[Below is the message from worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio on July 25, 2021. If you'd like to hear the message as part of the entire worship service, a video of the service is also here.]
Two ways of life and of facing eternity are discussed in today’s Gospel lesson. One leads to death. The other leads to life. To begin, a story. Two men died and were buried. One of them had been active in his church. The other was a notable sinner, although, to everyone’s mystification, in his last years, he became a member of the same church.
On the Day of Jesus’ return to the created universe, the dead were called from the dust to stand before the Lord in judgment. To the lifelong churchgoer, Jesus said, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) To the notable sinner with nothing apparently to commend him but joining a church in his last days, Jesus said, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)
The first man was baffled and outraged. “Lord!” he cried. “This isn’t fair. I gave money for the poor, served on church council, went on mission trips, cleaned the church building, and spent years listening to lousy sermons that I was assured were good for me. Yet I’m going to hell. But you’ve invited this drunken derelict, a user and a thief most of his life into eternity with You.” “Friend,” Jesus said with sorrow in His voice, “despite all your religiosity, You never trusted in Me. Your supposed righteousness was always your righteousness. This sinner came to the end of himself and realized how powerless to overcome his sin, death, and humanity. You never realized that. He turned to me; you never did.”
Our Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Mark 6:45-56, continues the narration of the incidents recounted in last week’s Gospel. There, the twelve apostles return from a mission of preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcisms, wanting to tell Jesus “all they had done and taught.” (Matthew 6:30) Jesus invites them to a quiet place where they can “get some rest.” (Matthew 6:30) Jesus, as God the Son, knew all that would subsequently happen and none of it would be described by most people as restful. Jesus had compassion on a crowd that had torn after him, anxious to hear His teaching. Then, commandeering five loaves and two fish, He fed something like 12,000 people and put the apostles to work distributing the food and taking in the leftovers.
As today’s lesson begins, “Jesus made His disciples get into the boat.” The twelve are to go to Bethsaida. The apostles may have thought, “Finally, maybe we can get some rest and tell Jesus about all the great stuff we did on our mission.” Jesus dismisses the crowd, stays on the land, and prays. But you know what happens next. A wind sets against the disciples. They strain at the oars. (Mark 6:48) It’s important not to confuse this incident with an earlier one, recounted in Mark 4. There, Jesus was onboard a boat with the twelve, when a storm threatened to flood the boat. Back then, the twelve were afraid of the wind and waves. But here, the twelve seem unconcerned by the waves. When fear does come to them, it’s Jesus Who terrifies them. “Shortly before dawn [Jesus] went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them…” (Mark 6:48).
Now, at this point, we should see, if the twelve didn’t, what rest Jesus was calling the twelve into back in Mark 6:31. They should have remembered the Old Testament, where Job spoke of God as the one who “treads on the waves of the sea.” (Job 9:8) They should have seen Jesus walking on top of the water and thought, “So, Jesus is God.” But that doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds.
And it’s very clear that Jesus wants the twelve to see Him as their God and Savior. In Old Testament times, God reassured Moses, “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” (Exodus 33:22) And in 1 Kings 19:11, God tells Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19:11)
In Jesus, the disciples were in the presence of the Lord, Yahweh! But far from being reassured, the twelve are afraid. They think Jesus is a ghost. Lliterally, in the Greek in which Mark writes His gospel, Jesus tells them, “Take courage. Ego eimi, I AM (that is, Yahweh). [The name by which God identified Himself to Moses and ancient Israel.] Do not be afraid!” (Mark 6:50)
Within the space of a few hours then, the twelve have seen Jesus feed thousands the way Yahweh fed thousands in the wilderness in Exodus; seen Jesus walk on waves the way Job said God did; seen Jesus pass by them in His power the way God passed before Moses and Elijah; and heard Jesus identify Himself as Yahweh. When Jesus climbs into the boat and the wind subsides, you would think that finally, the twelve will understand Who Jesus is.
Mark says, “...They were completely amazed [the word in the original Greek actually says they were troubled], for they had not understood about the loaves; [and then this:] their hearts were hardened.” The wills of the twelve who spent more time with Jesus than anyone else were, at this moment, hardened against seeing Jesus as their God and Savior. Friends, we are lost to sin, death, despair, and meaninglessness without Jesus. We are only found by God when the Holy Spirit fills us with faith in the Gospel Word that all who daily turn from sin and trust in Jesus have never-ending life with God that starts now in the busy-ness of everyday life. Jesus has done everything necessary for our sins to be forgiven and to have eternal life with God. He did that on the cross and through the resurrection. We can trust in Him and His Gospel. But if our hearts, minds, and wills are hardened to what Jesus gives to us, we will never receive it.
Rest in Jesus then is not about chilling, although there’s nothing wrong with us relaxing sometimes. Jesus called the twelve into a rest that included helping feed thousands and rowing a boat through wind and waves. Rest, true rest, is found in turning to Jesus and being assured of His presence and His unending love for us that cannot be taken from us even by death. Jesus’ ministry liberates the whole idea of Sabbath from being a day of doing no work. Sabbath is about being with Jesus in His Word. That’s why in explaining the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy,” Martin Luther writes, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise His Word and the preaching of it, but acknowledge it as holy, and gladly hear and learn it.”
In our lesson, the disciples, with their hearts hardened, refuse to rest in Jesus, God the Son. But others who haven’t spent time with Jesus, aren’t so hard hearted. They’re ready to receive what Jesus has to give, even if the disciples are still hung up on what good they can do to look to good to God or the world. Apparently blown fifty miles from their intended destination of Bethsaida, to a place called Gennesaret, Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by people who understand, at the least, that the power of God is active in Jesus, that all they can give Jesus is their needy selves and that He alone can do the rest. Some even think that if they just touch the edge of His cloak, He will bring them healing. Do we trust Jesus like the crowds or are we like the disciples, our hearts, minds, and wills hardened to Jesus?
Friends, as long as we insist on being in control, relying on our own goodness, virtue, accomplishments, feelings, thoughts, or effort, we will never know the rest that Jesus came to give us, whether now or in eternity. The two foundational truths of the universe are that God is God and we're not. Adam and Eve didn't like that and we've been burdened by the desire to be like God ever since. It was what burdened the churchgoing man in the story at the beginning of this message. And it was the burden of which the second man was freed when he kept turning to Jesus in repentance and faith. Jesus has come to take your burdens away and you can live in the Sabbath rest He came to give you, even in the busiest and most difficult of times. Trust in His Word as He passes by and reveals His glory and you will rest at peace in Him. Amen