by Daniel Harrell
Advent means arrival, but it might as well mean to wait. Advent waits for sunlight to reemerge out of darkness and for Christ to be born once again. Historically speaking, however, Advent has always waited more for Christ’s second coming than for his first. Advent showed up on church calendars to point toward that day when God’s kingdom fully comes and all things are made new. In the meantime, with the resurrection providing the down payment, we occupy in-between spaces. Ours is a kingdom not yet. But it’s a kingdom already here too. Christ has come, and Christ will come again.
In the meantime, our waiting, while on the one hand joyful, it’s not always what you expect. You come to church looking for an Advent Wreath and get five candles in fishbowls instead (come to church and see it!). Waiting can be unexpected and uncomfortable. Ask any expectant mother. In-between space can be distressing too. Ask anybody who’s in-between jobs, or in-between relationships, or in-between treatments. Ask Jesus’ disciples here in Mark, stuck in-between shores in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night, on a boat getting slammed by howling headwinds. Straining against their oars, all they could do was wait for the storm to subside, for the sun to rise, for land to appear. The last thing they expected was for Jesus to show up walking on water.
We’ve spent our Sundays this fall looking at water in the Bible—which is why the Advent fishbowls. We’ve looked at the chaotic waters of creation all the way to last week’s living water from the well of life. This Sunday’s amazing water story is so familiar that it no longer amazes much anymore. We simply take for granted that Jesus walked on water or he wouldn’t be Jesus. We take it for granted like drinking water out of a tap. Not that everybody can take drinking water for granted. Nearly one billion people still lack access to safe water. It’s estimated to cost only something like $20 billion dollars to make clean water available to everyone without it. I say “only 20 billion” because we Americans spend $450 billion dollars on Christmas every year. For a number of seasons a movement known as the Advent Conspiracy has challenged Christians to bypass a few useless Christmas gifts and give the money to relief organizations working to provide clean drinking water. Astronauts living in the International Space Station get plenty of fresh water—delivered by rocket ship, at a cost of $42 thousand dollars a gallon. If we can get drinking water into orbit, no thirsty human community is out of reach. Though I should mention that the water’s gotten a lot cheaper on the space station. Now on board is a recycling system that turns urine, and even sweat back into drinking water.
If such human ingenuity has the capacity to get clean water to all who thirst, maybe we can figure out how to walk on water too? I ran across out this video promoting a new sport based upon Jesus’ watery feat. It’s called Liquid Mountaineering.
Before these blokes came along, the only living thing capable of running on water aside from water bugs and Jesus (who walked) was a basilisk, also known as the Jesus Lizard [show photo]. You’ll find them in rain forest rivers and streams. Two Harvard biologists calculated that in order to mimic this lizard, a person would need to run about 67 mph. Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet currently, can only manage about 23 mph. How did these liquid mountaineers do it? They used a submerged dock. Some fancy camera work. That’s right, a shoe company faked the video to sell water repellent shoes.
You’re not surprised, but admit it, you’re a little disappointed. You wanted to believe but you knew it was too good to be real. The disciples knew it was too good to be real too. There was no fancy camera work or shoe companies to blame in the first century, so the only explanation was a ghostly one. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean and in the middle of howling winds—what else but a ghost walks on water? The disciples screamed when they saw Jesus coming. Was this why Jesus intended to pass them by? So as not to scare them? Or had he simply grown annoyed by their faithlessness and wanted to teach them a lesson?
I asked my Wednesday night sermon study group what wasn’t familiar about this familiar story, and they said it was this last line of verse 48: “Jesus intended to pass them by.” How do you explain that? In the preceding verses, Jesus graciously (and miraculously) feeds five thousand hungry people, then sends his disciples ahead in a boat so he can have a few minutes to himself, sees that they’re in trouble at sea (which at night at that distance was some serious eyesight), immediately responds by miraculously stepping out onto the water, comes close enough to terrify them, only to then walk by them and leave them to drown? It hardly sounds like the Jesus we know.
