Tag Archives: gospel of Mark

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The book of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ early ministry in a way that sounds quite incredible. He goes from one miracle to another. He is a major celebrity. Townspeople welcome him as a star, and the religious leadership feels quite threatened by him.

In Mark 6:1-6, however, nobody feels threatened. In fact, nobody is impressed, either. In Nazareth, Jesus is not a celebrity. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Everybody knew Mary and Joseph, and they knew that Jesus was the oldest of the children. In this text, people rattle off the names of Jesus’ brothers, they know his sisters are still in town, probably married, and they know that until he started wandering around the countryside, he worked as a carpenter. Despite all the rumors about miracles and exorcisms and healings, Jesus looks just the same to the residents of Nazareth as he ever looked when he was sawing pieces of lumber for his father.

It isn’t simply that they know him, however. They are at great pains not to be impressed. I think Nazareth was a lot like the town where my grandmother lived, the town where my dad grew up. When we visited there, all the men and women of my grandmother’s generation made sure we all knew that to them, my dad was not an important civil engineer with the highway department. To those ladies and gentlemen, he was that kid Billy that Doran used to take fishing on Peedee Ditch. He was the one who didn’t pay attention in Sunday School. My dad was an adult, but the people of his home town kept him humbled by the fact that they knew all about his childhood behavior. To them, he was no celebrity.

Jesus was faced with the same problem. Mark writes that Jesus simply could not help the people of his home town. Why not? Because they had no faith. In Mark 5, Jesus healed a woman who merely touched his robe, because she had faith. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, because when the little girl’s parents listened when Jesus said, “Do not fear; only believe.” The people of Nazareth had no faith in this carpenter-turned-rabbi, and they weren’t about to let him pull the wool over their eyes. They knew him.

Sadly, they did not know him. Their self-confident appraisal of Jesus shut down their ability to see who Jesus really was.

Our culture has the same problem. Lots of people think that Jesus is just another god in a pantheon of charlatans, idols and myths. They think they know all about religion. They think human beings have outgrown their need for faith, miracles and salvation. Our generation is too sophisticated to learn how to find Bible verses and name the twelve apostles. In the twenty-first century, people are busy trying to save the world from pollution and global warming. They feel that God is a needless dead weight from the primitive past. They are not impressed by people who talk about Jesus.

Christians living in the US today face the same problem Jesus faced in Nazareth when they try to talk to their friends about Christ. In fact, if they simply carry a Bible or wear a necklace with a cross pendant or suggest prayer in response to a national tragedy, they may encounter a stronger reaction than mere dismissal. They may encounter angry rejection at the very idea of trying to foist off such partisan behavior on other people. Recent events have shown Christians how completely secular our culture is becoming, all because people with no connection to any faith believe that people who have any faith whatsoever are ignorant, immature or perhaps a little crazy.

Our culture believes it is too well educated and too mature in its understanding of all things religious to swallow the idea that humans are sinful and need to be saved or that there could possibly be a God who cares about humans. In the face of such rejection it is hard for Christians to say or do anything that might persuade someone otherwise. Jesus could not do major miracles for the people of Nazareth because of their lack of faith.American Christians can hardly make a big impression on Americans who hold a secular worldview for the same reason.

We can learn something from the way Jesus handled the situation. He made himself available to Nazareth, and after they had enjoyed their condescending scorn, he simply continued to do what he had been doing before he arrived there. In fact, he multiplied his work by sending the disciples out to do the same thing. Jesus did not give up on people when they rejected him.

We must not give up either. Even though the American culture is trying very hard to shut down public expression of Christian faith, we who know Christ cannot take it personally. The culture is rejecting us because we are annoying “little Christs” just what the word Christian says we are. We have one calling, to be like Christ. We must forget about any insults to ourselves and go forward just as Jesus did telling the good news and loving people we meet along the way.

To the people of Nazareth, there was a contemptible familiarity about Jesus, a familiarity they could not see through to the truth. To us, secularism may appear to be contemptibly familiar, too, and we may simply not want to deal with it anymore. Jesus did not give up on people because of the scorn of Nazareth. Likewise, Christ does not call us to protect our own self-image and dismiss those who dismiss us. Christ calls us to tell the good news and make disciples even among those who reject us with the same condescension the people of Nazareth showed toward Jesus.

