Sermon Message: Fellowship in the Light
Sermon Message: O Worship the King
"With Jesus in the Storm"
(Delivered Sunday, October 27, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Have you ever thought about how often in the Scriptures we encounter stories with the basic elements of (1) Jesus, (2) the disciples, (3) a boat, and (4) a stormy sea? If you are a regular reader of the Bible, you're pretty familiar with that basic "plot" in the stories of the New Testament. I think the reason those stories connect with us so well is because we really can't find anything that would better illustrate the feel of "circumstances that are out of our control" than the picture of a boat being helplessly tossed around at sea. And we who find ourselves in such circumstances will never find greater words of encouragement than those of Jesus to His disciples in those stormy times.
This morning, I'd like us to look at one of those stories from the Gospel of Mark.
Please pay particular attention to those closing words: "For they had not understood about the loaves,because their heart was hardened". Those words suggest to us that the disciples had failed to learn an important lesson from this remarkable event. Let's begin by considering the context of this story, so we can not only understand the principles God seeks to teach us in it, but also learn the lesson those disciples had failed to learn.
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Jesus had just performed a wonderful miracle; and the disciples had the privilege of being deeply and personally involved in it. A huge multitude of people had gathered around Jesus, and sat to hear Him teach. And when He was through teaching them, His disciples encouraged Him to send them all away into the villages and towns to buy themselves something to eat. But Jesus utterly surprised His disciples. "You give them something to eat," He told them (v. 37).
I'm sure you're familiar with that story. The disciples thought, "How could we possibly feed such a great multitude?" They counted five-thousand men - to say nothing of the women and children! All they had was five small barley loaves, and two small fish - hardly enough to feed just one person, let along such a huge crowd! But even a little can become much when it's placed in the hands of Jesus. He commanded everyone to sit down in groups of hundreds and fifties; and then, after giving thanks to His Father for the bread and fish, He distributed them to His disciples who then divided them among the people. How it could happen that everyone ate enough to be fed, and there still be twelve baskets of fragments left over, is a mystery to us; but we can be satisfied with the knowledge that nothing is impossible for Jesus.
This "feeding miracle" is an important part of our story. The crowds of people were amazed at Jesus; and according to John's gospel, Jesus could see that they were about to take Him by force and make Him king right then and there (John 6:15). I suspect that even the disciples themselves were tempted by this prospect. But the problem was that the people wanted a king that would feed them materially. Jesus was certainly going to be their king; but it was God's plan that He first die for the sins of mankind. This prospect of "instant kingship" was, in reality, a diversion from God's plan for our redemption - a temptation from the devil, designed by him to short-circuit Jesus' all-important sacrifice for us on the cross. I believe that Jesus, realizing this was happening, separated Himself and His disciples from this tempting situation. In the original language of our text, it says that Jesus immediately "made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side" of the Sea of Galilee - to the regions near Bethsaida. In fact, as it is in the original language of Mark's text, Jesus "strongly urged them" or "compelled them" to get into the boat. Jesus wasted no time in getting the disciples out of that spiritually hazardous situation.
I believe that He also sought to get Himself away from that situation too. He remained behind to dismiss the crowds; and then, having bid them farewell, He Himself departed to a lonely spot on one of the mountains that surrounded the sea, and prayed for a while to His Father. We're not told this; but I suspect that the idea of "instant kingship without the cross" was a strong temptation even to Him. Even He, in His humanity, recoiled from the agony and curse of the cross. And if this is so, just think then of how much He loves us; and of how willing He was to pay the ultimate price for our salvation!
And that brings us to the main event of our story. It had already become late in the day by the time the disciples had gotten into the boat; and Mark tells us, in verse 47, that "evening came" and "the boat was in the middle of the sea; and [Jesus] was alone on the land." Apparently - as so often happens on the Sea of Galilee, surrounded as it is by tall mountains and hills - a sudden and unexpected wind struck. The disciples were trapped in a difficult situation. They rowed and rowed, straining at the oars; and yet, by the "fourth watch of the night" - that is, somewhere between 3:00 to 6:00 in the morning - the disciples still had not advanced any more than just three or four miles across the vast lake. They had not traveled far; but they were still far enough from the shore to be in danger in the midst of this sudden storm. There were strong, experienced fishermen among them; but they nevertheless knew the danger they were in. They were at the mercy of a situation that was "outside their control".
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Stop and think with me for a moment about what a tremendous illustration this is of the kind of thing we often experience. You and I may not find ourselves tossed around in a small boat in the midst of a storm (although for some of us, that might have happened). But we do occasionally find ourselves overwhelmed - tossed and thrown around at the mercy of circumstances outside our control.
