Monday, January 14, 2013

Looking for Jesus (John 6:16-25)

Don’t you hate it when you misplace something and can’t find it after looking all over for it? People say that you always find those things in the last place you look. Well, I hope that’s true, because if you find it, and then keep looking for it, something is definitely wrong with you. But, I’m sure we’ve all had those times when we find what we are looking for in some strange place and wonder how in the world it managed to get there. And then sometimes, when we are looking for one thing, we never find it, but we find something else that we lost a long time ago and had given up on finding. I heard someone say once that if you can’t find something, try losing something else, and maybe while you are looking for it, you will find the other thing you were looking for. Well, in our text today we read about two groups of people: one who found Jesus in an unlikely place even though they weren’t looking for Him; and another group who didn’t find Him even though they were looking for Him.

Of course, in a way this could summarize the entire human race. In one sense, in our natural human condition, none of us are really looking for Jesus. We are born spiritually dead in sin, and our faculties for seeking God are incapacitated. Paul said in Romans 3:11, “There is none who seeks for God.” Thankfully, once we’ve been born-again, our dead spirits are made alive and we experience and desire the presence of God in our lives, but not before then, and so few have actually experienced this. But then in another sense, in some way, it could be said that all of us are looking for Jesus but don’t realize it. That “something” that every human being is missing and striving to find in life is ultimately only found in Jesus. As Augustine said, “You made us for Yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”[1] People are clamoring for success and money and significance and notoriety and popularity and a host of other things, thinking that those things will fill the void in their lives. But ultimately, only Jesus will fill that void, so albeit unknowingly and in many wrong-headed ways, what they are ultimately seeking is Him. And then it is also true that so many who are struggling through the world without giving even a thought to Jesus are those who actually find Him in the most out-of-the-way places, while those who most overtly and ostentatiously pursue “spirituality” never do in fact actually encounter the Lord Jesus. We see these realities playing out all around us, and many of us could give testimony to it in our own lives. But here in these verses, we see it on display in the circumstances of the disciples in the boat on the one hand, and the throng of people on the shore on the other. In a world filled with people who are looking for Jesus in one way or another, how can we find Him? Let’s see if we can’t find some guidance for the quest here in the text.

I. If you’re looking for Jesus, you will often find Him where you least expect Him (vv16-21).

In 1982, the English Department of San Jose State University launched the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, named in honor of Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It is not your ordinary literature-writing contest. For this contest, writers are challenged to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Though I would suppose that few of us have read any of the works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, we would likely all recognize the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. That sentence has become one of the most overly used and clichéd sentences in English literature. You know the sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night.” You know those words, and very likely, you could survey your life and find many evenings that you could describe as a dark and stormy night.

If we were to retell the story about the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee here, we might begin by saying, “It was a dark and stormy night.” They had departed from the eastern edge of the lake near the Golan Heights where Jesus had fed the multitude, while Jesus stayed behind. We might wonder why they took off without Him. Had they forgotten Him? Were they tired of waiting on Him? No, in fact, Mark 6:45 tells us that Jesus had made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side. Why had Jesus done this? Remember that verse 15 said that Jesus had withdrawn and retreated from the crowd “to the mountain by Himself alone” because He perceived that the crowd of upwards of 20,000 who had been fed by the miracle of the fish and bread was plotting to take Him by force and make Him their king. Robert Mounce writes, “It is clear that he did not want his disciples to be caught up in the excitement of the crowd, lest they lend their support to an ill-advised messianic uprising.”[2] So He sent them away from the crowd, but it may seem like they’ve jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. They have escaped the surge of political zeal, only to embark into the storm surge of the turbulent sea.

The Sea of Galilee is, because of its geography, notorious for the uprising of sudden storms. Situated over 600 feet below sea level, cool air blows into the bowl-like area through the corridors of mountains and hills surrounding it, displacing the warm moist air over the lake, “churning up the water in a violent squall.”[3] Even in modern times, “powerboats are to remain docked as the winds buffet the water.”[4] Jesus sent them into this storm, not only knowing that it was possible, but that it was certain. Has it ever occurred to you as you encounter storms in the dark nights of the soul that you experience that the Lord may have designed this storm for you and sent you deliberately into it? Why would He do such a thing? As we are about to see here, He often does this so that we will come to the end of ourselves and find Him there in that unexpected place.