All or Nothing

Sunday Readings:  Genesis 3:8-15     Psalm 130     2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1     Mark 3:20-33

 

When we first read about Jesus in the book of Mark, it says that Jesus came into Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist and his message was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” John the Baptist had preached repentance, but he was not able to give people the good news that Jesus brought. It was good news to suffering people, but it was not good news to Satan. Jesus’ words announced that the war between good and evil, a clash between kingdoms battling for universal triumph, was on.

The kingdoms first clashed in the Garden of Eden. In that battle, Satan appeared to win. He deceived Eve. She lured Adam to join her. God’s supreme creation chose to reject his wisdom and do what felt good to them. It looked good, because Satan made it look good. Even as God pronounced judgment on his rebellious children, however, he served notice on Satan. In today’s Old Testament reading God says, “I will put enmity … between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head.” Those few little words were God’s promise of hope for humankind.

When Jesus showed up with his message that “the kingdom of God has come near,” Satan knew that his days were numbered. In fact, the image of Satan hearing Christ speak for the first time, recalls to us the image in the book of Revelation where the great dragon lashes out with his tail and stars fall.

In the Revelation story, the terrible dragon stood waiting for a son to be born, and as he waited, he twitched his tail, seemingly destroying stars as he did so. To be able to drag stars out of the sky made him appear powerful, but his seeming power was short-lived. The child escaped. Instead of devouring the child, the dragon was confronted with an army of angels, and soon he was utterly defeated. In the Revelation story, the dragon was thrown down to the earth. Ultimately the story says that he “went off to make war on … those who keep the commandments of God.” Using the imagery from that dragon story, it is easy to imagine that great dragon raging and lashing out with his tale when he hears Jesus speaking to people saying, “The kingdom of God has come near.” The clash of kingdoms had begun.

In Galilee, people who suffered mental illness, incurable diseases, social ostracism, fear, hunger, and hopelessness heard those words, and they came running to Jesus. Families and friends brought people who could not bring themselves. The excitement mounted. The crowds surged around Jesus, crowds of people who wanted to be healed, crowds of people who wanted to observe the healings, and crowds of people who wanted to figure out how this charlatan was pulling off such a masterful show. In the last category were quasi-religious leaders who could read and write for hire, who accused Jesus of complete fakery, of trying to lure people away from God to himself by working in cooperation with Satan.

When Jesus heard the accusation, he famously replied, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet this dramatic moment is sandwiched between the hints of some family conflict that raises a confusing image. The crowds drawn by the spectacle of healings and exorcisms were so huge Jesus could hardly get a moment to eat. His family made early attempts to rescue him, because people were starting to talk as if Jesus were the madman, not those he had healed. And the religious leadership joined in the fray. The family understandably wanted him to be safe and to take time for a little R&R. It is hard to know if they stood outside because they could not push through the crowd, or if they stood outside, because they were actually afraid to get too close to such a controversial figure, but whatever the reason, they remained at a distance. They sent a message to Jesus asking him to come to them, but Jesus responded by dismissing them. His earthly family was, therefore, immediately divided.

As if the obvious division were not enough, Jesus went one step further. He looked around at the people crowded close, watching his every move, listening intently to his every word. He looked at the people who needed healing, and he looked at the people who had brought patients for him to help. Mark doesn’t try to read his mind, but when I read his words, I conclude that his mind was thinking, “The kingdom of God has come near. I can’t take it away from those who need it.” Aloud Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” These are shocking words. His family only wanted what was best for him – some rest, some food, some quiet, maybe even some sleep. How harsh those words must have sounded.

Yet this is not the only time Jesus said such things. When Jesus was calling people to serve him, some made excuses. They had work to finish. They had parents to take care of. They wanted to get their rest and their sleep and just a little bite to eat before they headed out to follow Jesus. Jesus told them, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In another place, Jesus said, “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” In today’s story, and in all these other instances, Jesus was talking about priorities. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than doing the work God gives us to do. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” We must put Christ above everything. He summed up this teaching one day when someone asked him what the most important commandment was. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The Christ who tenderly looked down from the cross and made sure his mother would be cared for after his death, looked up from the center of a needy crowd and dismissed that same mother. Priorities.

