We’re going to be at the end of Mark 6 today.
On Sunday mornings this summer, we’ve got a pretty simple agenda.
We’re just reflecting on the gospel of Mark.
We’re not trying to exhaustively explore every nook and cranny of Mark’s gospel this summer—
we’re just trying to watch Jesus through Mark’s eyes
and listen to Jesus with Mark’s ears
and get a feel for who Jesus is
and see what it might look like for us to take him seriously.
We’re skipping over chapters 4 and 5,
and we’re going to be reflecting on a story in chapter 6 today.
We’re actually going to dive in today in the middle of a rather famous story:
Jesus is in the middle of feeding a crowd of over 5,000 people.
So let’s dive in:
(6.39-56) Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
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.
Later that night, 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. Shortly before dawn 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.
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, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
We’ve emphasizing again and again that in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus Jesus is this powerful figure who trashes evil.
Jesus is the Someone Stronger who destroys whatever is destroying human life.
He sees evil spirits,
and Jesus has got to banish them.
He sees broken bodies,
and Jesus has got to restore them.
He sees religious hypocrisy,
and Jesus has got confront it.
And when he sees
an overwhelming mass of humanity who are hungry (in chapter six)
Jesus has got to feed them.
After all, Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God—
that around him, things are becoming as God wants them to be.
When things are as God wants them to be,
everyone has enough to eat.
And more than that—there’s plenty left over.
Twelve baskets left over (v42).
Jesus is showing us what God’s rule and reign looks like.
Jesus is showing us what God is like.
He takes five loaves and two fish—
all of our poverty,
all of our bankruptcy,
all of our not-enough-ness—
he takes all of that and invites one-and-all to a feast.
That’s what God is like.
Despite the fact that they have nothing to give,
Jesus makes sure that this gigantic Jewish crowd is safe and satisfied
and loosening their belts by the time they’re leaving.
And then immediately after this story we have another famous story: Jesus walking on water.
Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him (v45-46), so that he can dismiss the crowds and have some space for reflection and prayer.
So the disciples load up a boat, and set sail across “the lake.”
Now just to give us some perspective,
the word that’s translated “lake” is also the same word for “sea.”
They’re crossing the “Lake of Galilee”—
the Sea of Galilee.
A body of water that is eight miles wide and thirteen miles long.
That’s a big lake.
Mark is setting us up for something because he makes the rather obvious observation in verse 47 that during the night “the boat was in the middle of the lake, and [Jesus] was alone on land.”
Verse 48 is where the story starts getting weird,
because verse 48 says that Jesus “saw the disciples straining at the oars.”
We blow past that (oh, yeah, Jesus saw them)
but they’re in middle of sixty-four square mile lake.
And Jesus saw them?
Whatever is happening in this story I think is a bit different
from Jesus simply observing them from the shore—
that’s a physical impossibility.
Even if Jesus has got pirate-binoculars—
even if he’s got a Jack-Sparrow-spyglass—
the curvature of the earth stops you from seeing this far.
But Jesus sees them.
He sees the people he loves straining at the oars—
more literally: “being tortured in their rowing” (Marcus).
Mark has chosen his words carefully right there.
Those words can mean exactly what they say,
but they’re also words frequently used to describe Jewish and Christian martyrs— about people who were struggling and dying for their faith.
Most of the earliest readers of this story
would have heard that phrase and would have thought:
“Hey! That’s us! We’re following Jesus and it’s really hard!”
And Jesus sees them.
And he decides to come out to them.
Literally the Greek it says (v48)
that Jesus goes out to the disciples
“for he wanted to pass by them.”
Mark is the only gospel writer to tell this story and include that detail.
The NIV makes a leap when it says that Jesus was about to but then stops when they see him.
What Mark literally says
is that Jesus goes walking out on the water because Jesus wants to pass by them.
Mark is a very smart story-teller.
There’s a famous story in the Hebrew Scriptures (in the Old Testament) where someone “passes by.”
It’s a story in Exodus 33 where Moses wants to see Yahweh—the majestic, untamable God of Israel.
Moses wants to see God—
the glory of God, the splendor of God, the beauty of God—
but seeing God directly is too much for any human being to bear.
So God sticks Moses in a cave, and says,
“I will pass by, and you can see my back when I pass.”
You know when someone walks by you, and you can smell the perfume or the cologne that they’re wearing?
That’s almost what it seems like God says to Moses.
