DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Filtering by Category: Mark

The Empty Tomb (Mark 16:1-8)

On Friday, things couldn't have been any worse. Jesus Christ, who had been preaching and healing for three years, had been completely abandoned by even his closest friends. One of the twelve people closest to him had betrayed him. One of his three closest friends had cursed, saying that he didn't have anything to do with Jesus. Not even his family believed. The story was over. Jesus had joined the history heap. He was just one of countless messiahs who came, built up a following, and then flamed out. If the Gospel of Mark ended at chapter 15, then Jesus would have been nothing more than a footnote of history, maybe getting a line or two in some ancient text but nothing more.

But just when things are at their worst, everything changes. In just 8 verses Mark shows us that everything has changed. In these 8 verses we're going to see that Easter was a surprise; that Easter includes us; and that the Easter story continues.

First: Easter is a surprise.

If you had lived at the time of Jesus, you would have understood that Jesus was just one of many messianic figures who came, and ended up dying disappointing deaths. For instance, Simon bar Kokhba led a revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 AD. He set up an independent Jewish state, and ruled for three years as ruler. But his revolt was eventually crushed, and today his name is hardly known. After the failure of the revolt, rabbinical writers began referring to him by a new name. Instead of calling him Bar Kokhba ("Son of a Star") they started calling him Bar Kozeba ("Son of the disappointment"). If the story of Jesus ended in Mark 15, this would have been the story of Jesus as well. Disappointment. Failure. End of story.

Now, Jesus had told his disciples over and over again what was going to happen.

"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise." (Mark 10:33-34)

Here it is the third day, and absolutely nobody has even considered the possibility that what Jesus said would come true. His disciples are scattered. In verse 1 of this passage, three women come as soon as they can, early in the morning, with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. These spices would be very costly. They were designed to help deal with the stench that a decaying body would create. Nobody is expecting a resurrection. They expect to find a bloodied and decaying body there. Not a single person expected anything other than a dead body. As far as they were concerned, the story was over. Theologically, they didn't even believe that a resurrection could even take place in this age. That is something that the Jewish people believed would take place at the end of history. They certainly didn't expect Jesus to be risen from the dead.

Sometimes we make the mistake of reading the Bible and thinking that of course ancient people could accept the story of someone rising from the dead, and now we're so much more sophisticated. What you need to understand is that nobody back then expected the resurrection of Jesus. They didn't even have categories for it. When other leaders were killed, nobody thought to make up a story of resurrection.

The people in Mark didn't get it either, and yet something happened to transform them completely. A group of first-century Jews who were scattered and defeated and had no category for the resurrection were suddenly changed to emboldened witnesses who were prepared to give up their lives speaking about what they'd seen. As Pascal put it, "I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut." Virtually all of the disciples and early Christian leaders gave up their lives testifying to the resurrection of Jesus. Something happened on Easter morning that nobody had expected that changed everything.

If you're here this morning and you have a hard time believing the resurrection, join the club. There's not a person in the Gospel of Mark who expected it to happen. But something happened that changed everything - and is still changing everything today. Easter is a surprise.

But then, secondly, we see:

Easter includes us.

Mark 16:1 says, "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body."

It's easy to miss how shocking this is. These women had been witnesses of Jesus' death. "Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome" (Mark 15:40). Two of them, according to Mark 15:47, witnessed where Jesus was buried. Now these three women are about to become the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and to the message of the angel.

What's so surprising about this? In Jesus' day, women were viewed as being unreliable witnesses. Their testimony was not considered admissible evidence. N.T. Wright makes the point that if you were inventing the story of the resurrection, you never would have made the first and best witnesses to be female. It would have been too inconvenient. The only reason you would say that women were the first and best witnesses is because that's what actually happened. It's there because it's true.

But it's surprising for another reason. The readers of Mark's Gospel would have understood that one of these three women, at least, was a woman with a past. Mary Magdalene was somebody who had previously been demon possessed. Luke 8:2 calls her "Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out." At least one of these three women is somebody who has a history.

What does this tell us? Mark is showing us how the gospel turns things upside-down. People who are excluded, who are pushed to the side, are the first and best witnesses of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The least likely people become part of the Easter story. You may be here this morning thinking that you're the least likely person. The first to be discounted in human society are the first to be included in divine society.

And just in case we get ahead of ourselves, Mark still points out that we won't get it right away. These women go to the tomb. They enter into a small chamber in the tomb and see a young man sitting there. This young man - an angel - announces the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They're told to go tell the disciples. All along, Jesus has told people not to tell people about him. Jesus commanded people to silence, and they spoke. Now, they're compelled to speak, and what do they do? Verse 8 says, "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." Easter is for the least likely people, but even the best of us blow it. The Resurrection changes us. The gospel changes us. But it's a process. Easter includes people like us, people who are the least likely to be included, people who still blunder in our responses to God and who don't get it right away.

What about the disciples? The angel told the women, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you'" (Mark 16:7). Before Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples:

"You will all fall away," Jesus told them, "for it is written:
"'I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.'

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." (Mark 14:27-28)

The disciples had completely blown it. Jesus had told them over and over again what was going to happen, and they just couldn't get it. And when put to the test, they caved and they fled.

And out of all the disciples, no failure was more dramatic than Peter's. Peter had sworn emphatically, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you" (Mark 14:31). But when the moment came, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Out of all the disciples, except for Judas, Peter knew that he had let Jesus down profoundly.

Yet the message was, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" You see what this means? Jesus hasn't written Peter and the other disciples off.

Easter includes unlikely people. It includes people who blunder. It even includes people who have completely and utterly failed. Easter includes people just like us.

That's what Mark has been showing us so far. Easter is a surprise. It caught everyone by surprise. Nobody expected. And Easter includes us - the unlikely ones, the blundering ones, the failures. There's one more thing Mark shows us:

Finally: the Easter story continues.

You'll notice this morning that we've looked at verses 1 to 8. There's a reason. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts end at verse 8. Early church fathers don't seem to know of anything beyond verse 8. It seems like the last verse we have that authentically and originally comes from the pen of Mark is verse 8. Verses 9 to 20 seem to have been added later as a way to smooth out the ending.

I don't want to get into all the theories this morning about why Mark ends the way it does. Some think Mark meant to end this way. Others think that something happened - Mark wasn't able to complete his book, or what he originally wrote was lost. In a sense it doesn't matter. We learn a lot about what happened from the other records. No doctrine is affected no matter what we conclude about the abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark.

But you have to agree that it's a strange way to end. Women come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away. They meet an angelic messenger who tells them that Jesus is risen, and he gives them a message to pass on to the disciples. Jesus is alive, and he's going to reconvene his community. The story continues. And then: "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." The end. Amen. Let's pray.

What a strange way to end the book! You can see why they'd try to neaten the ending and smooth it out.

But let's think for a minute. Those who first read Mark's Gospel would have known that this wasn't the end of the story. They would have heard the stories of Jesus' resurrection appearances. The very fact that the Gospel of Mark had been written would have been evidence that this wasn't the end of the story. Easter Sunday had set in motion a series of events that had transformed the disciples. Somebody points out that you have all the raw materials you need: an empty tomb, the young men's message, Jesus' indication that he's not done with his disciples yet. It's left to us to pull it together and to trace the line from what happened then to where we are today.

No matter how you understand the ending of the Gospel of Mark, it points out that Easter Sunday was not the end of the story. It's only the beginning. The resurrection of Jesus set in motion a new story that has not yet finished or resolved. It's a story that includes us today.

In a sense, Mark's Gospel ends at verse 8. For all we know, there was more, but we don't know. What we have ends, though at verse 8. But the story that Mark has begun to tell is a story that continues right to the present day. Jesus has been raised from the dead. It's taken us all by surprise. And Jesus is calling the most unlikely people - people who have let him down - to join his community of followers, and to announce the good news that Jesus is alive and has finished his work. The Gospel of Mark is over, but the story isn't. The story continues to this very day, and it includes you.

I'm glad that Mark ends with the disciples scattered and the women scared. I'm glad because we know that it doesn't end there. God transformed them into a group of people who, through the power of the Spirit, turned the world upside-down.


But it gives me hope, because some of us are scattered and afraid today. There's hope for us too. Easter may be a surprise, but the Easter story includes you in. It pulls you in so you see that Jesus has risen, and is alive, and the story continues. And it's a story that includes you.

Father, thank you for Easter. We've seen that Jesus bore our sins and our shame. But we've seen today that this isn't the end of the story. Jesus also rose to give us new life. You vindicated him, and he now sits at your right hand as King.

But you take us - those who are caught off guard, those of us who don't matter, who blunder in our responses, who flat-out fail you - and you pull us into the story. You take us and use us to change the world, not because we're strong, but because Jesus is risen.

So change us. Would you draw some of us even now into this story. We thank you for Jesus, for what he did. We thank you that he lives. And we pray in his name, the name of the risen and reigning King. Amen.

The Death of Jesus (Mark 15:21-47)

At first glance, the death of Jesus looks like a horrible defeat. In the passage we just read, Jesus is alone and abandoned. Instead of defeating the Romans as the Messiah, he's killed by the Romans. His own friends abandon him, and he's surrounded by mockers and strangers. And he dies with a loud cry, and it's over, and then he's buried. Why would Christians celebrate this death? Why do we call this Good Friday?

But you'll notice as you look at this passage that there's more than meets the eye. Because in this passage Mark tells, first, us that history's changed. Not only that, Mark tells us that our lives can change as well. Finally, Mark shows us, what took place at the cross is not a defeat; it's actually something that's worth celebrating.

First, History's Changed

Let's see how Mark shows us that history has changed by what takes place in this passage. In verse 33, right before Jesus died, we read: "At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon."

This detail - the darkness - is so important that it's mentioned by three of the four gospels. This couldn't have been an eclipse. Why? For one thing, an eclipse only lasts for a few minutes. Passover - which is when Jesus died - took place during a full moon, and eclipses only take place when it's a new moon. So this was no eclipse. Some people think it might have been a dust storm, but a dust storm would have been unlikely at this time because it was the wet season.

What Mark is telling us here is more than a weather report. Mark is showing us the significance of what happened. In the Bible, darkness means judgment. In Deuteronomy, God warned Israel:

However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you...At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you. (Deuteronomy 28:15, 29)

One of the Hebrew prophets foretold a day when God would judge the nation of Israel. Amos predicted that God would call his people to account for their injustice. He said:

"In that day," declares the Sovereign LORD,
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight."
(Amos 8:9)

What Mark is saying is significant. We're going to look at the other events that take place around the cross. You're going to see that a lot is going on. But for three hours, the focus is not on any human activity, but on unnatural darkness. And it's not a darkness that goes to midnight. It's a darkness that ends at the death of Jesus. For three long hours, time passes as the death of Jesus takes place in unnatural darkness. Judgment. Isaac Watts wrote:

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature's sin.

What's going on at the cross? This isn't simply somebody's death. This is something far more than that. This is divine judgment. At the cross, Jesus bears the full weight of divine judgment for sins that we had done. God finally judges - but instead of judging those who had done wrong, God bears the judgment himself for all that we had done. As one person puts it, "Christianity is the only faith system where God both makes the demands and meets them" (Tullian Tchividjian). That's what happened at the cross.

But there's more. Verses 37 to 38 say: "With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."

At the very moment that Jesus dies, something unbelievable happens. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. There were actually two curtains in the temple. One, the outer curtain, separated the sanctuary from the outer porch. The other was the inner veil that separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter in, and only once a year for a moment. The curtain was 60 feet high and 30 feet wide. We don't know which curtain it was, but Hebrews identifies it as the inner curtain.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body... (Hebrews 10:19-20)

At the cross, Mark is saying, Jesus bore the judgment of God. And something happened at the temple which showed that the death of Jesus changed everything. At the cross, Jesus took the punishment for the sins we had committed. He experienced the judgment that should have been ours. At the death of Jesus, something happened that made the temple system of sacrifices and priests and all that it involved obsolete. This wasn't just an ordinary death. History changed at the cross.

But it's not just history that changed. Mark shows us something else in this passage. Here's the second thing that Mark shows us:

Secondly, Mark says, Our lives can change as well.

Do you notice the motley crew of characters in this passage?

In verse 21, we meet Simon of Cyrene. He's from north Africa. He stumbles upon the scene, and his family is changed as a result. Mark mentions his sons, Alexander and Rufus, presumably because his sons would have been familiar to the original recipients of Mark's book. A stranger from Africa stumbles upon the scene, and it evidently transforms his family.

Then there are three big surprises. In verse 39 we read, "And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, 'Surely this man was the Son of God!'" The centurion in this passage would have observed the death of many crucified criminals. He's the last person you would expect to be changed. But something about the way Jesus dies grabs him. He says that Jesus is the Son of God. The Romans called the emperor's son the son of god. This soldier transfers the title of the most revered figure in the Roman imperial cult to a Jew who's just been crucified. The first human witness to describe Jesus as the Son of God is not a disciple, not a Jew at all, but a Gentile army officer with no previous connection to Jesus. The disciples don't get it; the religious leaders don't get it; this Roman officer gets it. He may not have understood the full significance of what he said, but he gets that this is no ordinary insurrectionist. He understands that something more is going on. This is the true Son of God, who does not die in failure. He dies fulfilling his Father's will.

Then there are the women. Verses 40-41 say:

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

What's surprising about this? In all cultures at that time, women were viewed as inferior. Their testimony was not accepted. Up until this point, women had played a very minor role in the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn't mention any female disciples. But here, at the climax of the Gospel, the male disciples have deserted Jesus, and the women are still there, faithful to the last. They are the witnesses of all that takes place. They are the ones that saw Jesus die; they saw his body being laid in the tomb; they are the ones who find the tomb empty. They are the only eyewitnesses of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. God entrusts the message of the resurrection to them. This is one evidence, by the way, of the accuracy of the Gospels. If you were making a story up, you would never invent that women are the first eyewitnesses. You'd only write that if it were true.

Do you see what Mark is showing us? The death of Jesus is turning everything upside-down. It's changing families of a random person walking by; a Roman soldier becomes the first to grasp something of who Jesus is at the cross; women who are normally excluded are brought into the very center, and become eyewitnesses of the greatest event in redemptive history.

