Tuesday, July 23, 2019

According to Mark: Fear, Faith, and Wonder

Welcome back to the Quest Forums “According to Mark” study. As we have seen so far, there is a simple purity to Mark’s gospel. His primary goal is to make it so that we can see Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). However, we have also seen that this was not always easy for the people at the time of Jesus’ ministry to recognize, and many were opposed to Him as a result. Those themes continue with our passage for today, Mark 4:35–6:6a.

In these verses, the evangelist records more miracles of Jesus. They are arguably the greatest miracles performed by Jesus, at least among those mentioned in Mark (and with the obvious exclusion of His own resurrection). They are also united by an intriguing interplay between the concepts of fear and faith, which we will focus on specifically.

To be clear, we want to notice that this is not merely a collection of “more miracles.” Any miracle is worthy of attention because it represents the power of God breaking in on a broken world. But the point is that they are not only in addition to what Jesus has done before. They up the ante, adding far more evidence for identifying His divine nature and making it that much harder to deny or ignore. When people do deny and ignore it, our shock at their blindness is meant to increase. Added to that, though, it should also inspire us to open our own eyes to who Jesus is.

Calming the Waves

In the first of these stories, found in Mark 4:35–41, Jesus is exhausted from another long day of teaching and performing miracles. Some might wonder here, how could God be tired? But it should actually be a comforting reminder. Jesus was God, but He was also man. He united His divine nature to our frail one, becoming one of us. He shared in our weaknesses (though never in our sins). His fatigue, then, is ultimately a sign of His compassion. He was willing to humble Himself and suffer for our sakes. That is most clearly displayed on the cross, but this is a related acknowledgment of the lengths He went to care for humanity.

In order to rest from His labors, Jesus asks His disciples to take Him across the Sea of Galilee. There will be fewer people for a little while, giving Him a chance to sleep. However, a great storm comes up and His repose is interrupted. Notice that it is not the storm itself that wakes Him up, though. He sleeps straight through it. He has no reason to be afraid because He has faith in His Father. He has perfect peace (Ps. 3:5; 4:8).

No, what wakes Him is the fear of His disciples, which is expressed with anger. That is so often the case, is it not? When we are afraid and do not know what to do about our situations, it is easy for us to lash out at the people around us. Those in the boat with Jesus do this by accusing Him of being uncaring. This, after they have already seen Him heal sickness, restore the paralyzed, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. I cannot blame them, though. Can you? It certainly would be terrifying to be on a little leaky dinghy, out of sight of land, tossed around like a leaf and expecting a wave to crash down and crush you at any moment. Their fear is not unreasonable. It is simply unwarranted, which they do not know.

The disciples are fearful because they do not understand the situation, and they are angry because they think they do. They think it makes sense for Jesus to be as upset as they are, and for Him to maybe do something about it. That is why they rhetorically ask Him if He cares that they are all about to drown. Where is His sense of self-preservation? If they are going to survive, then it needs to be all hands on deck.

Personally, I think that is all they wanted. Some see this as a request for Jesus to save them from the storm itself. Perhaps that is correct, and Matt. 8:25 might suggest it. But even there, I think it was probably something more mundane that they were asking for. They probably wanted Jesus to help with the rigging or to assist in bailing out the boat. Even with the other miracles He has performed, they do not exactly have much to go on to suggest that He can control the weather. At most, they might have been praying to heaven for relief and expecting Jesus to do the same, hopefully with better results.

Jesus does them one better, though. He calms the sea Himself with a mere word. Whether they knew it or not, the disciples had indeed been praying to heaven because the King of heaven was standing beside them. In this miracle, Jesus shows His absolute power over nature in its most violent form. Once again, Jesus does what only God can do, proving He is God.

This is well illustrated by Ps. 107:23–30, which may as well have been written about what Jesus did here (and, in the inspiration of the Spirit, that is precisely what it was):

Others went to sea in ships, conducting trade on the vast water.
They saw the Lord’s works,
his wondrous works in the deep.
He spoke and raised a stormy wind
that stirred up the waves of the sea.
Rising up to the sky, sinking down to the depths,
their courage melting away in anguish,
they reeled and staggered like a drunkard,
and all their skill was useless.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
They rejoiced when the waves grew quiet.
Then he guided them to the harbor they longed for.

After performing this great miracle, Jesus turns to His disciples and answers their accusation with one of His own. They had wondered where His concern was. He now asks them, where was their faith? In their case, it seems almost unfair to ask. Almost. They had seen enough that they should have been able to know that God was at work and nothing as simple as a storm was going to take Jesus down. Still, they did not know Jesus had this type of power. We do.

Where is our faith? Why do we struggle so much with believing the Lord can see us through the storms in our life? I don’t mean that to be harsh, and it applies to me, too. It is more about disappointment than frustration, which I imagine is how Jesus said it. It is not a reason to be oppressed with guilt, but it is something worth asking ourselves in times of trouble. Then, hopefully, we can take stock and allow faith to overcome fear.