“You want to truly see me—to truly know me?
You can smell the air where I just been.
That’s all about all you can handle.”
By the time you get to the first-century,
“passing by” was something of a technical term for God revealing himself to humanity. Mark never explicitly writes the words “Jesus is God”
but this story is about as close as you get.
You’ve got Jesus seeing the people he loves struggling—in torture— and you’ve got him coming to pass them by.
And when they freak out in verse 49
(I can’t imagine why they’re freaking out)
you’ve got Jesus saying “Ego Eimi.”
“It is I.”
In Greek, that’s the way that God introduces himself to Moses at the burning bush.
“Don’t be afraid.”
Despite the way that the NIV translates this little section, I don’t think that Jesus was planning to “pass by them” and then decided not to.
I think Mark is saying that Jesus wanted to “pass by them”
(he wanted to reveal himself to them) and he’s done exactly that.
Despite the danger,
despite the torture,
despite the struggle,
the disciples are safe.
Jesus had already silenced a storm in chapter four—
he isn’t worried about a little wind.
He sees them
and he comes to them.
And the wind dies down (v51).
Jesus has passed them by.
He has shown them what he’s like.
But the disciples don’t understand at all.
They’re “completely amazed” (v51).
they’re absolutely beside themselves,
they’re out of their minds.
(It’s the same word for that Jesus’ family used last week to call Jesus “crazy.”)
This is far different than the way that Matthew ends this little story.
Here’s the way that Matthew ends the story of Jesus walking on the water:
(Matt 14.32-33) And when they [Jesus and Peter] climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Now, again, here’s the way that Mark tells the end of this story:
Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
Their hearts were hardened.
The disciples have hard hearts.
That doesn’t sound good.
This is Jesus’ posse—
these are the people who have been
called by Jesus and trained by Jesus
and sent out by Jesus to do what Jesus does.
And they don’t even understand Jesus.
Their hearts are hardened.
The last time we heard about hard hearts was back in chapter three.
Some of the Jewish religious leaders were more interested
in preserving their understanding of holiness
than seeing a broken man made whole.
Jesus was deeply distressed and even angry at that their stubbornness and their hard hearts.
And now the
the people who are following Jesus
wind up having hardened hearts.
And this is an important part of Mark’s story.
Mark doesn’t tell the story the same way as Matthew, because Mark is giving us a different angle on the good news than Matthew.
In Mark even the disciples—
even the people who following Jesus around and trying to take Jesus seriously—
never really succeed in understanding him or following him.
If you’ve ever felt like
you just fail again and again,
if you’ve ever felt like
you’re a mess and you just can’t pull it together,
if you’ve ever felt like
you’re trying but it always just seems to unravel,
then you’re in luck.
You’re just like the disciples in the good news according to Mark.
There’s nothing really admirable about the disciples in Mark.
They’re not the heroes of the story.
They aren’t the kind of people who give us hope.
Their hearts are hardened because verse 52 says “they had not understood about the loaves.”
That’s a strange thing to say.
You’d think Mark would say that
“they had not understood about the wind”
or “about Jesus walking on water”
(or something like that).
You would think that Mark would say that the disciples hadn’t understood what they had just seen.
That that’s the problem.
But Mark says the real problem is that they hadn’t understood about the loaves.
Mark is the gospel-writer to talk this way,
and it’s a little bit haunting.
What does that mean?
The loaves come up again in Mark story— and again the disciples aren’t getting it right.
In chapter eight, Jesus feeds another giant crowd— over four thousand Gentiles this time.
Jesus feeds everyone—Jews, non-Jews.
God doesn’t play favorites.
He includes everyone in his kingdom.
And right after Jesus feeds the crowds again…
(Mk 8.14-21) The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
Jesus is using an everyday thing like yeast as metaphor about the posture of our soul.
Jesus has been doing miraculous sign after miraculous sign,
and the religious leaders (who are trying to kill him, lest we forget)
say, “If you’ll just give us a miraculous THEN we’ll believe you, Jesus.”
But Jesus knows that another miracle wouldn’t help.
He would give them a sign if would help,
but there have been plenty of signs, plenty of miracles,
and none of them have succeeded in changing what needs to changed—
the hearts of people.
There’s something—maybe something imperceivably small—
that’s going on inside the hearts of the Pharisees
and inside the heart of the king (Herod)
that’s making them hard-hearted.
