Tag Archives: gospel of Mark

Why Revere Old Temple Stones?

Sunday’s readings: Daniel 12:1-3     Psalm 16     Hebrews 10:11-25     Mark 13:1-8

 

The birth of Judaism and the nation of Israel took place at Mt. Sinai under the leadership of Moses. The instructions given there for the design of the tabernacle dictated the design of the temple in Jerusalem under Solomon. The temple was the pinnacle of Jewish teaching about God. The temple was to be the place where God resided on earth.

The old way to worship God required a man to go into the temple and give the priest an animal to sacrifice on an altar in that building. The old way to be forgiven required that the high priest first cleanse himself and then in the Holy of Holies, behind the curtain, in the secret holy place, offer the blood of sacrifice for all the people. As the disciples in today’s gospel reading were leaving the temple in Jerusalem, the designated location of God’s presence on earth,  they took notice of the magnificent architecture. Jesus must have shocked them when he dismissed their exuberance by saying, “Junk. All these rocks will one day be nothing but a heap of rubble.”

Jesus was reinforcing a message he had already given his disciples when he rampaged through the temple throwing money and pots and tables into piles of junk. (Mark 11:15-19) Jesus had shouted on that day, “This is supposed to be a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it into a bandit hideout.” (translation courtesy of Dr. Rick Carlson) He completely disassembled the process by which people were to encounter God who supposedly resided in this building. Not only that, but Jesus made a mockery of the people involved. He made a shambles of the process of sacrifice, and his message that God was finished with the temple would become very clear shortly thereafter when, as Jesus died on the cross, God ripped apart the curtain of the Holy of Holies from the top to the bottom. The days of that temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem were numbered.

Did that mean that God did not want the nations to have a place to pray? Had God decided that it was hopeless to forgive humans, because they sinned continually and never stopped?

The fact that Jesus predicted the demise of the temple most emphatically did not mean that God had given up on humanity. Quite the contrary. The presence of Jesus, God in the flesh, in that place at that time meant that God had absolutely not given up on people. He had given up on the temple, but he did that, because the religious leaders had perverted its purpose to their own use. Instead of worshiping God in the temple, they were all worshiping themselves. Jesus, God in the flesh, stood in front of the temple and predicted its downfall, because the people who should have been bringing others closer to God were so busy building up themselves that they had become their own God.

Jesus, God in the flesh, had already said that if anyone wanted to follow him, that person had to deny self. Clearly the religious leaders were not denying self. People who would deny self and follow Christ would not engage rigged transactions that only enriched fraudulent men engaged in fraudulent behavior. When Jesus pronounced the doom ahead of the temple, he was already looking toward that day when he himself would make the only sacrifice that ever mattered and would render the temple of stone obsolete.

What would replace it? Peter gives us the answer in today’s reading. Instead of a temple made of rocks piled up on a mountain, God’s temple would be made of living stones. Every person who received the Holy Spirit in baptism would become a part of that temple, denying self, serving Christ, being a little Christ to a world that needed forgiveness for sin and communion with God. God’s temple would no longer be confined to a place people had to travel to. God’s temple would be walking around among the people. Jesus’ message when he blew into Galilee in the first chapter of Mark was, “The kingdom of God has come near.” When he predicted the end of the temple of stones in Jerusalem, he was foretelling how the living temples, the living stones, the little Christs who would follow him, would bring the kingdom of God near to every person they met.

If you think that just getting to church on Sunday morning is fulfilling your obligation to Christ for what he has done for you, think again. Jesus did not die in order that you could go sit on a board in a building of stones. Jesus died for you in order that you could become a living stone and deliver his love to a world starving for him. You don’t want to be one of those people in Revelation described as so fearful of the real, living God that they called stones to fall on them. You don’t want to be someone who would rather be dead under a pile of stones than be a living stone in the temple of God’s presence on earth.

