Mark 6: 45-56 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
************************************************************* Note: This sermon is part of our summer series "Worship Waves; Sailing through the Gospel of Mark" at First Baptist Church of Moorestown, NJ
How is life in the boat this summer? If you think about it, it's almost like we are all on a cruise ship- watching from the center of the lake as the Markan story unfolds... was watched (on the LIdo deck with an umbrella drink in hand, of course) Jesus' ministry grow every week. We watched as he and the disciples sailed from one side of the sea of Galilee to the other- from Jewish territory to Gentile territory. We watched the marginalized sick woman touch the fringe of Jesus robe and be healed; we watched Jesus reach out his hand to raise the daughter of the temple from death. We watched as Jesus was rejected in his hometown, but used it as a teaching moment for his disciples as he sends them out to do ministry two by two. We hoped with the disciples, as we sipped our umbrella drink from our deck chair, that when Jesus suggested they all get some rest, that they really would be able to lay on the beach somewhere, and maybe catch a wave or two...get some down time! But when they went away to their deserted place, their sanctuary... there were crowds of people there... needy, hungry people and Jesus, instead of sending them away, had compassion on them. He said they were like sheep without a shepherd...
We didn't talk about the shepherd metaphor last week. But let's take a brief moment for a quote by Robert Linthicum on the subject so we get a better understanding of the shepherd. We often think of the shepherd as the one to bring care and comfort- but Linthicum says, "... The metaphor of “shepherd” is used throughout the Hebrew Bible in a far different way. It is used to describe the leaders of the political, economic and religious systems of the nation. These “shepherds” (or caretakers) of the people are criticized for using their power and position to benefit themselves, rather than to strengthen the people."[i]
“You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with their wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So my sheep were scattered, with no one to search or seek for them” (Ezek.34:3-4, 6).
Linthicum continues, "The political, economic and religious leaders of the nation have used their positions of privilege to privilege themselves – to increase their power, to build their wealth, to strengthen their control. They have not sought the empowerment and sustenance of the people. By doing so, Israel’s leaders have not been true to the example set them by Moses, David, and even God. Thus, Mark declares, Jesus follows in the tradition of Israel’s true shepherds –in that he healed the people, embraced them, taught them and had compassion for them the true shepherd to the peasant people – whether they were Jews or whether they were Gentiles!"
So when we begin with this understanding of the shepherd- it puts last week's feeding of the 5000 in a new light. We see Jesus, the true shepherd, feeding the hungry, empowering the weak, wisely using and multiplying resources until all were cared for and satisfied.
And this is where we pick up the story today... as Jesus emerges as the true shepherd of Israel, and finishes feeding the 5000, the disciples are picking up the leftovers- and Jesus must have seen how exhausted they were... so he calls them all together and says, "Look, get back in the boat and go ahead to the other side, I'll stay here and finish up... and send everyone home." And After saying farewell to them, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray.
Now to me this is not hard to understand at all. I need my one on one time with God-I need to go away by myself; I need to be connected to the Creator... It's the best way I know to find refreshment, but not just that, it helps me to know what to God wants me to do next... life gets stressful, ministry is tiring, and I don't know about you but when I'm tired, I don't think well- everything gets confusing and so I go to the one who brings order to chaos... I go and pray...
But when he is done being refreshed by God, he goes back to the shore- and he sees that his buddies in the boat are having a tough time of it. They haven't made much headway at all... The wind has kicked up and the disciples are struggling even to keep the oars in the water... We talked a few weeks ago about how totally black it gets at night on the sea of Galilee, and how the waves during a storm can be up to 12 feet high-
So the disciples are pumping, and the wind is howling and the waves are rolling, but then out of the darkness, they see a figure coming toward them on the water... can you picture it? It's the middle of the night- they can hardly see two feet in front of their face, but there's something coming at them. And I always like to picture this as "surfer Jesus"- you know, he's got his arms up and his robes are blowing and he's balancing on the board, riding a wave...
Of course, the text tells us he wanted to "pass by them", or translated from the Greek, "he wanted to show himself to them..." This is the same phrase used at times in the Old Testament when God wanted to show Godself to someone- it's the expression used when God showed Godself to Moses in the cleft of the rock- it was a divine revelation- Jesus wanted to show the disciples, as God had shown Moses, that he had seen them in their struggle- and he would shepherd (there's that word again) them out of distress.