It’s like a tiny bit of yeast
that instead of making flour rise
it make hearts hard.
And so the disciples…
(8.16-21) …discussed this with one another
and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them:
“Why are you talking about having no bread?
Do you still not see or understand?
Are your hearts hardened?
“Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?
“And don’t you remember? 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?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
The disciples still don’t understand.
It’s like Jesus is saying:
“I’m powerful enough to feed everyone, and—not only that—I’m willing to feed everyone.
“And there’s plenty left over. That’s what I am like. That’s what the kingdom is like.
“And you don’t get it, do you?”
What concerns me is your hard hearts.
You’re seeing all these miracles—you’re processing all of them— but you can’t recognize what these miracles mean.”
“You can’t see what these miracles are saying about what I am like— about what God is like.
“These loaves aren’t just pointing to my power (to what I can do)
these loaves are pointing my love (to what I want to do).
“Do you still not understand?”
Throughout all of Mark’s gospel,
the disciples never seem to understand.
They never follow Jesus well.
Me—personally— I take deep encouragement from the fact that in Mark’s account of the life of Jesus the disciples of Jesus never get it.
Two times they wind up arguing about who’s the greatest while Jesus is talking about being a servant (9.30-37, 10.32-45);
they’re falling asleep
while Jesus is agonizing in prayer about whether he has to die (14.32-42);
they’re fleeing naked into darkness and shame while Jesus is being arrested (14.51-52).
their leader is cursing Jesus publicly and then weeping bitterly while Jesus is being tried and tortured and murdered (14.66-72).
Mark doesn’t paint a very optimistic portrait of what it means to be a disciple.
The people following Jesus— the people trying to take Jesus seriously— are an absolute and utter failure in the gospel of Mark.
I find this really encouraging in a way.
Because there are a million ways that I fail again and again and again.
There are million things
that I don’t understand.
There are million places
where my heart is hard.
I’m not the hero of the story.
The disciples aren’t the hero of the story.
Jesus is the hero of the story.
Jesus is the one who gives us hope.
Notice what Jesus does at the end of our passage.
(v51-56) They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
If we’re watching the story closely, I think we begin realizing that human hardness doesn’t change the love of God.
God is fully aware of our hardness of heart, fully aware of our failures, fully aware of our need, and God just keeps on giving.
Jesus keeps on healing, keeps on loving, keeps on feeding,
even when our hearts are hard.
None of us understand about the loaves but God keeps giving us bread.
God keeps welcoming us to a feast.
That’s the kind of story that Mark is telling.
That’s the kind of good news that Mark is giving.
Mark is giving good news to human failure.
“You want to know what God is like?
“God is the kind of God who continues to feed those who don’t understand about the loaves.”
God is a God of grace.
You’re can’t get it right?
You feel like a failure?
You actually are a failure?
Congratulations—you’re qualified to follow Jesus.
God forever loves us,
and God wants to pass by us—
he wants us to see what he is like.
And this table is the place where he reveals himself most clearly—
these are the loaves that he gives usL
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
This table is the place where we remember that we don’t need to get it right— we don’t need to understand about the loaves—in order for God to love us.
Our hard hearts don’t change God at all.
God is always giving himself to us—
he’s always handing us bread and saying “this is my body”—
because he already always loves us.
But Jesus is concerned about our hard hearts because he wants us to believe his love.
That’s the reason he wants us to understand about the loaves—
because he wants us to understand about his love.
Is your heart hard this morning?
What would it look like for you to begin to realize that behind all the miracles of your life—
behind your birth and your breathing and every blessing and every struggle
there is a heart who sees you?
who cares for you?
who continually gives you life and energy and bread?
The wind will cease one day,
but this love never will.
Jesus wants you to believe this.
As we come to the table this morning, what would it look like for our hearts to soften—for us to open ourselves to this love?
As we begin to understand the significance of this love, I think that’s when we’ll finally understand the significance of the loaves.
In just a few moments, you’ll be invited to come down this center aisle,
to receive the bread, to dip in the cup, and then return to your seats along the sides.
As you come this morning,
may we see that God is always pouring out grace—
God is always giving us his very own life—even when our hearts are hard,
may we have the courage to confess our failings to God and to others, and find ourselves in the company of everyone who has ever followed Jesus,
and may our hearts be softened
that we can receive the endless love of God
and begin giving this love—begin giving these loaves—to those around us.