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Trust God and Do Not Fear

 

Readings for Sunday, November 11:  1 Kings 17:8-16     Psalm 146     Hebrews 9:24-28     Mark 12:38-44

 

Mark 12:38–44

 

 

 

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

 

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

 

In today’s reading Jesus pointed toward some of the people in the culture around him who constantly called attention to themselves, who served nobody, faked religious fervor and actually stole from widows. These people spent all their time making names for themselves. He pointed to scribes and other religious leaders as scurrilous mongrels.

 

Then he nailed his point. He sat where he could see the collection plate as people entered the temple. We don’t know for sure what it looked like, so just imagine the plate that is passed each Sunday in your church. As people entered they dropped money into this plate, and some of them dropped a great deal of money. Of course, Jesus had only moments before been talking about how some of those rich people obtained all their money. He never said that all rich people were thieves, but he did point to some specific ones who stole from poor widows. As he watched the parade and the offerings, along came a widow with two tiny coins, which she dropped into the offering plate.

 

The Bible tells us that Jesus never needed anyone to tell him about people, because he saw through them all. He saw through the self-centered and self-righteous scribes, and he saw through this widow with her tiny coin. Then he made his point about people again. He said, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” In Jesus’ eyes, her tiny coins outweighed all the other money in the plate.

 

She was a widow. Jesus had just pointed out that many of the scribes who came ahead of her with their big gifts acquired those gifts by stealing from people like this widow. For her to give anything at all was a huge sacrifice. She could easily have told herself that the scribes had already made her offering with her own money as they passed by. Instead, this widow did the thing Jesus wanted most: she trusted God.

 

Throughout the book of Mark, Jesus reproaches people for being afraid and admonishes them to have faith. He tells them not to fear what is coming, or what might come, and he tells them to trust God. This widow exemplified everything that he wanted from his disciples.

 

Once when they were all caught in a storm at sea, the disciples got upset. No, they were not upset; they panicked. They screamed at Jesus, who was sleeping peacefully through the chaos. “We’re dying here! Don’t you care? Do something!” Jesus stood up, looked at the storm, and said, “Muzzle yourself! Or I’ll do it for you!” The storm shut down to a dead calm. Just like that. Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “What is the matter with you? Don’t you have any faith?”

 

Jesus and the disciples were on their way to the house of Jairus who had begged Jesus to heal his daughter when someone ran up and said, “Your daughter is dead. Don’t bother the teacher anymore.” Jesus heard what they said and he turned to Jairus. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said. “Only believe.” Then, even though everyone was laughing at him, Jesus proceeded to raise the little girl up from the dead.

 

Jesus wanted people to have faith in God. He did not want them to be afraid when bad things happened. He did not want them to fear during good times that bad things would certainly follow. I had a friend in college who did that. If things were good for her, she would say something like, “Things are just too good to believe. Something bad is about to happen.” When things went wrong for her, no matter how far between such events, she always said, “See! I told you so!” Jesus did not want people to feel that way. Jesus did not want people feel that they were at the mercy of malicious, invisible powers. He did not want people to think that life is a lottery where some people draw winning tickets while others draw zeroes.

 

When Jesus burst on the scene at the beginning of the book of Mark, the first words he spoke were these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Jesus began his ministry by asking people to believe that God cared so much about them that he had come to be among them. When Jesus saw a widow, a person who might well have seen herself as a victim of society in general and rich people in particular, he saw a person who might well fear that if she parted with the last two coins in her possession, she could starve. In fact, even if she clung to those coins and used them to buy food, they were still the last money she had. She might defer her death, but she might still starve. Jesus rejoiced in seeing that she actually did trust God with her future. She came to the temple, the place God had designated for his presence on earth. The widow came to meet God, and she felt such gratitude for God that she could trustingly give God the last coin in her possession. It is an image of grateful faith that everyone could learn from.

