Providence and trials - Mark 6:45-51
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The Christian writer and speaker Don Carson teaches at a theological college in Chicago and tells the story of a young married couple who were at the college of which the husband was invited for an interview for the post of assistant minister at a church in California. In fact so keen were they that without consulting anyone in the college, they went ahead and bought the plane tickets. The problem was that the interview was scheduled during exam week and the college had a firm ruling that no exceptions could be made for people to be absent during that period. The job was very attractive and they really wanted to go for interview, but the college refused to relent. As you can imagine, the couple were far from happy with what they saw as the faculty’s stuffy attitude- after all, it would only be a couple of days out and they didn’t have examinations on those days so what was the problem? And they weren’t too bothered about keeping their views about the college quiet either. They were miffed, to put it mildly. What was God doing, allowing such a great opportunity pass them by? Didn’t they want to serve him, do his will? Do you know that the very plane which they would have taken to California for that interview crashed with no survivors. I can tell you that gave the couple cause to pause and think about God’s Providence.
I am sure that we have all been in similar situations where we question God’s timing which proves to be a particular trial to us. Well, that was precisely the situation the disciples of Jesus found themselves in, in the episode we are looking at together this morning in Mark chapter 6. So what do you do when you need help from God? Let’s turn to this story and find out.
First of all, look at what the situation is when help seems absent- vv 45 – 48: ‘Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.’
Now let me ask a question: what do you think would have been the disciple’s greatest trial that night? Was it the storm raging around them or the storm raging within them? Was it being aware of the storm’s presence or their Master’s absence? You see, they had had to face a similar storm before back in chapter 4. But that was different, because then Jesus was with them, this time they are without him. Now it seemed they had to face the storm alone, and that would have scared them spitless.
Just imagine for a moment the physical strain of bouncing from wave to wave in a tiny fishing vessel. When I was in Israel a couple of years ago I saw a boat which had been retrieved from this very era by the side of the Sea of Galilee and believe me they are not that big. And as they wrestled with the ores, with sinews strained and backs breaking where would their thoughts have gravitated to? Surely to the Master left behind who could calm the storm- he had done it before, why not now. Well, now he isn’t here. In verse 48 Mark speaks of the disciples ‘straining’ at the ores, a word which is used elsewhere and translated ‘tormented’ In other words this was shear physical torture they were going through, not to mention the emotional anguish. Yet still the winds rage and still there is no sign of Jesus. Three hours goes by. Four hours. Still, no Jesus. Midnight arrives and……nothing. By this time the disciples would have been at sea for as long as six hours. That is when you are bound to ask yourself: ‘What is the point of Jesus praying when we his followers are perishing?’
And it is those thoughts which, if we are honest, are sometimes the most difficult to handle. You see, it is one thing to suffer for doing wrong, and quite another for doing right. But it happens, like here. And it is when the storm bursts over us that they wash away any naïve ideas that if only we do right by God then things will never go wrong- they do, even for Christians.
You just ask the faithful couple whose cot lies empty. You ask the wife who took a chance to forgive her husband only to be betrayed yet again. Obedience to God does not always result in immediate help from God- at least not always in the way we might expect or demand.
And so the winds blow. The boat bounces and we his disciples begin to wonder. Why when the storm is so fierce does help take so long? Well, we shall see why in a moment.
But before we come to that, there is an indication that amongst the disciples, resentment was mixed with bewilderment. Just glance down at verse 51b, ‘They (the disciples) were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.’ What’s that all about? Well, remember what has just happened. We have had the feeding of the five thousand and the disciples’ hearts were hardened towards Jesus because of that. They wanted to dismiss the crowds in verse 36, while Jesus wanted to feed them. They told him it couldn’t be done. He said it could. And to add further to their personal humiliation it is to a little boy with a sandwich box that Jesus turns and performs the miracle. Also bear in mind that for some time now the disciples have occupied centre stage. They have had a taste of the ‘X’ factor. They had hitched their wagon to a rising star and political power seems to be within their grasp for in John’s account we are told that at this point after the feeding of the 5,000 the people wanted to make Jesus king and march on Jerusalem. But what does Jesus do? He packs them off into a boat and he goes off to pray. You see, he wants neither them nor himself to be open to that sort of temptation. So no wonder their hearts became Teflon coated, emotionally resentful and so spiritually dim. And we should not be surprised if they became hardened even further with the storm. Peter, James, John and Andrew, were seasoned fishermen and they knew what these storms could do. They had seen the splintered hulls float to shore. They had attended their friend’s funerals. They knew better than anyone that this night could well be their last and Jesus is nowhere to be found. I tell you that is precisely the sort of thing that can make you angry with God and hard of heart. Can I gently ask: are you in danger of allowing that to happen to you because of your circumstances?
It could well be that is where you are at the moment riding a major storm in your life. You know that Jesus knows what you are going through, as he did here with the disciples in v48. But as hard as you look to find him, you feel you can’t. All you see is the darkness and all you hear is the crashing of the waves. And maybe like the disciples you heart has become a little calloused by unmet expectations. It could be that you didn’t expect being a Christian to be this tough. You thought that God would have been quick to answer your prayers, help was always going to be at hand- as with Superman and Lois Lane, but it has not proved to be the case. And so you pleadings for help are salted with angry questions. Is that you or someone you know? Then maybe we need to ponder that key text from the beginning of the series- Romans 8:28 ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.’ the question is: what possible good can there be here?