Another way to put it is that we need to replace one kind of fear with another. That is what the disciples did. I’m currently using the CSB translation of the Bible, which is what I shared in the first hyperlink. In Mark 4:41, it says the disciples were “terrified” of Jesus and what He was capable of doing. Some other translations say they were “filled with awe” or something along those lines. The meaning is really the same either way. When we face power we cannot understand or hope to control, fear of it is a natural reaction. In other words, we should not seek to challenge it. When we face the power that is in control of everything else, that submission should be ratcheted up to 11. With that respect comes reliance, and oddly enough, that reliance means we do not have to fear any lesser strength anymore. Fear, placed properly, brings peace.

Releasing the Captive

As always in Mark, the account moves on quickly. Once Jesus makes landfall, He is immediately confronted by another demon. I won’t spend too much time on this because it is not truly much different from the exorcism in Mark 1. The demon wants to challenge Jesus, Jesus is not impressed, the demon is defeated, and the sufferer is released from bondage. The key distinction, though, is that in this case, we are talking about multiple demons, not just one.

There is a lot in this story I cannot explain. I don’t know how demon possession works, or how so many of them could invade one person. I don’t know why they wanted to enter the pigs, and whether there was one for each of the swine or if there were just enough to make the rest of them stampede. I don’t know what happened to them after the pigs died. All I know is that Jesus was victorious.

There is a line that occasionally gets used in movies and on TV that goes, “When things go bump in the night, bump back!” Mark 5:1–20 shows Jesus as the ultimate model of this idea. A “legion” of demons, in control of one man, were terrifying an entire region. But when Jesus shows up, they are forced to their knees. That is the impression we are given here. The demoniac rushes Jesus, but is suddenly in a posture of obeisance. Is it likely he was trying to worship Jesus? Or more likely that he wanted to do harm, only to find himself pressed into the dirt? Well, I guess it really doesn’t matter. The point is that Jesus once again turns fear on its head. This group of demons, so frightening before, can now do nothing but beg for some type of mercy.

Jesus becomes so much an object of fear here, that the people living in the area are too afraid to have Him stay around. They ask Him to leave, missing the glory of what has just happened. All except for the man who was freed. He alone responds with faith. He recognizes the worshipfulness of the Lord and asks to remain with Him. Perhaps surprisingly, Jesus tells him no. I don’t think it was a refusal of the man, though. It was more about the mission. What Jesus needed from him was for him to be a witness. By spreading the word of his liberation, this man would be preparing more fertile ground for when Jesus went that way again.

We get another subtle detail from Mark, here, too. In v. 19, Jesus tells the man to report “how much the Lord has done for you.” In v. 20, however, we are told that the man proclaimed “how much Jesus had done for him.” Jesus is directly related to God, which is wholly appropriate. He is worthy of all the praise we have to give for the things that He has done for us.

Healing Sickness

The final two miracles of this passage actually go together and occurred at the same time. They are another of those “sandwiches” Mark is so fond of, this being the second one. These two events share the same theme of faith and fear, but of course, so did the previous two. What really unites them is simple chronology, for one. The first miracle actually interrupted the second. But the other feature is the creation of tension. We want to know what happens in the story that starts first. The break in the middle makes us want to know the resolution even more, especially after the pause results in an even worse situation than the one they started with. We are made to wait a moment so that the payoff will be even more powerful.

I’m not going to do that, since you can read Mark 5:21–43 yourself (and hopefully already have). Instead, I want to continue the progression from least to greatest. Jesus has already shown His power over nature and over the arrayed forces of evil. By healing the woman with the bleeding condition, He shows how far His power over the body extends. This is not a fever, or even paralysis or leprosy. Those things had external causes. This is not only chronic, but totally internal. By healing it, Jesus showed that His wisdom and strength were not limited to the things that could be seen.

Speaking of seeing, that brings us to the way Jesus performed this healing. It was, so to speak, without His knowledge. Now, that isn’t quite right. I cannot and do not believe Jesus was unaware of what was happening. But the point was that His power did not even need His “active” engagement in order to be effective.

Why did the woman do it that way, though? Why try to keep it secret and just touch Jesus’ clothes rather than talking to Him and asking for help? For one, it most likely reflects a belief in magic. It was common in that culture to believe that objects could be imbued with power and become effective talismans. If she believed that, then it shows her mistaken impression that it was something Jesus had, rather than who Jesus was, that made healing possible. The other, more likely reason is simple shame. This was a woman in a culture that looked down on them. Her condition had made her poor. Her constant bleeding made her unclean. She may have assumed that Jesus would not talk to her about her problem, let alone be willing to help her. Fear of rejection kept her from praying as she ought to have done. I lean toward the latter, and it is possible that both magic and shame influenced her. Jesus eliminated both.

