by Austin Ariail
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.
What could only seem like déjà vu from the past two decades happened yet again this past Sunday evening when Tom Brady, along with his teammates, won the Super Bowl. With his seventh title, I am reminded of his 60 Minutes interview in 2005 after Brady’s third Super Bowl title. Midway through his time with Steve Kroft, Brady muses, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there is something greater out there for me?...I reached my goal, my dream, my life, but there’s got to be more than this?” Upon hearing this shocking revelation, Kroft asks, “What’s the answer?” To which Brady quickly replies, “I wish I knew.”
At the end of Mark 6, we find Jesus quickly hurrying off His disciples into a boat and dismissing the crowd of over 5,000. After this episode, Jesus ascends a mountain for a time of prayer. In Scripture, mountains are symbolic for meeting with God. On Horeb, Moses saw the bush burning; and with Sinai, Moses and Elijah come face to face with God on separate occasions. Mountains also represent a refuge in times of trouble (cf. 1 Kings 19). And Mountains are not only a refuge for the saints of the Old Testament but for Jesus too. But why would Jesus need refuge?
From John’s account, we discover a fervor had taken over the crowd, and they wished to make Jesus king (John 6:15). Jesus perceiving their intention disrupts their plan. Rather than being swept up in a nationalistic coup, Jesus forcefully sends His disciples to the other side of the sea, and He retreats. How do you make a King more of a king? The crowd wishes to bestow an identity on Jesus that was not theirs to give. Jesus leans into His Father on the mountainside to be reminded of who He is and His mission. Each time in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus encounters an impassioned crowd and great ministry activity, Jesus retreats to spend time alone with the Father (Mark 1:35-39; 6:45; 14:26-42). One could also suppose Jesus is exhausted from having to quell an unruly, passionate crowd and their fever pitch. And we must not forget that this takes place in the wilderness, and the wilderness is dangerous and full of temptations (cf. Mark 1:12).
The temptation faced was to take on an identity that is altogether something wholly outside of Jesus’ mission. Jesus came not as a Messiah-Warrior, ready to vanquish the enemies of Israel and establish David’s rule on Earth. Jesus comes as the Suffering-Servant ready to vanquish the enemies of Creation – sin, death, and Satan – through His death and resurrection. The unruly crowd wants an identity that Jesus will not concede. You and I face a similar temptation. We are surrounded by voices speaking of a way to shape our identity, and our own heart falls prey to the whispers. The question is, do we allow these voices to form us, or do we seek our identity in the God who made us and called us?
We are busy people. We fill our calendars with appointments, meetings, and social expectations galore. Our years are filled with plans, parties, and projects. Henri Nouwen is onto this when he writes in The Way of the Heart, “There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing. We simply go along with the many “musts” and “oughts” that have been handed on us, and we live with them as if they were an authentic translation of the Gospel of our Lord.”
Societal pressure combined with internal angst, whether it’s to fit in, to look competent, or put together – the “musts” and “oughts” – places us squarely in a situation to be tempted. Will the rousing of the crowd and our heart overwhelm us? Will we give in so we can be loved and belong? Or in these moments, do we run to our Refuge, our Strength, and the One who promised to be our ever-present help? Who or what are we allowing to shape our identity? Whoever it is, or whatever it is, it will either be for our ruin or our restoration.
It is a great mercy that Jesus has been to the wilderness and overcome it. Jesus is not leading us out of a place He Himself has never been. In Christ’s wilderness moment, He shows us and leads us to the place we should go: our Father (cf. Matthew 26:36-46). But we cannot go there alone. We would never take one step in the direction of God, never mind the desire to actually be in the presence of God, if it were not for Christ. In Jesus alone we find salvation for what ails our soul, our identity. In Jesus alone are we led into the presence of the Father (John 14:6). A Father whose tenderness and love for us is one in which before we call He answers, and while we speak, He hears us (Isaiah 65:24). A Father who looks upon us as He looks upon His Son Jesus.
It would be fascinating to know what Brady thinks now after seven titles. Is his question – “Is there more than this?” – more prevalent, or has it faded? A sure-handed entry into Canton (home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame), bequeathed as the Greatest Of All Time, and yet, is Tom Brady still in the wilderness wondering where or to whom to turn? The 2005 interview describes a restlessness in every human heart: who or what can fulfill me? It is a question of identity, or, “Who Am I?” That restless heart can only be soothed by Jesus Christ. The love, belonging, life, and peace we so desperately want are found in Jesus alone.