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How big is God?

By John Ortberg

2068 09/20/2009

I want to talk about how big God is and about getting out of the boat.

A number of years ago, early in our marriage, my wife Nancy received a creative birthday gift for me. It was a ride in a hot air balloon. We went to a field in Thousand Oaks, California, where the balloon would ascend. When we met the one other couple that would go up in this balloon with us, we told them what we did for a living. Then they told us what they did, we got into the balloon, it went up in the air, and it was magnificent. You could see the mountains and all the way to the ocean. It was beautiful. Then, I experienced one other emotion I had not anticipated. Anybody want to guess? It was fear because the basket, at least on this particular hot air balloon, barely went up to your knees. One good lurch and you'd be thrown out. I was not happy about this. I looked over at my wife, who doesn't like heights, and could see that she was more frightened than I was. I could tell because she was holding onto the ropes with white fingers. I said, "Nancy, look behind you. There are horses down below." She loves horses. "Nancy, look at the horses."

She said, "Oh yeah, beautiful."

Now about this time, I decided I would like to get to know a little bit more about the person who was flying this hot air balloon. If I did, I thought I could convince myself that everything was going to be okay. I could try to drum up a good attitude, but the reality was, we had placed our futures in the hands of the competence and the character of the guy who was flying this thing. So, I inched over towards him and asked him what he did for a living and how he got started flying hot air balloons. I was hoping he would say that he was a neurosurgeon or something and he used to be an astronaut and missed going out into space. I knew we were in trouble when his response began: "Well, it's like this, dude." He did not actually have a job. Mostly he surfed and he said he got started flying hot air balloons because one time he'd been driving a pick up truck and his brother was in it and he'd had too much to drink, and he crashed the truck and his brother was hurt and that gave his brother something to watch.

My wife said to me, "You mean to tell me we're up a thousand feet in the air with an unemployed surfer who got drunk, crashed a truck, and crippled his brother?" And, by the way, he also said, "I've never been in this particular balloon before. So if it's a little bumpy on the way down you'll understand why."

Now at this point, the other couple in the balloon spoke. The wife said the only words that either of them was to say during the whole experience. She looked at me and said, "You're a pastor, do something religious." So, I took an offering.

And here's a question. In life, living on the planet Earth, can I trust the Pilot? Because I can try to psych myself up, I can say I believe, I believe, I believe a hundred times a day. But the real question is - is there Somebody flying this thing, this giant balloon that circles the sun every year, is there Somebody flying it, and can He be trusted? Are His character and His competence such that I can with confidence, with unshakeable joy, put my life and the lives of the people that I love, in his hands and rest in the knowledge.

The real question is how big is this God? I have to trust Him, but trust is never easy. Faith will be intimately connected with fear and risk and you can't grow without it.

This brings us to this story of Peter and the disciples, and being on a boat in a storm and walking on the water. It's told in the gospel of Matthew. Many of you know this story. The disciples are in the boat. Jesus told them to get in it, and then He went on ahead of them. They get into the boat when it's still daylight, we're told. The Sea of Galilee, it's not terribly large, it's maybe four, four and a half miles wide at its widest point. Many of these disciples have been in boats around water their whole lives long. They're professionals at this, so now you can imagine how bad the storm must be that hits them. It's so rough that they cannot make it across the lake.

Jesus comes to them, we're told, in the fourth watch of the night. That would be between three o'clock and six o'clock in the morning. Picture in your mind the size of the waves, the strength of the wind, the darkness of the night. The boat is struggling not to be overturned. It is tormented by the waves, is how it's worded. Cold, wet, exhausted, terrified - these are the conditions under which Peter is going to get out of the boat. Now, I would think it would be difficult enough to walk on water when the water is calm. You can imagine trying it when the waves are crashing and the wind is at gale force and it's three o'clock in the morning and you're terrified. Jesus comes along and says to Peter to get out of the boat. And Peter gets out and he falls. He doesn't make it. It's a story about failure. Or is it?