There's one more person who's changed in this passage. We read in verses 43: "Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body." Joseph, Mark says, is a prominent member of the Council, the Sanhedrin - the group that has just condemned Jesus. He has significant social standing in Jerusalem. And yet he risks his life here by going to Pilate and asking for the body of Jesus. Romans usually left bodies hanging on the cross until they decayed as a warning to other would-be rebels and slaves. And yet Joseph puts his reputation and life at risk by asking for Jesus' body. And even more shockingly, he prepares the body for burial himself. Preparing a crucified corpse for burial would have been an unthinkable task, certainly well below what a man like Joseph would ever do. It was a job that was usually left for those much lower than him.

Do you see what Mark is showing us in this passage? What happened at the cross changed history. At the cross, Jesus bore God's judgment, and he made a new way for us to approach God. But it didn't just change history. It changed people. At the cross, the death of Jesus changed the lives of the most unusual people, people who would otherwise have nothing in common. It's still changing the most unlikely people: people from all different nationalities; people who are religious and people how aren't; people who are prominent and powerful and people who aren't. The death of Jesus changes history, and it changes lives as well.

There's one more thing Mark wants to show us.

The death of Jesus is not a defeat; it's a victory worth celebrating.

In this passage, Jesus is remarkably silent. Mark records only two times that Jesus says anything. As he dies, Mark says in verse 37, he lets out a loud cry. And in verse 34 he cries, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

What is this about? At first glance it looks like the desparate cry of someone who's been completely abandoned by God. It is that, but it's actually much more.

If you study the gospels carefully, you'll notice that this is the only time that Jesus addresses God as "My God." Every other time that Jesus refers to God, he calls him Father. Jesus addresses God not in terms of the intimate relationship he enjoyed with God as his Son; he addresses God at a distance. And his cry, "Why have you forsaken me?" gets to the heart of what happened at the cross. On the cross, Jesus is experiencing the immense pain of divine abandonment. Centuries before, the prophet of Isaiah wrote:

Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.
(Isaiah 59:1-2)

Isaiah says that our sins have separated us from our God. The Bible teaches that God's eyes "are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing" (Habakkuk 1:13). On the cross, all of our sins were poured on Jesus. When he took on the sins of the world, "he became the most grotesque, most obscene mass of sin in the history of the world" (R.C. Sproul). And at that moment, God turned his back on Jesus. He hung in the cross cut off from the relationship he had enjoyed with his Father throughout eternity. He didn't just feel forsaken; he was forsaken. Phil Ryken put it this way:

It was as if God had taken a giant bucket and scooped up all the sins of his people - all the jealousy and the lying, all the rebellion and the stealing and the incest, all the hypocrisy and the envy and the swearing - and dumped them all out on Jesus Christ. "The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us..." (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Once he had done that, God the Father had to forsake all that sin. When Jesus was wearing our sin on the cross, God the Father could not bear to look at the sin or at his Son. He had to avert his gave. He had to shield his eyes. He had to turn his back. He had to condemn and reject and curse and damn that sin...When Jesus Christ picked up our sins, he became a curse for us, and when he became a curse for us, he was accursed by God. God was not forsaking his Son as much as he was forsaking the sin the Son was carrying.

I said this was good news. So far I haven't told you how this is good news, have I? It's good news in two ways. First: "The forsaking of the Son of God on the cross is a fearful thing, but it's good news for sinners who repent" (Phil Ryken). Why is it good news? Jesus was forsaken so that we don't have to be forsaken. He was rejected so that we can be accepted. At the cross, he was cut off from God so that we could be brought in.

It's also good news because of where Jesus got this prayer: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus is actually quoting Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is the prayer of someone who is being attacked, someone who feels abandoned by God. When Jews quoted the Hebrew Scriptures back then, quoting one verse would be enough to bring up the whole passage. So many of those hearing Jesus quote Psalm 22:1 would have remembered how Psalm 22 ends: it ends with vindication. It begins like this:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
(Psalm 22:1)

But it ends like this:

For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
(Psalm 22:24)

Jesus is saying that he knows the abandonment is not the end of the story. God will vindicate him. There's more:

All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him...
(Psalm 22:27)

As Jesus goes to the cross, there's more than meets the eye. At the cross, history changed. Not only that, but lives were changed. At the cross, Jesus was cut off from God so that we wouldn't have to be cut off. Because God did not reject him forever, neither will God reject us when he place our faith in Christ and understood what he did for us at the cross.

So help us see beneath the surface, Father. Thank you that on that Friday long ago, history changed. Thank you, though, that it's not just history that changed. For two thousand years now, you've been changing lives because of what Jesus accomplished at the cross. He bore our sins; he was cut off so we wouldn't have to be.

Help us see the cross. And I pray it would change us today. We pray in the name of the one who was rejected so we could be accepted, in the name of the one who gave his life so that we could live. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Enduring the Shame (Mark 15:16-32)

We're in Mark 15 this morning. Jesus has been tried and condemned, and abandoned by everyone. We are now moments away from his death in this passage.

But before Jesus is killed, we have an interlude. And in this interlude we notice two things. One: that Jesus is mocked. Two: that in the entire time leading up to his death, Jesus does nothing to resist what's happening. He never raises his voice to defend himself. He willingly endures whatever comes his way as he moves closer to the cross.

As we look at this passage we're going to see three things. First: we're going to learn about ourselves. Second: we're going to learn about Jesus. And then lastly, we're going to learn about what Jesus accomplished for us not only in his death, but in the hours leading up to his death.

First: let's learn about ourselves in this passage.

What's shocking in this passage is the extent to which Jesus is abandoned. Look at this passage and what takes place immediately before:

  • In 14:43, Judas - one of the twelve disciples that Jesus had chosen - betrays him with a kiss.
  • in 14:51, another one of his followers runs away naked. Some think that this person is Mark himself. Whoever it is, it points to the complete failure of Jesus' friends to support him when the moment came.
  • In 14:65, members of the Sanhedrin - the top religious leaders - spit on Jesus, covered his face, and struck him.
  • In 15:13-14, the crowds call out for Jesus' death.
  • In 15:15, Pilate had Jesus scourged. Scourging meant that Jesus was tied to a post and beaten with a leather whip that had pieces of bone and metal that would tear through the skin. Scourging itself was sometimes fatal.
  • In 15:16-20, the guards sarcastically mocked Jesus as a supposed king.
  • In 15:29-30, those who passed by the scene of the crucifixion mocked Jesus. They wagged their heads and taunted him.
  • In 15:31-32, the chief priests and scribes joined the mocking.
  • In 15:32, even those who were being crucified alongside Jesus joined in and mocked him.

It's absolutely shocking as we read this. Jesus is completely and utterly abandoned by everyone. Jews and Gentiles, religious and non-religious, leaders and ordinary folk, and even criminals join in the mocking. His own friends betray him.

What is this supposed to teach us? Martin Luther, a monk and Reformer who lived 500 years ago, wrote:

Let us meditate a moment on the passion of Christ. Some do so falsely in that they merely rail against Judas and the Jews.

Let's stop there for a minute. Luther was saying that 500 years ago, some would open up the Bible as an excuse to attack Judas or the Jewish people. In other words, the Bible became a tool they used to point the finger at others, and even to engage in racist behavior. Luther continues:

The true contemplation is that in which the heart is crushed and the conscience smitten...Take this to heart and doubt not that you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins certainly did, and when you see the nails driven through his hands, be sure that you are pounding, and when thorns pierce his brow, know that they are your evil thoughts...The whole value of meditation of the suffering of Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself and sink and tremble.

Do you see what Luther is saying? There are two ways to read this account. One is to read it and to shake our heads at the people who mocked Jesus. We look at them and condemn them. The other way to read this account is to contemplate that this is a passage that reveals our hearts. This passage shows us to be enemies of God who abandon and mock him, because nobody is excluded from this passage. Everybody joins the mocking. Everybody abandons Jesus. As Luther says, "The true contemplation is that in which the heart is crushed and the conscience smitten."

This passage both humbles us and raises us up. First, it humbles us. You know, it's easy to blame a group of people to which you don't belong. We've all been parts of groups in which we begin talking about the faults of others who aren't like us. But what if we are all put on even ground, and what if there is no difference between us? That's exactly what happens in this passage. Everyone is humbled. Everyone abandons Jesus. The religious mock him; so do the irreligious. Jews mock Jesus; so do the Gentiles. His friends abandon him; strangers shake their heads at him. Nobody gets off. Everyone is humbled as we read this passage.

But this passage also raises us up. What do I mean by this? Because we're all in the same boat, nobody here can claim superiority over the other. Everyone of us is equal in our need for Christ. We're all brought to the point of sinking and trembling. But we're going to see in a moment that there is hope for us in this passage as well.

This is the first thing that Mark asks us to see in this passage. Everyone is guilty. Everyone abandons Jesus. Everyone joins in the mocking. All of us are humbled. All our hearts our crushed, and all of our consciences are smitten.

Secondly, let's learn about Jesus.

If you've ever been falsely accused, you know how you want to respond. You are going to let people know the truth. There's no way that you are going to allow people to spread falsehood about you and to ruin your good name. Yet in this passage, Jesus is falsely accused and verbally attacked, and he says nothing. He's silent.

If you've ever been physically attacked, you know that we all instinctively either fight or flee. But in this passage Jesus does neither. He endures the blows and is beaten and shamed, and he doesn't raise a voice or a fist to defend himself.

This is especially significant because had Jesus stuck up for himself, he would have been very convincing. Adrian Rogers writes:

If Jesus had risen up in his own defense during his trials, I believe he would have been so powerful and irrefutable in making his defense that no governor, high priest, or other legal authority on earth could have stood against him! In other words, if Jesus had taken up his own defense with the intention of refuting his accusers and proving his innocence, he would have won!

We've seen that Jesus is incredibly convincing whenever he's had a verbal confrontation with anyone in this gospel. Jesus is never at a loss for words. But in this passage, Jesus says nothing in his defense, nor does he make any move to avoid what's happening to him. Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah had written of Jesus:

I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
(Isaiah 50:6)

In other words, Jesus willingly endured the mocking and the spitting. Hebrews 12:2 puts it this way: "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame." It's here that we learn something very important about Jesus.

What do we learn? In a sense, everything that is said about Jesus is true in this passage. They mock him as King of the Jews; ironically, they're right. He is the King of the Jews, except he's a king who suffers. Read verses 29-32:

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!"

In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe."

What are they saying? They're calling on him to save himself. They accuse him of saving others, but not being able to save himself. And in a way they're right. Don Carson imagines what it would have been like if Jesus had taken them up on their challenge:

This would be a pretty remarkable and convincing display of power, and the mockers would be back-peddling pretty fast. But in the full Christian sense, would they believe in him? Of course not! To believe in Jesus in the Christian sense means not less than trusting him utterly as the One who has borne our sin in his own body on the tree, as the One whose life and death and resurrection, offered up in our place, has reconciled us to God. If Jesus had leapt off the cross, the mockers and other onlookers could not have believed in Jesus in that sense, because he would not have sacrificed himself for us, so there would be nothing to trust, except our futile and empty self-righteousness.

But then Carson explores the meaning of their statement, "He saved others, but he can't save himself." Carson says:

The deeper irony is that, in a way they did not understand, they were speaking the truth. If he had saved himself, he could not have saved others; the only way he could save others was precisely by not saving himself. In the irony behind the irony that the mockers intended, they spoke the truth they themselves did not see. The man who can't save himself--saves others.

One of the reasons they were so blind is that they thought in terms of merely physical restraints...But those who know who Jesus is are fully aware that nails and soldiers cannot stand in the way of Emmanuel. The truth of the matter is that Jesus could not save himself, not because of any physical constraint, but because of a moral imperative...It was not nails that held Jesus to that wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for his Father, to do his Father's will--and, within that framework, it was his love for sinners like me. He really could not save himself. (Scandalous)

Jesus was completely capable of saving himself - but then he couldn't have saved us. So he willingly chose to endure the mocking and the spitting. He willingly chose to suffer and die so that we could be saved. He chose death so that we could live.

What is this about? Maybe a movie from 1938 will help. The movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces. James Cagney plays the part of Rocky Sullivan, a celebrity criminal who is the hero of all the young juvenile delinquents in the city. He's about to go to the electric chair. The night before his execution, he's visited by his childhood friend Jerry, who is now a priest trying to save inner-city kids from a life of crime. Jerry makes a request of Rocky. He asks Rocky to disgrace himself so that his juvenile followers can live.

I want you to let them down. You see, you've been a hero to these kids, and hundreds of others, all through your life - and now you're going to be a glorified hero in death, and I want to prevent that, Rocky.

Rocky can't believe it.

You asking me to pull an act, turn yellow, so those kids will think I'm no good...You ask me to throw away the only thing I've got left...You ask me to crawl on my belly - the last thing I do in life...Nothing doing. You're asking too much...You want to help those kids, you got to think about some other way.

Jerry is saying to Rocky, "It's them or you. If you go down in glory, these kids are going to go down in shame. But if you go down in shame, if you're willing to throw away everything you have, your entire reputation, then they can be saved." But Rocky refuses.

The next morning he walks out to the execution chamber as Father Jerry watches. He comes out with a snarl. When one of the guards insults him, he slugs him. He's in control. He's going down in glory. But when he gets to the door of the death chamber, suddenly he begins to squeal like a child. "No! I don't want to die! Oh, please! I don't want to die! Oh, please! Don't make me burn in hell. Oh, please let go of me! Please don't kill me! Oh, don't kill me, please!"

Father Jerry, as he sees that happen, looks to heaven. The next day, the newspaper says:

At the fatal stroke of eleven p.m. Rocky was led through the little green door of death. No sooner had he entered the death chamber, than he tore himself from the guard's grasp, flung himself on the floor, screaming for mercy. And as they dragged him to the electric chair, he clawed wildly at the floor with agonized shrieks. In contrast to his former heroics, Rocky Sullivan died a coward.

You see what Rocky did? He substituted his life for the boys. He gave up his reputation so that he could save others.

You see, we are in that story. We are those boys whose life is about to go down. And Jesus is in the story too. He can either save his reputation and his life or save us. And in the most stunning reversal, he offers his life and his reputation so that we could be saved. He substitutes his life and everything he has for us.