Of course the good news is that Jesus doesn’t pass them by. He tells them, “Take heart, fear not, it is I.” You hear “fear not” a lot at Christmastime. In the Bible you hear it whenever God passes by. The verb isn’t about avoidance but about full disclosure. Jesus wanted to show his disciples his true identity. Mark throws out all sorts of clues. Jesus doesn’t go up to pray on just any mountain, but on the mountain—mountains were always the place God showed up in the Old Testament. Jesus says “it is I”, which is the same as saying “I AM,” the name God used for himself atop Mount Sinai. There’s wind and rough water, which as you should know by now is typically the setting for divine intervention. It was the wind of God over the rough waters of chaos that led to creation. It was the wind of God over the floodwaters of Noah that led to the ark’s rescue. It was the wind of God on the Red Sea breakwaters that led Israel to safety and doomed the Egyptian army. “To pass by” was what God did for Moses back in Exodus on a mountain in a storm so that Moses might catch a glimpse of God’s glory and believe.
In Mark 4, Jesus calmed his first storm, which also freaked out his disciples. He asked them why they were so afraid and did they still have no faith. They responded by asking each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus answers that question here in chapter 6. He passes by on water in a storm so that they might catch a glimpse of his glory and believe. But the disciples still don’t get it. Mark says its because “they didn’t understand about the loaves,” which refers back to feeding the 5000. What didn’t they understand? The only other time that so much bread appeared out of nowhere was when God fed his stranded people with manna in the desert. Wink, wink. But like their Israelite ancestors who could never get it either, the disciples’ hearts were too hard. Their skulls were too thick. People don’t walk on water. Jesus must be a ghost. He can’t be the Son of God.
Ironically, in Mark’s gospel, the only ones who ever recognize Jesus to be the Son of God were ghosts—evil spirits and demons. And in Mark’s gospel it’s a 1] Gentile 2] woman with a 3] demon-possessed daughter (three strikes in first century Jewish culture) who’s the first human to call Jesus “Lord”. There is something about being an outsider that makes it easier to see the real thing. I once read this book about a Christian and an atheist who went to church together. They met when the atheist auctioned his soul on eBay as sort of a joke, only to have the Christian buy it for 500 dollars. But rather than make the atheist convert (if indeed that were possible), the Christian made the atheist go to church and give some honest feedback.
The atheist observed how odd it was to go to churches and be asked to greet the people seated around you. “Why do you have to tell people to talk to each other?” he wondered. “Shouldn’t Christians naturally care about each other enough to greet one another without being told?” He went on to share the story of a buddy of his strung out on cocaine who came to Jesus and got clean. The buddy said all these Christians surrounded him and loved on him and really looked after him. But then when he relapsed six months later, he was too ashamed to tell his new Christian friends. Turns out he was afraid they might think him a hypocrite and kick him out of church—as if grace had a statute of limitations. I can empathize. I’ll hesitate to confess my own screw-ups sometimes because I’m not so sure that forgiveness is always out there. Or maybe I hesitate because I can be unforgiving myself. Even though God forgives me every time.
How much grace does it take to believe in Jesus? How many miracles does he have to do? Mark says the disciples “didn’t understand about the loaves.” So what did Jesus do? He miraculously fed 4000 more people one chapter later. He then gets back into a boat with them, but packs only one loaf of bread for the trip. Wink, wink. What did the disciples do? They argued over who forgot to bring enough bread. Seriously? They’d now seen Jesus feed over 9000 people with just a few slices and they’re worried about running out of bread? Some scholars suggest that the disciples didn’t want to impose on Jesus to fed them too because performing miracles seemed to irritate him so. But it’s not feeding hungry people that ever irritated Jesus. It’s their thick heads and hard hearts. He says to his disciples, “You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear? Don’t you remember anything at all? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Seven,” they replied. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” Despite the exasperation, a ring of expectation appears. The disciples do not understand—not yet. But they will. Maybe Jesus’ question isn’t so much a rebuke as it is an invitation.
In Matthew’s take on the story, Peter accepts Jesus’ invitation to try walking on water himself. He does not yet understand—but he’s willing to try. Peter said, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he got scared and started to sink. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus immediately reached out his hand and grabbed him, and said to Peter, “You have so little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they climbed back into the boat, and the wind ceased. This time, everybody in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Maybe the reason the disciples get it in Matthew and not in Mark is because Matthew was one of the disciples and didn’t want to look so bad. Why highlight your thick-headedness any more than you have to? Of course even the disciples’ faith at this point wasn’t enough to keep them from deserting Jesus once the crucifixion trouble started. It wouldn’t be until the Holy Spirit broke through their thick heads that they’d have enough faith. Jesus had to do that miracle too. But isn’t that how grace works? On the cross, Jesus gave himself for us that he might give himself to us—depositing his own spirit deep inside our thick heads and hard hearts—so that we can finally believe.