Here's what I want to do at this point. I want to do a mass confession of failure and if you have ever failed in your life. I'm going to ask you literally to raise your hand. You do this at home, as well. Hang on. Don't be too excited yet. Let me run through a few categories just to prompt your mind. Just to kind of level the playing field. If you've ever failed a test, if you ever got cut from the team, if you ever didn't get a job you wanted or a promotion that you wanted, if you have ever been inappropriately impatient with a three year old, if you have ever criticized somebody, if you have discovered that criticism is your spiritual gift, if you ever said the wrong thing or ate with the wrong fork, or wore synthetic fibers, if you have ever experienced moral, academic, athletic, social, financial, vocational, or relational failure of any kind, now raise your hand real high, would you? That's kind of what I thought. Unbelievable. How many of you have never failed, personally, but the person next to you looks like they went south a couple of times.

Well we are all would-be-water-walkers. God did not intend your life to be one of failure avoidance.

An author by the name of Eileen Guder writes this: "You can live on bland food so as to avoid an ulcer, you can drink no tea, coffee or other stimulants in the name of health, you can go to bed early, stay away from nightlife, avoid all controversial subjects so as never to give offense, mind your own business, avoid involvement in other people's problems, spend money only on necessities and save all you can. You can still break your neck in the bathtub and it will serve you right."

The boat is safe. The boat is secure. The boat is comfortable. But, the water is rough. The waves are high and the wind is strong. There is a storm in our world. And if you get out of the boat, whatever your boat is, there's a possibility that you will sink. There's a certainty that if you never get out of the boat, you will never walk on the water. However, if you want to walk on the water, you have to get out of the boat.

There is something inside every human being including you that tells you that God intends your life to be about something more than just sitting in a boat of comfort or security. There is something inside you that wants to walk on the water, something that calls you to leave the comfort of routine existence and abandon yourself to the adventure of following Jesus, to do what it is that Jesus calls you to do, something that will be too big for you to do all by yourself.

So, Jesus comes to His disciples because He wants to teach them about trusting Him. We're told that they're all afraid and Jesus says (paraphrased), "Don't have any fear. It's Me, it's Me. This is not about you, it's not about your strength, it's me. You can trust My character. You can trust My competence. You can stop being afraid."

And Peter says, "Jesus what do You want me to do?" Now this is the heart of a disciple. "You command me. God, You just say the word and I'll do it."

And Jesus says, "Get out of the boat."

Peter goes to the side of the boat. Now you imagine this, all the disciples are looking at each other because if you know anything about Peter, you know Peter shoots his mouth off a lot and they're all wondering how far he is going to go. He takes hold the side of the boat, and he puts one leg over the other side. Then he puts another leg over the side. Then he lets go of the boat and his eyes are just locked in on Jesus. And for a few moments, it's like there's only Jesus and Peter in the whole world. Like master, like disciple. And he is walking on the water. That is, he is doing what he could only do by the power of God. And Jesus is just beaming. And Peter knows why he was created. And then very much like us, Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus and he notices there's a storm going on all around him, and that the waves are really high and the wind is really strong, and the water is really cold and wet and deep. He wonders, "What in the world was I thinking getting out of the boat?" His faith is just too weak, he is afraid again, and he sinks.

The question is, did Peter fail? Did Peter fail?

Now before we answer that, I want to pause to notice one thing. Failure is not so much an event. Failure is a judgment about an event. An awful lot of life comes down to how we think and failure primarily is a way that we think about something. Jonas Salk created the vaccine for polio. Tried 200 times. Didn't get it right. Somebody asked Salk one time, how did it feel to fail 200 times? Salk's response, very interesting, he said (paraphrased), "I didn't fail 200 times. I just discovered 200 ways how not to create a vaccine for polio."

Winston Churchill, who led Great Britain for a while virtually unaided during World War II, had to repeat a grade in our version of elementary school. Somebody asked Winston Churchill it felt to fail a grade when he was a kid and Churchill said, "I have never failed in my life." He was given a second opportunity to get it right.

Was Salk a failure? No. Was Winston Churchill a failure? No.

