Why don’t the disciples’ get it? Why are their hearts hardened?
Today’s Gospel lesson takes place immediately after Jesus fed the multitude on the hillside beside the lake of Galilee. The disciples, who had nothing: no food, watched Jesus take a little boy’s lunch of five biscuits and two little fish and produce enough bread and fish to satisfy 20,000 people. After this tremendous miracle, we are told that Jesus immediately commanded the disciples to leave and head across the lake. There is a reason for this command. The disciples didn’t necessarily want to go, but Jesus didn’t want them to come under the influence of the crowd. In the Gospel of John, we are told that the crowd wanted Jesus to become King and rule over them. Jesus knew the disciples would probably join in on that chorus. This is something they want. They want Jesus to be the promised Messiah who will issue in God’s Kingdom in a military way. They want power and prestige and status. Jesus knows this, and He doesn’t want His disciples to be taken in with it. So, He commands the disciples to leave–sternly. The disciples depart, and Jesus dismisses the crowd Himself.
Then, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. Mark records Jesus going out to pray three times. Every time Jesus goes out to pray, it is in the midst of a crisis. The first time was after Jesus miracles in Capernaum where they wanted to make Him king. The last time is in the Garden of Gethsemane where He faced the cross. This time, Jesus goes out to pray because once again, they are seeking to make Him something He was not destined to be. He must go spend time with the Father to become focused on His task–the redemption of the world.
The text now gets a little ambiguous, at least when it comes to the time frame. It says that Jesus looked out across the lake and saw the disciples straining at the oars because they were facing an adverse wind. It then says that late in the night Jesus came to them. This seems to indicate that the disciples had been struggling against this wind all night long. They had been rowing and rowing and rowing, but making no headway. They are completely and totally exhausted. Perhaps they are worried and scared, although we don’t get that from the text. It very well may be that they are frustrated, but not scared. We don’t know.
What we do know is that the Gospel writer Mark reports to us that Jesus came to them
walking on the water.
Did you catch that? Walking on the water.
Let me say that one more time. Jesus came to them walking on the water.
I am taking a moment to emphasize this because we generally take this statement in one of two ways. Either we chalk this story up to complete and utter mythology because people cannot walk on water and break the laws of nature. Or we have heard it so many times that we are not shocked by it at all. Either way, it has lost its ability to make us marvel and wonder, and frankly, I think it should fill us with awe and wonder.
But let me take a moment to deal with those of you who might be chalking this story up to complete mythology. You might say rather straightforwardly that science has shown that there are laws of nature that cannot be broken. A man walking on water is a scientific impossibility. Therefore, this event did not happen. Rather than deal with the physics of weight distribution on water and buoyancy, let me challenge your premise–that the universe has shown that there are laws which govern our universe that cannot be broken. You see, as far as we know at this point, science has shown us that there are two ways of looking at things that work very, very well. There are a set of laws which work great at the level of the tiniest of particles–atoms and quarks and neutrons and electrons, etc. Then, you have another set of laws which work very well at the level of large things–like people and planets and galaxies. This is called the theory of relativity. However, when you try to take the laws that work well for small things and apply it to big things, the laws break down. Similarly, when you try to take the laws that work for big things and apply them to little things, the laws break down. All this is to say that, at this time–and for the foreseeable future, we don’t really know all the laws which are governing our universe. It very well may be possible for a person to walk on water, but we just haven’t figured it out yet. And, if–as this story purports to show–Jesus is not only a human but is divine. Well, then you have the One who created those laws showing just how the universe is supposed to work. And if that is the case, then indeed, we should be filled with awe and wonder.
Let’s return to the text, shall we? Mark says Jesus intended to pass them by. This seems rather callous. This seems like Jesus is indifferent to the disciples’ plight. But we need to read this in the context of Mark showing us throughout his book who Jesus is. This phrase is a reference to several passages in the Old Testament where God revealed Himself to humanity.
Exodus 33:19-23: 19And God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ 21And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’
Exodus 34:6: 6The Lord passed by him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
1 Kings 19:11: He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’
Mark is showing us something very significant is taking place. The Lord is intending to pass by. This is solidified very shortly as Jesus responds to the disciples reaction to seeing Him. The disciples react in utter in fear. They scream at the top of their lungs thinking a water spirit has appeared to send them to their deaths.