It may be because of the loss of a job that you feel yourself thrown in a financial circumstance that are outside your control. It may be a report from the doctor that suddenly throws your life in a whirlwind. It may be that someone in your family, or a relative, or a work associate, is creating a situation that is distressing and intolerable; and there doesn't seem to be anything you can do about it. But whatever form the details may take, it has a lot of parallels to being in a storm out on the sea. It's a situation or circumstance that is tossing you around and throwing your life into a blender; and there doesn't seem to be anything you can do to avoid it or put a stop to it. As you can see, a boat being helplessly tossed upon the waves on a stormy sea is a apt picture of life at such times. Perhaps you feel that way right now.
Now we can rest assured that God is in perfect control of the lives of those who have trusted Him. We can take comfort in the fact that, when such times come upon us, it's never because He has forgotten us, or because He is ignoring us, or because He has ceased to love us. In His sovereign wisdom, power and love, He occasionally allows such things to fall upon us; but they never come to us apart His loving permission and sovereign control. He permits such times to fall upon us because they test us, and train us, and make us grow into the image of His Son Jesus. And so, it is never His will that we despair at such times; as if we were the helpless victims of stormy circumstances. It's His intention that we discover, in some new way, the sufficiency of Jesus in such times. In another context, Paul wrote; "that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head - Christ" (Eph. 4:14-15). He told Timothy that "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Tim. 1:7).
Now, on your own, you ARE helpless at such times. You have no power, in and of yourself, to survive against the stormy circumstances of life. You will most certainly be mercilessly tossed up and down and thrown around by them; and if you rely only on your own resources, you are absolutely right to be terrified by threatening circumstances. You can never transcend them on your own. But you were never MEANT to meet those circumstances on your own. "In the world you have tribulation," Jesus says; "but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). You and I, dear brother or sister in Christ, CAN meet the storms of life with confidence, peace and a sense of victory - IF we welcome the help that Jesus Himself offers us at such times.
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Let's look at this passage together and see what Jesus means to us at such times. Let's learn together that we can greet the storms of life with calm assurance and confidence if we trust in Him. First, we discover that ...
1. JESUS SEES US IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES (vv. 45-48a).
I had a funny experience recently. I was on the freeway on my way to a downtown meeting; and as often happens at that time of day, I met with rush hour traffic. I wanted to get to this meeting a little early; but cars were creeping along at a glacieral pace. As I inched along the highway, I notices out of the passenger-side window that a piece of trash was tumbling along in the wind - an empty paper sack. It was following along beside my car, slightly faster than me. It would blow ahead of me a little ways; and then, a few minutes later, as I pulled up again to where it was, the wind would pick it up and blow it on ahead of me further down the road. It was as if it was mocking me! I was really getting frustrated! I'm in a hurry to get downtown - ME, a human being, in a car, on the freeway - and a lousy piece of trash was going to get there before I did!
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever experienced the sense that your circumstances were so frustratingly out of control that nothing you did made any difference? Have you ever felt like a helpless victim to your situation, no matter what you tried to do? Well; you know then how the disciples felt. There they where - rowing fruitlessly against the wind. They were, as the text says, "straining at rowing"; and they probably felt a little angry at first. But their sense of the situation soon grew more serious. The word that Mark uses means that they were "afflicted" and "tormented" and "pained" in their efforts to desperately row to safety. Interestingly, when Matthew tells this same story in his gospel, he uses this same Greek word (basanizo). There, he says that the boat was "tossed [that is, "afflicted"] by the waves" (Matthew 14:24). But here in Mark's gospel, it's the disciples who were afflicted in their rowing. They were becoming as turbulent as the waves! Their inner state paralleled that of their outer circumstances.
But notice where Jesus was when this was happening to His disciples. Mark tells us that "He was alone on the land. Then He saw them straining at rowing ..." Jesus saw everything that was happening to them. We would have to say that it was a miracle that He COULD see them; because it was three or more miles off in the lake, at anywhere from three to six in the morning, while in the midst of the storm. But nothing hinders Jesus from seeing what goes on with His disciples. Whenever they are troubled, whenever they are straining against the circumstances of life, He sees it perfectly and knows about it fully.
Do you remember when Jesus first met the disciple Nathanael, after Philip introduced them? Nathanael had been alone under a fig tree - thinking and reflecting. But when Jesus met Him, He spoke in such a way as to lead Nathanael to believe that Jesus knew him intimately. Nathanael asked, "How do You know me?" And Jesus told him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." And Nathanael responded by saying, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (John 1:47-49). Jesus sees His disciples with more than the mere sight of the eye. No set of circumstance - even the most desperate and dire of circumstance - can ever hide us from His perfect vision and watchful care.
