Mark 6:45 – 52
45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54 As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. 55 They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
The Gospel writers utilize symbols to describe the seasons of life, and the places in which we find ourselves in our ministries, the experiences that, although varying forms, come to us all, the various ways in which God leads us, developing depth and maturity in our Christian walk and witness.
Some through the fire, some through the flood,
Some through the waters, but all through the lood,
Some through the sorrow, but God gives a song
in the night season and all the day long.
We often speak of mountaintop experiences in the Scriptures are full of these as well. We read of Moses on Mount Sinai, of Jesus and his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, on the amount of transfiguration; of Jesus regularly going into a mountain to pray. The mountain is a place of close encounter with God, a place that becomes as an altar. In the mountaintop experience with God one receives insights, visions, commands and ordinances. It is a place commune, to pray.
Or, we may think of those dry times in our life and ministry when God would further change and develop our Christian character. In Scripture, the desert is a place of danger and testing, but where God ministers still though we cannot sense or see His presence. The desert is a place where we sense the absence of things, including the absence of God. God is not to be experienced there as much as he on the mountain. Moses spent 40 years in the desert. As Henrietta Mears use to point out, he had spent 40 years of his life learning to be ‘a somebody” in the courts of Pharaoh king of Egypt. The next four years, he spent in learning that he was ‘a nobody,’ looking after the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro, far away from the places of power in Egypt. But the last four years of his life Moses spent learning what God can do with nobody.
Jesus to was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert. Saint Luke describes the experience as forceful as the Spirit ‘threw Him’ (Gr. ex ballo) in leading Him into the desert experience in the wilderness of Judea. Likewise, the apostle Paul spent years in the wilderness of Arabia, some 14 years after his conversion in the years before his public ministry began. Sooner or later every Christian will find himself in the desert, as part of God’s direction and allowance in our life.
There is yet another biblical symbol that we may miss or recognize as part of God’s providence. It is the place of large bodies of water, the sea – the places and scenes of great storm, confusion and chaos. Sometimes we may say, “I am all at sea about this.” We mean that we are confused, that we do not know what to do, which way to turn. We are all at some time in danger of being overwhelmed by the dangers, problems and uncertainties of life. In such circumstances we may find ourselves at the mercy of currents, bobbing about at the mercy of huge waves, overwhelmed by winds that blow so desperately on the seas of life. The large body of water may be something about our life that has suddenly come upon us, a trial or difficulty, personally or in the family or a friend known to us, some financial pressure impressive time, some aspect of life that makes our insides churn and our minds to be mixed and turned, as we find ourselves at the mercy of huge forces larger and beyond ourselves, with all their pressures and pulls.
What are our “little boats?” The question is, really: “In whom or what do we place our trust? We all have our little security systems that we hope will bringing us to the other shore, safely through. There is the little boat of the pseudo-self role we take on when we are lost and alone in a large group. There is the little money we have saved to help us make it through uncertain financial times and into years of retirement.
Jesus teaches through experience – personal experience. Mark records that it was Jesus who had made the disciples get into the boat and to set off across the Sea of Galilee. The story comes immediately following the feeding of the 5000. There is really no break in the story for Mark says, “Immediately Jesus constrained them.” It was Jesus’ will and purpose that they should get out into the boat and head for the opposite shore. So too, Jesus makes us get into our little boats and sends us onto the seas of life with all its storms. He wants us to learn to trust and obey Him – not the security of our own systems and safety measures, but Himself as the only and ultimate Author of our faith, and of its safety and shalom. He wants us to discover the frailty, the weakness, the inabilities and limitations of our little security systems, in themselves if trusted in ultimately, rather than in Himself.
Jesus is not teaching us that we should not plan, or invest, or seek to discover and build ways to help ourselves and others. However, He does want to teach us that we must not put our ultimate trust in these things; that healing does not, come ultimately from the doctor and key, medical advances from science and technology, though we should not be afraid to depend on the medical profession, for they too are gifts of grace. He teaches us, however, that financial security does not finally come from our simply or profoundly working hard and using our own skills and wisdom to make a profit, so as to save and invest ever-wisely as good stewards. He is not telling us that we should not think that our daily bread does not come, alternately from the corner store or as a result of a farmer’s sweat or our own. He does want to teach us to depend on Him more, trusting Him more, acknowledging that ultimately “every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Lights.”
Many hymn writers have sought to put into words the powerful truth of Scripture – that God is the Author and Sustainer of our lives, the One who holds the power both of life and over our attempts, our frail efforts, at getting on in this world, and that we will ultimately flounder if God does not sustain, care and lovingly and bountifully provide for us each day. They write –
The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your old . . . Or - When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay . . .
In the fourth watch of the night Jesus comes to his disciples, walking to them on the waves of Galilee. The fourth watch is the darkest time of the night, just before the dawn. In the darkest moment of their experience, when all hope was gone and when despair was settled upon them (along with any further trust in their little security blanket of a boat), then it was that God in Christ came to them, saw them straining at the oars, to make calm the waves – but not just yet.
