Treading on the Back of Leviathan

Mark 6:45-56 / Proper 11B / 29 July 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

What on earth is Jesus up to, much less thinking here? Let me sketch out this morning’s Gospel from St. Mark. First, Jesus makes them, that’s right, He insists that His disciples get into a boat with the sun setting and darkness settling in. Second, He insists that they get into this boat as the sun is setting without Him. You heard it correctly. “You boys just go ahead, I’ll catch up with you later. See you, bye.” And as they’re pulling away from shore, He dismisses the crowd whom He has just fed with five loaves and two fish and He goes off to some mountain to pray. So there they all are: the disciples packed into a boat pulling oars, Jesus on dry land all alone. This is a good plan.

The four fisherman would have known better. They knew a thing or two about boats and the Sea of Galilee and the winds that kicked up nightly from the surrounding hills making it nearly impossible to row across at night. Sure enough, evening comes, the winds kick up, and the disciples are huffing and puffing against a headwind that slows their progress to a crawl. Nine o’clock comes, and they’re still rowing. Midnight, and they are still rowing. Three in morning, and the little boat is bouncing up and down on the waves with the wind blowing in their faces, and they are getting nowhere.

And then comes weird thing number three. Jesus comes to them. Yes, that’s right, He walks out to them on the water, seemingly defying Archimedes principles of buoyancy not to mention all that is reasonable and sensible. And get this: He intended to pass by them. He wasn’t planning on stopping! Until he heard twelve grown men screaming like a bunch of kids on a camp out who’ve been telling ghost stories all night and now think they’ve seen one.

So to sum it all up, Jesus sends His twelve out on the sea in a boat on their own, has them row for six or so frustrating hours against an impossible headwind, and then comes walking out to them on the water at three in the morning, scares the living daylights out of them and says, “Hey, show a little courage. It’s me! Don’t be afraid.” He gets in the boat with them, the wind ceases, and the twelve disciples are left staring at each other in utter disbelief with hearts not only pounding in their chest but hardened to any semblance of understanding as to what all this is supposed to mean.

What this passage is not about is the disciples’ great faith. There isn’t any. They don’t get it. They didn’t get the business about the loaves and they don’t get this thing with Jesus’ walking on the water. Their hearts are hardened, and hardened hearts in the Scriptures are unbelieving hearts. There are no faith heroes in this boat. Just twelve tired, frightened and presumably damp disciples who have just had the wits scared out of them by Jesus passing them by without benefit of a boat.

This text certain is about Jesus’ power as Lord of creation, as the Word who separates sea and dry land and sets the boundaries for the wind and the waves, as the One who is I AM in the flesh come to crush the serpent’s head and redeem not only humanity but all of the creation from the ravages of Sin that has brought death and fear and destruction into a world that was created “very good.” These are certainly “power” texts. Jesus’ power over the natural forces, over the wind and the waves. Jesus’ power over the Deep and Death. Jesus’ power over sickness and the whole demonic realm so that even His clothing exuded healing power and all one had to do was touch the very fringe of His robe and you were healed. Now that’s power! Divine power. The power of the creative Word in the flesh.

A little background might help us. Do you remember last week with the loaves and fish, how feast of “fish” were a messianic sign, how the people of God would feast on the flesh of Leviathan, the great sea serpent, in the age of messiah? Jesus’ walking on the water is related to that. The sea is symbolic of the Deep, of Death itself. You’ll recall that in the first chapter of Genesis, the initial condition of the earth was “formless and void” and the earth was covered by the Deep. And later in Genesis, God returned the earth to that condition in the Flood, once again causing the earth to be covered by the Deep.

The ancient people feared the Deep. Some even idolized it. They imagined a Deep filled with terrifying creatures that would swallow you whole and never spit you out again. Think about the book of Jonah in that light. That’s why Jesus compared His dying and rising to the “sign of Jonah.” Even today we have these mythical denizens of the Deep – the Loch Ness Monster, for example. The book of Job mentions Leviathan, Rahab, and Behemoth. Whatever these creatures might have been in reality, they take on a kind of “mythical” quality in the Scriptures. They are the devil incarnate, the ancient serpent, the Evil One, looking for someone to devour and drag down into the depths of Death.

Apply that here. Jesus walking on the water in the darkness is a picture of what He came to do. To trample Death and Grave. To walk on the back of the ancient serpent and crush His head. Put an ordinary man out into those rolling waters and he would sink. But put the Son of Man out there and He walks confidently. He doesn’t simply float or glide, He walks. He marches. He tramples the waves under His feet. He is the Lord whose has all the power of heaven and earth.

Now make the jump to the cross. The same Jesus who strolled on the waters of the Deep, who stilled the winds, who cast out demons, whose clothing had the power to heal, this same Jesus hangs dead and helpless and lifeless on a cross to do what He came to do, namely, to conquer the darkness, the demons, Death, Hell, the Deep all with His solitary death on a cross. He gives His disciples a 3 AM glimpse of His divine power, and then He buries it deeply under His dark death in the 3 PM darkness of the cross. This is how salvation is done, in the hidden strength of divine weakness. The Lord uses death to accomplish life. He exerts strength in weakness. He overcomes Death with death. He overcomes Sin by becoming Sin. He overcomes the curse by being cursed. His damnation is your salvation. His weakness your strength. His cross your life.

Jesus was training His soon to be apostles one step at a time. In feeding the five thousand, He taught them to be His instruments, His servants, His waiters. He would feed His flock. They would distribute His food. In the boat on the sea, He taught them that without Him no amount of their rowing would matter against the headwinds of culture and religion and opposition and persecution. No matter how strong they might have been, no matter how knowledgable about the ways of the sea they were, they could do nothing without Him.

He would send them as His apostles. His church and His ministers. He would send them out onto sea of Death and despair. He would send them out into the darkness, into the strong headwinds of opposition. And He would come to them. Though unseen, He would be with them until the close of the age. He would care for His church, a little ark of salvation afloat on a flood of destruction. He would be with them, even when their number was a few as two or three. He would come to them treading the back of devil and Death. He would bring peace and calm to their storms.

This is what keeps the church afloat. Not its power, its influence, its intelligence, its relevance or ability to negotiate the shifting winds of public opinion. What keeps the Church afloat is the presence of her Lord in Word and sacrament. The preaching of Jesus, the Body and the Blood, the water of Baptism. At the end of the Flood, God set a rainbow in the heavens as a sign. “Never again.” Never again would water be used as an instrument of destruction. Now it would be an instrument of life and salvation. Baptism. Water and Word. Water and Jesus.

And so also you. In Baptism Jesus comes to you by way of water, bringing calm to your chaos, bringing peace. He places you in the ark of His Church. And though He may seem absent, and you may feel alone and struggling, pulling your oars against headwinds that are too strong for you, He comes to you. He comes to you in the deepest of darkness. He comes to you at the last watch of the night, just before the break of day. He comes to meet you just there, when you are at your weakest, overwhelmed by Sin, overcome by Death. He comes to you to say, “Take heart. It is I. Do not fear.”

In the name of Jesus,