Download or listen to the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, “Will God Speak?” (Mark 6:45-56)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I know some of you have been out on Lake of the Woods when it was windy. And probably all of you know that Lake of the Woods is probably not the best place to be when the wind picks up and the waves start to rise. But suppose for a moment that you have a large enough boat, that you are confident in your abilities. You will not be afraid of a little wind. In fact, you are such a die-hard fisherman, that you will not only go fishing in a little wind on Lake of the Woods, but you might even go when it’s getting dark. You aren’t afraid, because you know what you’re doing. Something like that, I take it, is how the disciples felt on this lake this night. Jesus had strongly urged them into the boat, He had separated Himself from the disciples, and from the crowd. He alone is on the land, Mark tells us. The disciples are in the boat, at night, alone. And the wind picks up so that they have a hard time getting to the other side of the lake. But they are not afraid. This is not like the earlier occasion when the disciples were in the boat with Jesus, and Jesus was sleeping while the storm became worse and worse. The disciples woke up Jesus and said, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves like they were some unclean spirits, and said, “Why were you afraid? Do you have so little faith?” So little faith in the one who is in the boat with you? That time, they were afraid, but here Mark gives us no hint whatsoever that the disciples are afraid. They are confident in their abilities; they know what they are doing. A little wind won’t scare them.
But then Jesus sees them on the lake. Whether He sees them because He’s on a mountain, and there’s a bright moon, and so He sees the boat; or whether it is some kind of supernatural sight, He sees them. He sees that they are stuck in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night. So He goes down the mountain, and starts walking on the water toward them. He walks on the surface of the water, and comes alongside them. He is passing by them, and they see Him, and now they are afraid. The wind and the waves did not scare them, but when they see Jesus, they cry out in fear. They think they see a ghost. It is not too surprising that they are afraid. If you or I were on Lake of the Woods in the middle of the night, and we saw a figure walking toward the boat on the surface of the water, we might be a little afraid also. That’s not what you expect to see, and the unexpectedness is certainly part of the fright. People do not walk on the surface of the water, which is probably why some “scholars” try to imagine ice on the lake or Jesus walking on mudflats along the channel of the Jordan River. But Jesus is actually walking on the surface of the water, and that is what scares the disciples.
They should know better. They should remember Job saying that God alone stretched out the heavens and He alone tramples the waves of the sea (9:8). They should remember the psalmist who spoke of the God who left unseen footprints, walking on the sea (77:19). They should have remembered how God passed by Moses, to declare His Name of salvation; how God hid Moses in the cleft of the Rock so that he would not be consumed by the glory of God (Exodus 33:19-23; 34:5-8). Or they should have remembered how God passes by Elijah on the mountain, and there was wind, and an earthquake, and fire, but God spoke in the whisper (1 Kings 19:11-13). But they are like Job: He passed by me but I did not see Him (9:11). They do not see God; they see only a ghost. Their hearts are hardened, and Job knew that there was no one who had hardened himself against God and succeeded (9:4). They did not understand that the Creator of the wheat and fish had just fed as many people as there were, and everyone was satisfied. Instead of worshiping like Moses, they cry out in fear.
This may seem strange to us, so far removed from the events, that the disciples are afraid of Jesus. Jesus is my buddy, my best friend; I’m so familiar with Jesus, I can’t imagine ever being afraid of Him. But actually, this is not too far from the experience of many people today. Think about what happens when some disaster or tragedy happens. Think about what happens when a gunman walks into a movie theater and kills 12 people and injures more. People eventually start asking theological questions, like where is God in all this? Where was God when it was happening? Some are honest questions, and some are meant to score points against anyone who would be foolish enough to believe in a god of any sort. We ask questions about why God allowed some to live and others to die. Why He miraculously rescued some and others died. What was the purpose, or His will? And then people give theological answers to those questions, like God didn’t cause it, He only allowed it. Or God meant it for good. Or this is not the work of God but of a psychopath. Most of the answers are meant to give us some maneuvering room, some space to defend God or let Him off the hook—maybe to make us feel better about believing in an all-powerful, all-knowing God. The fact is, most of the answers we give to such events are not much more than pious nonsense. They are simply lies about God that we tell to make ourselves or others feel better—as if God needed a little help with His image, and we’re the ones to do it. Most of them have no basis in the Scriptures at all. The fact is, we simply do not know. We have only questions, and there are no good answers.
This is the problem: God is silent about all of it. We ask, or we cry, or we beg, and we get no answers, no words, nothing to make us feel better. The silence of God, if we believe in a god greater than ourselves, is perhaps the worst thing that we can imagine. If Jesus walks by the boat without a word, the disciples will die. If this God does not speak, then there is only the silent God sitting in His perfect heaven, doing whatever He will do. And who knows what He will do? He gives, He takes; He acts, and you have no control or say in it at all. We can’t quite get rid of God from our lives altogether, so we try to dull the edges of the clear Scriptures about God being behind everything. And that knowledge, combined with God’s silence, is enough to crush us. Because if we take what He has said seriously, we see that there is no room to maneuver. No space to defend God. He is the Judge in this courtroom, and He has already passed the death sentence on you and me and all sinners. And in this courtroom, there are no excuses; there is no pardon, there is no parole. There is no pleading down the charges, or escaping this prison. The gavel has already struck, and the sentence has been passed. There is no way out.
Unless your God speaks to you. And this God, walking on the water, does exactly that. He says, “Take heart. Stop being afraid. I am He.” “Ask ye, who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God” (LSB 656:2). I am He, and there is no other God. I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake (Isaiah 43:25). I, I am Yahweh, and besides Me there is no other savior (Isaiah 43:11). So do not be afraid. This God does not sit in a silent heaven; He comes down and gets in to the very boat with all of us self-sufficient sinners. He comes right down into the midst of all the questions for which we do not answers, and answers the only question worth asking: who is your God? And among all the unexplainable things, He does the most unthinkable of them all: this God dies, and then He rises from the dead. And then He goes on speaking, in the middle of every tragedy, every disaster, every consequence, major and minor, of your sin and mine. He says, I am He who blots out all your transgressions; I forgive you all your sins. I am He who gives you my crucified and resurrected and ascended body and blood for your life and salvation. This is your God, and there is no other. He does not answer all our questions; He does not calm all the “storms of life.” But one thing’s for sure: He will bring this boat safely into anchor. He holds the field victorious forever.
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, 7/28/12