The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

[Forgot to press ‘Record’]

“Where Jesus Should Not Be”

Mark 6:45-56

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Immediately, Mark is moving us along, just as Jesus moved the disciples along into the boat.  Then Jesus goes alone up onto a mountain to pray.  “And when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and He alone upon the land” (Mark 6:47).  Hours later, the boat is still on the lake, and Jesus is still on the mountain.  And we have the first hint in this text that Jesus is doing things that no mere man can do: He sees—from the land to the middle of the lake, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm—that the boat is being harassed by the wind and that the disciples are going nowhere.  Sometime around first light, Jesus comes walking on the water, unaffected by the storm, and—that strange comment—“He wanted to pass by them” (Mark 6:48).  “But they, seeing Him walking upon the lake, thought that He was a ghost, and they cried out.  For all of them saw Him and they were alarmed” (Mark 6:49-50).  Five weeks ago we heard how Jesus, in the boat with the disciples, calmed a storm.  This storm is different.  It does not terrify the disciples.  They do not think they are going to die.  There is no indication, as some commentators suggest, that Jesus sends the disciples onto the lake so that they will fear for their lives, realize they are helpless, and see Jesus as their only help and salvation.  Jesus has sent them out on the lake.  But they are not afraid until they see Jesus! And they do not cry out to Him for help; they cry out in fear!  They don’t even recognize Jesus as someone who can help.  What’s ironic about this whole chapter is that the crowds more than once recognize Jesus and seek His help.  The disciples, of all people, do not recognize Him.  Not only do they not recognize Him, they fear Him.  Because Jesus shows up where He should not be.  Can you imagine the unexpectedness of this event?  The disciples have been up all night fighting the wind, and all of a sudden, out of the semi-dark, someone, something is moving on the water past the boat.  This is the heart-stopping terror of seeing unexplained movement outside your window in the middle of the night.  This is the supernatural dread of some unknown phantasm.  Jesus comes on the water, intending to show them that He is God “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8, ESV); He comes in the midst of the storm, intending to show them the afterglow of His glory, but they are like Job: “Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him” (Job 9:11, ESV).

It is easy for us to identify the storm as the problem in this account.  As with the calming of the storm in chapter 4, we want to make the storm represent our problems, and Jesus the one who removes our problems.  At this moment, somewhere, a preacher is saying, ‘Don’t worry; just recognize that God has brought these problems into your life for a reason, and that reason is that He wants you to trust Him more.  If you can just see that, call on Jesus, and He will calm all your storms.’  Now, obviously God wants you to trust Him more.  He wants to focus you completely on His grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, even in the midst of your biggest crisis.  He wants you to know that you are forgiven for the sake of Christ’s cross, and that, as St. Paul says, “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18, ESV).  That is always true; but it is not always true that God brings problems into our lives for the specific purpose that we trust Him more.  It sounds good and comforting to tell someone that God brought you into this storm; just trust Him and He will calm it.  But, besides the fact that God does not calm all the storms in our lives, it is spiritual pride to attempt explanations of what God is doing in any given circumstance.  Who knows what God is doing or why He is doing it?  Shall we attempt to reveal what God has left hidden?  But we like our nice, clean answers, so we make the storm our problems and Jesus the resolution of our problems.

