COLLECTIVELY, as well as believers individually, may find comfort and consolation in the narrative we have now been considering.
 The two occasions of the stilling of the tempest, have been justly considered as typical of two great epochs in the Lord's administration of His Church on earth. The first (when He was with His disciples) symbolizing the period of His personal ministry—when, as God "manifest in the flesh," He was visibly among them, cheering them with His companionship. The second, when after His ascension, He no longer gladdened the Church with His personal presence; when He left it, apparently to battle its own way amid the storms of persecution; but yet, all the while continuing to watch it, as he does now, from the Heavenly Hill, controlling every billow which threatens its peace. As He appeared of old, at the fourth watch of the night, just the hour preceding day-dawn, and not only cheered the disciples with the joyful—"It is I" —but came up amid the toiling rowers, hushed the storm, and conducted them safe to shore;—so it will be, at the deepest hour of the world's midnight—the hour preceding the millennial-morn! He himself has forewarned us (as if He took the very symbol He employs from that night at Gennesaret), that when "the sea and the waves are roaring, and men's hearts are failing them for fear," then the sign of the Son of Man shall be seen,— "His way in the sea, and His path in the deep waters,"—and the trembling Church, cowering amid the darkness, will lift up its night-Song—"Let the sea roar and the fulness thereof . . . before the Lord, for He comes! He comes! to judge the earth."
 Ah! we are apt in the midst of these environing {surrounding} storms, which threaten, and shall yet still more threaten, the existence of the Church of God—we are apt at times to wonder if its Great Head has forgotten His word, and forgotten His promise. There are ever craven hearts ready to echo the desponding cry— "Where is the promise of His coming?" but, fear not! Jesus has not left the foundering vessel to reel and plunge amid these moral tempests that are to close the great drama of time! No!—"in the fourth watch of the night"—when the darkness is thickest and the billows highest—"He that shall come, will come, and will not tarry." Just as the new creation is about to put on its full robe of morning light, He will hush every billow; and mooring His vessel on the heavenly shore, take His storm-tossed Church to be FOREVER WITH ITS LORD.
 Let us seek to be in the position of men waiting for the dawn—standing on the deck with the cry on our lips—"Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly." And when we observe His presence on the waves, let it not be ours to exclaim in terror—He comes! but there is no pardon in His voice!—He comes! but there is no mercy in His footstep! Rather may we know the music of these words, which, to all that hear them, will be as the gate of heaven "IT IS I—IT IS I—DO NOT BE AFRAID!"