Friends, we've seen ourselves in this passage this morning. We're crushed because we are the ones who mocked him. We've seen Jesus in this passage. He willingly endures the mocking and the spitting, because he can either save himself or us. He can't do both. And amazingly, he chooses to save us. There's one more thing we need to see this morning.

Finally, let's see what Jesus accomplished by enduring the shame.

Have you ever been shamed? I mean, really shamed? We see it happen with celebrities and politicians. Scandal hits, and somebody's good name becomes fodder for the late night comedians. We've seen it in business. You spend a lifetime building a good reputation, and you hit one rough patch and your name becomes mud. Think of the worst thing that you've ever done being made public. It would be enough to disgrace every person here.

What does that have to do with this morning's sermon? You've probably been told that Jesus died for your sins. I believe that this morning's passage also teaches us that Jesus did more than this. Adrian Rogers puts it this way: "The Bible teaches that when Jesus took our sin, he took all the punishment that goes with that sin. A part of that punishment is shame."

You see, Jesus assumed your sin. But in this passage he also assumed the shame. Jesus didn't just die; he was humiliated and shamed so that you don't have to be. Romans 10:11 says, "Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame."

As one person put it, "You don't have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there" (Jack Miller). You have nothing to prove. You never have to be ashamed. Jesus took all the shame. And anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.

So Father, humble us this morning. We see ourselves clearly in this passage. We are those who mocked him. Everybody abandoned him. Our hearts are crushed, and our consciences are smitten.

But we see Jesus, who willingly endured the mocking and the spitting. He couldn't save himself and us at the same time, so he chose to save us. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame.

Because he took the shame, we don't have to be ashamed. Help us to trust in him and in what he did. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

Two Kingdoms (Mark 15:1-15)

We're in Mark 15 this morning. In Mark 15, the book of Mark is reaching its climax. Jesus has been betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his disciples. He has been arrested and beaten and condemned by the religious leaders. And now he's in his last hours. He's about to face his death, but before he does he's going to come up against Pilate, the Roman governor who was in charge of Judea. Only Pilate had the power to condemn Jesus to death. So as we approach this morning's passage, Jesus is bound and beaten, completely abandoned, and about to lose his life.

This morning's passage is really a contrast between two people. Mark has set this scene to contrast two types of strength, two kingdoms. One type of strength is the strength that we all aspire to; the other type of strength is what we'll avoid at all costs. Mark is going to show us what true strength looks like, and if we understand this, it's going to turn our church and our lives upside-down.

First, let's look at the strength, the kingdom, that comes from power.

When Jesus was alive, Rome was in power over the nation of Israel. Because Rome was so huge, they appointed governors in different regions to maintain order. The Romans allowed self-government, so that each nation felt like they had some of their identity and autonomy. But the real power belonged to Rome. They had the ultimate say. They had all the military and economic power, and what they decided is ultimately what happened.

So as we open Mark 15, Jesus is brought before the most powerful person he has ever met in his life:

Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

"Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. 


"You have said so," Jesus replied.

The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of."

But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:1-5)

Notice the contrasts.

Scholars tell us that these events took place early in the morning, because Roman officials began work at daybreak so they could be free by midmorning to pursue activities of leisure. Pilate was going to enjoy the rest of his day; Jesus was on his way to being killed later that day.

Pilate was connected to the most powerful people in the world at that time. He was a mover. At one point he was considered a possible future emperor. He had connections and knew how to access the levers of power. Jesus had no connections. His closest friends had abandoned him. He had no access to the levers of power, and was completely abandoned, even by those closest to him.

Pilate was sitting in a palace. The trial probably took place in Herod's Palace, which was used by Roman governors when they came to Jerusalem for the feasts like Passover. It was encircled with ramparts and towers. It was the largest and most elaborate of Herod's palaces. It had two huge and elaborate reception halls in which you could entertain hundreds of guests. One historian from the period said described it as "the king's palace, which no tongue could describe. Its magnificence and equipment were unsurpassable." The historian wrote that this palace had rooms that were even more magnificent than the Holy Temple, Herod's greatest edifice in Jerusalem. Pilate had free access to all of this magnificent palace. Jesus, on the other hand, came as a prisoner, bound and about to be beaten and condemned.

Pilate had troops at his disposal. It is written that he had "power even to execute." He hadn't been afraid to use his power either. Luke 13 tells us that he had once mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices, perhaps in response to a riot. Pilate was the law, and he could essentially determine what was going to happen. There was no appeal, no supreme court to second guess his decisions.

In short, Pilate has wealth, connections, power, and leisure. Jesus has nothing - no money, no friends, no power, and no freedom. The contrast between Pilate and Jesus in this passage couldn't be more striking.

I want us to see this today because Pilate has everything that we can hope for in our own lives. Henri Nouwen wrote:

Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink; and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love.

I don't know about Pilate's sex life, but everything else that Nouwen mentions is what Pilate had, and what we long for too: the accumulation of wealth and power; the attainment of status and admiration; the best food and drink. Pilate had it all. He had everything that we spend our lives trying to get. We want the connections, the money, and the power. In this passage, Pilate embodies everything that we normally want for ourselves.

But notice what happens in this passage. Pilate has all the advantages, but it's Jesus who seems to be in control. We read in verse 10 that Pilate perceives that the real reason Jesus is on trial is because of the jealousy of the religious leaders. Pilate comes to an accurate conclusion about Jesus, and realizes that Jesus isn't guilty of treason. It's here that you begin to realize that what Pilate has is the appearance of power. He's not a free man. In verses 6 to 15 he tries to free Jesus, but the crowd won't let him. Look a little more carefully and you begin to see the problem with Pilate's strength.

He has access to the best that Jerusalem has to offer - but he hates the place. He has all the power, but he's learned from the past to pick his battles. He's already backed down from one battle with the Jewish people, and here again he gives in. It turns out he's really not in control after all. Eventually he is removed from office and and travels in haste to Rome to defend himself against charges. Before he could get there, the Roman emperor died, and so Pilate disappears from history. Nothing more is known about him. Pilate is a man who has everything, but even in this passage you see that there's really nothing there.

Listen. You and I will spend our lives chasing everything that Pilate had. Many of us are doing this right now. We want the money, the leisure, the respect, and the power. But this passage shows us the futility of this kind of strength. These things are idols that promise the world but that ultimately never deliver. Mark contrasts the strength of Pilate with the weakness of Jesus, which ultimately turns out to be the greatest strength that ever existed.

So let's look for a moment at the strength, the kingdom, that comes through weakness.

We've already seen the weakness of Jesus in this passage. He's bound and abandoned. The religious leaders turn the crowd against him. An insurrectionist and murderer ends up being more popular than him. By the end of this passage, Jesus is condemned and scourged. Scouring means that Jesus would have been bound to a pillar or post and flogged with whips made of leather that were sometimes weighted with pieces of metal, bone, or even hooks. There was no prescribed number of lashes, so scourging was sometimes fatal if they got carried away. At best it left you severely weakened and already on your way to death. There's no greater picture of weakness than in this passage.

Yet it's a chosen weakness. Jesus had a kingdom that far exceeded Pilate's kingdom. Rome could not compare to the riches or the power or the acclaim that Christ enjoyed. Yet he laid it all aside and chose to become weak for our sakes. He chose weakness.

The irony is that Jesus is bound and seemingly powerless, yet it's Jesus who is in charge not Pilate, and not the crowds. Jesus had predicted that this would happen. Jesus had said back in Mark 10:

"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise." (Mark 10:33-34)

And Jesus could have put an end to it at any moment. But he didn't. Jesus chose everything that happened to him, because somehow his kingdom functions completely different from every earthly kingdom. His kingdom functions through weakness.

That's why, when Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answers: "You have said so." What kind of an answer is that? It's an enigmatic answer that means yes or no - or in this case, maybe it means both yes and no. Jesus says, in essence, that he is a king. But he's not the kind of king that Pilate is. He doesn't hold to his rights or his privileges. He's the king who willingly leaves his throne to come to earth unrecognized, to give his life for people who don't deserve his grace or return his love. Jesus is the kind of king who offers his life. He's the king who lays aside his strength and comes in weakness. Isaiah 53 says:

He was despised and rejected by others,

a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces

he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

stricken by him, and afflicted.
(Isaiah 53:3-4)

If that's the kind of king we have, what does that mean for those of us who are in his kingdom? It means that we too will lay aside our privileges so that we can serve others. We'll choose to be weak. Justin Martyr, an early church father who lived from 100-165, wrote:

We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.

Hear that? Willingly choosing to give up wealth and grudges. Clement, who lived around the same time, described a Christian this way:

He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.

Nobody puts this better than John: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another" (1 John 3:16). Jesus chose to be weak, and we'll choose to become weak as well as we follow him - willingly pouring out our lives for others.

Because it's not just a chosen weakness, it's a saving weakness. The end of this passage gives us a picture of what happened because Jesus chose to be weak. This man, Barabbas, actually had another name: Jesus Barabbas. Somebody was going to be free; someone was going to be condemned and killed. Pilate knew that Jesus Barabbas was guilty and deserved to die. He was an insurrectionist and a murderer. Pilate also knew that Jesus did not deserve to die. He was guilty of nothing. The only reason he was on trial was because of the jealousy of the religious leaders.

Unthinkably, the convicted murderer goes free, and the innocent Son of the father is condemned. Barabbas deserves to die, but Jesus dies in his place. The love of God does for us what we can't do for ourselves. It's a picture of what Jesus does for every one of us who trusts in him: he dies in our place, while we who are guilty go free. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Mark is showing us two kings, two types of strength. One king, one type of strength, is how we normally live. It's about getting ahead and enjoying the best of life. As Nouwen said, it's what "the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment." But it ultimately leads to the kingdom of self, a kingdom that ends in weakness.

But Mark shows us another type of king, another type of strength. It's a strength that willingly lays aside its rights, the strength of a Savior who's condemned for our sins so that we can go free.

Mark shows us two types of kings - but only one is a king who saves, and a king who will reign forever.

So Father, help us to see what Jesus did.

He left His Father's throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself and came in love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race!

And I pray that all of us would trust in that kind of king.

And I pray it would change us, individually and as a church, so that we would lay down our lives for each other. I pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

The Beginning of the End (Mark 13)

This morning we are looking at one of the most challenging passages in the Gospel of Mark, and indeed in all of Scripture. One commentator says that this is "one of the most perplexing chapters in the Bible to understand, for readers and interpreters alike." And he's a scholar and a professional interpreter! So we're in for a lot of fun this morning.

Despite the challenge, this is a crucial passage for us to examine. It's the final discourse of Jesus with his disciples before his death, and the longest block of teaching in the Gospel of Mark. It has a message that we really need to hear today, although this passage may push us a little. So let's look at this passage and try to figure out three things: what he's talking about, what Jesus says about what he's talking about, and what difference it should make for us today.

First: What is Jesus talking about?

Mark 13 begins like this: "As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!'" This is really one of the most important verses to notice in this chapter. It tells us what Jesus is going to be talking about in this passage: the temple in Jerusalem. It's easy to miss this and to get completely sidetracked. Jesus is talking about the temple. And it begins with the disciples being overwhelmed by the temple and admiring its beauty of the temple in Jerusalem.

You probably know that the temple had huge significance for the Jewish nation. It represented the very presence of God among them. God had said in Psalm 132:14 of the temple: "This is my resting place for ever and ever." So it was a place of huge significance.

Why would they be in awe of the temple? When these events took place, Herod's temple had been under construction for fifty years, and it still wasn't finished. Herod had the reputation for being one of the greatest builders ever, and the temple was his crowning achievement. It was massive. The platform on which the temple sat was big enough to hold twelve football fields. The retaining wall around the temple was as high as fifteen stories off the ground. Some of the single stones were as long as sixty feet, and weighed over a million pounds. You couldn't possibly walk around the temple without being awed at the sheer size and magnitude of the place.

And then there was the beauty. It was said that the temple was the most beautiful building in the entire world at that time. We have some eyewitness accounts. Marcus Agrippa, the grandfather of one of the emperors, visited Jerusalem and could talk of nothing else "but praise for the sanctuary and all that pertained to it." The historian Josephus wrote that "the exterior wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye." The sanctuary was covered with gold and silver, crimson and purple. As you approached Jerusalem, you would sometimes be blinded by the sun reflecting on the gold. It would dazzle you. It's been said that Jerusalem wasn't a city that had a temple; it's more like the temple that had a city. The temple was a huge deal.

As the disciples looked at the temple, they were overwhelmed with its beauty and size. And it's this that Jesus is going to talk about in this passage.

What does this have to do with us? We don't have the temple, but we sure have our equivalents. A few years ago I visited the old Bank of Commerce building on King Street, built just after the Depression, you can't help but marvel at the beauty and opulence of the building. It screams that the bank is secure, and that when everyone has been going broke this bank is going to survive. Don't forget when it was built, right after the depression. Buildings make a statement. We have buildings all around us that scream that they matter, that they're permanent, and that they're going to stand when everything else has fallen.

So the temple is unique in one sense. It represents God's dwelling place among the people of Israel. But in other ways it represents the crowning achievement of powerful and rich people. It's part of the national identity and pride of the people who are living at that time. It's something that inspires awe. It makes you think that it's going to be around forever.

Let's ask ourselves the second question: What does Jesus say about the temple?

The disciples marvel as they look at the temple. What does Jesus say?

"Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." (Mark 13:2)

If you were looking at the buildings, this would have been shocking. Don't forget how big the stones are. Some of them are over a million pounds.

Later, across from the temple on the Mount of Olives - a vantage point with a spectacular view of the building - the disciples asked Jesus to explain. They asked, "Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?" They want to know when the temple is going to be destroyed.

If you're going to understand the rest of this passage, you need to understand that Jesus answers this question. Most of what we're going to read is not about the end times. It's about the temple. Jesus begins to describe what's going to happen in the next 40 years after his ascension. There will wars, rumors of wars, and earthquakes, he says in verses 5 to 8. The followers of Jesus Christ are going to be persecuted, betrayed by even family, and killed, he says in verses 9-13 - but the gospel will be preached to all nations. The temple itself is going to be desecrated, Jesus says in 14. And it's truly going to be horrible, says Jesus in verses 15 to 23. People will have to flee from Jerusalem and they won't have any time to grab what they need before they leave.

