Originally written in April, 2020
A former professor of mine recently wrote about his experience of his 23-year-old daughter contracting COVID-19. He writes:
“Two days after the hospital admitted Hannah, a physician called to let us know that her lungs weren’t delivering sufficient oxygen to her body. If the medical team didn’t place her on a ventilator before the end of the day, cardiac arrest seemed the most likely outcome. Based on the condition of her lungs, the doctor had concluded that the cause was COVID-19. When I asked a nurse if my wife and I could visit Hannah in the intensive-care unit, the nurse replied, “You don’t want us to call you to visit. If we ask you to come see her, it’s because the doctor doesn’t think she’s going to make it to the next day.”
A 23-year-old on a ventilator was nothing we could have anticipated 17 years ago when God worked through the foster-care system to place Hannah in our lives. The first couple days on the ventilator, Hannah was sufficiently coherent to video conference through her phone, even though she couldn’t speak. But then it became necessary for the medical team to sedate her, and the distance between us grew silent and dim.”
For three weeks his young, healthy daughter lay in a hospital bed with a virus that was supposed to not affect young, healthy people. Why would God allow something like this to happen? Mingled with the difficult and sorrow over the devastating effects of this virus is the tragic economic strangling our country has experienced. Nearly 36 million people across our country have filled for unemployment, with that number likely to continue to rise. And this means that the poorest and most vulnerable across our country are likely to feel the consequences of that most severely. We hear stories of locally owned businesses having to close doors. And, of course, we see our country and community as divided as ever. What is God doing? We know we are supposed to trust God and we know He is in control, but how are we to do that when it feels like life is so confusing, so difficult?
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
In our previous story, Jesus miraculously feeds five thousand men with five loaves and two fish, leaving twelve baskets of food left over. Here, the narrative immediately picks up from that scene. We see Jesus pushing His disciples into a boat, telling them to immediately travel across the lake while He remains behind to dismiss the crowd. The verbs Mark employs to describe Jesus making His disciples get into the boat are strangely forceful, implying coercion, force, and hurry. Why is Jesus rushing to get His disciples out of there?
Well, if we look at the parallel account of this narrative in the gospel of John, right after the feeding of the five thousand, we read, “Perceiving then that [the crowds] were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself,” John 6:15. The crowds, seeing that Jesus is able to make food materialize out of nowhere, rush to forcibly make Jesus into their king. Perhaps Jesus rushes His disciples into the boat and commands them to leave for the other side of the lake because He fears that His disciples (who are still struggling with understanding Jesus’ mission) may be influenced by the crowds’ misplaced enthusiasm. Or, maybe Jesus simply wanted to have some time alone. But, of course, Jesus could have just told His disciples to wait for Him while He prayed. But He didn’t do that—He pushes them into a boat and tells them to start paddling to the other side. So, whatever the ultimate purpose of why Jesus is rushing His disciples off, what we can say with confidence is: Jesus wanted His disciples out on the lake without Him.
In verse 46 we are told, “And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.” Jesus has ascended a mountain before (to call the twelve, Mark 3:13) and He has gone away by Himself to pray (to seek God’s will after the beginning of His ministry, Mark 1:35). Here, Jesus ascends a mountain and prays by Himself. Mountains, in the Bible, are significant places. God most often reveals Himself on mountains (Eden, Sinai, Horeb, Carmel, Zion). Jesus ascends the mountain to get away from the crowds, to pray, and ultimately to have communion with His Father.
Now, of course, we do not need to climb a mountain to commune with God. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we can immediately go directly to the Father in prayer. However friends, like we discussed two weeks ago, Jesus demonstrates for us that sometimes we need to push “pause” on life and seek the Lord. To be honest, I am embarrassed at how rare I do this. I can think of maybe a handful of times in my life where I have intentionally carved time out of my schedule and said, “This is not my time—this is the Lord’s time, this is a time to seek Him.” Friends, we need more of that, I need more of that. Maybe this week you need to take three hours in the evening, you need to take a morning, plant a flag in the ground and say, “This is the Lord’s.” Mom’s, talk to your husbands and say, “You need to watch the kids tonight, I am going to love and serve our family by seeking God’s face in prayer for more time than I ever have.” Employees, tell your boss, “I need to use a personal day, some vacation time,” and serve and bless our church by opening your Bible and praying for us all. If Jesus had to do this, how much more should we??
Now, Jesus is up on the mountain, praying, and we are told, “And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them,” Mark 6:47-48a. If you remember the sermon from Mark 4 where Jesus stills the storm, we talked about how the “sea” in the ancient imagination stood for more than just a big body of water. In Genesis 1, when the earth is “without form and void” we are told that all there is present is a body of dark, chaotic waters. Nearly all of the ancient creation myths involve the turbulent seas representing chaotic forces of destruction and entropy. The sea was also the home in popular imagination of dragon like sea monsters that the Bible calls Leviathan or Rahab. Now, I’m not saying that the Bible is necessarily saying that chaos and evil literally emanate from the sea nor that there are literal sea dragons in the waters, but simply that the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) appropriates these cultural images and metaphors to communicate its message. This is why repeatedly in the Old Testament we are told about Yahweh having power over the seas, splitting the head of Leviathan, and compares the enemies of God’s people to flood waters—these are all just imaginative symbols to communicate the truth that God alone has power over the forces of evil and chaos that want to unravel the order of creation.
