One story I didn’t get to touch on in the sermon this week was the story that comes straight after the feeding of the 5000. It’s another famous story – the miracle of Jesus walking on water. It’s a strange story because it’s a strange miracle. Jesus is alone on a hillside and sees the disciples once again battling against a strong storm in a little boat. And then it says that Jesus came to them, walking on the water. He was going to pass them by, it says, but they saw him and were afraid. So instead of walking by (on the water!) he comes to them and hops in the boat with them. Like I said, strange story. It’s a show of miraculous power without helping anyone. He doesn’t calm the waves or heal anyone. He just… walks on water. And it doesn’t encourage the disciples. It frightens them and tests their faith.
The key is that this miracle is actually a parable – a story that Jesus is telling through his miraculous power. Jesus is drawing on deep meaning from the ancient stories of Israel. This is where we come to the importance of imagery in the Bible. New Testament authors and later Old Testament authors often draw on the early stories of Israel; Genesis, the flood, Abraham… and in this case, the Exodus story and the escape of the Israelites through the Red Sea and into safety. In the Exodus story, God moves powerfully through the waters, opening up a way for the people of God to enter through. Water, not just the Red Sea in the Exodus story, but all oceans and seas represented chaos, death and slavery. The waters overwhelm you, hem you in, hold you down and kill you. But when the Lord moves, the waters get out of the way. So the stories of God’s way with water was a
Psalm 77 which is an explicit reference to the Exodus story says;
“Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:19-20)
The God of Israel is the God who leads his people through the waters because is not afraid of the chaos of the sea. And Jesus walking where only God can walk.
But what about the weird bit about Jesus ‘passing by’. This is an even bigger clue. In the Exodus story, we have a couple of incidents where God ‘passes by’ Moses. Moses desires to be close to God so in Exodus 33:18-20 we read for example;
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
God must pass by only partially, only show a little bit of his glory, so overwhelming is God’s presence.
In this story, we see Jesus causing fear, the disciples are overwhelmed. But instead of passing by, this time, the Lord stops and turns, and comes near.
And in a gospel, where the authors are grappling with a strange and dangerous idea, that in Jesus, God seems to be walking the earth, it’s stories like these that help press the issue. The church didn’t just up and say ‘Oh, Jesus is God, obviously.’ They experienced, shared and retold these stories and in the sharing, become more bold in their belief.
One more thing. If Mark is bringing Exodus to mind, the language of Passover cannot be far behind. A sacrifice is coming, and an angel of death. To make a way for the people, blood must be spilled. Mark is preparing us to understand the fullness of Jesus. As the old hymn says;
“Glorious now behold Him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice.”