I come from Rockford Illinois, just outside Chicago. I have loved the Chicago Cubs my whole life long. The Chicago Cubs have not been in a World Series since 1945. They have not won a World Series since 1908 a hundred and one years. Are the Chicago Cubs a failure? You're not too sure, are you, on that one? All right, bad example, never mind.

Did Peter fail? Well, yes, he did. I mean his faith gave out, he took his eyes off Jesus. He sank in the water. Peter failed but here's what I think. I think there were 11 bigger failures sitting in the boat. They failed quietly. They failed privately. And when people talk about this story, nobody criticizes them for not having enough faith. Nobody points out where he or she got it wrong. They were quite respectable. Their failure was safe, unnoticed, un-criticized, un-embarrassing, only Peter knew the shame, the humiliation of public failure, but only Peter knew two other things. Only Peter knew the glory of what it is to walk on the water. To be held up by God and doing something to please Jesus that you could never do by yourself. And I don't think he forgot that as long as he lived. I think if you ever walk on the water, you carry that reality with you to the grave.

Only Peter knew that when he failed, when he sank, Jesus would be there. That Jesus was wholly adequate to save. Peter had a shared moment, a shared connection, a shared trust in Jesus that none of the other 11 disciples had. They couldn't have it because they never got out of the boat.

How big is God? He is bigger than your biggest problem, He is bigger than your biggest regret, He is stronger than your biggest weakness. He is more gracious than your darkest sin. He is bigger than you can imagine. He loves you more than you can know. And He is still looking for somebody who will get out of the boat. So how about you?

This brings us to an aspect of following Jesus that you will not like. A commitment to a life of following God is a commitment to the constant recurrence of the experience of fear. Say that again. A commitment to a life of actually following Jesus consistently is among other things, a commitment to the constant recurrence of the experience of fear. Jesus commands the disciples to get into the boat, they do, there's a storm, they think they see a ghost, they're terrified, and they cry out.

Jesus says, "Have courage, don't be afraid."

Peter says, "What do you want me to do?"

Jesus says, "Get out of the boat, and walk on the water."

Peter does, then he notices there's a storm. He's frightened and he cries out. Those of you who know Peter, would that be the last time in his life that Peter panics? No.

To be a disciple means to be a learner or a student. To grow and to grow means you have to enter into new territory. You have to get out of the boat and every time you do, you will experience fear and that means the fear will never go away. Never, never, never. To be a disciple always involves a choice between comfort and fear, and to be a follower of Jesus means I renounce comfort as the ultimate value in my life. And that's hard for us because we're into comfort.

Anybody want to guess what's the name of the number one best selling chair in America? Anybody know? La-Z-Boy. Not risky boy, not worker boy, but La-Z-Boy. We want to come home and immerse ourselves in comfort. And we have a term for that. We call that "vegging out." I want to make myself as much like a vegetable, vegetation, form of plant life as I can. And we have a term for people who do that in front of the television set. We call them couch potatoes, in their La-Z-Boys.

Well, if you want to think about it this way, the 11 disciples were kind of boat potatoes. They did not want to run the risk or experience the fear associated with following Jesus that far. And churches can be full of what might be called pew potatoes. People whose religious faith is little more than kind of spiritual padding to add comfort in their lives. And Jesus is still looking for somebody who will get out of the boat.

So how about you? Maybe you used to be out on the water on a regular basis. And somewhere you have settled for life in the boat. Maybe God is calling you to a new adventure around your job. Maybe God has given you gifts, you have neglected them, and God wants to use them in ways that they have never been used before. Maybe God has given you some financial resources and He wants those to be used for something bigger than just your own comfort or security. Maybe it's about a relational risk. Maybe you've been struggling with a habit or a sin, and kept it hidden, and God is calling you to bring that into the light to get help for it.

Well, you get out of the boat. I'll tell you about one more water walk and then we're done with this message. There's a man by the name of Doug Coe who lives in Washington DC and works with many people in statecraft and government. He told me about a man who was in insurance - not a mover and a shaker, just an ordinary person named Bob. Eventually Bob gave his life and committed himself to Jesus Christ. He would meet together with Doug to learn about following Christ. One time Bob came in after reading the statement in the Bible where Jesus says, "Whatever you ask in My name, you'll receive." Bob asked Doug if that was true. Doug told Bob that it really was true but it was not like a blank check, that he'd have to understand it in context of all the writings of scripture about prayer. But, yes, God really loves to answer prayer.

