I needed to write a short sermon—a homily—about one of Jesus’s miracles. At first, I decided upon the one where Jesus walks on the water out of the Gospel of Matthew, but Jesus walks on the water in Mark’s and John’s gospels as well. I figured I would read those two accounts for some extra detail, but I almost wish that I hadn’t done that because reading Mark changed my entire trajectory. I wound up scrapping the first sermon and writing an entirely different one. Basically, I chucked the safety and security of a perfectly solid sermon in favor of chasing a rabbit down the trail. Hopefully, you don’t think that the bunny steered me wrong…
47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he [Jesus] was alone on land.
48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them,
49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out,
50 because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down…
I kept reading v.48 over and over. It was pecking away at my brain. Specifically, what does it mean that he was going to pass them by? That bugged me. I was like, “What? Jesus didn’t figure they’d see him?” That doesn’t make sense. After all, what good is a miracle that nobody even sees? So, I thought, “Maybe I have it wrong; maybe I don’t understand the meaning correctly.” My understanding is that “to pass by” means there are outsiders watching something happen that doesn’t directly concern what is happening. For example, if I pass-by my friend’s house on my way to work, I’m not doing anything for her. In fact, I could be blunt and say that she is irrelevant to what I am doing, and I disregard her in that moment. Or try this one: you are passed-by for promotion. You are set aside. The promotion isn’t yours and doesn’t involve you. Once again, we find irrelevance—a disregard for the one passed-by.
But is that what MARK means to imply with this phrase? Mark wasn’t a part of our culture, so did the phrase mean something else to him? Mark was Jewish, he would have known the Tanakh—maybe in Hebrew or maybe in Greek translation—but when he uses phrases like “to pass-by,” he’s definitely still Jewish, and that means something. Jewish people use scripture to make points. It’s what they do; it’s a distinctive hallmark of the Jewish faith to link phrases back to (our Old Testament) scripture. In their teaching method, one phrase delivers an entire package. Westerners don’t do that so much. Ancient Jews memorized their scripture. Few of us do that nowadays, but I can give you an example where we do something similar. We do it with Hollywood movies. In America, I can do my best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression and say, “I’ll be back,” and if you and I share that memory, then I likely just exploded an entire movie memory into your mind, complete with the muscled, sun-glassed Terminator. Well, ancient Jews did that type of thing with scripture.
So, I started to unpack “passing-by” in a Jewish way. In Hebrew, the translated words come from the word abar. It is used a lot, so I confined my search to where God was involved in the “abar-ing.” The first mention of abar is in Genesis where God remembered Noah bouncing around on the waves in the ark, and so God made a wind to pass over and calm the waters. That’s interesting! Faithful people…a boat…a storm…the calming at the hand of the Lord using the wind to pass-by. There’s correlation. Don’t think that early listeners of Mark’s gospel wouldn’t have recognized that as they were reading about Christ calming the storm for His disciples!
Then, the next pass-by in Exodus where Moses tells God that he wants to see Him…like really SEE Him. God agrees and says that He will protect Moses from death as He Himself passes-by Moses. And just one more for a bonus…the next pass-by we find it again in Exodus at the establishment of Passover. God declares that He will pass-by the faithful Hebrews who put the blood of the lamb on their doors. My point in referencing these three Old Testament examples, is that they use “pass-bys” that are ACTIVE. This isn’t the same type of pass-by that I knew and associated with. When God passes-by, the person being passed-by is not irrelevant, nor disregarded:
- The calming the waters of the Great Flood was for Noah,
- Moses was allowed to see the glory of the Lord unharmed,
- the Hebrews were protected during the plague.
That’s a really different word association than I originally had. So, armed with this new idea, let’s join the disciples back at the boat on the Sea of Galilee. I think that in a less stressful situation, maybe Jesus’s disciples would have been able to unpack the idea of Christ’s pass-by, but they were scared and couldn’t do it. I think Christ hoped to pass-by in a way that silently announced, “I’m right here…I’m on the job!;” but his appearance was something else in the mind of his own disciples (they thought He was a ghost), and Jesus had to verbally fix the situation. He commands “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” In a less scary situation, I think the disciples wouldn’t have needed verbal command. It would have been enough just to see Him pass-by.
You and I, though, are not scared disciples on a stormy lake. The disciples were on the water, and they were afraid. But us? We have hindsight. We have the written gospels. We get to pick at them, digest them, and contemplate them. The message is still there, and I believe God’s still saying the same thing to us: “I shouldn’t have to stop and tell you that I AM right here! Don’t you see me passing-by? Where else would I be? I AM all up in your business, I AM riding in your car, I AM at your work, I AM in your family…and yeah…I AM surely in your storm!” Why are we amazed to find God when we look into the face of trouble? He was there, he is there, he will always be there. What we need to do is go out and live like people who know exactly what God’s doing whenever He passes-by, because when He passes-by, we are never disregarded, and we are certainly not irrelevant.