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The Passer-by

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 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. And about the fourth watch of the night 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. But immediately 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 6.45-52.

This episode in the story of Jesus comes immediately after the feeding of the five thousand and is told by Matthew and John as well as by Mark. But Mark’s version contains something that is not in either Matthew or John’s version. Only Mark says that when Jesus went to the disciples on the lake, “he meant to pass by them.” The verb is thelo which actually means “to want” … so Jesus wanted to pass by them. But that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Why, seeing that his disciples are in trouble, would Jesus go to them if he intended simply to pass by them?

All sorts of explanations have been offered. It was the disciples mistaken impression that Jesus was going to go past them. But that isn’t what the text says. It was Jesus intention to test their faith by going past them. But how would that test their faith? Jesus wanted to be asked for help so he pretended to go past the boat. Well, I suppose that that is a possible explanation; but it seems to me there is an even better one. The language here is the language of Exodus 33.18, 21-22: “Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory.’ … And the LORD said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.'” It is the language of 1 Kings 19.8-9 and 11: “And Elijah arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, … And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by …”

Just as God “passed by” Moses and “passed by” Elijah, so Jesus has decided to pass by his disciples in an act of self-revelation … an epiphany, to give it it’s proper name. He is going to show them his divinity by revealing his sovereignty over the natural world. At the start of this section of Mark’s gospel, when Jesus had first stilled a storm, the disciples had asked themselves: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4.41). Now, at the close of this section of Mark’s gospel, by “passing by” them while walking on the water, Jesus intends the answer to become clear to them; and, even as they react in terror to the epiphany, he underlines what is happening and what he wants them to see. “Take heart,” he says, “It is I” … or rather, “Take heart, I AM.” This is the great ego eimi — the name by which God had made himself known to Moses. “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”‘” (Exodus 3.14).

“I AM” comes to them, walking on the waves, shining in the light of the full moon, “passing by” them as God passed by Moses and Elijah. Surely they must have got the message? Surely it must have dawned on them that this Jesus, their Lord and Master, was in fact none other than the Lord God Almighty, come in flesh, incarnated into his own creation. No, sadly they didn’t. They understood this no more than (as Mark notes at the end of the story) they had understand about the loaves … for the feeding of the 5,000 had been an epiphany too if their eyes had been open enough to see it.

I ask myself this morning: How much do I miss of what the Lord would show me about himself because of my closed eyes, my deaf ears and my hard heart?

O what a gift! what a wonderful gift!
Who can tell the wonders of the Lord?
Let us open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts;
it is Christ the Lord, it is He!

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