The Fourth Watch

Last week I was listening to a podcast and the speaker was discussing one of my favorite miracles in the Bible, when Jesus and Peter walked on water. A phrase caught my attention— “the fourth watch of the night.” That’s one of those that we hear in the more traditional translations of the Bible that you have to either study or look up to understand the significance. I had never done that before that I can remember, not for this particular phrase. 

The watches of the night were based upon Roman custom, and started at 6 pm in the evening, going in 3 hour intervals until morning, for a span of 12 hours. First watch is 6-9 pm, second watch 9pm-12am, third watch 12am-3am, and fourth watch 3am-6pm. So remembering that now, I read Mark 6:47-52. Usually I read this scene from Matthew 14, but reading it in Mark made me notice a few things that were new to me. 

For background, if you read the passage in Matthew, you see that Jesus sent the disciples in the boat, and He stayed behind to spend some time alone in prayer. They had been working hard, and rowed (by some estimates- 25-30 furlongs with a furlong estimated to be 225-250 yards) 5000 yards or more into the middle of the lake, and they had been beaten by the waves because the wind was against them. Reading it in Mark, you get a few more details. Mark 6:48 says that from where Jesus was, He saw them struggling at the oars, and He saw that the wind was against them. And it says that He went to them in the fourth watch of the night.

By the fourth watch and 5500 yards into a lake, how long had they been rowing? How long had they been struggling? How long had they continued to strain against their circumstances with the wind against them? How long had Jesus watched from where He was to see how this scene would unfold? Before I have been struck by the fact that Jesus Himself sent them into difficult circumstances and by the fact that the very thing they were struggling against was then literally under His feet when He walked on the water, or by the fact that not only was it a miracle that Jesus could walk on the water, but it was a miracle Peter had the faith to do it for any length of time. 

This time though, I saw a different miracle. This time, to me, at my stage of life and in the circumstances I am currently living, I wondered if we have overlooked the fact that these men had been rowing and struggling and fighting wind and waves all night long. By the time Jesus showed up, walking on water, it was the fourth watch, some time between 3 and 6 in the morning. 

Maybe they set out right at 6 in the evening, or maybe it wasn’t until 9 in the evening, but either way, from where He was sitting, He could see them and He knew that they were struggling. He knew they were fighting. He could have approached them and calmed the wind and the waves any time He wanted. But He waited until the Fourth watch. The time when it was darkest. The time when they were exhausted from their efforts and surely questioning how much longer they could go on. The time when maybe they were trying to figure out why this man who cared enough about 5000 strangers to feed them earlier in the day was letting His friends suffer without intervening, in the midst of circumstances He had sent them into. The time they had watched the sun set and the clouds move and the sky grow dark and nothing changed. No relief was in sight. 

It occurred to me that maybe the miracle wasn’t just that Jesus was walking on the water. The miracle was that they had not given up. They had persevered. They had continued to struggle. They kept heading in the direction He gave them. Even when the wind was against them. Even when they were in the middle of a lake and so far from shore that they couldn’t just jump ship and swim to shore. They had to fight. They had to dig their heels in, dig deep to find their reserve, and refuse to let their circumstances dictate their actions. They did what Jesus told them to do, even when it got hard. Even when they were scared. Even when they were tired. Even in the midst of wondering why He would send His trusted companions into such a potentially dangerous situation. They weren’t expecting Him to show up, because when He did, they were terrified. It wasn’t as if they were relieved and said, “Finally, what took you so long?” No, they thought He was a ghost and He had to tell them “Hey, it’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

I saw so clearly that the miracle wasn’t just that He came to them, walking on the water in their time of need. It was also that they persevered in the darkness and waves and wind until He showed up. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance (James 1:2-3).” If He had come at the beginning of the storm, or twenty minutes into it, they would not know what was inside them. They would not understand what they were capable of. They would not have learned that they could hang on when life got hard. Jesus wasn’t going to be with them forever. He knew that His time was short, and that these men were going to be entrusted with the gospel. They needed to see that they could do hard things. They needed to believe that they could survive whatever life threw at them. They needed to learn that in the future, when He wasn’t present with them in the same form they were used to seeing, He could still watch over them, and that the same Spirit that would enable Him to do such incredible miracles would be living in them and active, if they would just take enough initiative and authority to find it. Although I bet they didn’t realize it at the time, this was a miracle for them too. 

Lately I’ve been reading all the Anne Lamott I can get my hands on, because she’s gritty and real, and she understands what it’s like to suffer. She doesn’t have traditional fundamentalist values, and I’m sure in many circles she’s controversial and irreverent, but she’s real. My mom raised me to value real above almost anything else. In her book on prayer, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers” she writes,

“We can be freed from a damaging insistence on forward thrust, from a commitment to running wildly down a convenient path that might actually be taking us deeper into the dark forest. Praying ‘Help’ means that we ask that Something give us the courage to stop in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our fixation away from the Gordian knot of our problems. We stop the toxic peering and instead turn our eyes to something else: to our feet on the sidewalk, to the middle distance, to the hills, whence our help comes—someplace else, anything else. Maybe this is a shift of only eight degrees, but it can be a miracle. It may be one of those miracles where your heart sinks, because you think it means you have lost. But in surrender you have won.”

The miracle doesn’t have to mean changed circumstances. It could mean changed mindsets. I don’t have to like it, but I’m beginning to understand that perseverance is a miracle, just as worthy of awe as walking on water. Maybe the miracle is when He shows up in the fourth watch. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is also that He believed in you enough to know you would make it until then, so it was OK for Him to wait a little while to show up. 

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