Day 4: The Power of God
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
The boy didn’t need to hear it. There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and now know it and then suddenly know it and drown. Where he wanted to stay was in Eastrod with his two eyes open, and his hands always handling the familiar thing, his feet on the known track, and his tongue not too loose.[i]
Flannery O’Connor (d. 1964), Wise Blood
Mercifully assist us, O Lord, when we pray to you. As this Lenten season has been given to us for the healing of our bodies and souls, grant that we, with all godliness and lowliness, might observe it faithfully, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
If the people of ancient Israel would show concern for the poor and keep the Sabbath regulations, then the Lord would make their light to shine in the darkness. Here, God is showing his people the utter delight that would come from a covenant relationship with him. He promises to renew their souls to become like streams that would never run dry. To those living in Palestine where water was a very precious resource, this imagery of a verdant, watered garden is an image of a prosperous, flourishing life. Human flourishing is what God offers his people if they will simply trust him and walk in his ways. Since God is holy (“set apart”), he demands that his Sabbath not be defiled by common activities. Although Jesus significantly redefines Sabbath obligations for Christians in the New Testament, we must never lose the sense of awe and reverence for the holiness of God that he commends here.
9Then you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry out and the Lord will say, “Here I am.” You must rid the yoke from your midst and stop pointing your finger and speaking sinfully. 10You must pour out your life for the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. Then your light will shine forth in the darkness and your gloominess will become like the noonday. 11Then the Lord will lead you continuously and He will satisfy the scorched regions of your soul. He will invigorate your bones so that you will be like a well-watered garden and like a spring of water that never runs dry. 12Your ancient ruins will be rebuilt; your foundations will rise up again. You will be called “repairer of the wall” and “restorer of the streets” for those who live there.
13You must turn away from doing your pleasures on the Sabbath, on my holy day. Then you will call the Sabbath an exquisite delight, holy to the LORD. You must honor it by not doing your routine activities, by not realizing your desires and by not speaking idly. 14Then you will take exquisite delight in the LORD. I will make you enjoy the best things of the land, and I will cause you to feed from the inheritance of Jacob, your forefather, because the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.
New Testament Lesson
Jesus’ walking on water is one of his most beloved miracle stories. The key to Mark’s telling of this story is that it occurs in the aftermath of the disciples’ greatest ministry success when they were sent out two by two to cast out demons. It also occurs right after the feeding of the five thousand, one of Jesus’ greatest miracles. When Jesus calms the storm, Mark tells the story as if Jesus is performing an exorcism by calming the winds (storms were thought to be caused by demons). Thus the disciples, who were able to cast out demons just a few days prior, freeze up out of fear, not realizing the spiritual power resident within them.[iii] By contrast, those in Gennesaret have no problems with unbelief and experience Jesus’ healing in a remarkable way.
47Now when evening came, the boat was in the midst of the sea and Jesus was alone on land. 48And He saw them furiously struggling to make headway because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night, He came to them walking on the sea and wanted to pass by them. 49But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they thought that He was a ghost and cried out, 50for they all saw Him and were petrified. And right then He said to them, “Take courage. It’s me. Don’t be afraid!” 51Then he got up with them into the boat and the wind abated. They were completely astounded, 52for they did not comprehend the loaves but their hearts were hardened.
53Then, having crossed over to the shore, they came to Gennesaret and they anchored there. 54And, just as they were getting out of the boat, the people recognized Jesus. 55Running throughout that whole region, they began to transport those who had sickness on mattresses, wherever they heard he was. 56And whenever he would enter towns or cities or countrysides, they would lay the sick in the marketplaces and would ask if they could just touch the hem of his garment. And all who touched it were made well.
Questions for Reflection
- Isaiah seems to think that God’s laws are for the good of the people. Is that how you view God’s restraints on your choices? Can we really have freedom in the absence of restraint?
- If you were to describe your life as “flourishing,” what would that entail? Is there a link between the health of our relationship with God and our ability to flourish?
- Is God against pleasure? How might it be beneficial to your life to refrain periodically from pleasures you normally enjoy?
- If you were in the boat and you saw Jesus walking on water, how would you react? Would it strengthen your faith or would you write it off as some strange illusion (a ghost)?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
As we come to the end of the first few days of Lent, we see the power of God at work. Jesus demonstrates His authority over the weather, over sicknesses, and even over gravity. The disciples, having just seen Jesus miraculously feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fish, are startled to find He can walk on water.
The disciples are harassed by the winds on the sea and can’t make headway. They’ve been rowing all night against the winds, and don’t recognize Jesus when He shows up to help them. They collapse into fear.
This is a great metaphor for the reality of the Christian life. We have the power of God at our disposal, but through disbelief and cynicism, through neglect and busyness, we don’t see it. Then, when God does something miraculous in our midst, we are quick to attribute it to natural causes because this is what “reasonable” people do. We get stuck in our spiritual lives because we cannot bring ourselves to believe that God will show up in a remarkable way if we will just trust him.
This is the disciples’ problem. They’re first-century rationalists. They have actually cast out demons themselves. They have seen the power of God at work. They are coming off their greatest ministry success. But, days later, they don’t realize that they themselves have the power to calm the storm that is harassing them. They row and row, but never stop to pray.
Stepping out in faith and trusting God is very hard because we live in plenty and in a world that only trusts naturalistic explanations. Throughout history, people have usually trusted God most ardently when they had no other choice. This is one reason why Jesus insists that it’s the poor who are actually blessed. It’s not because economic deprivation is good. (Jesus always wants us to alleviate this suffering.) The poor are blessed because they have a chance to see God at work, while the self-sufficient don’t.
In both passages, what God most wants for his people is for them to trust him. He desires to give them a flourishing existence, life beyond the pale. But, when we take our cues from our culture instead of from the Scriptures, we don’t see it. We think that trusting God is for the weak minded, the desperate, the sick. Yet, it takes remarkable courage and strength to be a true disciple.
To be clear, God doesn’t always answer prayer. There is nothing wrong with being responsible, sensible people. But, during Lent, let’s dream a little. Let’s consider what life would be like if God really did show up in our midst in a remarkable way. Let’s start expecting it. Let’s start to live like He wanted His disciples to live. Let’s serve the poor with abandon. Let’s give like there’s no tomorrow. Let’s become the people God has called us to be.
- Meditative Prayer: Spend some time meditating on today’s Gospel reading. Put yourself in the boat. Hear the sounds. Smell the smells. See the waves crashing. Feel the winds blowing. What would it be like to trust God completely in a seemingly impossible situation?
[i] Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood: A Novel (New York: Macmillan, 2007), 16.
[ii] Adapted from The Anglican Breviary, 432.
[iii] Abraham Kuruvilla, Mark: A Theological Commentary for Preachers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 136–137.