Bob said, "Well, I've got to start praying for something." Bob had never prayed for anything.

Doug said, "What do you want to pray for?

"I think I'll pray for Africa."

"Well that's kind of big. Couldn't you narrow it down a little bit?"

"All right, I'll pray for Uganda."

"Have you ever been there?"


"Know anybody there?"

"No I just want to pray for it."

Doug said, "All right, I'll make you a deal Bob. You pray for this country Uganda every day for six months, and if at the end of that time nothing extraordinary has happened, I will pay you $500. But if God clearly has done something, then you pay $500. And if you don't pray every day, the whole deal is off." It's kind of an unusual approach to prayer. But Doug's kind of an unusual guy.

So Bob starts to pray. Long time nothing happens. And then he's at a dinner one night, people sitting around the table talking about what they do, and this one woman starts talking about how she runs the largest orphanage medical facility of its kind in the country of Uganda. All of a sudden, Bob roars to life and starts pounding her with questions about what she does and why. Finally, she asks him, "You know, you're very interested in what I do. You've been to my country"

"No," says Bob.

You know people in my country?"


"Why are you so interested?"

"Well, this guy is kind of paying me $500 to pray for Uganda."

She says to Bob, "Would you like to come and see what I do?"

And he said, "Yes!" And he went over there and his heart was appalled by the misery and the poverty. So he came back and he started to write to major pharmaceutical companies, and saying to them, "Every year you throw away all kinds of unsold supplies and there are kids dying in this place in Uganda. You ought to send some of those supplies to them." As a result, some of them do and the facility ends up getting over a million dollars worth of medical supplies because of Bob.

The orphanage medical center in Uganda gets back in touch with him and asks him to come celebrate what's happened. They wanted to have a party with Bob as the guest of honor. They asked, "Would you come back?" And so Bob did. Flies back over, guest of honor at this party. Because it's not a large country, the president at that time a few decades ago, attends this event, offers to give Bob a little tour of the capital, during which they see a prison, Bob asks about a particular group of prisoners and he's told those are political prisoners. Bob says, "That's not a good idea to have political prisoners. You've got to let them out." Comes back to the States, and sometime later Bob gets a phone call from a man in the state department.

"Is this Bob?"


"Bob, you've been to Uganda lately?"


"Did you make any statements about political prisoners?"


"What did you say?"

"I said they ought to be released."

The man at the state department went on to say that they just got word from the Ugandan government that those political prisoners had been released and they were told it was because of a man named Bob.

Sometime later, he got a call from the president who was about to select a new cabinet and asked Bob if he would come over and pray for him. So Bob - no connections, just an ordinary guy - goes over, prays for him, and is part of, at that time, a spiritual awakening in that country.

When Nancy and I were in Washington and Doug Coe told us that story, one of the men staying there in Washington was a member of Parliament from Uganda and a radiant follower of Jesus because of Bob.

Jesus is still looking for somebody who will get out of the boat. So, I want to make you a deal today. You start praying every day for the next six months, "Lord where are You calling me to get out of the boat? And if God does not clearly answer, if something remarkable does not clearly happen, Dr. Schuller will pay you $500. That's the last time I ever am invited to preach at the Crystal Cathedral! No. No, but here's the deal. No money involved, but if God does something, then you write this church. And you say you know God's still involved in the lives of somebody like Peter and the life of somebody like Bob and the life of somebody like me. You pray and you ask and I know two things that will happen if you get out of the boat:

One of them is when you fail - and you will fail, there's a storm in this world - Jesus will be there to pull you out. Jesus has lost none of His strength. None of His care.

And the other thing I know is this. Every once in awhile, you're going to walk on the water. You are going to walk on the water. But if you want to walk on the water, you have to get out of the boat.

