Sermon, October 2, 2005
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade

Power for the Hungry and Storm-tossed
Mark 6:31-56

Jesus lived on earth for some 30 years, Deity in the flesh, sharing all of our humanity from infancy to adulthood, from birth to excruciating death. His life may have been cut shorter than the three score and ten that we’re accustomed to, but thirty years is still a substantial amount of time, in which a lot of events can take place.

Imagine a biography of your own life for its first thirty years. Even if you’re a student barely pushing 20, the biography of events that are important to you could already fill a pretty hefty book. That means that when Mark wrote a Gospel about the life of Jesus and limited it to these 16 short chapters, he had to be very selective. He was really more like a sermon-writer, picking and choosing those events that contributed to the central point about Jesus that he wanted to emphasize in his book.

One of our aims in this study of Mark across the weeks of this fall and advent will be to make sure we hear that central point Mark is trying to make. And a primary way to tune into that central point will be to watch what events Mark picks out of the roughly 11,000 days of Jesus time on earth to build his sermon.

What we’ve seen again and again is that Mark tends to pick out events in Jesus life that foreshadow and that anticipate by drawing pictures of the most decisive event of his life: his death and resurrection. The Gospel is shaped in a sense like a cross next to an empty tomb. Maybe we’re finding his favorite number to be three because that’s the number of days that connect the cross to the empty tomb.

So this week, immediately after a series of three warnings that Mission means Opposition, that mission means a cross and death, we read another series of three events that demonstrates that Jesus comes with the resurrection power of the empty tomb.

In the first half of ch. 6, we read that the mission of Jesus was preceded in the past by the beheading of John the Baptist; it was accompanied in the present by opposition to Jesus from the people who should have honored him most, his own hometown and family; and Jesus’ mission looks ahead in the future to a mission by disciples who will go in the name of Jesus into towns and houses where people aren’t going to listen to them.

The final conclusion we drew from those observations last week was this: Yes, opposition to the mission of the gospel is painful and it involves us in sacrifice. But the sacrifice is never ultimate. It will always be worth it. Now we hear confirmation of that conclusion from Mark.

Here in the second half of ch. 6, we read that despite all the opposition and all the apparent obstacles to Jesus’ doing mighty works in his own town, Jesus nevertheless comes to those who seek him and those to whom his heart of compassion goes out with power: power for the hungry, power for the storm-tossed, and power to heal the sick.

Last week’s three episodes of opposition ended with a banquet of the earthly king Herod in which with all callousness Herod’s wife asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This week’s episodes of power begin with another banquet put on by the heavenly king in which with all compassion Jesus commands and enables his disciples to feed 5000 hungry people. That may well be one more reason why Mark pulls this history of John the Baptist out of the early days of Jesus’ ministry and tells us about it here. The contrast between these feasts is full of lessons for us.

Jesus doesn’t throw banquets to win support and be thought of highly by the crowds, like Herod does. He throws a banquet to provide for the needs of people who are hungry.

Jesus doesn’t send invitations to his banquet only to the “nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee” like Herod does in 6:21. He throws a banquet for needy people who have to travel by foot and who are like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus doesn’t amuse his guests with cheap parlor tricks that result in an innocent man he respects having his head cut off, like Herod does. Jesus satisfies his guests with a demonstration of miraculous divine power that fills them up and leaves all twelve disciples loaded with a basketfull apiece of leftovers.

This is the overflowing sufficiency of divinity, contrasted sharply with the self-protective deficiency of insecure humanity.

This is Jesus in the role of Moses, leading people out of bondage, choosing able men from all the people in Ex 25:21 [bulletin!], men who fear God and are trustworthy, placing them over the people, that same verse says, in thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens, as Jesus does here in 6:40.

And most importantly, this is Jesus anticipating his last supper with his disciples when he will do just as he does in v.41, taking bread, looking up to heaven, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to the disciples to set before the people and feast. If we’ve wondered about anticipations of his death and resurrection in other passages like his healing of the paralytic, this anticipation of the table where he will ordain our remembrance of his death and the New Covenant in his blood that his resurrection will inaugurate comes through with verbatim unmistakability.

Why does Mark include this particular event in the telling of the story of the Good News of Jesus? Why is this the one miracle apart from the resurrection that appears in all four gospels? Because it is a picture of the Last Supper and therefore another reminder that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we (v.42) “all eat and are satisfied.”

A long tradition of interpretation of this text somehow manages to miss the point of this divine demonstration of power altogether. There is an inclination on the part of some “enlightened” readers to explain Jesus miracles away as though they all have to have naturalistic explanations. This isn’t a physical miracle of multiplying bread, they want to say. This is a spiritual miracle of changing selfish hearts. When one little boy unselfishly shared his lunch with Jesus, everyone else in the crowd was cut to the heart and brought out the lunches they had been selfishly hiding from everyone else, and that is where all the food came from. You may laugh, but the story of the feeding of the 5000 gets turned into a lesson about ‘sharing’ in nearly all the Sunday School curricula that I’ve looked at.