You may buy that Jesus is talking about the destruction of the temple at this point, but you may really struggle with believing me in the next few verses. In verses 24 to 27, Jesus says:

But in those days, following that distress,

"'the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Mark 13:24-27)

A lot of people have interpreted this as referring to the second coming. But stay with me for a minute here. I think Jesus is still talking about the destruction of the temple. In the Old Testament, the prophets often used cosmic language to describe God's decisive judgment, particularly on foreign nations. So, for instance, Isaiah described God's judgment on Babylon:

The stars of heaven and their constellations
will not show their light.
The rising sung will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light
(Isaiah 13:10)

And later on, other Gentile nations including Edom:

All the stars in the sky will be dissolved
and the heavens rolled up like a scroll;
all the starry host will fall
like withered leaves from the vine,
like shriveled figs from the fig tree.
(Isaiah 34:4)

Now Jesus says that God is going to judge the temple in Jerusalem in the same way. Just as God has judged the evil Gentile nations in the past, now God is going to judge his own people as well. This is shocking.

What about verses 26 and 27? Again, that really looks like the second coming, doesn't it? Here again, Jesus is quoting from an Old Testament prophet. He's quoting Daniel. If you look carefully at Daniel 7, it is not so much about the second coming as it is about the enthronement of the Son of Man, a name that Jesus used for himself. It's not about his return to earth as much as it is his coronation. When was Jesus crowned as king? When he ascended to heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God. That's why Mark could say in verse 30 that this is all going to take place within a generation. We're going to see in a minute that it actually did.

You know what this means? Mark is saying that God is going to decisively judge the temple. In its place is going to be a new king. People always thought that the authority and power of God rested on the temple. But now, Jesus says, that authority and power is being moved to him. And God is going to gather people from every nation, from ever corner of the earth, to be part of his kingdom. And, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."

That's exactly what happened. After Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers did receive the persecution he promised in verses 9 to 13. In 70 A.D. the Romans besieged Jerusalem. Josephus describes how terrible it was. People starved and ate their own babies to survive. They fought each other for scraps of dirty food. There was infighting, so that more people were killed by other Jews than the invading Romans. And, indeed, the temple was destroyed. A Roman soldier threw a burning stick onto one of the Temple's walls. The fire spread quickly and was soon out of control. It was later written:

Caesar ordered the whole city and the temple to be razed to the ground.... All the rest of the wall encompassing the city was so completely leveled to the ground as to leave future visitors to the spot no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited

And, by the way, the Bible does tell us that Jesus ascended to heaven and became enthroned. Everything in this passage happened just as Jesus said.

There's one more question that we really need to answer:

What difference does this make for us today?

This is all very interesting, but what difference does it make in our lives today? It makes all the difference in the world.

First: Jesus could say about all that we see as permanent and awesome around us: "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." We need to hear this. That Bank of Commerce building that screams permanence: gone. The Houses of Parliament: gone. The universities, the businesses, the stock exchanges: gone. This world and everything in it will pass away. As John wrote: "The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).

Second: Jesus does make a shift to the end of the world at the end of the chapter. We don't have to wonder how Jesus applies this to us today, because he tells us. Look at verse 37: "What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch!'" This is so important that he repeats it five times in different ways in this passage. Watch! Be prepared!

Like many of you, I was watching the gold medal hockey game last Sunday afternoon. In the last minute of play in regular time, the USA tied the game. Overtime started. The next goal would decide the game. Up until that point I had been multitasking. I had a newspaper in my hand and I would pick up my laptop during the game.

But when that game went into overtime, I put that newspaper and computer down and watched. The game had my undivided attention. Jesus says in this passage that this world will one day end, and that he will be returning and calling us to account. How should we respond? Not by guessing all the details of what's going to happen. He calls us to watch, just as closely as I watching that game.

Every time the Bible mentions the end, it's not to encourage speculation. It's to get us to live differently now.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. (2 Peter 3:10-12)

Finally: rejoice in the King. This passage tells us that everything will be destroyed, but we have a King who is enthroned and who will reign forever. He is gathering his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth, to the ends of the heaven. Those who trust in him will share in his power and glory.

We're going to sing to that King in a minute. No matter what's shaken in this world, or in your life, we can rejoice in that King. Heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will not pass away.

And what a King he is. He is a King who died so that we could live forever in his kingdom. Augustine said of him, "Hold fast to Christ. For you he became temporal, so that you might partake of eternity." In invite you to come to that King this morning.

The Stone the Builders Rejected (Mark 11:27-12:44)

I'm sure that many of us have enjoyed the Olympics over the past two weeks. We all know that the real event is still to take place later this afternoon. You can enjoy your biathlons and bobsleds and short track speed skating. You can even have your curling, but we all know it's about the men's hockey. So today we'll be glued to our sets seeing who is going to win the gold medal.

I'm not about to predict who is going to win this afternoon, but let me be clear: the team that wins will have both talent and experience. To put it differently, if they passed out skates and sticks to a random group of people here today, I guarantee we would do worse than Latvia, a team that has won no games and has been scored against four times more than they've scored. In other words, it's no accident that teams like the United States and Canada end up near the top. We have the most experience in hockey. We have the deepest pockets of talent.

This may sound like the most obvious observation ever. Except I want to pose a question for you. We've been studying the Gospel of Mark, and today we come to a passage in which Jesus is in the Temple. Jesus is in the holiest place. He is at the center of faith and salvation for Jews and Gentiles around the world. Not only that, he is surrounded by the top religious leaders. This is like home ice with the top religious team present. You would think that we would be watching the equivalent of gold medal action as Jesus and the religious leaders talk, that this would be the spiritual equivalent of TED, when they bring some of the top minds in the world to talk about some of the most important ideas going. You would think this would be a thing of beauty.

But instead it's a train wreck. Last week we saw that Jesus took a look at this center of faith and its leaders and condemned it as lifeless. In this week's passage we have a series of confrontations between Jesus and these top religious leaders, who have devoted their entire lives to spiritual things. You have four different incidents in which the top religious leaders go after Jesus. And you have Jesus go after them with a story and a question before issuing a warning about the religious leaders.

To go back to hockey, it's like if the team that practiced most gets worse and worse the harder they try. It's like Team Canada being beaten by a bunch of five-year-old Timbits. It's like the higher they go religiously, the further they move away from God.

This isn't just an academic question, because there are a lot of us here this morning who are not quite at the level of these religious leaders, but we are pretty religious. This passage is a little like a warning label that comes with a prescription: side-effects of religion include the danger that you drift further and further away from Jesus until you're opposed to him and he condemns you as spiritually dead.

Because we face this danger, I'd like to ask you to look with me at a story Jesus tells us that will help us understand the danger we face. The story comes in four parts. Not only does it help us understand why religious people end up far from God, it also helps us understand the whole story of Scripture and where we fit into it.

So let's look at each of the four parts, beginning with part one.

Part One: The Vineyard

Mark 12:1 says:

Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: "A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place."

The story begins with a vineyard. It's a great picture, because the people Jesus was addressing would have been familiar with vineyards, and even though we're not exactly vineyard folk we can picture what this would have been like.

If you've done any gardening, you know the kind of work that it takes to turn a piece of land into something productive and beautiful. It takes planning, and then it takes work. Some of us know the opposite. We know it's not hard to go the other direction: to take something that was a thing of beauty and see it degrade into a wild patch of weeds.

The picture you get in this passage is of a vineyard that has received a great deal of care and attention from the landowner. This was a new vineyard, so it would take at least four years of work before a crop could even be harvested. It's a vineyard that has a wall, a pit, a winepress, and a watchtower. The owner has gone to a lot of work. He's invested a lot in this project.

And then he does what was common in those days. He rents out the vineyard to workers who will care for it in his absence. The workers won't own it; they will simply rent it. The price of rent would be some of the produce from this vineyard.

If you were one of Jesus' listeners, you may have remembered a similar image from Isaiah 5:

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones

and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

and cut out a winepress as well.
(Isaiah 5:1-2)

What is this about? The vineyard is an image for God's people, Israel. It is, the Bible tells us, the object of his love and care. God has invested heavily, providing everything that his people need. If you look through Scripture in Genesis, you see that once sin enters the world things go downhill. Everything you can think of happens. It's like a garden gone wild. It's all in a state of chaos. But in the middle of that mess God promises Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.
(Genesis 12:2-3)

God keeps this promise, building and preserving a nation, and delivering them from Egypt, leading them into their land. So you have a beautiful picture here of all that God has done to prepare for his people. It's a care that extends to this day as well, to everyone who here who has heard the gospel and trusted in Christ's name. God has lavished his care on every one of us.

Part Two: Rebellion

But, Jesus explains, things don't go well. You get the most of the Old Testament, right to Jesus' day, summarized in verses 2 to 5:

At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

Despite all that the owner has done, these people do not respond out of gratitude, nor do they keep their commitments. Instead, there's a flat-out rebellion against the owner and his messengers. He keeps sending more and more messengers, and things get even worse. They start by beating but pretty soon they're killing the messengers.

Again, it reminds us of Isaiah 5:

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

but it yielded only bad fruit.
"Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard

than I have done for it?

When I looked for good grapes,

why did it yield only bad?
(Isaiah 5:2-4)

What is this about? Throughout the Old Testament, God had sent prophet after prophet to his people to remind them of the covenant, and to call them back to faithfulness. The people kept ignoring the prophets, and things kept getting worse and worse. The prophet Jeremiah put it this way:

From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors. (Jeremiah 7:25-26)

Some of the prophets were killed, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and Amos. The most recent prophet to have been sent and killed was John the Baptist. Jesus had just finished talking about him before telling this story.

What Jesus is saying is that God's people have a long history of rebellion, of ignoring his prophets. The religious leaders in the temple stood in a long line of people who had rebelled against God. We stand in the same tradition today. One hymn says that we're prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. This begins to help us understand where the religious leaders of Jesus day went wrong - and where we can go wrong as well.

Part Three: Rejecting the Son

The story in Isaiah ends at this point. It ends on an awful note.

Now I will tell you

what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,

neither pruned nor cultivated,

and briers and thorns will grow there.

I will command the clouds

not to rain on it.
(Isaiah 5:5-6)

Isaiah is talking about foreign invasion here, and national destruction for the nation of Israel.

But Jesus' story continues, and it takes a shocking turn.

"He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, 'They will respect my son.'

"But the tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. (Mark 12:6-8)

What kind of father would risk sending his own son to these rebels after what they had done to all of the previous messengers?

And that's exactly the point. God is that kind of owner. At incredible risk, God makes one final effort, one final appeal to his people. God does not give up on his people. He sends his own Son to them at the risk of his life.

But it's not just at the risk of the Son's life. It's at the cost of that life. Because, as Jesus tells the story, they plot against that his life and take it, and throw the body out of the vineyard. They don't even give the body the dignity of a proper burial.

This puts the arguments in Mark 11 and 12 in a completely different light. The religious leaders question Jesus' authority. They ask questions to try to catch Jesus in a trap. They give the appearance of having theological issues with Jesus. But those are a smokescreen for the real issue. The real issue is that they have long been in rebellion against God, and now they are plotting to take the life of God's very Son.

Mark is telling us that it's possible to be religious, to even be at the top of the religious heap - gold medalists - and to be in direct opposition to God. It's possible to be very spiritual, and yet oppose God.

And yet this passage tells us that God goes to every length to rectify the situation, going so far as to send his only Son, even at the risk of his Son's life.

Part Four: Judgment and Hope

The story ends in this passage - and for us as well this morning - on a dual note. There is a note of judgment as this story ends. "What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others" (Mark 12:9). To put it as simply as possible, to reject Jesus is to choose judgment. This is a horrible thing. To reject Jesus is to choose judgment.

But there's a stunning twist. Jesus says, "He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." There are going to be new tenants, new beneficiaries of his care. Jesus then quotes a passage of Scripture that is often quoted about Jesus from this point on. It's apparently about a stone that was rejected as unsuitable as they were building the temple. Yet this very stone, originally rejected, ended up becoming the cornerstone. The one rejected ends up becoming the most important of all.

Haven't you read this passage of Scripture:

"'The stone the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"
(Mark 12:10-11)

Jesus is saying that even his rejection and upcoming death accomplishes God's purposes. Jesus' rejection was foreseen, and God will even use that to bring glory to himself.

Do you see: Jesus is saying that even the most spiritual people, the most faithful attenders of church, can end up as enemies of God. But God has sent his own Son at the cost of that Son's life so that he could lavish his care on us. To reject Jesus is to choose judgment; to put our trust in Jesus is to receive all of his blessings.

This passage is depressing, because the spiritual gold medalists end up losing not only the game, but everything. But this chapter is encouraging because it ends with two people who unexpectedly seem to get it. One is a religious leader. Jesus says he's not far from the kingdom. There's hope even for the religious! The other is the least likely person of all, not a spiritual gold medalist, but a widow who gives everything - literally in the Greek, who gives her whole life, just like Jesus has done for us.

If you're a spiritual gold medalist, be warned. You're in danger. But there's hope for the most unlikely of people. There's hope for you.

The Coming of the King (Mark 11:1-26)

This morning's passage is one that's important on many levels. It's got layers. It's like one of those movies that has a plot, but underneath the plot are all these layers of meaning, and the more you look the more you see. It's got surprises. Just when you think it's going one way, it goes another. It's puzzling at parts. This is a passage that gets under your skin.

But when you look at this passage you encounter a message that is just as important for us today as it was for the people who are in this story. The more I looked at this passage, the more I realized that it's exactly what I need, and what you need as well.

So let me try to lead you to understand the two things that this passage is showing us. And then let me spend just a few minutes applying this to us today, and then we're done.

The Coming of the Deliverer-King

If you've been with us so far as we've been going through Mark, you know that the tension has been building. Jesus has told his disciples:

"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise." (Mark 10:33-34)

You can picture what it would have been like for Jesus and the disciples as they join the massive crowds on the way to Jerusalem. They knew that things were coming to a head. Up until now Jesus had been avoiding confrontation with the religious leaders. Now he was heading right towards a head-on collision with them that would cost him his life.