But Jesus says, “Take heart, έγώ είμί (ego eimi), do not be afraid.” Yes, you heard something rather funny there. You heard the original Greek, and I put that in there purposely. The English translation here is “It is I,” but that Greek phrase is a loaded phrase. You see, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, whenever God reveals Himself to humankind, He uses the words έγώ είμί or I AM. So, let’s revisit this statement by Jesus using the Old Testament as our guide. Jesus says, “Take heart, I AM, do not be afraid.”
The Gospel writer Mark is unequivocally telling us, this is God incarnate walking on the water, and when God incarnate gets into the boat, the winds cease. The disciples are amazed. Their amazement is similar to their amazement the first time Jesus calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. It’s an amazement of “who is this?” And Mark tells us, they did not understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.
Why were the disciples’ hearts hardened? Why couldn’t they get it? Let’s recap a few things: Jesus calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee; He cast out a tremendously evil spirit that no one else could control; He healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years that no doctor could cure; He brought a dead girl back to life; He was constantly healing people from their diseases; He just fed 20,000 people, and the disciples still didn’t get it? I mean what in the world is it going to take for these guys to understand who Jesus is and what He is here for?
Just thought I might add: how long is it going to take us to understand who Jesus is and what He came for? Oh, yeah, it’s easy to look at those disciples and wonder why they just don’t get it. It’s easy for us to say, “Geez, guys, you are there all throughout Jesus’ ministry and mission, and you still don’t get it. What is your problem?”
It’s an easy question to ask of someone else, but it is much harder to ask of ourselves. Yet, I think we need to ask it of ourselves because I don’t think we much like to contemplate what it means if Jesus really is God who came to earth. I don’t think we much like to wrestle with the idea that there is a God who was willing to come down and visit us and reveal Himself to us–and then call us to follow Him. Why would I say such a thing? Because if Jesus is who He says He is; if Jesus is who the Gospel writers say He is, then either I reject Him as absolutely crazy, or I fall down on my knees and worship Him.
But I don’t want to think Him crazy because He teaches some fabulous things. The whole love your enemies thing is a pure stroke of genius that had not been embraced by anyone in the world until Jesus brought it forth. Jesus taught some very good moral ideals–so I can’t reject those.
But I don’t necessarily want to see Him as Lord and God. Because if I see Him as Lord and God, then I truly have to change the way I operate in the world. I have to actually love my enemies. I have to carve out time to worship. I have to dig into my pocketbook and give up some of what I earn. I have to spend time witnessing to Jesus, and I have to stop pursuing all those things that I believe will give me meaning and purpose and satisfaction. I would rather do all of those things than really and truly see Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
Why did the disciples have hardened hearts? For the same reasons our hearts are hardened. They didn’t want to see Jesus as God incarnate. They wanted a political ruler and person of power. They wanted Jesus to fulfill all their wants and desires. They didn’t want Jesus. They wanted the things that Jesus could give them. Similarly, oftentimes we use Jesus to get the things we want instead of wanting Jesus. Our hearts are so hard because we want to pursue the things of the world instead of the things of God. And each and every one of us are guilty of this. All of us.
But what if Jesus wouldn’t give up on the disciples? What if Jesus wouldn’t give up on you? What if He longed to have you follow Him? What if He longed to have you trust Him? What if He longed to bring you unto Himself because He wanted you to live forever the way you were intended to live–the way you were intended to love–the way you were intended to be. What if He believed it was His mission to break your hardened heart and bring you unto Himself? Do you think He would accomplish it by repeatedly telling you what to do? Do you think He would accomplish it by doing all sorts of miracles to sway your opinion? Those miracles would certainly be awesome, but they didn’t sway the disciples. They wouldn’t sway us either.
But Jesus didn’t choose those ways to break our hearts of stone. He didn’t use those ways to force us to believe or trust in Him. Instead of using coercion or fear, Jesus used love. He stretched out His arms and died for you when you least deserved it.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.
The disciples were not changed until they realized the magnitude of God’s love for them. May you realize that Jesus seeks to pass by you today, to reveal Himself to you, and to melt your heart by showing you His nail pierced hands, His wounded feet, and His pierced side. May you see the great love He had for you–the God who died in your place that you might have eternal life. And may we all worship Him as Lord right here and now. Amen.