 

It is the same faith that Jesus asks from each of us. Everyone faces risks in life. There truly are no guarantees. People who are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after the megastorm surrounding Hurricane Sandy could easily feel victimized and defeated, but this is not how Jesus would have them feel. Jesus would ask them to trust God and use the gifts God places in their hands to find their way forward. He asks the same thing of pastors arrested in Iran for telling Muslims about Jesus. He asks the same thing of Christian families in Indonesia fined two months’ salary for praying with their neighbors. He asks the same thing of a Christian pharmacist in the USA who must choose between his career in pharmacy and his convictions that God does not want him to supply abortifacient drugs even if a doctor prescribes them. Jesus asks each of us to trust him with our lives. He asks us not to be afraid to trust him with our lives. He praised the widow who put her whole life in God’s hands by offering up her last two tiny coins.

 

Mark does not give us the details of the widow’s remaining days. It is just one of many ways Mark invites each of us into the story of Jesus. He does ask us to think about what the woman did, and he does ask each of us if we trust God that way. Do we really trust God with our lives, or do we create as much security as we can and then fret for fear it won’t be enough to keep us safe?

 

I’m as guilty as the next person. In our life, I worry incessantly about having sufficient food to keep us healthy between grocery stores. When we are cruising, we don’t know when we might be trapped in a remote anchorage while a big storm passes, and I worry that we have not made adequate provision in our anchoring technique or in our food and fuel supplies. I worry that we forgot to stock enough medicine or warm socks. Mark asks me to stop fretting. He doesn’t tell me to stop using my common sense, but he does remind me that Jesus really wants me to trust God for our lives and well-being. When I read that many Christians suffer arrest, fines and imprisonment for their faith, I know that my fretting over salt, coffee and fresh bread is quite trivial. Some of Jesus’ followers really do trust God with their lives and live daily trusting that he will give them the strength to endure misery I can’t even imagine. It shames me.

 

Sunday, November 11, 2012, is designated by Open Doors USA as International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Today, tomorrow and Sunday would be good days to pray for Christians in the body of Christ around the world who trust God with their lives, such as Makset Djabbarbergenov, a house-church leader being held in a Kazakhstan jail at the request of his native Uzbekistan. It would be a good time to meditate on all the fretting we do about our comfort and safety while others are suffering great discomfort and no safety because they trust God with their lives. Join Christians around the world this Sunday in prayer for the persecuted church. As I pray with them, I will try to learn to let go of my trivial issues and learn to trust God with my life the way they trust God with their lives. Maybe one day all of us will join the widow whose story inspired today’s reading as we rejoice in the blessing of life forever with the Christ who died for us, because he loved us so much that we can, indeed, trust God with our lives.

Me First!

Gospel Text: Mark 10:17-31

In the story immediately preceding today’s text, Jesus tells the disciples what will happen to him in Jerusalem. They were walking together along a road that would ultimately take them to Jerusalem, and you might think that the first thing the disciples would suggest is to go somewhere else.

Not.

The reaction of the disciples is to start scheming for pre-eminence in Christ’s kingdom. He has already told them that they will all sit on thrones, but that is not good enough. They may even be sitting in a circle on those thrones, but everybody actually wants to sit near Jesus. James and John are the first to bring it up, and in Matthew’s report of this occasion, he says that their mother got into the act. They have all listened to Jesus predict his own death, but their first concern is to figure out who can be the most important among the survivors.

The disciples don’t get the message. They don’t really know what Jesus is about. They have all heard Jesus preach about giving people more than they ask for, and they heard Jesus preach about loving the neighbor more than self, and they heard Jesus tell the rich young ruler that he needed to let go of everything but Jesus in order to be a follower, but none of it has sunk in. They still believe that Jesus, the celebrity who is surrounded by people night and day, is going to be a big shot in Jerusalem, and that they will be big shots along with him.

Jesus did not leave his throne in heaven in order to be what passes for importance on earth. He was already creator and ruler of the universe. He left his throne to show people God in the flesh. He came into our world in order to show us his world.

Jesus came to be a servant. He gently rebukes his disciples by telling them that he has come to be a servant. If they want to be like him, they need to be servants, too. The gospel record makes it clear that they did not understand what he meant, not even when he washed their feet on the night before his death.

