Our “Obedience School” lessons from June must still be on my mind, because this week I’ve felt like a dog worrying a bone. That bone was a sentence buried right about in the middle of our passage for today, and I struggled with it. I wasn’t sure if it would yield something delicious and nourishing, or if it would stick in my throat.
The passage starts out well enough. It picks up after Mark has taken a moment to tell the story of John the Baptist’s death. He had already described Jesus sending out the twelve, two by two, to teach and to heal. In today’s verses, they’ve returned, full of stories about how they had shared Jesus’ message and healed in his name. In these verses, we see a tender side of Jesus. He shows his concern for his friends by inviting them to join him for a time of rest and retreat—a time away from the crowds that were now constantly following them, a time to enjoy a good meal together. He cares about these men, and he wants to care for them.
They get in a boat, but even that’s not enough for them to get away by themselves. The crowd recognizes them, figures out where they’re going, and is there on the beach when Jesus and the twelve come ashore. Jesus’ tenderness shines through again, now for the waiting crowd. Food and sleep are forgotten in the face of the deeper need of the people before him. Jesus “had compassion for them,” Mark tells us, “Because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Compassion. We need to understand the full force of that word. We tend to think of it as being sympathetic or understanding. We care, maybe deeply. We may take some action to alleviate someone’s suffering. But the word “compassion” comes to us from Latin, where it means “to suffer with”—to actually undergo with someone else what they’re experiencing. Mark’s Greek word is even more descriptive. It means to be moved in the very deepest part of you—literally, in your bowels, in your guts, the very place where it was believed emotion sprang from.
This is no ordinary feeling-sorry-for-someone. It’s hunger when another is hungry, to feel loneliness when another is lonely, to grieve when another is mourning, to feel confused when another is lost. This is what Jesus feels when he sees the crowd waiting for him on the shore. And because compassion is the bridge between feeling and acting, he acts. He feeds them, first by teaching them, and then (in the verses we skipped over today) by providing bread and fish for the five thousand. In his care first for the disciples and then for the shepherd-less people before him, Jesus shows his compassion. And that is why I worried over the verse that I share with you in a moment like dog with a bone. It seems to indicate the exact opposite of this gut-deep love and mercy.
After everyone had eaten and the leftovers collected, Jesus moved his disciples back into the boat and sent them on without him while he dismissed the crowd. After saying good-bye to the sheep he had so lovingly fed, he finally had some time to go up the mountain to pray. Evening fell, and he was alone on the mountain praying. Mark tells us that he saw what was happening in the boat. We don’t know if he could actually see it from his perch on the mountain, or if he was able to see it in prayer. But what he saw was the disciples straining at the oars, buffeted by adverse winds. When he saw it, he went towards the boat, walking on the water. Then comes the verse that troubled me—Jesus “intended to pass them by.”
What?! These men he cares so much about are struggling against the wind and the waves, and he intends to pass right by? Is he just going to allow them to get along as best they can? Some of them were seasoned fishermen, it’s true, but they could still be frightened by dangerous weather. On a previous boat trip, when a storm arose, Mark tells us they were afraid. They’d been out all night in this boat. Isn’t it likely they were afraid again? And here comes Jesus, intending to pass them by.
It’s a terrible thought—that we could be in trouble and Jesus would know it but would choose to walk right by. Have you ever wondered if Jesus has passed you by? I don’t think we’re ever comfortable admitting it, but when we’re struggling against adverse winds, when it seems like no help is coming, we can feel that feeling Jesus has walked right on by.
Maybe we even called out to Jesus, as the disciples did in that earlier stormy boat trip, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” We may not express ourselves so dramatically, but we may still have that knot in our stomachs or tightness in our chests or heaviness in our hearts that signals our fear that Jesus is just going to pass us by.
When we (appropriately) pray with gratitude for illnesses cured and injuries healed, I sometimes wonder if those whose illnesses and injuries are not cured or healed feel that Jesus has passed them by. When we pray with relief that God’s hand protected us from a close call, I wonder if those for whom tragedy did strike feel like Jesus passed them by. When we celebrate the arrival of a new baby and birthdays of little children, I wonder if those who long for a child feel like Jesus is passing them by.
There’s even a hymn that assumes we have this worry and prays that it won’t be so. “Pass me not, O Gentle Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.” So, what do we do with this verse that seems to suggest that Jesus just might pass by those who are in trouble?
Some may say that Jesus was waiting for the disciples to ask for his help. Others say that he wanted to see what they would do on their own. Still others say that he wanted to test their faith and trust in him. None of these satisfy me or square with what Mark has just told us about a loving and compassionate Jesus. So, we need to look elsewhere for the answer.
Where we look is to the meaning Mark intended his words to have and which his original readers would have understood right away. We receive it as a story about a great gift that Jesus offered to his disciples and, now, to us. We receive it, not as a story that throws Jesus’ nature into question, but one that fully illuminates Jesus’ nature and his identity as God’s Son and our Savior.
First, we need to back up to the beginning of Mark’s gospel, where its theme is summed up in Jesus’ words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” Mark strives to demonstrate how all the promises of the Old Testament are now fulfilled in Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, all that the Old Testament writers had dreamed of and prophesied about had finally, in Jesus, broken into the history of the world. Mark’s gospel is full of connections to the Old Testament stories—the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the gift of manna. If you listen closely to Mark, you’ll hear many echoes of the Old Testament’s words and phrases.