So picture them as they travel from Jericho to Jerusalem. It was mandatory for all male Jews to go up to Jerusalem for the feasts of Pentecost, Tabernacles and Passover. Passover was the most popular. The population of Jerusalem tripled in size. You would have been with tens of thousands of people walking to Jerusalem to celebrate that God miraculously delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt.

Jericho is the lowest city on earth, 800 feet below sea level. Jerusalem is only about a dozen miles away, but is nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The road goes through a hot, dry desert. Suddenly, as you approach Jerusalem, you would see the first signs of vegetation and the glorious sight of Jerusalem itself. You would see the temple - the place where God had chosen to place his name and present, where he assured Israel of forgiveness. The pilgrims would be singing the songs of ascent from the Psalms. The whole experience would take your breath away.

As Jesus and his disciples experience this, something strange happens. The entire book of Mark, Jesus has never gone anywhere except on his own two feet or in a boat. He's walked everywhere, except on water - well, even then he's walked sometimes. But here he asks his disciples to get a colt, a young donkey, on which nobody has ever sat. As he approaches Jerusalem, the crowds spread their cloaks on the road. What's that about? In 2 Kings 9, Jehu is made king over Israel, and we read, "They quickly took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, 'Jehu is king!'" (2 Kings 9:13). You don't throw cloaks on the dusty, stony road for just anyone. You do it for royalty.

They're also spreading branches and singing, "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" (Mark 11:10). Palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationality and victory. Two hundred years before, Judas Maccabaeus defeated a Syrian king. He entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple. The people waved ivy and palm branches and sang hymns of praise. Judas started a royal dynasty that lasted a hundred years.

Put this all together. Jesus' followers believe that he is the true and rightful king of Israel, come to Jerusalem to be seen as such. It's the time of the Passover, the time of hope and remembrance of freedom. As Jesus arrives, Mark is screaming for us to realize the significance of what's happening. To really understand, you have to know what the prophet Zechariah had predicted five hundred years earlier. Zechariah had written:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim

and the warhorses from Jerusalem,

and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.

His rule will extend from sea to sea

and from the River to the ends of the earth.
(Zechariah 9:9-10)

The promised deliverer-king is finally coming to Jerusalem. Psalm 72 said of him:

May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May all kings bow down to him

and all nations serve him.
For he will deliver the needy who cry out,

the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy

and save the needy from death.
May his name endure forever;
may it continue as long as the sun.
Then all nations will be blessed through him,
and they will call him blessed.
(Psalm 72:8, 11-13, 17)

Mark has been asking us to consider the question, "Who is Jesus?" Jared Wilson writes:

No man is probably more misunderstood than Jesus...We've spent decades selling a Jesus cast in our own image...The quasi-Puritan Jesus liked to smack you on the knuckles with a ruler when you got out of line. Later, we received Postcard Jesus - the Coppertoned, blond-haired blank-stare Jesus of the gold-framed portrait, a bland two-dimensional portrait occupying moral tales that help us to be better people. This flat portrait evolved into a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free Jesus, and this Jesus has inspired millions to say a prayer to get his forgiveness - and then go on living lives devoid of his presence....Today we have an amalgamation of all - and more - of these Jesuses running rampant in the world and in the church...We've settled for the glossy portrait. We've used him, made him into types and stereotypes, taken his message out of context and made it about being a better person or being cool or helping us to help ourselves. (Your Jesus Is Too Safe)

Nobody is more misunderstood than Jesus. This morning's passage is helping us to understand who Jesus is. He is more than a great teacher. He's not just someone who was especially in tune with God's presence and power. He is more than just our personal Lord and Savior. He is the long-promised king, the hope of the ages, the king who arrives to reign over the entire earth. That's the first thing Mark is telling us in this passage. Jesus is the promised deliverer-king.

Before Peace, Judgment

But the second thing Mark tells us is that Jesus is not the king we would expect. They arrive in Jerusalem, and Jesus looks around at the temple. What happens? "He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve" (Mark 11:11). Talk about anticlimax. The tension has been building. You expect something to happen. And then this? It's baffling.

Then there's this incident with the fig tree. This fig tree has given people trouble for years. Jesus sees a fig tree from a distance. He goes to see if there's any fruit on it. It's not the time for fruit, but he curses it anyway, and the next day it's withered. At first glance it looks like Jesus is being unreasonable and petulant. It's the only miracle in the gospels in which Jesus brings death instead of life. What do you make of the fig tree?

And then Jesus goes into the temple and drives out the moneychangers and those who sell pigeons. What's that about? It's been misunderstood for years. People often think that it's about selling things in the church, which I think misses the point of what's really going on here.

This all looks baffling at first - until you understand what's really happening here. The prophet Malachi had written:

"I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)

What was Malachi saying? Israel had expected that when the Lord came, it would be good news. Malachi said that God would indeed appear in the temple one day, but not only in blessing. He would come in judgment. "Who can endure the day of his coming?" he asks. When the Lord comes to his temple, Malachi said that he would purify and he would judge.

In the passage we've been looking at this morning, the Lord has come to his temple. He came not as a pilgrim but as the sovereign Lord who suddenly comes to his temple. He looks examines it as one who has come to purify and to judge.

What about the fig tree? What's that about? The key to understanding this is to realize that it's actually not about the fig tree at all. It's an enacted parable. Mark places it before and after he judges the temple so he can explain what's actually happening here.

You see, it wasn't the season for fruit. But as the leaves appear, there are usually small green figs forming as well that you can eat. This tree had all the appearance of having fruit despite it being early. Yet it as all an empty show. This was a fruitless, barren tree. It had all the appearance of health not no real fruit. Do you see what Jesus is saying? It was a visual parable for the temple: lots of activity, and the appearance of life, with no substance. The fig tree is all about Jesus appearing in the temple, and judging it as lifeless. Jesus arrives at the promised deliverer-king. But before he brings peace, he brings judgment.

The temple was a busy place. At Passover there would have been thousands of people there. There would be hundreds of tables to sell animals for the sacrifices, and hundreds of moneychangers. The historian Josephus tells us that in one Passover week one year, 255,000 lambs were bought, sold, and sacrificed. You know the financial trading floors, how loud and busy and chaotic they used to be? They were probably nothing compared to the temple during the week of Passover.

The temple was at the very center of their national faith and identity. It represented the very presence of God. It went to the very heart of their relationship with God. Jesus looks at it as the long-awaited king and sees that it looks alive, but it's diseased and blighted. The place of prayer for Gentiles had become anything but that. It was, Jesus said, "a den of robbers." He's quoting from Jeremiah 7 there. It's really not about the buying and selling that was taking place. He's quoting from a passage that talks about the mindset that you can:

...steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe"--safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:9-11)

Jesus pronounces judgment on the temple as he curses the fig tree, and when he overturns tables he's again pronouncing judgment. As Malachi said, "Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple...But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?"

If this is the case, it's very depressing. I hope we understand today who Jesus is. He's the king, the Messiah, the one who comes to rule the whole earth, to bless the nations, to deliver the needy. But he doesn't come only as the deliverer-king. He also comes to purify and to judge. He finds lots of religious activity, but no life. Where is the hope in all of this?

The hope for us is found in the last few verses of this passage:

"Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will happen, it will be done for you. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." (Mark 11:22-24)

What is this? Is Jesus switching subjects and giving a lesson on prayer? No. Actually, Jesus has just pronounced judgment on the Temple. The prayer that should be happening there isn't. It's no longer going to be the locus of prayer. In just a few short years it's going to be destroyed.

But Jesus envisioned a future without a temple. In its place would be a new praying community. Instead of only the appearance of life, this praying community would demonstrate mountain-moving faith centered on Jesus, who became the new and better temple and the sacrifice for our sins.

Have you seen Jesus as the promised deliverer-king? Have you realized that he sees through our religious appearances; that all our busyness and activity can't hide the lack of true spiritual life? "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?" Only those who are part of this praying community, who understand that the sacrifice Malachi talked about - "Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years" - that this sacrifice is Jesus himself.

Our Biggest Blind Spot (Mark 10:32-52)

When we're young, we usually think that we're original and unpredictable. Maybe it's because we're surprised by our own reactions, so we think that everyone else is as well. The longer we live, the more we are forced to realize that nobody else is surprised by our quirks and our shortcomings. The people who know you well often know what you're going to say before you open your mouth. We're about to say something, and the people around us can almost complete our sentence before we've even said anything. It's actually kind of depressing to know that we're that predictable.

What I've come to realize is that we are all fairly predictable. I don't mean to say we never surprise. We all still do things that can surprise those around us. But the reality is that those who know us best can probably tell us what our blind spots are. They can identify our areas of strength, but then they can also probably say, "Yeah, if there's anywhere you're going to struggle, it's going to be here."

I want to go even further this morning and suggest that there's an area of struggle that we all have in common. I'd go so far as to say that it's our biggest blind spot. Saying that it's a blind spot means that it's not only a weakness, but we're not aware that it's a weakness. We all have this area of struggle, and the danger is that most of us don't even recognize it as an area of struggle. We're not even aware of the problem, so we don't know the danger that we're in.

In today's passage, Jesus turns again to the disciples and tells them what's ahead. They're going to Jerusalem, and you can feel the charge in the air. The disciples know that something is up. Mark 10:32 says, "They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid." The disciples realize that something is about to unfold that will change everything. They're excited and amazed and filled with fear as they get closer to Jerusalem.

For the third time, and in the clearest way so far, Jesus explains what's about to happen:

Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise." (Mark 10:32-34)

Can you imagine being on the road with Jesus, getting closer to Jerusalem, and hearing this? He's been very clear. This is the third time that he's made this prediction. Each time the disciples have bristled as they've heard it. But Jesus hasn't wavered. He's resolute and not at all unclear about what's going to happen. You know that you're part of Jesus' inner circle, and so that if all of this is going to happen to him, things aren't going to go to well for you either.

A couple of weeks ago you may have heard about a Toronto investment banker, who flew back to Toronto from Shanghai knowing that he would be arrested the minute he stepped off the airplane. Imagine if you were with him, and imagine that he told you that you would be arrested and imprisoned as his accomplice as well. You can understand why Jesus' followers are astonished and afraid as they get closer to Jerusalem.

It's important to notice what happens next. This is the third time that Jesus has predicted his arrest and death in Jerusalem, and the same thing happened very time. It happened at the end of chapter 8. It happened at the end of chapter 9. And it's happening here again in chapter 10. Three times Jesus tells them what's going to happen, and three times the disciples make the same mistake, and three times Jesus has to explain to them what the cross means for their lives. Do you think the Bible is trying to tell us something?

What's the problem? Let's look at today's passage to unpack what our biggest blind spot is, and then let's look at what this passage gives us as the antidote.

Our Biggest Blind Spot

So what's our biggest blind spot? Do you realize that every time that Jesus tells them what lies ahead, the disciples completely fall apart? The first time, Peter takes Jesus aside to privately rebuke him. The second time they're baffled but afraid to ask Jesus about it, and then start arguing about who is the greatest. This time, we're going to see, two of them come and make a request of Jesus that is completely inappropriate.

So what's our biggest blind spot? In broad terms, I think you can say that we have a hard time understanding the cross. I'm not talking about the sanitized versions of the cross that we have today - the cross necklace or the cross hanging at the front of a church. I'm not talking about singing hymns about the cross. I'm talking about the instrument of death, the means of execution. We're very uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus - and by extension his followers - purposely going on the road knowing that what lies ahead is betrayal, condemnation, torture, and death. If you and I were told that following Jesus means that we will be signing up for a life of suffering and probably even death, we may have the same reaction as the disciples as well. We'd be baffled and afraid. We'd probably wonder what in the world we're committing to.

Three times Jesus explains that following him means that we're signing up for suffering and death, and three times the disciples basically say, "Does not compute." All three times Mark shows us that the disciples have other ideas. In chapter 8, Jesus tells Peter, "You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns" (Mark 8:33). In chapter 9, they start arguing who is the greatest. In chapter 10, two of the disciples make a request to Jesus that shows they're still making the same mistake.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."

"What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.

They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." (Mark 10:35-37)

In verse 41, the others hear about this request and they're indignant. I'm sure they were indignant because they were appalled by the audacity of James and John. But I'm sure they were also indignant because James and John had beat them to the punch. They were appalled because they had the same desire to get ahead and to occupy positions of power and glory.

Again, when the same thing happens three times in a row, do you think that Jesus and Mark are trying to tell us something? We simply don't understand following Jesus if it means following someone to our own suffering and death. We actually have other ideas. We dream about following Jesus to positions of greater honor and greater glory. Jesus walks us to our deaths, but we keep thinking that Jesus has other ideas. We keep thinking that Jesus is leading us to our greater glory, in which everyone finally realizes who we are, and when we finally get the glory that we deserve.

I've been in a lot of churches, and I've been in a lot of meetings. I always hear people dreaming of becoming a bigger church. We're pretty good at couching it in godly terms. We talk about doing it for God's glory. But I've never been in a church meeting yet in which somebody's said, "You know, maybe we've got it backwards. What if as a church we really wrestled with becoming like children who can offer nothing, like Jesus said in Mark 10. Maybe we need to work at being helpless. Maybe as a church we really need to wrestle with what Jesus said: 'Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all' (Mark 10:43-44). Maybe we need to work at being a church that's last, that becomes a servant of all."

I was sitting in Starbucks this week and witnessed a recruiting session. The recruiter had a great business opportunity and was trying to reel the other guy in. He started dropping names of famous people he's worked with. He pulled out a copy of Success magazine. He talked about how his income was growing to five figures a month. There was lots of talk about dreams and passions and coaching and motivational speaking. He never once said, "Let me tell you about an opportunity I can share with you. It won't involve using any of your talents or skills, because honestly you have nothing to offer but your helplessness. It will involve you giving up positions of honor and letting everyone else go ahead of you. It will involve giving up all of your rights and becoming the last of all. And if you do it right you'll probably get listed in Failure magazine."

But that's exactly what Jesus says.

Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44)

So let's review. We have a serious blind spot. Our blind spot is that we can't really understand what Jesus is calling us to. If we're honest, we all dream of self-advancement, of building a name for ourselves. We want a great reputation. We want to get ahead. We simply don't understand that Jesus' plan is the very opposite. Jesus wants us to admit our helplessness, to give up our rights. He calls us to take the very last place and become servants of all. He calls us to give up everything and follow him. He wants us to become servants. And as somebody has said, "You can tell whether you are becoming a servant by how you act when people treat you like one." We probably agree with Plato a lot more than Jesus. Plato said, "How can anyone be happy when he is the slave of anyone else at all?" Our blind spot is that we're a lot more likely to agree with Plato than we are with Jesus. We're a lot more comfortable with being on top than being servants. We want Jesus but without his cross.

The Question

There's a question in this passage that can help us as we wrestle with this blind spot. Imagine if Jesus asked you this question this morning. Verse 36: "'What do you want me to do for you?' he asked." Imagine if Jesus asked you this question and you could say anything. What would you answer Jesus if he asked you, "What do you want me to do for you?"

Maybe our answer would be similar to that of James and John. "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory" (Mark 10:37). They were asking to become Jesus' righthand and lefthand men. They wanted to rise to the top. Maybe that's a little like what most of us would ask for if Jesus asked us, "What do you want me to do for you?"

But there's another way to answer this question. In verses 46 to 52 we come across a blind beggar. He's got nothing. The crowd has no time for him. He's got nothing to offer and no visions of grandeur. He's even excluded from worship in the temple. But he recognizes Jesus and calls on him as the Son of David - a Messianic title - and simply pleads for mercy. He's the least likely disciple. Jesus says in verse 51, "What do you want me to do for you?" He simply answers, "Rabbi, I want to see." And as soon as Jesus heals him, he follows Jesus on the road. The reader knows where that road is going. A disciple, Mark is telling us, is someone who knows that he or she is blind, and who simply wants Jesus to grant eyesight so that we can follow him on the road wherever it leads.

How do we get there? We get there by understanding that this is the path Jesus himself took. This is the path that he calls us to take, because it's the path that God himself took for our sakes.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

This is the clearest Jesus gets in explaining his purpose. Jesus did not come to achieve a position of greatness. He abandoned a position of greatness so that he could take the lowest place. He came to die to pay the price of freedom so that we could be set free. As Jonathan Edwards put it:

He suffered, that we might be delivered. His soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death, to take away the sting of sorrow, and to impart everlasting consolation. He was oppressed and afflicted, that we might be supported. He was overwhelmed in the darkness of death, that we might have the light of life. He was cast into the furnace of God's wrath, that we might drink of the rivers of his pleasures. His soul was overwhelmed with a flood of sorrow, that our hearts might be overwhelmed with a flood of eternal joy.

In 1700, a man was born into incredible power and wealth. His name was Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, or Count von Zinzendorf for short. He was a German nobleman and could expect to live a life of privilege and a career as a diplomat and landowner.

Zinzendorf pretty much ended up spending his wealth down to zero doing good deeds, pouring himself out for others. Why? What happened to him?

He was sent as a young man to visit the capital cities of Europe in order to complete his education. One day he found himself in the art gallery in Dusseldorf. He saw a painting by Domenico Feti entitled "Ecce Homo" ("Behold the Man"). It was a portrait of Christ before Pilate with the crown of thorns pressed down on his head and blood running down his face. It was very moving for Zinzendorf.

Underneath the painting, the artist had penned an inscription. It was the words of Jesus, and the words were: "All this I did for thee; what doest thou for me?" It shook Zinzendorf to the roots. Later on he said, "Then and there I asked Jesus Christ to draw me into the fellowship of his sufferings, and to open up a life of service for me." He did, and he will.

Father, we see this morning that we are prone to get it all wrong. We have a hard time with the cross. We tend to seek our own glory. We want to be first.

But that's not the way of the cross. We serve a Savior who gave up his place of power and privilege, and who became the a servant. You call us to follow him. As 1 John 3:16 tells us, "Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another."

May we see what Jesus has done on the cross, and as a result may we become servants of all, content to be last. In Jesus name, Amen.

The Kingdom’s Upside-Down Values (Mark 10:1-31)

Sometimes we like to think that Jesus is a nice addition to our lives; that he comes and makes things a little bit better. We think that he came to make good people even better.

Today we're going to see that nothing can be further from the truth. Today Jesus is going to go into three areas of our lives and turn things completely upside down. Even worse, these are three critical areas. You don't get more personal than marriage, our view of people, and money. Today's passage let's us see how Jesus completely overturns our normal way of seeing things, and how he institutes something completely new, something far beyond what we could come up with ourselves.

So let's look at this passage as simply as we can this morning, and look at three things: our world's story, the kingdom story, and how we can make the switch.

First: Let's look at the world's story

This week I was standing on a subway platform watching the news on the monitors. I saw that a homicide had taken place in Newmarket at the GO station that I used to use way back when I was dating Charlene. I thought about it for a second and then moved on before catching myself. Why was I able to read about something as brutal as the homicide of a person and then just go on with my business? We are so used to the old story that we don't know any different. We think it's normal, the way it's supposed to be.

You and I are not surprised by the brokenness of the world. When we get the newspaper, we aren't surprised to read about crime and corruption and negative politics. When we get a credit card, we aren't surprised that we have to sign the back or learn the PIN number. We expect that theft will happen. When you go to a store, you don't expect that you can cash yourself out and make change from the cash drawer. You know that would never work. We recognize that we live in a broken world. We have grown used to it and we even think it's normal.

In the passage before us, Jesus identifies this pattern in three areas of our lives:

Marriage - Notice the question in verse 2: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" This wasn't an innocent question. Verse 1 tells us that Jesus is back in Judea, in Herod's territory. Herod is the one who had John the Baptist killed for questioning his divorce and his marriage to his brother's sister. So they're not really interested in Jesus' answer as much as they are in trapping him. Verse 2 even tells us that they asked this question in order to trap Jesus.

When Jesus asks them what the Bible says about marriage, they even refer to Deuteronomy 24, in which Moses gave laws regulating and controlling divorce under strict guidelines. You'll notice that Jesus asks what Moses commanded; they answer what Moses permitted. He never commanded divorce; he merely permitted it due to the sin and brokenness in the world. But divorce had become commonplace. By the time that the Pharisees asked Jesus this question, the common view was that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. The historian Josephus divorced his second wife because he was "displeased with her behavior." One rabbi allowed a husband to divorce his wife if she spoiled a meal, or merely "if he found another fairer than she." They took divorce for granted as something that is almost inevitable. We're not that different. We're saddened by marriage breakups but we're not shocked. We've come to accept brokenness in the most intimate of relationships as almost being normal.

What happened is they took a concession to human sinfulness and made it the norm. It's a little like trying to learn how to fly by following the rules for a crash landing. You don't get in an airplane expecting it's going to crash. But divorce was so common that people then - and today - almost expect it to happen.

People - Then there's people. It's easy to miss the brokenness in verses 13 to 16 because our culture is so different. It's easy to miss what it's getting at. In Jesus' day, children were not highly valued. Childhood was seen as an unavoidable interim period between birth and adulthood. Children really didn't contribute much to a family. They consumed lots of resources but gave very little in return. Six out of ten children died before the age of 16. Children were seen as the least important members of society.

So when people brought their little children to Jesus in verse 13, you understand why the disciples rebuked them. These children were inconveniences. They were people of very little value.

If we're honest, we'll admit that there are people who don't matter much. They really don't rank. We look down on them and push them away because we have no time for them. At the very least we're used to ranking people based on their perceived importance and treating them according to where they rank.

Last year we ran a workshop here at the church. I was running around at the last minute trying to get everything done. We were encouraging people to come through the front doors. I was running through my office when somebody rang the buzzer. I don't know why people are so stupid, I thought. So I answered the buzzer and was a little bit short. I asked them to go to the front doors and I'm sure I said with my attitude that they shouldn't bother me anymore. About thirty seconds later I realized that these were not conference attendees. They were the conference leaders. I treated them like dirt because I assigned them to a class of people I really didn't have time for at the moment.

In this passage we come to realize that we do the same thing. We tend to write off people who are less important. We walk in a room and size up the important people, and those we'd rather avoid. This is part of the world's story, and we've become used to it.

Money and Success - The last area Jesus deals with could be the hardest. A man comes to Jesus who has a lot going for him. People would have assumed that God had blessed him, because he's rich and moral. As he talks to Jesus he demonstrates that he has a good understanding of Scripture. What's more, he's moral. Mark 10:21 says, "Jesus looked at him and loved him." Even Jesus loved him.

This man embodies success. He is everything that we long to be. He's successful; he's wealthy; he's a good man. He knows the Scriptures. Even Jesus loves him. We would be proud to have this man as a member in our church. Jesus could benefit from having such a person as a disciple. It never hurts to have someone with some cash, especially when he's well respected and likable. But Jesus does the unthinkable and asks him to liquidate his entire net worth and give it all away. The man, saddened, leaves. I can imagine the disciples stunned as they watch the man walk away.

What we see in this passage is a complete rejection of the world's story by Jesus. Jesus identifies three things we know to be true in this world and completely rejects them:

  • We know that relationships fracture and blow apart, even marriages.
  • We know that we can't treat everyone equally, and that some people are less important and can't offer us as much as others.
  • We understand that the goal is to become a good and successful person.

Jesus looks at all of this and rejects all of it. What he's telling us is that life is very different in his kingdom. He's leading a revolution that turns everything upside down.

What's the alternative? What's the kingdom story?

In July 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean off of Martha's Vineyard. The probable cause was pilot error, spatial disorientation. One pilot explained the disorientation that can happen when you fly by sight only without the proper training:

The airplane's flight path creates forces that befuddle one's awareness of earth's gravity. To judge by the sensations in the seat of your pants, you literally can't tell up from down, left from right. You are as helpless to move out of the airplane's acceleration field as you would be if you were pinned to the side of a spinning circus centrifuge when the floor drops away.

And here is the crux of the matter: the pilot's emotions drowned out the flight instruments' story about banking and diving at high speed, and screamed out, No way! It can't be! I'm actually flying straight and level! I know it! I feel it's true!...

Following your heart will kill you, as it killed young Kennedy, and thousands of other pilots over the years who have failed to recover from a graveyard spiral.

What Jesus tells us in this passage is that we're flying completely disoriented, and it's going to kill us. And he pulls us from the world's story to the kingdom story in these three areas:

Marriage - Jesus essentially says we're asking the wrong question. Instead of asking when we can divorce, Jesus says we should be asking what God's original design was for marriage. Jesus says:

"It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Mark 10:6-9)

What's he saying? He's saying that in the kingdom, the question isn't when divorce is permissible. The kingdom question is how we can live into the story of God's design for marriage. You see the original intention here of:

  • lifelong commitment
  • intimacy - that the whole lives are intertwined as one flesh
  • permanence

In his kingdom, Jesus says, the question is not when we're allowed to divorce, but how we can live into this story instead of the world's story. In a group this big there are going to be some who have experienced failure in this area of life. You know how horrible divorce is. Jesus and others in Scripture deal with questions of how to handle this. As we're going to see in a moment, there's hope for even those of us who have failed. But in the kingdom story, failure won't be assumed, because we will be looking for ways to live out the kingdom story in our marriages.

People - Jesus says: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (Mark 10:14). In the kingdom, the people who matter least matter a lot to Jesus. The kingdom means welcoming and embracing people who can do nothing for you in return, people that nobody else has time for. In the kingdom's story, the people everyone else avoids are not only welcomed but embraced. Jesus has time to receive them and to bless them. The least powerful, the least wealthy, the least influential have a greater prospect of entering the kingdom than those who are powerful, wealthy, and influential.

Money and Success - In the kingdom, the world's view of success is turned upside down. We look at the rich, moral, successful, and well-liked and admire those qualities, even aspiring to have them for ourselves. But in the kingdom, the very thing the world values can become impediments to participating in the kingdom story. Jesus says, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:24-25). This is sobering, because the poorest among us have a lifestyle that the rich in Jesus' day couldn't have imagined. Our riches and our success get in the way of living the kingdom story. This man had kept many of the commandments, but he had broken the first commandment, the one that is the foundation for the rest. He may have been moral, but he had gods before the one true God. Haddon Robinson says:

For every verse in the Bible that tells us the benefits of wealth, there are ten that tell us the danger of wealth, for money has a way of binding us to what is physical and temporal, and blinding us to what is spiritual and eternal. It's a bit like the fly and the flypaper. The fly lands on the flypaper and says, "My flypaper." When the flypaper says, "My fly," the fly is dead. It is one thing to have money, another for money to have you. When it does, it will kill you.

As somebody said years ago, it's difficult for a person to have riches and not to love them. It's difficult for a person to have riches, and not be proud because of them. It's difficult for a person to have riches, and not be corrupted by them. And it's difficult for a person to have riches and not trust in them. "To place our confidence in anything but God is certain ruin" (Charles Simeon).

Jesus gets to the heart of all this when he says, "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." In other words, the kingdom story is completely upside down from the world's story. If you're flying according to the world's story, you're flying like John F. Kennedy Jr. "Following your heart will kill you, as it killed young Kennedy, and thousands of other pilots over the years who have failed to recover from a graveyard spiral."

So how can we make the transition from the world's story to the kingdom story?

Really, one of the keys to this passage is seeing the contrast between two of the characters. The rich man has everything. He's moral. He's rich. He's successful. But he walks away living according to the world's story. "At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth" (Mark 10:22).

But there's another set of characters in this passage who show us how we can enter the kingdom story. In Mark 10:14-16 Jesus says:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

We have to become like a little child in order to enter the kingdom, Jesus says. What did he mean by this? That we have to become innocent like children, spontaneous, or humble? I believe what Jesus identifies is none of these qualities, but the essential quality necessary for entering the kingdom: helplessness. As one commentator puts it:

In this story children are not blessed for their virtues but for what they lack: they come only as they are - small, powerless, without sophistication, as the overlooked and dispossessed of society. To receive the kingdom of God as a child is to receive it as one who has no credits, no clout, no claims. A little child has nothing to bring, and whatever a child receives, he or she receives by grace on the basis of sheer neediness rather than by any merit inherent in him - or herself. Little children are paradigmatic disciples, for only empty hands can be filled. (J.R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark)

We are flying upside down. We're spatially disoriented because the kingdom's story seems upside down.