We don’t understand, either. We think that a person whose name is known nationwide must be more important than everyone else. We think that a pastor who is famous must be a better pastor, because everybody knows his name. We think that a pastor whose church has thousands in the audience on Sunday must be a really good pastor, even though we know that football teams have even bigger crowds any day of the week.

The word service is quite popular right now. The secular culture emphasizes the word probably as much as Christian teaching does. However, the usage and meaning of the word is different in a secular context than in a Christian context. Because Christians live in the culture, and because the word used is the same, Christians get confused sometimes. They believe that they are performing Christian service by doing kind things such as feeding the poor or by giving up time to help paint a classroom in the church building. These acts are certainly service, but anybody, secular or Christian, could perform these actions.

When Christ spoke of service he was not referring to mere voluntarism. When his disciples argued over who got the best seats in heaven, he didn’t say that the ones with the most hours on record in the homeless shelter would get the reward. He challenged them to serve others the way he himself came to serve – “to give his life a ransom for many.” This challenge is the same challenge he gave when he asked the rich young ruler to let go of everything he owned. Jesus wanted that young man to stop thinking about himself. He wanted the man to follow him in service to others, and that is what Jesus wanted from his disciples. Jesus could have shouted, “Don’t you see how I give up peace and quiet, comfort and convenience, even my meals, so I can serve people? And this is only the beginning. I’m going to give up my life for them. Do you think you can do this? This is how you get to be important in my world.”

In another place, Jesus talked about the difference between good deeds, the content of secular service, and service to God. He said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) In other words, good works as a response to good government or as a commitment to environmentalism or even just to assure somebody a roof over his head is not the kind of service Jesus is talking about. Jesus expects his followers to be servants whose work points people to God. If a Christian helps to build someone a house, the person served needs to know it is for Jesus’ sake. If a Christian serves a meal to a hungry person, he needs to give it in Jesus’ name. If a Christian serves others, and they say thank you, the right response is, “Don’t thank me. Thank Jesus.”

There are many situations in which that response may be tough. Jesus did not say it would be easy. A new Christian in a Muslim community in southeast Asia walked to school with three friends. On the way to school, they asked her if she would be willing to give up Christ and return to the faith of Islam. She refused. They asked again. She refused. By the time they reached the school, the girls were starting to push her and pull her hair, because she refused to renounce her faith in Christ. At the school, others joined in the fight. Eventually, a bystander rescued the young Christian and sent her back home. In our secular culture, we Christians may not be shoved or beaten for our faith, but we may hear scornful words. If you tell a homeless person that you are serving him a meal for Jesus’ sake, either the homeless person or other bystanders may accuse you of trying to “force” your faith on other people. Yet Jesus said that when we serve him by serving others our work should point to him, not to ourselves. This is not a case of “forcing” anything on anyone. It is simply being faithful to our call to serve Christ by serving others.

When Jesus told his disciples that the road to greatness was the road of service, he told them something else. He said that he would “give his life a ransom for many.” This announcement was a repeat of the warning that had instigated the disciples’ argument over who would be the greatest. Jesus tied the knot on this warning around a loop of service. There is the real truth. If any of us wants to be first in God’s kingdom, we have the wrong goal. We won’t get there by pushing others out of the way. Instead, we must turn away from the head of the line and look for the last spot. We must give the bread and fish we brought for lunch to the person in line ahead of us. When some big Satanic bully comes along and starts hurting people, then we must be willing to die for them. It makes a few scornful words from someone who doubts the very existence of God sound rather feeble. Jesus said that neither he nor his disciples have the leisure for popularity contests. For the love of many, we all have work to do, service to perform, even if it costs our whole lives. Not to worry. Jesus also said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

A Verse for Meditation

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  Mark 10:45

  • In books that teach career advancement, one of the common mantras is, “It’s not what you know; it’s who.” The disciples clearly thought they knew the right person to advance them to special celebrity status. (See Mark 10:35-40) What was wrong with this idea?
  • Do you want career advancement? What good thing would happen if you were promoted? What bad thing might accompany career advancement? What if you didn’t care either way? 
  • Did you ever consider that you are 100% responsible for the success of your employer? What would you need to differently if this is true? Do you know what your employer thinks it means for him/her to be successful? Do you think Jesus cares if your employer is successful? If you are successful?
  • If you decided that your call is to be a servant, whom would you serve?

