Good timing / God's timing - Mark 6:45-53
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Let me read you some thoughts of a young missionary and his wife taken from their journal during their first month on the mission field in Brazil: On the flight to the field he writes: "The next time this plane touches down, I will be a missionary. For Good! Yes, finally. To God be the glory." The second day he reflects: "I keep reminding myself that homesickness is temporary- it comes with the weariness and adjustments. That doesn't remove it, though. I must remember the reason why I am here. Not for my own joy or gain, but for the growth of God's kingdom." By day number three his spirits are up: "God, it's a grand blessing serving you. The people are so friendlymountains are so prettyfriends so gracious." But by day four his spirits begin to sag again: "It's difficult for us to think about home. We cried this morning." On the fifth day he doesn't rebound: "Today is not so clear. The clouds have buried the mountains. The sky is grey." By the sixth day the storm is coming in: "Yesterday was the toughest day so far. The newness is gone. I'm tired of this language. We were blue all day." By day eight there is a gale and the waves are starting to swamp the boat: "I held my wife as she wept, and we both confessed the ugliness of the thought of spending the rest of our lives in a foreign country. It's hard." By day ten the gale has been whipped up to full force: "I wish I could say I'm thrilled to be here. I'm not. I'm only willing to be here. This last week was as tough as I've ever had anywhere. My commitment to be a missionary feels like a prison sentence."
I don't think we should be too hard on that young missionary couple do you? Because I am quite sure that at some point we ourselves have felt the sort of frustration and confusion which lie behind those words. After all hadn't God called them to Brazil? Wasn't this his plan? Were they not simply doing what they were told? Surely, peace always follows obedience? Well, like most of us this couple bought in to wrong expectations of the 'If God thenvariety. If God, then There will be no financial difficulties in my family. My children will never be buried before me. People will treat me fairly. My prayer will be answered. We may not always verbalise these thoughts, but they tend to be lurking there just beneath the surface all the same. And when those expectations are not met, that is when frustration, confusion and disappointment result. What we need to do is to ask: what is God doing through such events-if he is the God who will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick?
Now I want to suggest to you that that is precisely what we see illustrated in the passage we are looking together at this morning in Mark chapter 6- the issue of unmet expectations. After all the disciples simply did as they were told. Jesus made the disciples get into the boat, so they did. There is no indication that they questioned the order; they simply obeyed it. After all, it was getting late and evening was only minutes away. And what was the result of their obedience? One of the most terrifying nights of their lives. But also, as we shall see, it was one of the most instructive. So let's take a look at the three phases of this story which involve the absence of Jesus, the nearness of Jesus and then the presence of Jesus.
First of all, the absence of Jesus- 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 Mark is very precise about the order of events. Jesus tells his disciples to get into the boat and to go on ahead of him. He then dismisses the crowd before ascending to the mountainside in order to pray. It was evening, probably around 6pm and that is when the storm struck with shocking immediacy. The sun had scarcely gone down when the typhoon winds began to roar. Now Jesus was not unaware of their predicament as we see in verse 48, and he certainly would have been fully aware of the approaching storm that was coming to carpet bomb the sea's surface. But he didn't turn around. As we read in verse 47, the boat was alone on the lake whilst Jesus was alone on the land.
Now let me ask: what do you think would have been the disciple's greatest fear that night? The storm raging around them or the storm raging within them? Seeing the storm driven waves or the back of their prayer driven Master? 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, but this time he isn't. Now they had to face the storm alone, and that would have scared them spitless
Just imagine the incredible physical strain of bouncing from wave to wave in a tiny fishing vessel. One hour would weary us. Two hours would exhaust us. Surely Jesus will come, they must have thought. He has seen storms like this before. On this very same sea they had awoken him and he commanded the skies to be silent and they were. Surely, now is the time he will come off the mountain. But no. John in his Gospel tells us that the disciples rowed for four miles. 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 still nothing. By now the disciples have been at sea for as long as six hours. What is the point of Jesus praying when we his followers are perishing? That is the thought that would have gone through my mind and probably yours too.
And it is those thoughts which are sometimes very 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 when the storm bursts, it washes away our naassumptions that if I do right I will never suffer.
You just ask the faithful couple whose cot is empty and whose womb is barren- like Jane and Derek French in Spain. Just ask the evangelical ordinands I know at theological college who has been spat upon by someone in the college who administers the cup at communion in the chapel. You ask the wife who took a chance to forgive her husband only to be betrayed yet again. Obedience does not always issue ease.
And so the winds blow. The boat bounces and we his disciples begin to wonder. Why when the storm is so fierce does he 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 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 celebrity status. They had hitched their wagon to a star. In fact 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 off to Jerusalem. So revolution was in the air and you can be sure that the disciples wanted a bit of that action too. And 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 were hardened-emotionally resentful and so spiritually dim. And we should not wonder 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. That is the sort of thing that can make you angry with God and hard of heart.
And 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 the waves. And maybe like the disciples you heart has become a little calloused by unmet expectations. Maybe you didn't expect being a Christian to be this tough. You thought that God would have been quick to answer your prayers, and so you pleadings for help are salted with angry questions. Where is he when you need him the most?
So, why does Jesus delay? Well, let's look at the nearness of Jesus 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 'He wished to pass by them'. Now 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)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 the water- can't they see who he is yet? Job 9: 8 'He (God) alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.' Do you see the connection? God calms the sea, Jesus calms the sea; God provides bread from heaven, Jesus provides bread; God strides the waves, Jesus strides the waves. 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, is really quite simple, he is testing his followers and humbling them as he did with the Israelites back then and 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 and neither is his care. But of course their hearts were hardened, they couldn't see 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.
Think of it like this. When I was at school set take the silver standard and then gold standard Duke of Edinburgh's award, every Monday night I was in the swimming baths doing length after length in order to achieve a qualifying speed. My instructor was quite gentle with me at first. But as the weeks past, he upped the ante. He pushed and he pushed until I thought my lungs were going to burst and my arms were going to fail. Was he unfair in doing that? Not really, he wanted me to get the awards, which I eventually did. You see had I not had the pain of the training I would not have had the joy of succeeding and taking a proud Mum to Buckingham Palace. How much more so then, God's desire that we should eventually enter the divine palace. This is the way the writer to the Hebrews makes the point: 'Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sonsdiscipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.' (Hebrews 12:7-11)
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. 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 the presence of Jesus- 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 cryingand 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.
So as the storms come our way, what are we to do? Well, exactly what the disciples had to do-keep on rowing. It isn't easy. It isn't glamorous. It is hard work.
And you know much of the Christian life is precisely that. Most of my life is spent rowing. Getting out of bed. Praying. Reading the Bible. Struggling with sin. Attending meetings( which can sometimes be the same thing). Seeing people. Preparing talks. Paying bills. Raising a family. All routine and regular. That is my life. And then when the storms hit, as they do, a loved one is sick, a relative dies, a Christian brother or sister backslides-then I have to row all the harder to keep afloat. And the wonderful thing is that I don't have to do it alone, anymore than any single disciple here did it alone, they rowed together. But even more than that there was someone else watching over them. And although they could not see him, they could still trust him. Jesus may have been out of sight, but the disciples were certainly not out of his mind. At the right time he comes to us. So the lesson is very simple. Don't bail out. Don't give up. Don't lay down the oars! He is still the God of the waves.
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