When Jesus Seems Absent
I recently heard about a group of scientists who used MRI to study belief. They took 30 subjects, 15 committed Christians and 15 non-believers, in order to measure signal changes in the brain as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions. One thing they discovered that when belief was involved, certain areas of the brain were more active than others. In the paper which reported this they made this very interesting statement: “There is, of course, a distinction to be made between mere profession of such beliefs and actual belief -a distinction that, while important, only makes sense in a world in which some people actually believe what they say they believe.”
Do you actually believe what you say you believe? When we talk about being followers of Jesus, this is a very important distinction. Do we merely profess to be followers of Jesus, or do we actually follow Him? The reality of following is revealed when the evidence for following is not clear.
This is the message of Mark 6:35-56 which both challenges us and encourages us to follow Jesus.
There are times in our life when the evidence of God’s presence is so real that we have no difficulty trusting Him. For example, faith and following are easy when we are at camp or on a mission trip or when we see powerful manifestations of His presence. But do we still trust Him and follow Him when the doctor’s report is cancer or when flooding comes for the second year in a row or when the crops fail?
This section of Scripture moves a lot. Jesus and His disciples are constantly on the go and there is a lot of action in this section. As in much other Biblical literature, the passage is structured so that the main point is in the middle. The first story is a great story of the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. The final story is a great story of Jesus healing people. In between, we have what looks at first glance like another miracle story, but contains some disturbing elements which invite us to look deeper.
I. The Power and Compassion of Jesus
Before we get to that central section, let us be encouraged by the power and wonder of Jesus’ miraculous works of power. We are impressed and blessed by the truth of the stories found here.
A. Jesus Feeds Five Thousand
Jesus had sent the disciples out to preach. When they came back, we notice that they are called apostles. Disciple means learner. Apostle means sent one. This is the only place in Mark where they are called apostles. They had been sent and now they returned and reported all that had happened. I like the image which is suggested by the phrase, they “gathered around Jesus.” It suggests a great time of encouragement, friendship and bonding.
However, the crowds which surrounded Jesus didn’t stop coming. In fact, Jesus was so busy ministering that they didn’t even have time to eat. Jesus knew that the disciples were tired from their “mission trip” and suggested in Mark 6:31 “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
So that is what they did. They got into a boat and were going to go to a place where they could be alone for a little while.
But things did not turn out the way they planned. The crowds saw where they were going and ran around the lake and got to the “solitary place” before they did, so that when they got out of the boat, they were immediately surrounded by people again.
It is very likely that they saw the people coming as they rowed their boat, but Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to steer in another direction. Instead, we read that Jesus “had compassion on them.” What a wonderful thing to recognize that this is Jesus. He is one who sees people in need and has compassion on them. We also read in Mark 6:34 that Jesus knew that “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” It is important to note the tremendous love that Jesus had for those in need. He deeply cared for them. Even though He and the disciples were hungry and tired, His compassion moved Him to minister to the people.
While ministering to the crowd, it was getting late. It seems that the disciples also had compassion for the people but perhaps also driven by their own hunger, they suggested that it was time to eat. The problem was that it was late and they were in a remote place. One needed appropriate lead time to send the people away so that they could find some food before night came on. That was their suggestion, but Jesus had another one. He suggested that the disciples should feed them. The disciples couldn’t put together such a plan in their heads. The difficulty of finding enough food in the remote area, but even more the amount of money required to do this overwhelmed their notion of what was possible. Jesus offered a further suggestion. They should find out what resources they did have. Perhaps there would be enough to feed them all. But when they did the research, they found that there would not even have been enough for the disciples and Jesus, never mind the whole crowd.
Jesus, however, had a plan. He instructed them to get organized. The people gathered in groups of 50 and 100. The mention of green grass in verse 39 may suggest Psalm 23:2 in which God leads His people to green pastures. A few weeks ago at the AWANA final program a group did a skit of this miracle. They actually had bread there and began to distribute it. And guess what? The bread did not multiply. But when Jesus distributed it, the bread did multiply. I have often wondered how that would have been like. As the disciples distributed the bread, did they actually see another piece appear in their basket or did the pieces grow as they were shared? When they were done, there was more left over than when they started and everyone had been well fed. I know that when the food committee plans for a meal, their worst nightmare is to run out of food. In fact, they don’t mind having leftovers and they plan for having leftovers so that doesn’t happen. When Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes, he started with too little and ended up with an abundance of leftovers.
The wonder of this story is to show us both the compassion and the power of Jesus. We see that Jesus has so much compassion that even though he and his followers were tired and hungry, He still ministered to the people. We learn that Jesus cares enough about hungry people to provide a meal for them. We also learn that Jesus is able to meet the needs of the people. He has the power to heal those who come for healing. He has the ability, the power to multiply bread and fish so that no follower of His need ever go hungry. Wow!!