The problem is, that the main problem for the disciples in Mark 6 is not the storm.  They don’t seem to be particularly concerned about that.  The problem is not the storm, but JesusJesus sent them out on the lake; Jesus comes walking on the water in the storm; it’s because of Jesus that the disciples have to change their robes.  Jesus is the problem.  He brings cries of fear from the disciples’ lips because He is God and they do not recognize Him as the God who saves.  Week after week, the disciples have been with Jesus and they still do not understand who He is or what He is doing.  They did not understand what it meant that Jesus fed five thousand with five loaves, and so they are afraid when He tries to show them even more strongly who He is.  He is doing things only Yahweh does.  But He’s not doing anything that hasn’t been done before.  He taught Israel and gave them manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16-17); He does the same thing in Mark 6.  At Sinai, Yahweh descended to the mountain, hid Moses in the rock, and passed by him in His glory, declaring His Name: “[Yahweh], [Yahweh], a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7, ESV).  In Mark 6, Jesus descends from the mountain, and He intends to pass by the disciples, showing them the glory of God hidden in the flesh of a Man, but they cannot handle it.  So it’s remarkable that Jesus shows the disciples the truth of the Name He shares with His Father: “Immediately He spoke with them, and He said to them, ‘Take heart, it is I; stop being afraid.’  And He went up to them in the boat and the wind ceased” (Mark 6:50-51).  How slow to anger is Jesus, in spite of the disciples’ unbelief!  How gracious He is to them in their fear!  How quick to forgive their blindness and sin!

There is a mystery here, but it is not in the “why” of God’s actions; it is in Jesus, the one who stands before us in every situation.  He is not a divine paramedic, who shows up only when we need help or when we are in crisis mode.  He is the one who is near to us at all times and in all places.  So what does it mean to you, right now, that Jesus is your God and Savior?  The answer can easily become unfocused when we start to get too comfortable with our ideas about God, if they are unformed and untested by the Scriptures.  The longer someone has been a Christian, the more comfortable it can get.  It is, in fact, a sinful comfort with our buddy Jesus that makes us say things like, “He causes storms in our lives so that we’ll trust Him and then, once we do our part, He’ll make the wind cease.”  No.  Perhaps pain can be, as C.S. Lewis once put it, “God’s megaphone” to expose our helplessness, the helplessness that brings us up against the immovable Law of God can never cause us to trust God more.  The Law, like that wind on the lake, stops us dead every time.  The Law, which shows us for what we are, can never make us trust God more.  It is clear that the disciples are not trusting Jesus.  They are full of fear and unbelief and all the same things we carried in here with us this morning; they do not ask Jesus to help them.  But it is exactly then that Jesus turns toward them, speaks words of consolation to them, and gets into the boat with them.  When we are turned in on ourselves, with our concerns and priorities and struggles and the sheer weight of life day-in and day-out, we are as far from trust in Jesus as the middle of the lake from the mountain.  We are in the middle of this life on earth, and Jesus is somewhere off in heaven.  Perhaps our problem is the opposite of the disciples’: they feared the God who came to them in mercy.  But so often we have no fear of God, whose steadfast love we reduce to the cheapest grace.  What other explanation could there be for our lack of trembling in repentant fear before the altar of God?  What other explanation could there be for our despising of the Word of God, written and preached?  What other explanation could there be for our casual handling of the holy things of Yahweh?  Do we know who Jesus is and what He is doing?

But maybe heaven and earth are not as far apart as we thought.  Because Jesus continues to show up where (we think) He should not be: at birth and at death and everywhere in between; in some water splashed on a person’s head; in the words of a man who is as full of sin and fear and doubt as any of you; in bread and wine that could not be any more ordinary.  What is He doing here?  He is doing what He did for the disciples: turning toward us, again, in undeserved and abundant grace.  He is doing the things that Yahweh does.  But He is not doing anything that He hasn’t done before: from Eden to Egypt, from Chaldea to Calvary, God has filled His people with His Word and with the food of mercy.  The Son, the Word-made-flesh, was silenced on the cross so that He could give Himself as food for the life of the world; for your life.  This is the God who comes to meet you today, even if you did not ask for Him—here, where heaven joins earth in Jesus.  No matter where you are in your life or what you’re going through, you are all here before the one God, whom you know and worship in the flesh of Jesus.  And in all of this, by all of His gifts, He says to you today:  “[F]ear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10, ESV).  “I, I am [Yahweh], and besides me there is no savior” (Isaiah 43:11, ESV).  Thank God, then, that He is our Savior!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/21/09

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