So when Jesus’ mother and siblings showed up in the middle of his work, he wasn’t being petulant and egotistical. He was showing us where our priorities must lie. He was not rescinding the commandment to love and honor our parents. He had not lost his mind. He was busy fighting the battle with the kingdom of evil on behalf of people who needed to know that God’s kingdom was more important than anything else. It really was the pearl of great price. It really was worth more than life itself.

Because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

That is the real message. When we work for the kingdom of God, everything else is secondary, maybe even less than that. We must do the work God gives us and fill our place in the kingdom. We can’t be partly committed to the kingdom and partly devoted to our own comfort or to pleasing our parents or our children. The battle between good and evil demands full commitment. Jesus said it very simply, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The kingdom of God has come near. God will not permit his kingdom to be weakened by half-hearted promises. If you want to be part of it, you must commit yourself to God alone.

A Moment Outside of Time

Mark’s story of the transfiguration is one of the three gospel records of this important event. Only John leaves this story out of his gospel, but John shares what he learned that day in the book of Revelation. The transfiguration of Christ was a singular event that science fiction writers might call a nexus. It was a moment when the world of time and space intersected dramatically with the “world” of eternity and infinity. Was it an instant? Was it a century? We have only the language of time and space for our use. To speak of such an event as if it had the same limitations and boundaries as our days and minutes is ludicrous. Yet the disciples had only that language with which to speak of it, and the gospel writers had only that language with which to record it.

I worked for a while with a friend who belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She had icons in her cubicle at work, and one day I asked her about them. She explained to me that the icon is a window into eternity. In that sense, the transfiguration was an icon for the disciples, a window into eternity, into heaven.

The gospel writers all tell how Jesus had begun to prepare his disciples for his death. He told them that he would be arrested and executed, and they did not like hearing that prediction one bit. Peter even reprimanded Christ for saying such a thing. Whereupon, Jesus told them something else disturbing: every person who wanted to be his follower would need to be ready for the same fate. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) So, not only did Jesus expect to be persecuted and die; he also expected his followers to be persecuted and die. Jesus was getting serious. The kingdom he kept talking about wasn’t going to be simply a festival of healing and miraculous exorcisms. It wasn’t going to be the fun of being a celebrity in a small town. This news was depressing and scary. No wonder Peter wanted Jesus to stop talking like that.

At the transfiguration, it was Peter who couldn’t stop talking. Peter’s reputation is that his excitement often inspires thoughtless eagerness. At the transfiguration, Peter’s enthusiasm for all the positive things that were happening overwhelmed his good sense. The other disciples were speechless with awe at the sight, but not Peter. He didn’t understand any more than they did, but like a summer camper who doesn’t want to go home, Peter babbled on about staying there on that mountain forever. He didn’t get it.

They should have understood what was happening, because it was all so beautifully staged by God. The disciples all knew the story of Moses at Sinai. Moses went up on a mountain. There was a cloud. God spoke. At Sinai God made Israel his kingdom of priests. He gave them work to do and promised to be with them to carry them through the challenges they would endure. The disciples should have recognized the scene. Instead, they were so flabbergasted by the sight of Moses and Elijah before their very eyes that they were slow to absorb the real message of that day.

The real message was, get ready.

Jesus had warned them of his death. Here he was comforting them with his life. The next time anyone saw him looking so magnificent and full of light would be at the resurrection. This moment looked into eternity, however, not simply the time/space future. The apostle John remembers this moment that way when he describes Christ in the book of Revelation. The Bible says that the disciples didn’t talk about this event after it was over, and I am sure they were simply unable to put such a thing into words. That problem, of course, is the reason it needed to be a visual experience. Christ knew that he could never explain in words that he was truly God and that he could not be confined to a time/space death. His eternal nature as the Son of God was impossible to explain in words. He gave the disciples an icon, a window into eternity, so they would be ready to understand the resurrection. He wanted them to be comforted by this memory when the time came. The words that mattered were the same words spoken at Christ’s baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” In time, and in eternity, Jesus was one with God.