Copyright Hour of Power 2009. This message was delivered by John Ortberg from the pulpit of the Crystal Cathedral and aired on the Hour of Power, September 20, 2009.

Read more about this week's guest pastor, John Ortberg.


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  1. virginc writes:

    My spirit is uplifted through this preaching. Thank you for bringing in Pastor John Ortberg to Hour of Power. My life has been so blessed through this ministry. May God abundantly bless all His faithful servants in His loving care. Thank you so much!

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    09/19/2009 02:58:23
  2. George Pengilley writes:

    This sermon was simply amazing as to what can be done with prayer. The story of Bob, not only blew me out of the boat, but right out of the water. I will start the 6 month prayer and I am sure be blessed by God. Many thanks for such an inspirational message.

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    09/20/2009 10:45:37
  3. youngeone writes:

    Thank you HOUR OF POWER for again putting together an Inspiring ,Challenging ,Service. I often think about all the challenges to get a program ready to go to air .The hours it must take, the personel both professional and volunteers ,the planning, the organising etc.etc. Thank you , I agree with the previous persons comments above.I thank our HEAVENLY FATHER for you all.JMC.

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    09/20/2009 21:00:20
  4. Rosebud37 writes:

    This is no doubt the funniest and most moving sermon I have ever heard in my life. John, you are so gifted and we need more teachers like you. Thanks for the inspiration; and answering questions I have had for a long time. I esp love this (paraphrased) -- "I have not failed; I have just been given another chance to get it right!" So many times I have felt bad that I haven't achieved more for GOD; this message helps me to see that I can do much more than I ever thought possible. Look at BOB -- an average man who just decided to pray for a country and he ends up meeting the president and having prisoners released; plus helping all those children and people with just some prayers and a letter ... how awesome is that? We can do much more than we think -- we just have to get out of our boats of apathy and procrastination, and walk on the water: which means -- JUST DO SOMETHING ... ANYTHING!!! Come on people -- let's change the world ...

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    09/21/2009 08:35:51
  5. pmerric writes:

    Actually, When you say that "we will fail" that is denying the true power of God to give us the wisdom and power to not fail. God does not fail, and when we trust in Him in full, then we do not fail. It is possible for a human being, as a Child of God, to not fail, but for all of his/her challenges and obstacles to become a great movement of God to show us all that He is God. When we talk about "we know that we will fail" we are actually bringing upon us a self fulfilled propecy...if we believe that we will fail, then we have already failed. I have personally witnessed the manifestation of failure because I accepted that I would fail, and then situations where I did not fail because I knew that God would empower me to not fail. If we are truly the Children of GOd, then we have God's own Spirit in us, a Spirit of conquering power..but our failures come from our own failure of faith in God. We do not have to fail, we bring on ourselves. If you hold to God's power, you will never fail.

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    09/21/2009 13:57:11
  6. pmerric writes:

    When we as a Church begin to expect that we will fail, then we lose our power of becoming the true arm and extension of God. If God is all powerful, then he will give us all things to conquer every obstacle; therefore, not failing but conquering every thing that gets between us and God's purpose for the Church. The world is steeped in failure, and we are not of the world as stated in the Bible. When will church members see this? If we knew, actually knew the power of God, and that he gives us this power in Jesus' name, Jesus said in the scriptures we will do greater things than He...did Jesus ever fail...no way. So, if we are told that we will do greater things than he, if we have true faith in him...then we will not fail..we will not experience failure...we will conquer every challenge. The Church really needs to take its place, and stop having low expectations of itself, or it will fail the Will of God.

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    09/21/2009 14:02:50
  7. preciouspuppies writes:

    Dear brothers out of the boat , it is this true heart felt prayer that as you start to sink, the Lord will lift you up and help you. He never Leaves us or Forsakes us . For the Brothers Still in the boat, don't miss the point of this sermon read it again and ask God to reveal His true sermon to your heart. At this point in my life i am still with one hand on the boat a foot on the water the other just about to lift off and my eyes on Jesus the author and finisher of my faith . thank you Hour of Power

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    09/22/2009 00:34:17

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