The disciples did the best they could to make it through the storm. They rowed hard for three or four miles (Mark 6:48 says they were “straining at the oars”), placing them nearly in the exact middle of the lake. Having left in the evening, and with Matthew and Mark telling us that the time had now reached the fourth watch, sometime between 3 and 6 AM, they had been at it for nine hours or so, much longer than the trip would have normally required. They had to be exhausted and exasperated. Trying as hard as they could to get through the stormy sea in the dark of night was not working very well for them. Some of you know this feeling. In the dark night of your soul, you have exhausted every personal resource you have at your disposal to weather the storm that threatens you and have realized that there is nothing more you can do to get through it. Just when you wondered if there is any hope at all, and you felt like giving up and giving in, that is when you found Jesus in the most unexpected place.

The Bible tells us that Jesus came out to them. He wasn’t standing on the safe shores urging them to try harder to make it to where He was. He came to them, walking on the stormy sea. That stormy sea that had them straining at the oars was no obstacle for the Lord Jesus. With effortless ease, He walked to meet them and they saw Him drawing near. Straining against the waves, they would have had their backs to their destination, with their faces looking back toward the shore where they had left Jesus. Had they been looking in any other direction, they would not have seen Him. But because they were looking in the right direction, they found Him – they saw Him coming to their aid.

Now, notice the fear of the disciples. In a previous incident, recorded in Mark 4, in which they encountered a storm on the sea while Jesus slept in the boat, they were frightened by the storm. What frightens them in this account is the sight of the Lord drawing near to them. Mark 6:49 says they thought it was a ghost. But Jesus reassured them, saying, “It is I.” And because it is Jesus Himself who comes to them, He can speak to them saying, “Do not be afraid.” If He is present, there is nothing to fear, no matter how severe the storm we encounter. And this miracle was designed by the Lord Jesus to teach those who follow Him that He is always present with us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.[5] He has promised, “Lo I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20), and “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Therefore, we must not be surprised to find Him in unlikely places for He is never far from those who are His.

II. If you’re looking for Jesus, you will seldom find Him where you presume Him to be (vv22-25).

Back in July of last year, a reader wrote into The Huffington Post asking, “The day after a big meal, I go to bed feeling stuffed and wake up hungrier than ever. Why is that?” The medical expert who responded to the question admitted that, though he also had experienced that sensation, “the truth is, we don’t have a rigorous scientific answer for this.”[6] Have you ever had that experience? I’m sure most of us had. Apparently the crowd of people that Jesus fed on the far side of the Sea of Galilee had that experience as well. Jesus had miraculously multiplied five loaves and two fish, and the people had eaten “as much as they wanted” and “were filled” (vv11-12). After the meal, many of them just made camp and settled in for the night rather than traveling back to their homes by foot in the late hours. And when they woke up, I can imagine them raising their arms in a good stretch, and saying, “Man, am I ever hungry! What’s for breakfast?” Well, they had no food, which is why Jesus had performed the miracle. So, what’s the next thought they have after realizing they have no food for breakfast? “Hey, we don’t need food, we’ve got Jesus! Where is He? Let’s see if He can whip up some eggs and bacon!” Well, maybe not bacon – they were Jews, after all – but you get the idea. They studied the situation. “Hmm. We saw the disciples leave in their boat, and we saw Jesus go up into the mountain, and the only other boat available is still here, so He must be around here somewhere.”

Other boats began to arrive – perhaps they had come because word had spread about the feeding of the multitude. Maybe they heard about what He had done, and they wanted to find Him for themselves, so they have gone off to the place where they expected Him to be. Maybe some of them were venture capitalists who saw a stranded multitude far from home as a lucrative market for a water taxi service to get them back home. Some may have just been blown that way by the storm during the night. Whatever the case, apparently a search party was arranged to go looking for Jesus, but it was in vain. The crowd discovered that “Jesus was not there” (v24). What a startling discovery, to realize that the Lord is nowhere to be found, especially in the places where you presumed Him to be. But some of us have learned that He seldom is.

If you were looking to find Jesus, where would you go? You might think of some elaborate temple or magnificent cathedral. You might think of some place of natural beauty. Maybe you’ve heard of others who found Jesus at a particular place and time, through some particular act or ritual and you think, “I should go to that place, I should do that thing, and I will find him too.” But often we come away from those places or rituals feeling like something was missing. We didn’t find what we were looking for.