By asking who had touched Him, Jesus showed the woman that He knew what had happened. But He did it in a way that solicited a response. That is why I do not think it was a matter of Him not actually knowing who did it. It is much more like the questions of God in Gen. 3:9 and 4:9. The Lord knew where Adam and Eve were, and He knew what Cain had done to Abel. He was giving them a chance to restore relationship. They did not. Here in Mark, this woman does.

She does so with fear, of course. Before, it had been fear of the bleeding and fear of rejection. Now it is fear of judgment. But she still steps forward to say what has happened. That was all that Jesus wanted. By confessing what had occurred, it made her total restoration possible. It was faith, not magic, that had made her well. She needed to know that, and so did the crowd. And that knowledge, expressed publicly, meant that she belonged. She could have peace knowing that she was purified and able to be a full part of the community again, something that her affliction had been preventing for 12 years. Her faith made her welcome, in spite of all of the fears that nearly got in the way.

Restoring Life

Meanwhile, the procession to Jairus’ house had been stopped to deal with this. I have to wonder how the man must have felt. As a synagogue leader, he was probably in close contact with people who despised Jesus. He put himself out on a limb by asking for the Lord’s help, but he loved his daughter and did not know what else to do for her. The interruption on the way to his home could have only taken a few moments, but seconds count in a situation like the one his daughter was in, and they ran out. His fears had been realized. His little girl was gone.

I cannot imagine the pain of that moment. I am not a parent. I only know vaguely that there can be no greater horror than to lose a child, and I hope I never know it more than that. What must he have felt like to hear that she had died? To be told that he might as well part ways with Jesus, because nothing more could be done? And what must he have felt like when Jesus said those five little words?

Don’t be afraid. Only believe.

Here is the culmination of everything to this point. Nature could not capsize Jesus. Demons could not challenge Him. Sickness and impurity fled His presence without Him even saying a word. And now? Now, not even death could slow Him down. Mankind’s greatest fear, our most dreadful curse, was powerless before Him.

Once again, fear returns to the story. And once again, it is expressed as awe. The few people present for this miracle are astounded. The little girl was returned to life, and all the fear of her loss was replaced with wonder at this Man whom even the grave could not refuse. In the presence of His greatness, what concerns can remain? He is Almighty.

Feeling Astonishment

I would love to leave the story there, but I can’t do it even if it ends the chapter. The truth is, the next few verses belong in this discussion. After all of these momentous events, Jesus returns to the hometown of His youth, Nazareth. The people there have known Him almost all of His life, so this should have been something of a triumphal return. Instead, they respond to His teaching with anger.

This brings about the last mention of fear, or at least of awe. In every other case, Jesus inspired it. Now, He experiences it. Here He has come, the power of God to defeat demons and death, and his neighbors basically run Him out of town? It is unfathomable. Well, perhaps not unfathomable. He is God, after all, and knows the true depth of the abyss that is the human heart. But it is still regrettable.

That, by the way, is the explanation for why Mark says Jesus “was not able to do a miracle there.” It was not as though Jesus lost His power or His nerve. He wasn’t sprinkling pixie dust and hoping people would think happy thoughts. But He did require faith. It was not that He needed it in order to be able to act, but that they needed it in order to make His actions worthwhile. When they refused to express it, He withheld His favor.

Remember, in Mark, Jesus only heals when He is asked to do so. The only exception is in Mark 3:5, where He did it to make a point. People have to come to Him for restoration. He does not force it on them, not in Mark and not today. The citizens of Nazareth, at least for the most part, told Him, “Thanks, but no thanks.” He let them have it their way.

It still begs the question, why? Why, after all He had done, would they treat Jesus with derision? Because “familiarity breeds contempt.” That’s the English idiom that most closely relates to Jesus’ comment in Mark 6:4. These people thought they knew Jesus without actually knowing Him, and it led them to totally miss what was available when He visited them. They thought He was just one of their own, the local boy whose mom lived down the street, whose brothers still had the shop next door, and whose sisters went to the well for water just like everybody else. They thought Jesus was pretentious, and they did not care to know more than what they already believed.

How much of that still goes on today? How many people in our society think they know Jesus because they grew up as members of a church, or because they have seen the distorted picture of Him that our pop culture presents? The version of Him that they have is not the truth, and they are turned off by the counterfeit. Maybe they do not even care to know more. But that is not our concern. If we know Jesus, then we must make it our aim to be a clear reflection of Him, hoping that others will be drawn past their impressions and into the truth. Maybe they will refuse it like the Nazarenes did, but if we do not even try, then they will be guaranteed to miss out on the healing Jesus brings.

The stories in Mark 4:35–6:6a continue to build an insurmountable case for the greatness of Jesus Christ, but we must choose how to engage with it. Will we accept the truth about Him, or rely on comforting narratives devoid of meaning? Will we have faith in His awesome power, or will we fear the things He has already vanquished? Those are the options this passage presents to us. My hope for all of us is that we will grow daily in our ability to be astounded by the goodness of God, of which there is no end.

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