This morning you're invited to become a little child and come to Jesus, the one who obtained an upside-down victory - triumphing through the cross - so that we could live.

Father, we are so used to living according to the world's story that we don't even see the alternative. Thank you for showing us this morning that there's a different way, and that it touches the most intimate areas of our lives: marriage, how we see people, and even our ideas of success.

Thank you for showing us that we can come as children, empty handed - no credit, no clout, no claims. And thank you that we can receive all the riches of Christ by sheer grace and through no merit of our own. So we come. May you turn us right-side up so we can grasp what Christ has done for us, and live according to the kingdom's values. We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.

The Cross-Shaped Life (Mark 9:30-50)

We're looking at a passage this morning that's going to be enormously helpful for us as a church and as individuals. At first glance it looks like a hodgepodge of sayings about different topics: infighting, children, exclusion, and temptation. But it's far more than this. This passage is actually one that begins with us as we are, reveals what's wrong with us, identifies the sin underneath the sin, brings us to the solution, and then gives us a picture of what the results could look like.

So let's look at this passage, and let's begin by asking what this passage reveals what's wrong with us.

We've now reached the part in the Gospel of Mark at which Jesus focuses the majority of his attention on training the disciples. He's preparing them for ministry, so that they can carry on after he's gone. But Jesus knows that there are some very significant issues in their lives. If we're honest, we're going to have to admit that they are problems in our lives too.

What are these problems? The first problem that this passage identifies is self-absorption. Mark 9:33-34 says:

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

This is shocking, isn't it? We are not usually so blatant as the disciples were. We're shocked when people admit to this problem. Ashleigh Brilliant is a cartoonist and an author, and he spoke for us all when he wrote these words: "All I ask of life is a constant and exaggerated sense of my own importance." And if we're honest, we would have to admit that this is our problem too.

The disciples were following Jesus. They understood that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This means that they were closely connected to the deliverer who would rescue Israel and gain status and honor and even worship. They began to think about how they could place themselves so that they could milk their relationship with Jesus so that they too could receive positions of power and glory.

A friend of mine works with a ministry to athletes. He was driving with some hockey stars one night when they were pulled over by the police. The officer came up and began as usual. "Do you know how fast you were driving, sir?" He shone the flashlight into the car and then yelled back to his fellow officer. "Hey, do you know who's in here?" He began looking at each of the passengers in the car, each of whom was a professional and well-known hockey player. Then he shone the flashlight on my friend. "Who are you?" he asked. "Nobody." "You've got to be somebody. What team did you play for?" "I didn't play for anyone. I'm nobody."

We all have the desire, don't we, for the flashlight to be shone on us, and for somebody to say, "Who are you? You must be somebody!" We crave the status and approval of others, and we desperately want to be on top, even at the expense of others.

This even happens among Christians. I've been reading The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was one of the greatest theologians and pastors in American history. His wife records a period of intense spiritual growth and delight in God. Do you know one of the evidences she mentions of God working in her life? That if a visiting preacher came, and God really moved through that visiting preacher instead of her husband, she would be okay with that. I read that and thought, "You struggle with that? You spiritual midget!" No, I thought, "I can relate to that too." We all struggle with being self-absorbed, and this passage puts a finger on this problem.

The second problem is very closely related. It's judging others based on our own insecurity. Mark 9:38 says, "'Teacher,' said John, 'we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us'" - literally because he was not following us. On one hand, this looks very wise. Exorcists in that day would use the name of any deity that they thought would work in order to cast out demons. It's possible that this man didn't even believe in Jesus. Can you imagine the problems that could come with allowing just anyone to run around doing this? He hadn't been with Jesus, hadn't been trained by Jesus like the disciples.

It's interesting that John never said, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following you." He said, ""Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." The real issue seems to come out here. The concern has the appearance of being a noble one, but it's hiding something far more sinister. This man was a blow to their sense of identity. It undermined their special status. They had just failed to cast out a demon shortly before this, and here was this man who wasn't even one of them casting out demons, apparently with success. They were not happy, but it wasn't primarily out of a concern for Jesus. It was out of their own insecurity.

Again, this still happens today. Jesus spoke of love as the distinguishing mark that characterizes his disciples. We aren't generally known for our love. We are pretty good at expressing concerns about other groups that name Jesus because they're different from us. We can even make it sound good and noble. But often it's just a cover for our own insecurity.

This isn't just about churches. It can also apply to us as individuals. It's very easy to express concerns about other people. "Why don't you talk to her anymore?" "Haven't you heard. I just can't agree with the way they do X." The real reason, of course, is because they are a threat to our identity. We dress it up, but that's the core issue. That's the second issue that this passage identifies.

One more issue: not taking sin seriously. If you read verses 42 to 48, you can't help but notice the over-the-top language. You've got people being drowned, body parts being cut off, people being thrown into hell. This is very intemperate language. It's not at all the type of language that you would expect to hear from Jesus.

Of course, you're right to be surprised by the language. Jesus uses hyperbole in this passage. He's intentionally overstating his point. We know this because Scripture elsewhere forbids self-mutilation. Jesus is intentionally overstating his case so that we understand the severity of sin. No sin is worth going to hell for. It's far better to deal with sin and temptation severely than to have our souls destroyed by sin. Nothing less than eternal life and death is at stake. We can't afford to fool around with sin.

Why does Jesus say this? Because he's putting his finger on a third problem. We tend to minimize sin and its effects. We think it's not a big deal. We do not take the necessary steps to eradicate sin from our lives. We tend to tolerate it, wink at it, think that it's no big deal. Jesus says it will destroy us, and that dealing with these areas is more important than even the things that are indispensable to us.

So look at what this passage is putting its finger on. These are three problems that probably characterize everybody here. We're self-absorbed, wanting to be noticed, wanting to be somebody. We put others down and make it look good, when the real issue is actually our own insecurity. We don't take our own sin seriously. We are far too ready to tolerate things that can destroy us and destroy others. As a result you have bickering and exclusion and patterns of sin that are nurtured. It's not a pretty picture.

Why does this passage put its finger on these issues? It's because they are characteristics of a pattern of behavior that reveals an underlying problem. That's the second thing we need to see.

Let's look at the sin that's underneath all the sins that this passage has identified.

At first glance, we said, this looks like a hodgepodge of unrelated issues. It almost seems like somebody who's confronting you and listing all of the things about you that bug them. You feel like saying, "Enough! Just deal with one sin. I can't handle the grocery list."

If you look carefully at this passage, though, you realize that Jesus isn't dealing with a grocery list of sins. Under all these sins is one underlying sin. There's one underlying issue that shows itself in our pride, our judging of others, and our willingness to tolerate sin.

What do I mean? If you study Mark carefully, you'll notice that Jesus repeats the same pattern here that he did back in chapter 8. He predicts his own suffering; he corrects a mistake in the disciples; and then he clarifies what it means to follow him in light of his suffering. In other words, the fundamental issue here is a failure to understand that we serve a Savior who went to the cross, and who invites us to follow him and suffer. This is a huge issue for us. Ajith Fernando writes:

I think one of the most serious theological blind spots in the western church is a defective understanding of suffering. There seems to be a lot of reflection on how to avoid suffering and on what to do when we hurt. We have a lot of teaching about escape from and therapy for suffering, but there is inadequate teaching about the theology of suffering. Christians are not taught why they should expect suffering as followers of Christ and why suffering is so important for healthy growth as a Christian.

Do you know why the disciples were struggling with all of these problems? Because they hadn't yet grasped what Jesus was going to do. They thought Jesus was a victorious conquerer. They had no category for a Messiah who would suffer and be killed. We read:

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered over to human hands. He will be killed, and after three days he will rise." But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. (Mark 9:30-32)

The fundamental problem is that the disciples failed to grasp the way to the cross as not only the path Jesus would take, but the path that they were called to take as well.

You see, if they had understood that Jesus was walking on ahead to a sacrificial death, they would have realized how ludicrous it is to push and shove to establish the order of the procession behind him. When you're marching to a cross, you stop pushing to get to the front of the line. If they had understood that Jesus was laying his life down in service by going to the cross, they wouldn't be threatened by somebody casting out demons who wasn't part of their group, because servants don't get threatened. They aren't worried about their position; they are worried about serving. If they understood the lengths to which Jesus would go in order to offer his life for them, they would understand not only the seriousness of sin, and offered their lives without restraint in return.

In other words, their problem was not just a whole bunch of unrelated sins. Their problem was one underlying issue: they hadn't grasped the cross. They hadn't yet understood that Jesus would suffer and die. And they hadn't worked out the implications of this for their lives.

It's the same with us. Whatever issue you are facing in your life, you can trace it back to one underlying issue: you haven't yet worked out the implications of the cross in that area of your life. As somebody has put it:

The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not "used" the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people's problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel - a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. (Tim Keller)

When we understand the cross, and when we understand that we have been called not only to enjoy the benefits of the cross, but to follow Christ in giving our lives away, then we will be transformed in these areas.

So let's look as we close at what would happen if we lived this way.

Do you know where this really works itself out? It works itself out in our relationships. One of the characters in a novel said:

I love mankind...[but] the more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular...I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else...No sooner is that someone else close to me than his personality...hampers my freedom. In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings: one because he takes too long over dinner, another because he has a cold and is perpetually blowing his nose. (The Brothers Karamazov)

Can you relate? If we are really shaped by the gospel it will affect the way we live in community.

So, according to verses 35 to 37, we'll stop worrying about our own status, and we'll become servants to all - even to an infant. In those days, children weren't romanticized like they are today. They were seen as insignificant, dependent, vulnerable, and unlearned. They consumed and demanded much more than they gave. But Jesus says that when we're shaped by the cross, we'll stop worrying about our status and we'll willingly serve even the last and the least.

In verses 38 to 41, the disciples are threatened by this rogue disciple. But Jesus throws open his arms and welcomes not only rogue disciples who claim his name, but also those who do the smallest task - offering a cup of cold water. When we see ourselves as servants, and when we understand how Christ has welcomed us, then we'll be ready to welcome others as well.

Then, as we close, there's verses 49 and 50:

Everyone will be salted with fire. "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

What in the world does this mean? What does it mean to be salted with fire? There is one place where salt and fire came together: when offering a sacrifice. Leviticus 2:13 says, "Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings." What Jesus says here is that following him is like making your life a burnt offering. It's total and irrevocable. Then he uses salt in a different way, referring to its preserving and purifying qualities. When we maintain our saltiness, he says, we will be at peace with each other. There won't be fighting and quarreling. We will be at peace with each other. Jesus calls us to live cross-shaped lives of humility and service.

There's so much wrong with us. But we will never deal with the sins until we get to the underlying issue of becoming cross-shaped. And when our lives become cross-shaped, we will live lives of humility and service and become a community of people transformed by the gospel.

The Danger of Self-Reliance (Mark 9:14-29)

Remember your first job? When I was a teenager, I got a job at an ice cream parlor. I think I trained for one night. The second night, the boss left me alone. I knew how to scoop a cone, but had no idea how to make anything on the menu. I remember flipping through the binder trying to memorize how to make all the sundaes and banana splits. Guess what the first person ordered? Something I didn't know how to make. I was in way over my head.

We can all remember the first time that we were put in a position of responsibility, knowing that we could blow it. It may have been a job or looking after children. It was some time when we were left alone and in charge, and we weren't sure we were ready.

We've been going through the Gospel of Mark. Today we are coming to a passage in which the disciples were in over their heads. This is a key episode in the training of the disciples, and it's also a key story in teaching us something that we really need to understand.

Jesus had given his chosen disciples authority to cast out demons:

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. (Mark 6:7)

In today's passage, some of the disciples had been left alone to deal with a demon while Jesus had been away on the mountain. No sooner had he come down from the mountain than he was faced with what the disciples had been up to while he was gone. It was chaos.

You think it's bad to leave me in charge of an ice cream parlor for a night. Imagine being left by Jesus to minister in his absence. He'd prepared them, but they weren't ready yet. They were in way over their heads.

Now, we need to look at this passage because we are in a very similar situation as we read in this passage. This passage teaches us three lessons that we need to know. First: that we're faced with situations in ministry that are greater than we can handle. Two: that we have a tendency to be self-reliant instead of God-reliant. Finally: that God calls us to repent and depend on him.

So let's look at these together, beginning with the first lesson we need to learn.

One: We are continually faced with situations in ministry that are greater than we can handle.

Verses 14 to 18 say:

When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

"What are you arguing with them about?" he asked.

A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."

What is the situation that the disciples faced? The disciples were acting as representatives of Jesus, entrusted by him with his ministry - the same, by the way as we are. Jesus had left them to act as his representatives, and had given them the authority they needed to carry out the ministry that he had left them. This is exactly the situation that we are in as well.

But the disciples soon discovered the limitations of their ability to act as representatives of Jesus. They were faced with a boy possessed with a spirit. We read in verses 21 and 22 that this spirit had been tormenting the boy since childhood. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him" (Mark 9:22). It sounds a lot like epilepsy. Scripture is clear in differentiating illnesses like epilepsy from demon possession. We may struggle with understanding the spiritual dimensions of something like we read in this passage, but Scripture is clear that evil does exist, and Satan is intent on destroying and killing life. This boy had been dealing with this his entire life.

What was happening here? The disciples were facing a spiritual battle, human need, an extraordinary difficulty that was beyond their own resources. This is, by the way, the exact same thing we are facing today.

I got thinking this week about some of the challenges I've encountered in just the past few weeks. We have been commissioned to act as his representatives, and he has given us authority. But everywhere we turn, we realize we are way over our heads. If you haven't been overwhelmed by the needs around you lately, you may not have taken a good look around you. These disciples encountered the boy being tormented with a spirit. We encounter all kinds of issues too that are far beyond what we can handle: people who seem to be in spiritual bondage; people suffering with mental illnesses; marriages that are in trouble. We look around and see children living in impossible situations; people caught in addiction, or living in violent or even abusive situations.

Pause for a moment and see the enormity of what has been set before us. Once in a while we need to pause and say, "What Jesus has called us to do is humanly impossible." I can't preach a sermon that can change your life. No one here can deal with a situation like the disciples were dealing with on our own. Jesus calls disciples to tasks beyond our abilities.