Jesus is very aware of what you're going through in times of trial. The writer of Hebrews tells us that "We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). It says in Hebrews that Jesus "always lives to make intercession" for those who have trusted Him for salvation (Heb. 7:25). Imagine that! Jesus is so interested and aware of what is going on in your life that He prays for you with perfect knowledge. He knows how hard those trying times are. He knows all the details about them. He knows how frustrated or frightened you feel. And what's more, He also knows the things about that trial that you DON'T know - things such as how long that trial will last, what other good things are going on at the same time as that trial, and the things He will have accomplished in your life after that trial has done its job.
So whenever we go through a trying circumstance, the thing we should know - first of all - is that Jesus knows and understands every detail of it.
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Another thing we discover from this passage is that, not only does He perfectly see us in our trials, but also ...
2. JESUS TRANSCENDS OUR CIRCUMSTANCES (v. 48b).
Mark tells us that, "about the fourth watch of the night, He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by." What a wonderful picture of victorious transcendence that is!
Now how was this physically possible? How could Jesus defy the laws of gravity? It was once asserted to me that there was no miracle involved - that Jesus was simply very carefully stepping on rocks! But it takes far more faith to believe that He could do that for three and a half miles on a stormy sea - without the boat smashing into those same rocks at the same time - than to just accept that He was walking on water! I don't know how He could do this any more than I know how it could be that He could feed 5,000 with a few loaves and two fish. The only answer that satisfies me is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; and that He can do anything. He made the sea on which He walked; and He made the principle of gravity too. He can defy gravity and walk on water any time He wishes.
Have you ever tried to picture that scene in your mind? I just can't imagine Jesus being thrown around by the waves in the same way that the boat was, can you? I can't imagine Him weaving and rocking like on a tightwire-walker; or as if He were trying to balance Himself as if walking on a huge water-bed; or as if He had to broad-jump from wave to wave. I don't believe He came to the disciples soaking wet, either. I know that the text doesn't say how He looked as He did this. But I can only imagine Jesus in the midst of the waves - surrounded by all the wind and all the chaos - but walking through it all with perfect calmness, as if walking on dry land on a calm spring day across a pathway of peacefulness.
And I've always been intrigued by the fact that, as Mark says, He "would have passed them by". Imagine the disciples rowing fiercely, straining at the oars, gaining very little distance for their long hours of labor; only to look to the side and see Jesus passing by. Why would He have intended to do such a thing? One reason, I suspect, would have been to show vividly that - no matter what the circumstances; even so dire a set of circumstances as a storm in the midst of the sea - the circumstances didn't affect Him in the least. He was completely above it all. The things that slowed the disciples down had no affect on Him whatsoever. But I suspect that another reason He "would have passed them by" was because He would have wanted to wait for their request for help. He very easily could have ran up to the boat instead of walking; and He very easily could have jumped in and took control of the desperate circumstances; and very easily could have commanded the wind and the waves to cease. He could have easily rescued the stunned disciples whether they wanted Him to or not. But instead, He intended to walk along side the boat, and graciously wait for them to turn to Him for help.
Think about the circumstances you face in life that seem so out of control. They ARE out of YOUR control; but they are in fact not "out of control" at all. Jesus is the one who is able to command the wind and the waves to be still. The circumstances are completely under His sovereign rule. He wants us to know from this that He is transcendent over the circumstances that plague us. And He strolls past us, as it where, in the midst of all our struggles and troubles - waiting for us to take our eyes off the impossibility of our circumstances and to see how He transcends them - waiting to see if we will seek from Him the help that He is so ready and able to give us.
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This leads us to a third discovery from this passage; that ...
3. JESUS PRESENTS HIMSELF TO US IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES (vv. 49-50).
Mark tells us that the appearance of Jesus, strolling across the waves, didn't exactly calm the disciples down at first. "And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled."
Now before we look down on them for this, and before we call them unduly 'superstitious', let's remember their condition. They had been rowing for hours, far into the early morning; and had been doing so after a very long and hard day. Let's keep in mind that they had really accomplished little for all their straining at the oars - and you know how you feel after a long hour or two on the freeway during rush-hour traffic! Let's remember also that they were - from a human perspective - under the threat of mortal danger; and were under a terrible strain of emotional trauma while in a small boat on a large lake in a unexpected storm. How many of us would react calmly and rationally to the sight of a man walking on the water in the middle of the night in even the BEST of conditions - let alone in such conditions as theirs? Wouldn't you have thought you were seeing a ghost?
But notice that, though He at first was going to walk past them, He instead "talked with them". How grateful we can be that, in the midst of such circumstances, Jesus is gracious and condescending to us. He speaks to us, right in the midst of our trials, with a human voice of compassion.
