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|HE WOULD HAVE PASSED THEM BY|
The twelve disciples are rowing for their lives at night on the Sea of Galilee. Here comes Jesus walking on the water and Mark tells us, Jesus intended to pass them by (6:48). Excuse me?! Jesus intended to pass them by? That’s not the Jesus we want, Mark. Matthew (14:22-33) and John (6:16-21) do not tell us Jesus intended to pass them by. Mark, are you sure? Did you really mean this?
Mark’s like that, you know. Earlier--in chapter 6--Jesus is rejected in Nazareth and Mark tells us, And he could do no deed of power, (6:5). Could not do a deed of power? I'd have written, "would not." Come on, Mark!
In chapter 10 people are bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them and bless them, but the disciples speak sternly to them. Mark tells us, “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. . .” (10:14). That’s the same word for “angry” isn’t it? Matthew and Luke tell us this same story, but they never say Jesus is angry. Mark, did you mean to say that about our Jesus?
Mark tells in chapter 11 (12-14; 20-26) that Jesus walks to Jerusalem, is hungry and sees a fig tree with leaves but no fruit. Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers and dies. Mark tells us, "for it was not the season for figs." Matthew doesn't say that. What do we do with a Jesus who curses a fig tree for not having fruit out of harvest season? Matthew appears to have a problem with that. Mark, don't you have a problem with this kind of Jesus?
Mark’s ending of his gospel account of Jesus is strange, too! Matthew ends with a great commission on the mountain: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, Go therefore and make disciples. . . ." (28:18-20). Luke ends with the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven and the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God (24:51-52). And John ends on the beach of the Sea of Galilee with Jesus eating fish with Peter and John and Nathaniel and some other disciples and commanding them to feed my sheep.
What about Mark? Well, Mark's ending is so awful that later editors added two different endings to make it a little better. Mark concludes this marvelous story with no resurrection appearances by Jesus--only a young man in a white robe sitting in the tomb and telling them that Jesus has been raised. And Mark ends with these words: So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for . . . . (16:8).
Come on, Mark! You can do better than that! I can see why Bible scholars consider Mark to be the earliest gospel account written. Later gospel writers needed to clean it up a bit, to make Jesus more comfortable to us, to make Jesus more like us. Do you want a Jesus who can do no miracles, a Jesus who is angry, a Jesus who curses fruit trees out of their season, a Jesus who does not appear after the resurrection and leaves the disciples terrorized, amazed and afraid? I don't.
We are not really surprised, then, that Mark and only Mark includes the phrase in our text today: "He intended to pass them by." I remember this verse from my earliest hearings of the Bible in the King James Version: "he would have passed them by." Jesus would have passed them by? Jesus the Good Shepherd? Jesus who has just fed over 5,000 people? Jesus who teaches because, as verse 34 tells us, he had compassion for the crowds? Would a compassionate, good shepherd intend to pass his friends by as they are straining at the oars against an adverse wind (6:48)? Umm, Mark?
ALONE WITHOUT JESUS
Let's look again at how the Twelve ended up in that boat anyway. According to verse 44, the 5,000 men (other persons were there too, you know, Mark), have been fed with five loaves and two fish. Immediately (which is one of Mark's favorite words, for he uses it about 40 times in this gospel account) immediately Jesus tells his disciples to travel again the seven miles to the other side to the Sea of Galilee. We're not talking about an ocean here. Jesus stays to dismiss the crowd and then goes up on the mountain to pray.
When evening comes Jesus is alone in prayer on the mountain and the disciples are alone without Jesus in a boat out on the sea. Here is a key to help us understand this story--Jesus is alone and the disciples are alone.
As often happens on that body of water, the wind comes up quickly and is in their faces. They are straining at the oars when Jesus comes towards them early in the morning. Well, the New Revised Standard Version is correct, but it does not translate literally what Mark says here. Mark tells us that it is the fourth watch of the night, which is from about 3:00 until 6:00 a.m. If you’re a college student, you know the fourth watch. It’s when you begin studying for that exam that morning or when you come in from the party. For the rest of us, though, the fourth watch is not a good time.