The very water of trial and uncertainty becomes a sidewalk for God to come to us in a new way. Our difficulties provide an opportunity for the interventions and miracles of God, for His providential Presence and care. Every stormy situation of life has the potential to bring us to Jesus or for Jesus to come to us, to reveal Himself to us in a new way.
But first, Jesus made as if he would have passed by – and of course they cried out for Him to save them. God wills that we become willing, that we respond to Him in the midst of our danger, seeking the Face and aid of Him who is present always, but who will seemingly(?) pass by if we do not ask for help. They made a decision to ask for assistance, in the moment of course knowing that they could not save themselves and that the little boat in which they had placed their security could not bring them the now the needed safety. We will never learn, personally and together, about Jesus’ salvation if we do not call to him out of our own inability and need. Jesus does not ignore their cries for help.
Of course, we should cry out to Him more often than we do. We should commune with Him whenever we know He is near, ‘pray without ceasing’ as St. Paul has it – for when is He ever not near? Even when He seems most absent, even that awareness reveals our deep hunger and need for Him. But we do not usually cry out to Him until we despair of our own plans and preparations. We may pray earlier sometimes, kind of like keeping-in-touch, perhaps out of mere rite or habit, but Jesus knows we are not ready to really trust him yet with all things, with important and even unimportant things. We still just want Him to bless our plans. If we were to work and plan and prepare but at the same time ask Jesus to demolish or shape as he wills, then we might have more hope in the outcome of our shared preparations and have fuller appreciation for all of the gifts of life, again as ultimately from His hand.
When Jesus got into their little boat, the storm ended. Mark comments on his own story, revealing that Jesus had sent them into the stormy sea because their hearts had become ‘hardened’ and because they had gained no real insight from the loaves and fishes episode. They had witnessed the miracle with their own eyes, seen it first-hand and from front-row seats, but they had seen merely with outward eyes and not with inner eyes of faith. They did not really perceive what was really going on – that Jesus is the Creator and Sustainer of Life, the One who ultimately provides the necessities of life, both physical and spiritual (and that the physical and the spiritual should not be separated into a ‘two-story universe’ dividing them).
As disciples they had seen Him doing wondrous things – for others(!), but they had not yet learned the lessons and appropriated Jesus Person and Work for themselves, for their own need, at least not yet in the way that the Master intended. Jesus’ followers must learn that He is not just the Christ for others but that He is the Christ for us as well. Mark is saying, I think, that Jesus brought them out into the storm-tossed sea to teach them that and to deepen their trust and dependence in Him. Jesus’ deepens our faith, or wants to, through all that He brings to us, in actively and passively ordering the events of our lives.
It is so easy for us Christ-followers to share this problem of the first twelve. We try so hard to share Jesus with others but we do not see that we have not participated yet fully into this life ourselves. We have so many answers for others: so many verses and doctrines and traditions, so much God-talk. But people around us are looking to see if we have tasted of the goodness of the Lord ourselves. Have we experience it? Is Jesus presence and our trust in Him authentic (?) – this One about Whom we are trying to share so eagerly.
So Jesus allows the storms to come. Sometimes, deliberately, He places us right in the middle of life’s mess and challenge – in the middle of storms. He lets our little boats bob up and down for awhile, almost succumbing to wave after wave, until we ourselves see that we are quite incapable of fixing things or even surviving the situation ourselves. He takes away the props and the training wheels. He removes even the good things we’ve come to depend on when we have forgotten that He gave them in the first place. God allows our limited wisdom and relatively puny resources, and sometimes all of our hopes and plans, all of our security-systems to flounder and fail, so that precisely then we will cry out for His help. And when we do, because He’s always near, having already come near us, He always answers and meets our need – always will. He rescues us, calming the storm – sometimes the storms within, if not those that still rage without. Jesus loves to meet us at the deepest point of our need; loves to have us trust and obey Him, and to walk more closely with Him, receiving as we call to Him all we need daily.
Sometimes our hearts, too, are hard, even as professing apprentice-disciples who desire to follow and be both spokes-men and –women and common examples of Jesus’ life and love. It’s so easy to live as practical atheists, living our lives as if there was no God, without really depending on Him, nor on the life of his Spirit within us. He does things – allows things, then, to make our hearts soft, pliable, needy and receptive to Him again. We cannot do this inner work ourselves for it is the work of a skilled Surgeon, the Doctor of our souls. Jesus the Great Physician does this work within us by sending us things around us, putting us in places of stormy danger. For He is not so much interested that we know about him, but that we come to know Him, that we be not mere spectators or journalists who can only describe His work to others, but that we really know Him ourselves, in deep, close and lasting ways.
Walking and working closely with Him, desiring His Presence always and welcoming Him into our boat – knowing Him like this rightly means — Life, Life Eternal: Life that he called “Abundant.”