V.52 in the next passage makes the mistake of that sort of interpretation in this case completely clear. Look what Mark chooses to tell us about in vv.45-52. Just as soon as Jesus was done teaching and the crowd had been fed, Jesus put his discples into a boat to head across the Sea of Galilee “to the other side.”

That happened after the last time he taught a crowd back in ch.4, too. And no sooner had they begun to row out to the middle of the lake in ch.4 but a hurricane-force storm came up and Jesus had to be awakened down in the boat to calm the storm. This time another storm came up and the wind was strongly against them in their rowing, but Jesus wasn’t in the boat with them. He was still alone on the land. But when he saw them painfully rowing his compassion went out to them just like it had to the hungry crowd, and he walked out to them and calmed the wind.

The naturalists are quick to explain this again. He was walking on a sandbar! It just looked as if he were walking on the water. But those interpreters are just like the dense and benighted disciples in the boat: their hearts are hardened and they don’t “understand about the loaves”!

Why should Mark say that the disciples in the boat didn’t understand about the loaves? What does the feeding of 5000 people have to do with the disciples’ astonishment that Jesus walked out on the water to calm the wind for them? What they’re not understanding is that Jesus’ actions in both cases don’t need some sort of natural explanation. What’s not penetrating their understanding yet is that this is divine power!

The one who just fed them supper and the one who just stepped in off the water into their boat is none other than the God of the Universe in human form -- who created from nothing the wheat that we bake into bread, who formed the seas and the winds and controls their motions, who can provide for every human need if needy people will just call upon him dependently for his compassion and his power.

There is a curious detail in Mark’s description of Jesus’ walking on the sea to reach the storm-tossed boat of the disciples. He says (in v.48) that Jesus “came to them, walking on the sea, and meant to pass by them.” Does this mean he was going to walk on past and just leave them to struggle in their desperate fight against the wind? I don’t think that’s what this phrase means.

In v.48, Mark is using the verbatim language of a text in the book of Job. Look with me at Job 9:8. Job asks Bildad, “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea? The Greek translation of Job has exactly the same wording for treading the waves of the sea that Mark uses in 6:48. So who is treading on the waves of the sea in Mark? The same one who stretched out the heavens!

Now look 3 verses farther down in Job 9 to v.11. “Behold he passes by me, Job says, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him.” In Mark, it is Jesus who is passing by, and the disciples who fail to see and perceive who he is. Once again, Mark is using language that tells us that this man treading the waves of the sea of Galilee is none other than the God of Job and the God of Exodus who passed by Moses in Ex 33:19 and 34:6.

Notice, too, what Jesus says when he first approached their boat: “Take heart. It is I.” That last phrase, it is I, could be literally translated, “I am.” These are the very words that God used when he identified himself to Moses when he passed by him on the mountain and spoke to him at the burning bush. “I AM” is walking on the water in this text!

What is it that the disciples don’t understand about the loaves? That this Jesus who just multiplied them is God Himself. What is it that the disciples don’t see and perceive as Jesus is passing them by on the water? That this Jesus walking on the water is God Himself.

And if those two demonstrations of his power don’t make his identity clear, a third one follows in vv.53-56 in which people are recognizing this Jesus. And what do they do when they recognize him? They come to him for the merciful exercises of his power. They “ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was.” They “implored him” that they might do like the hemoraging woman did in ch.5, “touch the hem of his garment to be made well.”

They might not know exactly who he was, but they were recognizing that there was not just natural power at work here. Something supernatural was at work and in faith they came running for its benefits.

The final words of this chapter are significant, too. Mark tells us that as many as touched Jesus garment were “made well.” But the words in Greek also mean, as many as touched his garment were “saved.” These physical healings are pictures in Mark’s view of Jesus’ greater intent not just to heal us physically, but to save us spiritually.

Three miracles of divine power. Three demonstrations that Jesus is God in human form. There is encouragement here for people who are physically hungry that God’s compassion desires that we eat and be satisfied. There is encouragement here for those whose lives are storm-tossed that God will go to whatever lengths are necessary -- he’ll even walk on water -- to extend his calming power to our circumstances. There is encouragement here for the physically sick that the power of God can heal. All God seeks from us is a contrite heart that is hungry for him and not merely for his gifts of power.

But Mark has chosen to tell us about these miracles not merely for their own sake. They are pictures for him and the early disciples of Jesus’ desire to heal us not just physically, but to save us spiritually and to bring us into his kingdom and under his reign. His walking on the water is a picture of his desire for our storm-tossed souls to find rest in him. And the feeding of the 5000 is an invitation to the Lord’s Supper this morning, an invitation not just to eat and be satisfied physically but even moreso to be fed and satisfied spiritually by the promise of resurrection to new life in him.