I once heard a church member tell a group of deacons, “When you're sitting up with someone lying there in that hospital bed, the fourth watch is the worst time of the day or night.” Those three hours before dawn are the hardest for us because we are the weakest and the most susceptible to doubt and fear. Those of us who have spent some time up at that time of the night know exactly what it is like. I believe it is not a coincidence that Mark tells us that all of this happens during the fourth watch of the night. The disciples are alone in their boat in the scariest and loneliest part of the day or night.
And here comes Jesus, walking on the water! Hank Dunn and the Pastor Search Team told me in March they took out of the Senior Pastor’s job description, “walks on water.” I’m glad. Here comes Jesus, though, walking on the water! And Jesus would have passed them by!
What is the disciples' reaction? Are they joyous and thankful and pleased? No way! But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost (The text reads a phantasm--a phantom.) and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified (6:49-50).
But immediately (Here's that word again, and it is important.) immediately Jesus speaks to them in short, choppy phrases, which is about all anxious, terrified people can understand--"Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
I prefer the way Matthew concludes this story. Matthew tells us that Peter then jumps out of the boat, tries to walk on the water to Jesus, begins to sink and needs to be saved by Jesus. Then Matthew tells us Peter and Jesus board the boat, And those in the boat worshiped him, saying “Truly you are the Son of God.” (14:33).
That's a nice ending that wraps everything up, but that's not the way Mark tells it. Mark tells us, And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand (6:51-52). Do you have trouble understanding Jesus? Mark has good news for you. The twelve disciples—his closest friends--didn’t understand him either. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (6:51-52)
Loaves of bread? Do you find it amazing that in the boat the disciples are described as not understanding about the loaves? Mark tells us that just before the disciples climbed into that boat, they had been with a crowd. When the 5000+ people became hungry, the disciples suggested, “Send them away so they can buy something to eat.” They, unlike Jesus, wanted the crowds to fend for themselves.
Jesus, however, looks at his disciples and says, “You give them something to eat” (6:37). They did not understand. Jesus tells them to go and see how much bread they already had. Mark has no mention of a little boy with his lunch. The disciples find five loaves and two fish, and the text allows us to assume that the bread and fish may have come from the disciples themselves. Jesus shows them how to feed a crowd with the resources within their reach. How much was left of the loaves and fish? Twelve baskets—enough for each disciple to have his own basket. I wonder if they had the baskets of loaves in the boat with them.
HOW JESUS HELPS US
I think Mark is trying to tell us why Jesus "would have passed them by." Jesus' help may not be what we want or expect. We want Jesus to rush directly to the boat, climb in, and immediately relieve disciples of their pain. We want Jesus to apologize for putting disciples in such a dangerous situation in the first place; for we assume that Jesus knows about Doppler radar weather forecasts! We want Jesus to encourage the Twelve to join a 12-step program to deal with their sense of abandonment by Jesus, their parent-figure.
They didn’t understand about the loaves and their hearts were hardened to the truth that Jesus had said, “You give them something to eat.” I want to say this very clearly: Jesus was calling those disciples and calling us as disciples to stop being so dependent on Jesus. I think that is why Jesus would have passed them by. He hoped they would figure out that they were not really alone in the boat because the Spirit of Jesus was always with them. He wanted to see if this time they would stop being so dependent on Jesus and would look within their own boat and in their own hands for the God-given gifts and resources already available to them in times of crisis. They did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Jesus cares for them, comes to them, and hopes to pass them by because perhaps this time they will not have hard hearts and they will understand about how the Lord feeds them. Jesus hopes that they will realize that they are not alone in the boat because the Spirit of Jesus is always with them in their hearts. They are looking for Jesus in a place rather than for Jesus in their hearts. But again, as before, they don’t understand. And neither do we.
But one day these disciples will. When Jesus was killed by the hard-hearted Pharaohs of the world, the disciples remembered the bread he gave them at that Last Supper. Each time they broke and shared bread together, they heard and understood what Jesus had said about the loaves: “You give them something to eat.” Now they understood, and, now so do we. When Jesus died and was raised from the dead, he breathed on them and gave them (and us) his Spirit in their soft hearts. Look at your hands. What resources and gifts has the Lord already given you to help in times of crisis?
Even if the Good Shepherd passes us by, he does not leave us to fend by ourselves but gives to us anxious and frightened disciples his power in his words: "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid!" "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid!"
CHORAL ANTHEM: Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior
HYMN OF RESPONSE: Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
Robert E. Albritton, Ph.D.
Vienna Baptist Church
July 23, 2006