Do Not Be Afraid
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 6:45–56
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
July 28-29, 2018
“Do Not Be Afraid”
My family and I just returned from visiting parents/grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Iowa. While our area here was getting drenched with rain, rain, and more rain, we enjoyed picture-perfect weather in our home state. It worked out beautifully for the big 80th birthday celebration for June’s parents. But the day we arrived, tornadoes struck several towns in Iowa, leveling buildings and do enormous damage. A niece showed us photos of the office where she used to work, where very little was left standing. It’s a good thing to have a healthy fear of summer storms and take precautions. Today’s Gospel lesson tells of the disciples out on the Sea of Galilee, maybe not in a howling windstorm as we heard about earlier this summer (Mark 4:35-41, Pentecost 5 on 6/24/18), but struggling against the wind. They are gripped with fear as they see Jesus come to them, walking on the water. What Jesus said to them, he says to us today: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). That becomes the theme for worship this day. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus had just fed the 5000 men, plus women and children (Mark 6:30-44). Then, he sent the disciples off across the Sea of Galilee while he himself dismissed the crowd of people. After this, we’re told, Jesus went up on a mountain to pray; to spend time with his Father in prayer. Jesus then demonstrated again that he is ruler of wind and wave. When he stilled the storm, it was the power and authority of his Word that accomplished this, but now, Jesus’ whole person is involved as he walks across rough water. In both instances, the disciples don’t get it. They fail to understand who Jesus is, and their reaction is one not of faith, but fear and amazement. Time and again, Scripture makes clear that when the Master is absent from the disciples, they find themselves in distress due to their lack of faith (Mark 4:35ff; 6:45ff. 9:14ff.). And this time is no different: exhausted by hard rowing against the wind, they freak out when they see a figure coming to them across the water. The sea, like the wilderness, was believed to be the dwelling place of demons, and that is what they thought was coming for them. And how about us? When we find ourselves in a strange place in the dead of night, our mind runs wild and our fears can easily take over.
There is a phrase in verse 48 that needs some explaining: “He meant to pass by them.” This isn’t the best translation. The verse begins with “And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them…” What follows is an explanatory subordinate clause why Jesus came walking on the water. Jesus saw that the disciples were wearing themselves out, and he felt the desire to reveal his presence to them by passing their way. For Mark the Gospel writer, this is a theophany; a manifestation of the Lord who will “pass by” as God did at Sinai before Moses (Exodus 33:19, 22) and at Horeb before Elijah (1 Kings 19:11). The phrase here would be better put as “he intended to pass their way,” which makes a whole lot more sense than what is before us (see The Gospel According to Mark, by William L. Lane. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974; p. 236). But the disciples didn’t understand that it was Jesus, and so they cried out, leading Jesus to say some very important words: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). The “I” here could just be a normal statement of identity (“It is I, Jesus – it’s me!”), but it could also mean something much deeper and more significant. Those three little words “It is I” are the recognized formula of God’s own self-revelation that go all the way back to the Lord God revealing himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14).
Though the disciples were scared out of their wits, Jesus reassured them with his word and his presence. As he got into the boat, the wind died down. The disciples were completely and utterly drained, not just from their difficult rowing, but emotionally drained because of their terror. They had no categories for understanding how Jesus could walk in the water and get into the boat with them. They didn’t understand about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and Mark tells us that “their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). They understand that somehow, some way, Jesus fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, but they did not grasp, they did not understand, this miracle through the lens of faith. They did not see how this miracle pointed to an even greater truth about Jesus as the divine Son of God. They saw only the outer shell and not the inner meaning, and so they displayed not confidence and joy in Jesus coming to them on the water, but faithless panic and terror.
As one commentator put it: “Jesus’ appearance on the Sea of Galilee must be appreciated as a reality and a sign that the living God has come nearer to men in the revelation of the Son. Jesus had no intention of simply passing by his disciples in a display of enigmatic glory. His walking upon the water proclaimed that the hostility of nature against man must cease with the coming of the Lord, whose concealed majesty is unveiled in the proclamation ‘I am he’” (The Gospel According to Mark, by William L. Lane. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974; p. 238). Following this incident on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus is thronged by yet more crowds who come from all over, bringing their sick to him so that he might heal them, simply by touching the fringe of his garment. “And as many as touched it were made well” (Mark 6:56). This was not just material contact with Jesus’ clothing; it was the touch of faith. As with so many instances in the Gospels, the people did not know Jesus as Savior sent from heaven to deliver us from sin and death. They understood only that power to heal came through him. “Jesus patiently bears with their limited insight and graciously heals those who reach out to him…” (Ibid, p. 241).
The One who walked on water, the One who brought healing to many who touched his garments, is the One who revealed himself most fully at the cross. The ultimate enemy is not a storm, nor even illness, it is the twisting and perversion of God’s design and purpose for life, which Scripture calls sin. Jesus came to redeem us, to buy us back from the strangle-hold of sin and a downward, deathward spiral. And he did this at the cross where he suffered and died for our sake. Dying, he destroyed our death; rising, he restored our life. The crucified and risen Jesus meets us where we are. He comes to us when we are caught up in fears that paralyze and destroy us. He steps into our little boat and says to us: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Amen.