B. Jesus Heals Multitudes
At the end of this section when Jesus and the disciples left this remote place, they crossed over the lake again and landed at Gennesaret. In Mark 6:53-56, we read that “as soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus” and so the ministry continued for Jesus. In these stores we see once again the compassionate willingness with which he put himself at the disposal of the people.
The geographical extent of the work was amazing. In this section we hear such phrases as, “whole region” and “everywhere he went” and “villages, towns or countryside.”
The pace of ministry was relentless. Wherever Jesus went, people came running to him. Their expectation was the same expectation and hope that we have. They wanted to be healed. They brought all who had any illness to Jesus and they hoped that he would heal them. Their faith in the healing power of Jesus was very great. It was their expectation that if they could “touch even the edge of his cloak” they would experience healing. This seems to be a reminder of the healing of the woman who in Mark 5:27, “touched his cloak.”
The amazing thing is that “all who touched him were healed.” There was no magic incantation spoken. They did not have to have enough of the right kind of faith. They simply had to touch the edge of his cloak and they were healed.
Although the intention of these miracles is to demonstrate with clarity and power that the kingdom of God has come, the wonderful thing is that healing happened. In every case they were healed. Oh to have lived in this time! Oh to have access to Jesus in such a way. So many people in our congregation are struggling with illness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take them to Jesus and know that they would be healed?
But the message of this story is not only to assure us that the kingdom of God has come. It is also to let us know that Jesus has both the compassion and the power to accomplish great things. He can feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes, He can calm a stormy sea and He can heal all who come to Him! Not only does He have the power to do so, He cares so much about people that He will give up His right to rest and even food in order to minister to them. Can we think of anyone more caring or powerful?
We have talked about resurrection living and this hope in Jesus is certainly a part of resurrection living. Since the resurrection, we have even more assurance that Jesus has the power and the compassion to help us in whatever need we have. This is the message of these stories. It is cause for hope! It is cause for rejoicing! It is cause for encouragement! On Facebook there is an option to respond to a post with “likes this.” That seems to me an appropriate way to respond to these stories.
II. When Jesus Seems Absent
But there is one more story. It too contains a miracle. We read that when Jesus climbed into the boat, “the wind died down.” Is that what we are to learn from this story? Is it simply another miracle story to assure us of the power and compassion of Jesus? There are some disturbing ideas in this passage which draw us a little deeper. We read that “He was about to pass by them” and “they had not understood about the loaves” and “their hearts were hardened.” What is that all about?
This story certainly does teach us that Jesus helps, but there is something more in this story, something that brings us deeper into discipleship. We would all like to live on the beach with Jesus feeding us fish sandwiches. We would all like to be able to bring any sick person to him so that they could touch him and be healed. But that doesn’t always happen. Sure we have eaten fish sandwiches and we have seen healing, but not always. What about the times when Jesus doesn’t show up? What happens to faith when Jesus seems absent?
After the crowd had witnessed this great miracle, Jesus immediately sent his disciples into a boat and urged them to head across the lake. He remained on shore and dismissed the people. They had been well fed spiritual and physically and it was time to go home. Then He went up into the hills to pray.
All of this happened in the late afternoon, and by evening Mark 6:47 gives us the scene. The disciples were in the middle of the lake. They were straining at the oars because they were rowing against the wind. As we read this, we must remember what has all happened. The disciples returned from their “mission trip.” They came back to a scene in which Jesus was so busy that they didn’t even have time to eat. Finally Jesus suggested that it is time for a break, but the break never happened. They got to the other side and were immediately inundated with needy people again. All day they worked together ministering to the crowds, teaching, helping. Finally, they suggested to Jesus that it was time to eat. Is it possible that up to this point they still had not eaten? When Jesus provided the meal, they finally got a chance to eat, but how leisurely was that meal? They distributed the food and then they gathered the baskets of leftovers. Did they even get to eat? As soon as the meal was over, they were sent out on the boat. They came tired, they worked all day and now they were rowing all night.
Where was Jesus as they were fighting with the wind and the waves? He was on shore praying. What disturbs us even more is that we read in Mark 6:48, “He saw the disciples straining.” Jesus knew that they were having a hard time and he left them in that difficult situation and He left them in that situation for a long time. By evening, they were already in the middle of the lake and had been rowing for a while. Jesus let this go on for quite a while longer. Evening would be somewhere between 6 and 9 o’clock. The fourth watch would be between 3 and 6 o’clock in the morning. For somewhere between 6 and 12 hours Jesus watched as the disciples, already exhausted, struggled at the oars. What do we make of that?