What difference does that make to me? I see something comforting for me, as it came to be comforting for the disciples. The fact that Jesus’ story is ancient history does not make it outdated. The reality of Christ is that he can keep the promise he made at the ascension – namely a promise to be with us to the end of the age. If Christ transcends time, then every moment in time is Now to him. He can be with me, because he was, he is, and he is to come. That is what the apostle John learned from this experience, and I take it to heart. The story of Jesus is, as one hymn says, an “old, old story,” but Jesus is forever, as revealed in the transfiguration. He is with me, as he promised, yesterday, today and forever.

Wait for the Lord

Mark 1:29-39, Isaiah:40:21-31

Jesus had a very busy day in Capernaum. Last week, we heard about his exorcism of a demon who dared to interrupt Sabbath worship in the synagogue. This week, we learn that no sooner did he leave the synagogue to go home with Peter for lunch than he was accosted with another problem. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick. The family probably rushed up when he came in the door to let him know that the meal was going to be delayed and inferior due to the illness of the mother-in-law.

Jesus solved that problem, but his day was not over. People waited till sundown, the official end of Sabbath, to bring him more problems, but the line was long and the Bible says the whole town gathered. It would have been late by the time he could go to bed.

The next morning, by dawn, the crowds were starting to gather again. They just assumed that the show would continue. It was a pretty good show. Bring up a sick person, get that person healed, shout and laugh, then do it again. It is exactly the sort of show Satan would like. This performance made Jesus a sideshow, not a savior.

Jesus, however, had a message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) The miracles were evidence of his power and authority as God, but they were not the central message. Only the sick and demon-possessed got any real blessing out of the healings. Everyone else received entertainment. Nobody repented, and nobody even heard the good news. They were all focused on the magic of the moment.  Jesus had not come to earth to become a celebrity. Jesus came to invite everyone into the kingdom of God, and to put God on the throne of every heart.

This is the reason that he went out very early the next morning, before dawn, before the crowds began to line up at the door, to pray. Jesus, true God, had all the power of the universe in time and eternity at his command, but Jesus, true man, needed time with the Father, time for refreshment and courage and inspiration.

We know that Jesus knew the Bible very well. When Satan mounted a frontal attack on him in the wilderness, Jesus responded to every assault with scripture. But the only Bible that existed at that time was the Old Testament. It seems completely reasonable to think that when he went out to pray, he turned to scripture for consolation. Did he wonder if he could ever get the crowds to focus on the real message? Did he wonder if he were really up to the work he had to accomplish? In other places in the gospels we read that Jesus warned the disciples that he would suffer and be killed. Did he wonder if he could carry his message to enough people before that happened? Did he wonder how he would endure what he knew was coming? Did he simply need to connect with his Father and spend some time enjoying that fellowship?

It seems reasonable to believe that in those moments before dawn when he sat all by himself somewhere outside Capernaum, Jesus thought about the first lectionary reading for today—Isaiah 40:21-31.

Isaiah wrote about God as we might see God in his heavenly, eternal throne room. From the narrative in the book of Revelation, we see that the Lamb of God stands beside God in that heavenly throne room eternally. Did Jesus let his human mind wander to his heavenly memories that morning? He knew he had a battle on his hands. Did he ask for more strength and wisdom to combat his eternal enemy?

One part of the text from Isaiah would have comforted him. It comforts many people who read it and even inspired a great song. As he contemplated these words, he would surely have been refreshed and encouraged to move on with his message of hope and repentance to all the people.

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.  Isaiah 40:31

 

Jesus knew that his job was not to entertain the people. It was going to be very hard. People much preferred to receive some immediate benefit. They were not so eager to follow him in a life of repentance and service, going against the current of the people around them, maybe being rejected or persecuted themselves. He needed to lead them not only to repent and believe the good news, but also to be willing to turn to God for the strength and courage it would take to live that life.

Today, 2000 years later, the challenge is still the same. People prefer to get something out of their religion rather than give something. Today, Jesus still asks us to give ourselves to him in repentance and service. It isn’t easy to make ourselves do it. In fact, we cannot make ourselves do it. Like Jesus, we need to spend time in prayer in order to have the strength to live our lives as faithful followers. We all must be like Jesus and trust God for the strength to do his work. Isaiah promises us that if we remain connected with the Lord and wait faithfully for his guidance, we will receive the strength we need.