It seems like Mark is wanting to evoke this image of the “sea” by using the very term to describe the body of water. The “sea of Galilee” was actually not a “sea” at all, but a “lake.” But Mark wants us to be thinking about the danger of “the sea” as we read his account (and, you notice how much Mark emphasizes Jesus’ ministry in relation to the sea?). Mark is using a popular imaginative symbol (that is also used in the Old Testament) to convey truth to us: who is in control of the sea (chaos)?
Unlike the story in Mark 4, it doesn’t appear that the disciples are in mortal danger. Rather they are stuck in an incredibly frustrating situation: rowing a boat across choppy water with the wind blowing against you. Mark tells us that they are “making headway painfully.” The word for “painfully” is literally the word used elsewhere in the Bible for “torture.” Sometimes the trials and difficulty in our life doesn’t necessarily look like catastrophic, life-threating or life-altering suffering. It just looks like something that grates on your nerves, like a thousand little papercuts. The disciples set out “when evening came,” so as soon as the sun went down. But we are told that Jesus doesn’t come out to them till the “fourth watch of the night,” Mark 6:48, which would have been sometime between 3 and 6 AM. So the disciples, after a long day, are forced into a boat by Jesus as it is getting dark and He tells them, “Go to the other side.” But shortly after they start a strong wind pushes against them and they are fruitlessly rowing for maybe 6-8 hours. They are sleep-deprived, they are confused (WHY did Jesus force us out here all alone??), and they are just physically exhausted. The trials we go through don’t always look like having your life threatened for the gospel—sometimes it looks like small, frustrating problems.
The disciples are out, struggling with the oars when we are simply told, “he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified,” Mark 6:48-50. The disciples have seen Jesus quell the stormy sea with His voice, but here Jesus is walking on the sea! The chaotic waters present no danger to Jesus—He walks on them as if they are as safe and secure as the land, doing what is humanly impossible to do. The disciples have no category for thus and (understandably) cry out in fear, assuming that Jesus is some sort of ghost coming to them.
But Jesus approaches the boat and, “he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened,” Mark 6:50-51. There are two major points of application from this text, and I want to take them in the reverse order they are given to us.
A Failure to Understand
The disciples aren’t only afraid, they are “astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” We will discuss what Mark is referring to with the loaves later, but I want to focus in here on this term ‘hardness of heart.’ What does that mean? The last time we saw it in Mark it was in reference to the religious authorities in Mark 3:5 when Jesus is healing a man on the Sabbath. Elsewhere in the Bible a hardness of heart implies a stubborn resistance to God that manifests itself as willful ignorance—I don’t know because I don’t want to know. Paul describes those outside of Christ as, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart,” Eph 4:18. Jeremiah explains it like this, “This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them,” Jeremiah 13:10. According to the Bible, following your own heart is considered a judgment from God, not a virtue.
It is surprising to see Jesus apply this term to His own disciples. After all, they were with Jesus, receiving special teaching directly from Him (Mark 4:11, 33-34). Yet they still do not understand who Jesus fundamentally is. This is sobering because it reminds us that you can be around Jesus and receive Jesus’ teaching, but still have a hardened heart. Jesus warns in Matthew seven that at the last day there will be people who have cast out demons and prophesy and work miracles in Jesus’ name, who will approach Him only to hear, “I don’t even know you,” (Matt 7:21-23). We should never think that just being around Jesus is a substitute for actually having a genuine relationship with Him. But this isn’t only sobering, but also encouraging! The disciples here have hard hearts that don’t understand—but they don’t stay there! With the exception of Judas, all of these men go on to become lions of faith! They become part of the very foundation of the church. God can overcome hard hearts.
What the Disciples Don’t Understand
Let’s move our eyes back up to the most eye-popping element of the story: Jesus walking on water. In the Old Testament, we are only ever told of one person who walks on the sea: Yahweh (Ps 77:19; Isa 43:16). In the book of Job we read that it is God alone, “who stretched out the heavens and trampled (walked upon) the waves of the sea,” Job 9:8. Thus, for Jesus to walk on water, to tread upon the waves of the sea, would have been Him doing something that only Yahweh does. But this appears to be the exact point Jesus is wanting to make. When Jesus gets to the disciples boat He tells the, “Take heart, it is I. Don’t be afraid.” What might be unclear to us English readers that wouldn’t have been lost on the original readers is Jesus use of the divine name: I AM. What is often translated as “it is I” could be more literally translated as “I am,” the same name given to Moses at the burning bush when asked what God’s name was, to which He replies, “I am what I am,” Exodus 3:14—or, as we know the name: Yahweh.