And notice also what it was that He said to them. He says three things: "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid." Take special note of that phrase in the middle: "It is I." In the Greek, Jesus literally said, "I am." He used that same phrase when speaking with the Pharisees; "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58); and they understood Him to be claiming to Himself the sacred name of the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). That ancient, covenant name was one God declared to His people when they were facing circumstances outside THEIR control - that is, their slavery in Egypt. His name - I AM THAT I AM - basically meant that He was promising that He would be everything His people needed for Him to be. I don't believe it's mere coincidence that Jesus used this same way of identifying Himself to His troubled disciples; because He was able to be everything that they needed Him to be in their distress. He is able to be the same for us.
On one side of this wonderful name was the positive command, "Be of good cheer!" And on the other side was the negative command, "Do not be afraid!" And if Jesus steps up to us in our trials and difficulties, and declares Himself to be the great "I AM"; then we certainly CAN be of good cheer, and we certainly CAN banish all fear - even in circumstances that are outside of our control; even in the midst of the storms of life.
There's a part of this story that Matthew reports in His gospel; and it seems appropriate to remind you of it at this point. Matthew writes;
Peter had gotten his eyes off Jesus - who He is and what He is able to do - and he placed his attention instead on his circumstances. And as a result, down he went. We need to learn the lesson from this. Jesus presents Himself to us in our personal "storm" and says, "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid." He transcends our circumstances because of who He is; and He invites us to look to Him and transcend those circumstances with Him. If we look at our circumstances, were sure to fall victim to them. But if we look at Jesus - as He presents Himself to us - we may still be in them, but we will always transcend them victoriously.
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Finally, we see from this passage that ...
4. JESUS ENTERS IN WITH US IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES (vv. 51-52).
I love the beautiful simplicity of those final words: "Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased." The word Mark uses indicates that the wind "grew weary". It began to abate, and the waves grew calm. And what's more, as the apostle John tells the story, "Then they willingly received Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land where they were going" (John 6:21). How quickly the situation changed, once Jesus got into the boat!
It's wonderful enough that Jesus condescends to enter into our times of trial with us. He certainly could have caused the storm to cease by just commanding it to cease while sitting on the safe mountainside. But He walked through the storm and came to them personally. And that's what Jesus does for us too. As it says in Isaiah 41:10; "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand." He steps into our situation and does this for us personally!
But we see even more in this wonderful story. The moment we invite Jesus into the trial with us, the trial is basically over. The waves perhaps still rock and splash a little; and in fact, the word Mark uses suggests that the storm progressively grew quiet and abated. But the point is that things immediately got better the moment Jesus stepped into the boat with them.
The simple principle we're meant to understand from this is that - whatever our trial, whatever our circumstance - things immediately begin to get better the moment we consciously, deliberately, decisively, welcome Jesus into the situation with us. Our great problem is that we wait far to long to do so; and tend to turn to Him as our last resort instead of our first trust. We just don't seem to learn this lesson very well; do we?
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And that leads us to those closing words; and to the lesson that the disciples had failed to learn in all this. Mark writes, "And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened" (vv. 51b-52).
It's as if Mark struggles to find the words to describe their amazement. They were astonished "greatly"; and some ancient manuscripts include the phrase "beyond measure". They were greatly amazed "in themselves". Frankly, they were going out of their heads with amazement! And of course, they should have been amazed! But it wasn't their amazement that was the problem. It was WHY they were amazed that was the problem. They were amazed because they hadn't learned the lesson they should have learned from the feeding of the 5,000 - that Jesus is the Son of God, and that He can do anything. A lack of resources is not a hindrance to Him. Trying circumstances do not affect Him in the least. He sees our trials perfectly, transcends our trials powerfully, and presents Himself to us in our trials graciously; and He begins to bring the trial to an end the moment we turn to Him in trust, and invite Him to take control of our circumstances.
The disciples didn't expect Jesus to do anything in their "storm"; and when He did, they were amazed out of their minds. Do you see why they didn't expect anything from Jesus in the midst of their trial? It was because "their heart was hardened". They had 'petrified hearts' that were unresponsive and unimpressionable to the lessons God had intended them to learn from the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Dear brother or sister; every trial that God allows to come our way is lovingly guided and directed by Him in a purposeful way. Each trail is so designed by Him that it requires us to go back and remember something that God has already taught us about Himself. And if our heart is impressionable and teachable, we'll be able to see that God has already proven Himself in a past trial in such a way as to give us what we need for a "stormy time" in the present.
The disciples had hard hearts, and failed to learn the lessons of faith in their "storm"; but may God soften our hearts, and help us to learn the lessons of faith in ours.
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