In times of pain, frustration or tragedy, one question echoes through our hearts and minds: Why? And we wonder to ourselves (or even aloud) why the Lord allows certain things to happen in our lives. “Why?” is a powerful question. Sometimes we don’t get the answers we seek because we begin with the wrong question or the wrong assumptions. Often we don’t have all of the information we need in order to understand or even begin to process what has happened.
Consider the end of Mark chapter 6. After a time alone on the mountain to pray, Jesus walks on water. No, He wasn’t ice fishing. We know this because the disciples were out in a boat on the sea. The little details of Mark’s account (and some missing information) will help us as we wrestle with the “whys” of our lives.
They did not understand about the loaves in last week’s text. Jesus’ direction to the disciples to “give them” — the 5,000-plus — “something to eat,” meaning “tell them about Me” went un-understood because their hearts were hardened. In other words, they lacked a strong faith in Christ. You can hear their terror in the first paragraph of the text.
Jesus comes to them very late: 3-6 in the morning. Or is that very early? The wind was against them, Mark informs us. And then they think they see a “phantasm,” and they think it is coming to get them. How wrong they were! Our question, “Why?” so often assumes that God is wrong. Isn’t that what we feel in our hearts? An accusation against God? How quickly we forget that the Lord creates in us new hearts, gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of faith, and that our God is the one who declares, “Do not be afraid.” How many times has He said it Himself or through His messengers? “Stop being afraid” may be a better translation.
They were utterly astounded. And even more disappointing is the fact that this wasn’t the first time the Lord had calmed a storm (Mark 4). Back on the very day Jesus had taught them with all those parables, they get into the boat to cross to get to the other side. Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the stern while the disciples accuse Jesus of not caring about them. He says, “Peace, be still!” And all was calm. Except the disciples. They were filled with fear instead of faith.
Can you imagine being in the boat with the disciples the second time? Couldn’t you imagine them complaining about the wind and the waves and this unearthly supernatural spirit coming after them? Wouldn’t it be plausible for them to cry out in the same way they had before? “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” If God is good, and you know He is, you realize that this is a question formed by fear, not a question formed by faith.
Ultimately, most “why” questions are unanswerable this side of heaven. Usually, the reason behind a tragedy belongs to the hidden knowledge of God, information God has chosen not to reveal in His word. Why He allowed something to happen may be part of a greater good, a message we are unlikely to accept when our pain is fresh. Jesus calmed the storm when He was in the boat with the disciples back in Mark 4. In the Mark 6 text, Jesus allows the wind and waves to rage until He gets into the boat with them. They were utterly astounded, Mark tells us, but they do not yet believe.
Remember why Jesus does miracles. They always go hand-in-hand with faith. Jesus’ miracles are paired with His teaching and His very presence to create, nurture, strengthen or renew faith in Him. When Jesus was at Nazareth, He didn’t do many miracles because the people didn’t believe what He said. If they didn’t believe what He said, why would they believe it just because He did something miraculous? The feeding of the 5,000-plus could be misunderstood as “dinner and a show.” We dare not substitute doubt or fear for faith.
We now come back to the disciples. Jesus has now twice calmed the sea, but their fears remain. Compare the faith of the crowds with the unfaith of the disciples at this time. They have been following Him as their teacher, but have missed His lessons. Their hearts were hardened in misunderstanding about the feeding of the 5,000-plus. Even a repeat of that, a feeding of 4,000-plus, leaves them with unfaith so that Jesus has to ask, “Do you not yet understand?” They won’t confess Him as Messiah and Christ until Mark 8:29.
Our Lord is patient with us. That is but another way He manifests his mercy and grace to us in word and sacrament. Amen.
The Rev. Paul J Cain is senior pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church and a member of Pastors United in Christ.