Just think of the many connections this story has with the Exodus story: Jesus has just miraculously multiplied bread to feed a large crowd, which is what Yahweh does for the Exodus generation in the desert as He provides manna from the heavens; Jesus was ascended upon a mountain when He sees His twelve disciples out on the boat, Yahweh is upon the top of Mount Sinai as the twelve tribes are gathered before Him; Jesus provides a miraculous water-crossing for His people by walking upon the water and delivering the disciples from the storm, Yahweh provides a miraculous water crossing by splitting the red sea and delivering the Israelites from Pharaoh. And then, Jesus approaches their boat and says: Don’t be afraid, I am. Mark is taking pains to show us that Jesus is the same God we read of in the Old Testament (Yahweh), come now in the flesh. This is what the disciples do not understand.
But there is still one phrase that is particularly puzzling. When Jesus is walking on the water Mark tells us that Jesus “meant to pass by them” Mark 6:48. What does that mean? This likely comes from Mark’s use of Job 9 in retelling his story. In Job 9, after explaining that it is God alone who walks upon the waves of the sea, Job laments, “Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not,” Job 9:11. In this chapter Job is lamenting that God seems utterly baffling. He is high, holy, sovereign over everything—Job isn’t questioning that God is in control—but He is questioning whether or not God is good. How can God allow such devastating suffering fall on Him? Job’s friends have begun to accuse Job of hiding some great secret sin which God is now punishing him for—which of course is not true. Job is frustrated; he wishes that there was someone in heaven who could argue his case to God on his behalf.
“If I wash myself with snow and cleanse my hands with lye, yet you will plunge me into a pit, and my own clothes will abhor me,” Job 9:30-31. Here, Job is saying that if he were to do everything to clean himself, to make himself presentable before God so as to earn the right to be heard before God, he would fail—he cannot make himself clean enough for God because God is totally holy, wholly other from Job. “For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both. Let him take his rod away from me, and let not dread of him terrify me. Then I would speak without fear of him, for I am not so in myself,” Job 9:32-35
What is Job’s frustration? God doesn’t know what it is like to be a man! He is so high and holy, why on earth would He even listen to me? I am just a speck of dust, a little cog in the giant machine of God’s providence. There is no one to be an arbiter, an attorney who can stand at my side and “lay his hand on us both” to take away this fear. God is too great—afterall, He is the one who makes mountains trembles, controls the wind, and can walk on water! If only God could somehow come down and be a man, then He would understand!
It is interesting to imagine what Job would be thinking were he sitting in the boat with the disciples, watching Jesus trample on the waves, control the wind, and say, “Take heart, I AM. Do not be afraid.” Jesus is no wonder worker—He is the high and holy God, come down, He is Yahweh in the flesh. Tom Wright explains, “How can you live with the terrifying thought that the hurricane has become human, that fire has become flesh, that life itself became life and walked in our midst?” This means, friends, that we have what Job was looking for—God has become a man, we do have a mediator, an arbiter, to plead our case in heaven. But, wonder of wonders, the gospel isn’t only the message that God condescended and took on flesh—marvelous thought that be, but He ultimately went to the cross and died in our place for our sin. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all,” 1 Tim 2:5-6.
Authority is scary to trust. What if they take advantage of me? If I surrender to someone having power over me, what if I’m abused? But when we see authority literally lay its life down for your good, you know that authority can be trusted—even when you may not understand why something is happening.
Trusting His Hand When You Can’t See His Face
My professor concludes his story with these powerful words:
During those days of distance, I remembered when Hannah first came into our home as a 7-year-old. The process of adopting her was already underway, and I began the habit of slipping into her dark room each morning to wake her when it was time to get up. For months, each morning followed an identical pattern. When I touched her shoulder, her body stiffened, and her eyes flashed open. She looked frightfully around the room and then stared into my face. In those moments, she didn’t seem certain at first where she was or who I might be. It was no wonder she felt this way. Thus far in her brief life, she had already lived with at least a half-dozen different families.
“It’s ok,” I whispered. “It’s me. You’re home now.”
A similar routine continued for almost three months. Each morning, she woke with a start—stiff-armed, wide-eyed, and fearful.
And then, one Saturday morning, something different happened. She didn’t stiffen or glance wildly around the room when I touched her. She didn’t even open her eyes. Instead, she simply rolled into my arms with her eyes closed and whispered, “Good morning, Daddy. Love you.”
She had learned to trust my touch even when she couldn’t see my face.
That’s how we’re called to trust our heavenly Father. And it’s what I kept remembering anew during those long, silent days when my daughter’s body required a ventilator to battle a deadly virus.
All I could do was to trust my Father’s hand even when I couldn’t see my Father’s face.
I don’t know what God was doing in allowing my daughter to contract COVID-19. Nor do I claim to understand what God is doing around the globe as millions of others face this same disease. I do know this: nothing is outside our heavenly Father’s control, and we can trust his hand even when we cannot see his face.