The text says that Jesus intended to pass them by. In Mark’s Gospel, this is the second time that the disciples have been in trouble in a boat. On the surface of all things, that doesn’t make much sense to me, because these guys are fishermen by trade. Boats are their thing. And while every person who has ever gotten into a boat knows full that they may never make it back to shore again, it is reasonable to assume that these disciples of Jesus, who made a living by getting in and out of boats on a daily basis, probably have some experience when it comes to handling themselves in rough seas. These couple of times in Mark’s Gospel can’t possibly be a record of the only two times that the disciples encountered and survived a storm at sea.
And both times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not with them. At least he’s not with them in a capacity where he is able to help or to encourage them. The first time that the disciples get hung up in a storm, Jesus is very much blissfully asleep, and he has to be rudely awakened by the disciples. They are angry at the calm sense of peace that Jesus exhibits, and they accuse him of not caring about them, even when their very lives are at stake. Now we, of course, would never accuse Jesus of not caring about us. We’d never say that he wasn’t available when we desperately needed him, because we probably wouldn’t dare. We might think those things, but we would refrain from saying them aloud.
In our passage today, Jesus isn’t even physically with the disciples. We can’t even accuse him of being present, but not available. He’s just not with his disciples. He’s sent them on ahead of him. He’s up on a mountain praying, and we have cause to wonder about his motives. Did Jesus know what he was sending his disciples into? Did he know that once they were in their boat, that they would encounter a wind storm that would test the very center of their souls? I rather think so, and I rather think so, because of what I read in verse 48. In spite of the desperate situation that the disciples are in, in spite of the fact that they are in peril of losing their lives, verse 48 says that Jesus intended to pass them by. He had no intention of stopping to help them. We could, in fact, accuse Jesus of not caring about them; a charge that sticks; in both of these very similar stories.
But I am getting way ahead of myself. The disciples are in a very bad way. They are in what I would call a “no hope” situation. All is very grim. Mark tells us that the disciples are struggling against an adverse wind. The sea has become their enemy, and they are making no progress or headway. They are fighting a losing battle. And just when it seems as though things could not possibly get any worse, the disciples suddenly realize that there is a ghost making it’s way across the water toward them. And, if the enemy wind and sea wasn’t enough to terrify the disciples, the ghost is certainly going to undo them and push them over the edge of the limits of their endurance. The disciples lived in a world that was riddled with superstition. In the world of the disciples, ghosts were real. Ghost were denizens from the depths of hell, and their only purpose was to terrify and do harm. And so it is as bad as it gets. The disciples are already dealing with adverse winds and waves, but now they’ve got an enemy visitor headed their way.
Now, because we already know this story, we also know who the ghost is, and we also know that the ghost is not an enemy. But just the same, we ought also to know that there is small comfort in that. In fact, there is no comfort at all; not for the disciples, and maybe not for us. And there is no comfort because Jesus is not planning a rescue. He’s not planning on stopping by to help out. Mark tells us very clearly that Jesus intended to pass them by. Instead of coming to destroy the disciples, this ghost is just going to walk right on past them, continuing on in it’s own terrifying way.
And that should trouble us some. In fact, it should trouble us a lot. The disciples are clearly in trouble. They are deep in enemy territory. If ever they needed a rescue, this is the time. We expect, no, we demand that Jesus help them out. Don’t we expect Jesus to help us out when we are clearly in trouble?
I am convinced that the key to understanding this passage is in verse 52. At least this is Mark’s assessment of the whole thing. Jesus has changed his mind about passing them by, he’s climbed into the boat, and suddenly everything is all better, everything has calmed down, and the disciples are appropriately astounded at the way in which they have been rescued. And we all heave a great sigh of relief.
But being astounded by what Jesus has done, doesn’t cut it for Mark, as he writes his gospel. For Mark, astonishment is not an appropriate response. Mark says, [the disciples] “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Ouch! What does that mean? Well, we know what hardened hearts are, we’ve had them ourselves. But what about not understanding the significance of the loaves, what’s that got to do with the story?
Immediately preceding this passage there are two very amazing, but important events, recorded for us. In the first, Jesus sends his disciples out on a mission, and on that mission, the disciples discover that Jesus has given them the power to heal the sick and to cast out demons. That’s new, and it is very important. And it is important, because so far the disciples have have only seen Jesus do these kinds of things. And it must have amazed them that Jesus had given them this awesome power and authority.
And then there’s this bit about loaves, and this is a reference to Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. And just before everyone is fed, there is an amazing conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus says to them, “you give them something to eat.” But the disciples are confused and flummoxed. They tell Jesus that he is asking the impossible of them. Now, perhaps they had already forgotten that they had only recently discovered that they had the power to heal diseases and to cast out demons. And so, they lack both faith and imagination. And so, perhaps reluctantly, Jesus consents to work with them. He created the bread, and then they distributed it. Mark tells us that it never occurred to the disciples, that they really could have fed all five thousand of those people, by themselves, because Jesus had given them the power and authority to do it, in the same way that he had given them the power to heal the sick and to cast out demons.
And now, they are not realizing that they can bring God’s peace to their own situation there on the raging sea. They could have spoken to the winds and the waves, and calm would have come. That is why Jesus intended to pass them by.
Hardheartedness is often very difficult to overcome, because like the disciples, we are afraid to step out in faith. We are afraid to go into realms of the Spirit that we have never encountered before. Like the disciples, we can think of all kinds of reasons why it is not only impractical but also impossible to do the things that Jesus calls us to do. And to that response, Jesus has only four words to say to us. And those four words are, “Do not be afraid.” I am convinced that “Do not be afraid” is the third greatest commandment. The greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. “Do not be afraid” seems to work very closely with the first two. One cannot read very many pages of Scripture without encountering this very important commandment.
It was fear that kept the disciples from calling down manna from heaven and it was fear that kept them from rebuking the wind and the waves, even though they had the power and authority to do both, and even though Jesus provided them with the opportunity to do both.
Fear is what keeps us from carrying on the ministry of Jesus in our own time, and in our own place. We have the opportunity to effect change in our world even during the very strange time in which we now live. Jesus never said that the kingdom of God would lose power and authority over the ages, though that is often what we really believe about it. What Jesus did say, was that God’s kingdom would begin from humble beginnings, and that it would continue to grow and grow. Do we believe that? Can we believe that? If we want to believe it, we must stop being afraid. For it is fear that keeps God’s Kingdom quiet. And it is fear that keeps us from bringing healing and wholeness to those who are broken, and it is fear that keeps us from calling down manna from heaven, and it is fear that keeps us from rebuking that which stands in opposition to God, and it is fear that keeps us from being the voice of calm in difficult situations.