Well, let’s consider what happens when help draws near v48-50 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
It is not until around 5 o clock in the morning that Jesus finally appears. But then we read that as he was walking on the water, ‘He was about to pass by them’, literally in the original, ‘He wished to pass by them’. And we are forced to ask: ‘Why?’ Well, bringing together what the disciples had already experienced, the stilling of the storm, the feeding of the five thousand, and now Jesus walking on the water, surely what Jesus was doing was testing the disciples’ capacity to trust him for who he was. Let me explain. When Jesus calmed the first storm his very actions should have brought to mind a psalm which the disciples would have been taught in synagogue school- Psalm 89:9 when speaking of the LORD God it says, ‘You rule over the raging sea; when its waves mount up you still them.’ When the disciples witnessed the miracle feeding of the crowds with the loaves their minds should have gravitated towards Deuteronomy 8 ‘ Remember how the Lord your God had led you in the desert for these 40 years, taking away your pride and testing you, because he wanted to know what was in your heart. He took away your pride when he let you get hungry and then fed you with manna (heavenly bread)….This was to teach you that a person does not live by eating only bread, but by everything the Lord says.’ And now he is walking on water- another event brimful with spiritual significance regarding the identity of Jesus as we see in another Old Testament passage, Job 9: 8 ‘He (God) alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.’ Join up the dots- God calms the sea, Jesus calms the sea; God provides bread from heaven, Jesus provides bread; God strides the waves, Jesus strides the waves. Do you see that every word, every action has been a steady unveiling of who Jesus is- the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth and in whose hands are our very lives.
What Jesus is doing then by permitted them to ride the storm is testing and humbling his followers as God did with the Israelites back then and, it has to be said, as he does with us today. When he was asleep in the boat and the storm had come and he kept them safe, why should he not do so just because he is on land? His power is not limited by his location and neither is his care. But of course their hearts were hardened; they couldn’t see yet that this was no ordinary man but that he was God. Had they seen that, well then their response might have been different. Instead of terror, as we see in v 50 there might have been trust. That is what Jesus had hoped for and why he wanted to pass them by, hoping that their faith in him while he was absent would have been sufficient without him having to be present. Do you see? Their faith is being stretched.
And so Jesus saw them through the storm and chose to wait in order to train them. Why it was the fourth watch he went to them and not the third or second? I don’t know. But what I do know is that his timing is always right. Every incident is designed to draw us closer to himself and further away from our own pride and self-sufficiency. In short, he wants us to learn to trust him. And why should we trust him? Well, because he is God. There is the story of two maestros (musicians not the car) who attended a concert to hear a promising young soprano. One commented on the purity of her voice. The other responded, “yes, but she’ll sing much better when her heart is broken.” There are certain passions only learned by pain. And there are times when God, knowing that, allows us and enables us to endure the pain for the sake of the song.
I did say enables, for the Scripture teaches that God will not allow us to be tested beyond our strength. And we see that here with when help steps in- v50 – 51 Immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed. It seems to me that there is more than a hint of divine revelation when Jesus says ‘It is I’. This echoes the very words of God to Moses when he met him in the burning bush. He too was afraid by what he had just experienced. God’s people were in trouble then as they are here, for in Exodus 3 we read God saying to Moses, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their crying…. and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.’ And when Moses asks who shall I say sent me, God replied say ‘I am’ sent you. This not only means that God is self –existent, but that he is the all sufficient - he will be whatever he needs to be to rescue his people. And all of that we now see in Jesus the ‘It is I’. All that the sea symbolises in Scripture in terms of chaos and dark rebellion against God, an evil which threatens to engulf his people, Jesus tames- the winds die down in his presence. And all that appears to threaten you and me as we make our way through this fallen world, encountering evil in its various forms, he will not allow to ultimately harm us if we keep on looking to him. The great ‘I am’ who promised to be with Moses wherever he went, is the same I am in Jesus who promised to be with us even to the end of the age.
Over the last few weeks we have seen that God is ruler over all for the sake of his people and his glory- it is called Providence. And Providence is both sweet and sour- that is what life is like and it is often the sour which God takes to fashion and mould us into becoming more Christ-like people. I mentioned Don Carson at the beginning of the sermon, well, as we close let me read to you something he has said about some of the parental and pastoral implications of this teaching for our children and our flock. He says, ‘We sometimes try to protect them from the caustic scorn of peers who have little time for Christian values. After all, we console ourselves, the Bible says much about earning a good reputation with outsiders. But that reputation is for integrity, kindness, love; it is never to be won at the expense of silence. I look at my children, and I wish for them enough opposition to make them strong, enough insults to make them choose, enough hard decisions to make them see that following Jesus brings with it a cost- a cost eminently worth it, but still a cost. A church that is merely comfortable, that never evangelizes, never encourages its people to stand on the front line, will never be strong, never be grateful, never be able to sort out profoundly Christian priorities.’ (HLOL p86) And he is absolutely right. Friends, the storms will come, faith will be tested, sometimes seemingly to breaking point- but Jesus is still the Lord of the waves.
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