But the disciples dont know it's Jesus... they think its a ghost and they start screaming! And rightly so! They knew all the legends about sea monsters! There was a really famous one about the sea actually turning into a monster! There was talk that when the storms came in, it was the sea getting angry and coming to life! We use the expression even today- "the sea was angry..." So yeah, as superstitious as any sailor would be, the disciples seeing the legends come to life before their eyes, they are terrified!
But Jesus calls out, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And again from the Greek- Take heart, "I AM" Do not be afraid...
I don't know what I would have thought if I had been in that boat. If I had been hit by too many waves to count, was soaking wet, exhausted from rowing against the wind all night, scared out of my wits that I might not make it through the night, and then to see "surfer Jesus" coming at the only security I have right now- my boat- and as he's riding the wave shouts out "Don't be afraid... I'm God!!!" And, when he gets close enough, he hops into the boat! And no sooner to his little feet hit the deck, the wind stops.
What happened then... did he smile at them? "Ta Daaaaa!" Did he look around all pleased with himself? Did he ask for anything? Did he do anything? We don't know... we only get... (wait for it....)
"And the disciples were utterly astounded," (duh yeah!) But then Mark adds..."for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened." Come on Mark, give them a break! They saw the most amazing miracle they could imagine-whether you take it literally (someone walking on water) or metaphorically (God walks on top of, or is in control of, even our worst fears and struggles)
It's a lot to grasp- even for the most spiritual among us. we can profess up and down that we know that God can do anything, but when we come face to face with that truth and are witness to God's power, it is surely nothing short of astounding!
Yet part of what we profess to believe is also that we have this same power within us! That the spirit that brings order to chaos and lives and breathes and moves through us! That the one who could shepherd the people, the one who could empower the powerless and restore the nations and feed the 5000 has given us enough loaves and fish to do the very same thing!
And as much as we profess to believe it, we very seldom act on it. Instead we continue to row against the wind-to struggle painstakingly as waves hit us again and again... we complain about our wet clothes and we shiver at the monsters we've heard about that surely lie ahead... And most of the time when we see Jesus rushing toward us, especially in a way that we haven't imagined-
And I guess we should pause here to ponder... How do we, in our church boat, imagine Jesus coming to our rescue? I can only answer for me, but between you and I, I would prefer it to be soft, so I barely notice him at first- like a Hallmark movie character... the quiet non judgmental yet strong figure that moves into town and suddenly makes everything all right... and because of him and the love he brings, the church begins to grow, and people are nicer to each other and everyone works together on projects and the church keeps growing and we get start doing even more mission and slowly, (everything has to happen slowly... it's church) we begin changing (slowly) our little corner of of the community and ripple out through the area and then, one day, make real changes in the world. Gosh I hope I'm alive long enough to see that happen!
But here's the thing... thinking this way- imagining what and how and when Jesus should show up and how he approaches only serves to harden our hearts. So when Jesus comes to us in a different way, like, say, riding a wave... we won't be able to recognize him. It might look to us instead, as if something is coming toward us to threaten us; and we get a little crazy and protective when it comes to our boat. We don't like to feel defenseless, and when we do, we tend to hang on to what we have even harder.
But here's the amazing part- although he wasn't recognized- although he wasn't invited-although their hearts may have even been hardened- Jesus hopped on board anyway. And things got better... and interestingly enough, the didn't end up going where they planned. When they had gotten into the boat they had planned to go to Bethsaida- back to Jewish territory- back to the familiar... But after Jesus joined them, they ended up landing in Genneserat- gentile land. Does it matter?
I believe it does- because sometimes we can be so sure that God has directed us one way, but once Jesus is in the boat, anything can happen. And we need to be sensitive to his leadings.
Interestingly, as the disciples moor the boat and go ashore, people from all over begin gathering again- bringing their sick to Jesus, the true shepherd, who "healed the people, embraced them, taught them, so that, like the hemorrhaging woman in they too could touch 'the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed'”[ii]
But I want to turn the tables and just leave you with one question... as the church, are the body of Christ on earth, are we willing to not only be open to receive God in ways we might not be used to, but shouldn't we be willing to come to people in ways that they may not expect? Do we stick with what people have come to recognize as "church" engagement? More plainly... do we continue to sit on the deck of our cruise ship (umbrella drink in hand) watching people who need our help struggle against the wind? Or should we (could we) be willing to reach people in a new way... can we approach the world perhaps, riding a wave?