I think of the sense of despair in a song from Crosby, Stills and Nash called “Cathedral,” in which Graham Nash writes about a visit to Hampshire’s historic Winchester Cathedral while he was high on LSD. The song mentions the architectural beauty, and the efforts of those present to beautify the place. But ultimately Nash sings, “I’m flying in Winchester Cathedral, all religion has to have its day. Expressions on the face of the Saviour made me say I can’t stay. Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here. Too many people have lied in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call. So many people have died in the name of Christ that I can’t believe at all.” I don’t want to psychoanalyze this song or its composer, but I can’t help thinking that Nash was confessing that his drugs did not deliver what he had hoped for, and so he wandered into the church hoping to find it there. But he left realizing that he had not encountered Christ there. I compare that song with another, a U2 song which says, “I have climbed highest mountains, I have run through the fields only to be with you. I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls only to be with you. I have kissed honey lips, felt the healing in the fingertips … I have spoke with the tongue of angels, I have held the hand of a devil … but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

All around us there are people who, in one way or another are seeking something they can only find in Jesus Christ. Where might they think to find Him? They might have thought to seek Him in a church, but they left disillusioned having encountered grouchy people and endured a long talk about some pastor’s opinion about a social issue or what it means to be happy and successful. They didn’t see Christ in the lives of those gathered there, and they didn’t hear Him speaking to them by His Spirit through His Word. And that has left them convinced that if they are going to find what they are looking for, they won’t find it in a Christian Church. The problem with their conclusion is that they are unaware that many of those people they have met are not, in fact genuine Christians, and though those buildings might have had steeples, pulpits, and organs, they are not churches in the biblical sense. But because they didn’t find Jesus in the place where they presumed Him to be, they’ve either given up the quest or begun to look for Him elsewhere.

But if they are ever to find Him at all, it will likely be in the least expected places. He will be found wherever those who truly follow Him are found, and where His word is going forth. That hungry crowd, not finding Him where they expected Him to be, made their way to the place where His followers had gone, and there they found the Master. And when they did, they said, “Rabbi, when did You get here?” They found Him in a place they never expected Him to be. They were pretty sure He wasn’t with His followers because they had seen them without Him the night before. But that is in fact where He was, because He is never far away from His people.

These two groups of people in the text we’ve been studying today are like everyone in the world today. There are those who know Him, who are following Him, but who find themselves caught in a storm, and can’t seem to find Him with them in the midst of it. Try as they may in their own efforts, they can’t seem to improve their circumstances. But as despair threatens to set in, they find Jesus coming to them, in the place they least expected Him to be, and He speaks peace and comfort to them in the midst of the storm, and gets them safely to the other side. Maybe you’re in that storm today. Maybe you’ll find yourself there sometime this week. And if you’re looking in the right direction, you will see Him walking out across the sea to bring peace and comfort to you and to guide you safely through the storm. And I hope when you see Him coming, you will do what the disciples did. “They were willing to receive Him into the boat.” Let Him come alongside of you in the midst of your storm, and He will guide you safely through it.

But there are also those who are like the crowd. They are not His followers, they have no personal relationship with Him. But they are looking for Him, some for the wrong reasons, and some in the wrong places. Maybe you are one of those. What is it that you are hoping to gain in your search? Are you seeking Jesus because of who He is or because of what He can give you? And where are you seeking Him? Your presumption might be that you will find Him where the architecture is grand, or the natural beauty is rich, or where the rituals are followed with precision, or where you’ve heard others say they encountered Him. But maybe your search in those places has come up empty. Maybe you’ve decided to give up the quest. Don’t give up the search, because He hasn’t given up His quest to find you and save you. To save you, He has pursued you all the way to the cross where He died for your sins. Look to the cross and find Him there, reaching out with His arms stretched wide. That’s where all of His followers have found Him, weathering the storm of God’s judgment on our behalf in order to bring us safely home at the end of our journey.

Wherever you find Him, the main thing is that you find Him, and that He finds you. He will seldom be where we presume Him to be, and often be where we least expect Him to be. We’ll be surprised and we’ll wonder, “Lord, when did You get here?” And He’ll say to us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

[1] Augustine, Confessions (Penguin Classics edition; translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin; New York: Penguin Putnam, 1961), 21.
[2] Robert Mounce, “John” in Expositors’ Bible Commentary: Revised Edition (Volume 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 438-439.
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 275.
[4] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 204.
[5] Merrill Tenney, “John,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 73.
[6] Meredith Melnick, “Why am I Hungry After a Big Meal?”, Huffington Post, 7/18/2012. Online at Accessed January 10, 2013. 

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