One of these phrases is “passing by.” Whenever God shows up in a personal way, God is described as “passing by.” When a human being experiences a close encounter with God in the Old Testament, God is described as “passing by.” The phrase “passing by” is almost a synonym for a divine epiphany—an up-close and personal revelation of God and an opportunity to know God better.
In the book of Exodus, we read about how, after the disastrous golden calf incident, Moses pleaded with God, “Show me your glory, I pray.” Moses needed to know that God was with him—that God would not abandon him or the people Moses had been chosen to lead. To his heartfelt plea, God answered, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But, you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. See, 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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Then, when Moses went up the mountain to meet with God, the Lord, as promised, passed by, as Moses bowed his head and worshiped.
In 1 Kings, we read of Elijah fleeing from Jezebel, in fear for his life. Despondent, he wished only to die. God spoke to him, and Elijah poured out his despair at how the Israelites had forsaken the covenant, destroyed the altars, and murdered the prophets, leaving him as the lone survivor. God responded by telling Elijah to stand outside the cave where he was holed up, for the Lord was about to pass by. Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle as God spoke to him with both a new assignment and reassurance for the future.
Job praises God, speaking of how the God of all creation passes by him, although Job had not seen God. Amos uses the same phrase, but in a more ominous way: in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God threatens that God will never again pass them by.
Over and over again, Mark echoes the language of the prophets from Moses to Amos. “Passing by” is not an expression of divine uncaring. It’s not the act of averting the eyes, like we might do when we pass by the guy on the corner with the “will work for food” sign. When God passes by, God is coming close, making it possible for us to see God in a new way.
So, when Jesus intends to “pass by” the disciples, it’s not because he doesn’t care about their plight. It’s because he does care. He wants to reveal himself to them and have them recognize him in a way they clearly haven’t yet. He had already calmed an earlier storm, but they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand when he fed the five thousand. And, we know as we continue reading Mark’s gospel, that they will continue to misunderstand who Jesus is. But Mark’s readers will know from Mark’s words that when Jesus passes by, it’s God who’s passing by. God has appeared to the disciples and all the world in Jesus. The God who announced that there would be no more passing by unfaithful Israel has relented and passed by once again.
But there’s a difference this time. In all those other passings-by, human beings had to hide their faces in the presence of God: Moses, hidden in a cleft of the rock and covered by God’s hand. Elijah, with his face wrapped in his garment. Job, realizing that he hadn’t seen God when God passed by.
But now, the disciples see the face of God in the face of Jesus. They hear the voice of God in the voice of Jesus, when Jesus speaks and declares his identity: “It is I.” “It is I,” the promised good shepherd. “It is I,” the promised king of David’s line. “It is I,” the Lord of all creation, with the power to rule the forces of nature; it is I.” The Greek words make it clearer: “I am who I am.” God in Jesus was passing by.
There may be times in our lives when we think Jesus has passed by us, but what we really fear is that he has bypassed us—that he has gone around us in order to avoid our us, like a highway bypasses the traffic jams of city streets. In reality, Jesus passes by us in order to show us God’s face. He passes by in times and places and ways we don’t expect. Often, we brush his appearances off—maybe not as a ghostly appearances as the disciples did, but as the product of our imaginations, or a coincidence.
But when we think back, we realize that in that moment, God was present. Our hearts were strangely warmed by a love and acceptance we didn’t know before. We were strengthened when we thought we would fall or fail. In retrospect, we see that God’s hand was in the situation, even if we couldn’t tell how God was moving.
One beautiful June day some years ago, when my Mom was far advanced in her Alzheimer’s Disease, I took her out to the shady patio of Sunset Village. The sky was a robin’s-egg blue, and there was a gentle breeze. By that time, Mom couldn’t speak or move. She couldn’t show any emotion on her face, except for an occasional grimace when something hurt. She weighed less than seventy pounds. She looked so fragile, lying in her big wheelchair. She had lived with the disease for years by that time and because her body was healthy, it was likely she would live for many more. As I sat with her, I thought of what she used to be like, and of all the things she had enjoyed and had been taken from her. I The question went through my mind, “Why is she still here?”
In that instant, I had an experience that’s hard to describe. I didn’t hear words spoken out loud, but they might as well have been, because I heard them so clearly in my heart. The words were these: “You only see what she’s lost. You can’t see what she’s gained.”
I believe Jesus passed by that day, giving me a glimpse of the face of God. Although Mom wasn’t cured of her disease, Jesus did heal a brokenness in me, just as he calmed the wind on that lake for the disciples. In that moment, I felt a peace settle over my heart and, later, an assurance that God was in Mom’s life, even if I couldn’t recognize how, and that God would be with her—and me—always.
The challenge for us is to be on the lookout for the times when Jesus passes by, and I’m convinced that he passes by a lot. Certainly, he passes by when our storms are raging. But I don’t think he limits himself to when times are difficult. Although we may be looking harder for him when we are straining against adverse winds, we can see him, feel him, hear him pass by in all the moments of our lives.
“Jesus intended to pass them by.” It turns out that that Scriptural bone I was gnawing on had a lot of meat on it. When we read it as Mark’s readers would have read it, we find that there is much there to nourish us. In it, we find the God whose promises were kept in Jesus. We find a Savior who is with us always. In these words, we find a God who wants to be known and who, in Jesus, is revealed every time he passes by. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young