Good News for both Us and Them

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pi...
First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pitsak, a Medieval Armenian scribe and miniaturist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-9     Psalm 146     James 2:1-17     Mark 7:24-37 

I have long been a fan of the lyrics of Pink Floyd, not because I advocate their way of life, but because those lyrics speak some powerful and harsh truths about the world. One of the great songs is “Us and Them,” in which the common acceptance of broken relationships in our culture is mourned.  The gospel reading today relates to us the way Jesus addressed some of that brokenness.

Both stories in Mark 7:24-37 are about non-Jews. Jesus goes first to the “region of Tyre” and then into the “region of Decapolis.” It is sufficient to know that these were territories where the dominant population demographic was not Jew. The woman in the first story is clearly identified as “Syro-phoenician,” a term that Mark’s target audience in the first century would have immediately recognized as not a Jew. The man in the second story lives in Decapolis and has friends who care about him enough to bring him to Jesus. It is logical to conclude from his integration into the culture that he is not Jewish, either. In both stories, Jesus works healing just as he has been doing in the Jewish communities. As Jesus travels through these non-Jewish areas his message is the same message he has been preaching from the beginning – “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We can hear that message behind these two miracles.

In these stories, Jesus preaches another message as well, to the Jews of his day, and to any of us who are inclined to view our own culture divisively. Many Christians today feel threatened by cultural restrictions that are building due to the increase in completely secular thinking coupled with a dramatic increase in immigrants who adhere to a wide variety of religions. The sense that Christian ideas and Christian values are not dominant in our culture has produced in many Christians an “Us and Them” mentality. This attitude is sometimes expressed in ugly confrontations. Jesus’ message to the Jews of his day, and his message to us today, spoken by his actions, not his words is the same message God spoke to ancient Israel. As Israel encamped around Mount Sinai, even before God had given them the Law in the Ten Commandments, God gave them a commission. He said, “The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5b-6) The work of priests is to mediate between God and man, and the clear message of this statement is that God intended for Israel to tell everyone about him and to draw everyone into worship and service to him. The same message is repeated in Revelation when the book opens with this prayer: “To him [meaning Christ] who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:5-6) When Jesus brought his message of healing and reconciliation to non-Jews, he brought his commission to all his followers. The commission of the church, like the commission to Israel at Sinai, is to be mediators between God and humankind throughout the world. We are to take the message of the kingdom to everyone.

Isaiah described what it was like for everyone who comes to the Lord. He said it was as if water had suddenly bubbled up in a desert. He talked about healing and about the joy someone would feel if he were cured of deafness and a speech impediment after a lifetime of suffering. Isaiah even said that in the place where God’s kingdom burst out there would be a highway for all his people where the redeemed could walk safely. Instead of a blessing to which everyone is invited, it almost sounds like something for “us” that shields us from “them.”

When Christians start feeling that the world is divided between us (Christians) and them (everybody else), it is easy to feel scorn for “them.” This is not God’s plan. The whole world is his creation. Every person is his unique creation for his own unique purpose. Not one person was excluded from God’s love when Christ died on the cross. As God’s priests, we are called to share the same message Jesus shared with Jews in Galilee and with a Syro-phoenician woman in the region of Tyre and with a handicapped man in the region of Decapolis: “The kingdom of God has come near.” The message is not a treasure to be held close to the chest of Christians, protected from the ridicule of secular thinkers and adherents of other religions. The message is a treasure that we must share with everyone. We, God’s priests, are called to tell the good news and let everyone know that the kingdom is for “them” as well as for “us.”