Finally at the 4th watch of the night Jesus walked towards them on the water. That is amazing in itself, but once again we are disturbed that it was not the intention of Jesus to go and help them. It was his intention to walk on by as we read in verse 48. It was only because they thought He was a ghost and were completely terrified that he stopped, got into the boat and calmed them down with that wonderful phrase found in verse 50, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” and also calmed down the wind and the waves.
In this whole story it looks like Jesus was absent, but was He? It looks like Jesus didn’t care that for at least 6 hours the disciples were struggling at the oars. But is that the case? As we examine this story, we see something deeper happening. Was Jesus absent? No! He was watching them the whole time because it says in verse 48, “He saw the disciples straining.” This suggests that the compassion of Jesus which we see so evidently in the other stories, is still present.
When it says that Jesus “was about to pass by” I do not think that we are meant to think that he was carelessly ignoring them. The phrase “passed by” reminds us of what happened to Moses in Exodus 33. Moses wanted to see the glory of God. Wouldn’t we want to see the glory of God all the time? But God did not show Moses His glory. Instead, He passed by. We read in Exodus 33:17-23, "And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.’ Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ ‘But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’ Then the Lord said, ‘There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.’” When God passed by, He communicated to Moses “Although you cannot see my glory, I am still with you and I will be with you and I will show compassion to you.” When Jesus intended to pass by, it is very likely that a similar thing was happening. He was not ignoring the disciples. He was not there to bail them out of every difficult situation, but He was by no means absent. Geddert, “When God ‘passes by,’ it is not a sign of unconcern or noninvolvement; it is a sign of caring presence.”
When Jesus said to them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” we see another aspect of this promise. The phrase “It is I” in Greek has a double meaning. It means, “It’s me, Jesus” but it also means “I am.” “I am” is one of the ways of speaking of God. God’s name “the Lord” is, in Hebrew “Yahweh” which sounds exactly like “I am” in Hebrew. Jesus was saying to them, I have not abandoned you. “I Am,” God, the Lord am with you at all times, you do not need to be afraid.
Another interesting piece is that although Jesus intended to pass by, when the disciples thought He was a ghost, and were so terrified that they couldn’t even think, Jesus stepped in and helped them. That tells us that even though there are times when Jesus will allow us to struggle, sometimes for our good, sometimes for reasons that we do not fully understand, when we get to the edge, when we can’t handle it any more, He does step in and help. Geddert says, “Although Jesus has the power to do mighty deeds, he does not always exercise it in order to lighten the load for his followers.” “Jesus knows that his disciples need this assurance more than they need another storm-stilling miracle.”
How did the disciples respond? What was going on for them? We read the enigmatic phrase in Mark 6:52, “they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” What was it about the loaves that they had not understood? By this time they believed that Jesus could heal the sick, cast out demons and feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. They even knew that Jesus could calm a tempest because He had already done so in Mark 4:35-41. Geddert says, “The disciples are not amazed that Jesus can do mighty deeds; instead, they are amazed that he would wait so long before coming, and then would intend to walk right past.” What they hadn’t understood and what we don’t always understand is that the same compassionate and powerful Jesus who heals sick people and calms storms is still there when we can’t see Him. What they didn’t understand was that when Jesus allows them to struggle for long hours it does not mean that He has forgotten them. What they didn’t get was that it wasn’t only the presence of Jesus physically which would demonstrate His help and care. What they didn’t know was that even though He seemed absent, He was not. They heard “it is I” but they did not hear “I am.”
So their hearts were hardened. They lived in unbelief. How like us! We want to see the glory all the time. We want to see the miracle of feeding and healing and storm calming. But sometimes Jesus allows us to go through the difficult time and allows us to row against the wind for a long time. What we need to learn from this story is that Jesus is no less present and no less compassionate and no less powerful than He is when we see the glory.
Geddert summarizes this passage in Mark 6, “Those who truly follow Jesus know a theology of glory – five thousand fed with a few loaves, Jesus walking on the water, Jesus healing the multitudes. They also know a theology of the cross – a hard and tiring mission, the promise of rest that gets thwarted, a struggle on the stormy sea.” “They know that neither theology is correct unless it is connected to the other. That is the part that the disciples are having difficulty grasping. That seems to be the primary message of this fascinating but challenging section of Mark’s Gospel.”
In Psalm 23, we learn the same message. The God who shepherds us in green pastures and leads us beside quiet waters is still our shepherd when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Are the good things that are there in the light also there in the dark? That is the question we have been discussing. The disciples liked what they saw in the light, but they had not yet understood that it was also there in the dark. Living in the resurrection, living as a disciple means trusting Jesus even when He seems absent.