Secondly, we need to see that this passage teaches us that we have a tendency to be self-reliant instead of God-reliant.

You'd think we would know that we need to depend on God to get anything done, but we have this tendency to rely on our own a lot. We spend a lot of time persuading others that we're competent. We have a really hard time admitting that we are dependent on God rather than our own strength and techniques.

Picture the scene as Jesus comes down. The disciples are surrounded by a great crowd, and they've failed publicly. There's nothing like being surrounded by a crowd while you fall flat on your face. The scribes are arguing with the disciples. The father is frustrated, and the boy is no better. It's chaos.

What did Jesus say? Verse 19: "You unbelieving generation...how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?" Do you get the impression that Jesus is frustrated? It's interesting that he talks about an unbelieving generation. He's really got a problem with the disciples, but actually he says that it's a problem that characterizes everyone in that generation. This isn't a problem that's restricted to a few people. This is a problem that really affects everyone.

What's the problem? Was the demon too powerful? There's no doubt that this demon was powerful. Later Jesus says, "This kind can come out only by prayer" (Mark 9:29) implying that this is a harder case. The disciples had been able to cast out other demons before, so this was a more difficult demon.

But the problem, according to Jesus, wasn't really the demon. Jesus doesn't get frustrated with the demon. He actually had no problem with the demon. The problem, Jesus says, is not that the demon is too big. It's that the faith of the disciples is too small. The problem isn't the demon; the problem is the disciples. They were trying to handle things on their own.

This passage actually shows us the wrong way and the right way to handle the fact that we are spiritually dependent, that we are in way over our heads.

The wrong way - Where did the disciples fail? Listen to verses 28 and 29.

After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, "Why couldn't we drive it out?"

He replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer."

This is shocking. It looks like the disciples relied on their own devices to handle the demon. It's unthinkable, isn't it? But let's think about that a bit more. How many times have we tried to serve others with the same self-reliance as the disciples? Could it be that this is one of the reasons for our lack of power? Os Guinness says that this is exactly what is happening today:

The two most easily recognizable hallmarks of secularization are the exaltation of numbers and technique.  Both are prominent in the church-growth movement.  In its fascination with statistics and data at the expense of truth, this movement is characteristically modem...In a world of number crunchers, bean counters, and computer analysts, the growth of churches as a measurable, "fact based" business enterprise is utterly natural.

We try to do ministry on our own strength and in our own power.

The right way - But there's a positive example in this passage. The father in this passage realizes he's in way over his head. Is he self-confident? Not at all. "But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us" (Mark 9:22). He's not even sure that Jesus can help him. He's not someone who has it all together.

The problem is that we think Jesus only deals with people who have it all together. But it's the opposite: Jesus gives grace to those who acknowledge their need. When Jesus challenges him, the father says, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). Do you realize what he's saying? He is saying, "Help me just as I am, a doubter." He does not plead based on how together he is. He realizes that he has nothing to make himself worthy. He doesn't say, "Please heal my boy based on how much faith I have!" Instead, he pleads for mercy and throws himself at Jesus' feet. True faith is always aware of how inadequate it is.

There's a hint in this passage of how important this is. Mark has been drawing parallels between an Old Testament passage when Moses went up the mountain and met with God. When Moses came down, do you remember what he found? He found the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. Here, Jesus has come down from the mountain after meeting with God. Do you see what he found? Prayerless ministry. Do you see what Mark is saying here? It's the same thing. Prayerless ministry is no better than idolatry. It's dethroning God and putting our trust in technique and human strength instead of trusting in God alone.

Friends, this passage shows us that we have a tendency that is dangerous. If we persist in this tendency we will never be able to serve as representatives of Jesus. We will do stuff but it will lack power. The danger is that we will be self-reliant.

Henri Nouwen wrote:

We have fallen into the temptation of separating ministry from spirituality, service from prayer. Our demons say: "We are too busy to pray, we have too many needs to attend to, too many people to respond to, too many wounds to heal." Prayer is a luxury, something to do during a free hour, a day away from work or on a retreat.

Maybe we fear prayer, because, as Nouwen says, prayer "is a way of being empty and useless in the presence of God and so of proclaiming our basic belief that all is grace and nothing is simply the result of hard work."

I'm convicted by this because I think it describes us pretty accurately. We are continually faced with situations in ministry that are greater than we can handle. And we need to see that this passage teaches us that we have a tendency to be self-reliant instead of God-reliant.

So what is the solution?

We see in this passage that God calls us to repent and depend on him.

This is not just a random story. This story is in the part of the Gospel of Mark that describes the preparation process. Jesus was preparing the disciples for future ministry, and they had to learn this lesson or else they could never carry out the mission that Jesus was going to entrust to them. It appears that they learned, too, because later on in Acts you see the disciples continually engaging in prayer. Somebody has said that the early church was characterized by uneducated men agonizing, and today's church is characterized by educated men organizing.

What's the solution? Two things. I think we need to learn a lot from the father in this passage, and to admit to God that we believe, but we really don't. We don't even know how dependent we are on him. We accept that Jesus came to serve, to give his life, to rise so that we could have power and new life, but we still try to live on our own strength. Maybe this morning we need to repent and even admit that we don't know how to be dependent, and then ask God to help us. "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

Then Jesus said, "This kind can come out only by prayer." What challenges are we facing as a church that can only come out by prayer? When we encounter needs like the disciples did, where are we trying and arguing but not having any measurable impact? I wonder how things would change if we really believed what Jesus said in this passage; if we really acknowledged our need and depended on God for what only he can do.

Jack Miller was a pastor in Philadelphia. In 1970, Miller resigned from his church and seminary. Neither the church members nor the seminary students were changing in the ways that he had hoped. He didn't know how to help them, so he quit and spent weeks too depressed to do anything but cry.

He came to realize a couple of things:

  • that he was motivated by personal glory and the approval of people, rather than being motivated only by God's glory;
  • that he had been trusting in his own abilities, rather than in the promises God had made and the power of the Holy Spirit.

A turning point came when he realized his motivation for ministry had been all wrong, and that he had been relying on the wrong person to do ministry - himself. He came to understand that the work of ministry was far too big for him to accomplish on his own strength.

He came to understand that it was his pride and self-reliance that was keeping him from having a significant part in this great work of Christ...He saw that doing Christ's work in Christ's way meant giving up all dependence on himself, acknowledging how poor in spirit he was, and then relying exclusively on Jesus and His gift of His Spirit.

He asked for his resignations back, and he changed. From that point on his ministry was characterized by the themes of humility, vital faith, and constant prayer. He found that he grew as he admitted every day that he was "a desperate sinner in constant need of the grace of God. He believed that doing Christ's work in Christ's way is impossible using human resources; we must be connected to Christ through prayer. And his ministry accomplished more than he could have thought once he got to the point of humble dependence instead of self-reliance.

Friends, we are continually faced with situations in ministry that are greater than we can handle. But we have a tendency to be self-reliant instead of God-reliant. God calls us to repent and depend on him. Anything else is idolatry.

Two Questions (Mark 8:27-9:13)

Executives who get paid a lot of money sometimes say that any reasonably intelligent person could do 80% of their job. What they are paid for is the 20% of decisions that go beyond what the average person can do. They're paid to answer the 20% of tough questions that make all the difference.

When you think about it, you make many decisions every day, but there have been only a few critical questions you have answered, decisions that you have made, that have made most of the difference in your life. Where will I live? What will I do with my life? Who will I marry? You answer dozens of questions every day, but the answers to just a few questions have made all the difference in your life.

Today I want to look at two of the most important decisions you will ever answer. We've been looking at the Gospel of Mark since September, and the entire book has been building to these two questions. How you answer these questions will change everything.

So let's look at these two questions.

Question one: Who is Jesus?

The first question we all need to answer is simple: Who is Jesus? You may be wondering why this is such an important question. It's not usually important for us to be able to answer who someone is that lived two thousand years ago. If I asked you who Thomas Edison is, it would be nice if you could answer, but it would hardly be life-changing. You may win a trivia game, but it won't change your life. If Jesus is just another person - even a great person - then it won't change your life. But if Jesus is who Christians claim him to be, then this question is far more than trivia. We need to face this question.

We're going to see two ways that Mark helps us answer this question as we look at this passage. The two ways that we're going to see are going to line up with the way a lot of us have wrestled with this question ourselves.

One way that we can deal with this question is by grappling with all of the evidence. Do you realize that for eight chapters, this has been what's happened so far in the Gospel of Mark? In chapter 1, Mark introduced his Gospel this way: "The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah..." Mark has told us right at the start who he understands Jesus to be. But nobody we've encountered has that insider information. What we have instead is an account of what Jesus did and said. We've been encountering Jesus, and some of us have been doing the very same thing that the characters have been doing. We've been wrestling with who this Jesus is. Our question may be the same one that the disciples asked back in 4:41: "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" (ESV)

So Jesus brings his disciples to grapple with this question in verses 27 to 30. In verses 27 to 30, Jesus takes the disciples as far away as you can possibly go from Jerusalem while still staying in Israel. He takes them on a long walk to a center of worship of various gods as well as Caesar, the main political power of that day. Jesus is surrounded by rivals. The question of who Jesus is is always asked in the context of rivals. There is no neutral place from which to answer this question. We always face the question of the identity of Jesus in the context of other gods and powers that claim our allegiance.

And Jesus helps them - and us - answer the question of his identity by asking two questions. Question one: "Who do people say I am?" (Mark 8:27) Notice that Jesus begins by asking a more general question. What are others saying? The disciples answered: "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." Today we would have to answer this question by looking at what people today say about Jesus. You'd have to say something like:

Well, Deepak Chopra thinks there is not one Jesus, but three: the historical Jesus, the institutional religion Jesus, and the spiritual guide Jesus. Oprah says Jesus is one way to God; that he didn't come to die but to show us how to tap into our Christ-consciousness. Others teach that Jesus was a man but the stories about him aren't necessarily true in the literal sense, but they point to deeper realities. A lot of people seem to think that Jesus was a great teacher and example.

That's the first question: Who do people say that Jesus is? But it's not enough to evaluate the options and beliefs that other people hold. The question has to be faced individually. So Jesus asks a more direct and personal question: "Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:29)

There comes a point at which you will have to answer this question: Who do you say that Jesus is? The good news is that Jesus invites you to weigh the evidence, to search the Scriptures, to see what he did and to wrestle with all that he said and did. But at some point the question has to be called. You need to reach a verdict. If you are here today wrestling with this question, I commend you. Continue to look at the evidence. Continue to read the Gospel of Mark. Read the best books. Question your presuppositions. Honestly face this question: Who do you say that Jesus is?

By the way, you'll be in great company. Some of the most brilliant minds have wrestled with this same question. A great book on this topic is Tim Keller's The Reason for God. Keller asks the reader to doubt your doubts - in other words, to give your objections to Christianity the same scrutiny as you give the claims of Christianity itself. Weigh the evidence as you wrestle with this question, "Who do you say that Jesus is?"

Peter answered, by the way, "You are the Christ," and Jesus tacitly agreed. Christ means the anointed king sent by God to rescue his people. Peter didn't give a complete answer, and you'll see that he was a little fuzzy with the details, but he got it right.

But we see there's another way to come to this question. Jesus says in 9:1, "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." Scholars have wrestled with what Jesus is referring to here. But something happens in the very next section that seems to be, in part at least, a fulfillment of what Jesus said.

Jesus and three of the disciples, we read, went up a mountain. And then we read:

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" (Mark 9:2-7)

What is this about? For just a moment, the radiant and divine glory of Jesus was revealed. Hebrews says, "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3). On the mount, the radiance of glory was revealed. Peter, who witnessed this event, later wrote:

...we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)

If you know the Scriptures, you know what a scary thing this would be. To be enveloped in the cloud of God's presence and to see his glory is something that no human could survive. God told Moses, "No one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). And yet on the mount, they experience God's presence and they see his glory and they live. Jesus is revealed not only as the radiance of God's glory, as the Son affirmed by God himself, but they survive it. Jesus here is revealed not only as God, but as the means by which we can stand in God's presence without being destroyed.

This is the second way that some of us will be able to answer the question, "Who is Jesus?" For some of us, it will be a revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ in a way that we can't even explain. For some of you, it will be a matter of weighing the evidence. For others, it will be the glimpse you get of the glory and presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ. But all of us must answer this question, really the most important question you will ever answer: Who is Jesus? You can't claim neutrality. Who is Jesus?

Bono, the lead singer of U2, says:

Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I'm not saying I'm a teacher. Don't call me teacher. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying: "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying: "I am God incarnate." And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take.... But don't mention the "M" word! Because, you know, we're gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you're expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah....

So what you're left with is: either Christ was who he said he was--the Messiah--or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson.... This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had "King of the Jews" on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: Okay, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain!

The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that's farfetched.

Who is Jesus? You can answer this question one of two ways, but somehow you are going to have to answer this question.

But there's a second question we face in this passage.

Question two: What does it mean to follow him?

The reason that the first question is so important is because it has implications. If Jesus is a great person and that's it, the implication is that you're free to pick and choose what you like about Jesus and leave off what you don't like. But if Jesus is truly the Son of God, "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being," then you'd better pay attention. That's going to have implications for your life.

A father once took his son to an auction. He said, "Don't scratch your nose at the wrong time, son." He also said, "Always remember this: Whenever you go to an auction sale, make sure you know your upper limit price." Years later, reflecting on this, the son said:

The great danger for us is that we walk into the Christian life knowing clearly our upper limit price. Jesus does not allow us to set that. "If you save your life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for my sake and the gospel's, you will keep it," said Jesus.

Our calling is to a life of unconditional obedience where the price is unknown.

Tim Keller writes, "If we had earned our salvation, our lives would still be our own! He'd owe us something. But since our salvation is by free grace, due totally to His love, then there is nothing He cannot ask of us."

So we see this in the passage before us. The disciples finally understood who Jesus is. But they expected it to be triumphant and glorious. But Jesus set them straight. We will get glimpses of his glory, like they did on the mountain. But the path to glory is the path to the cross. He explained to them in Mark 8:31 that he is a Messiah who is going to suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again. And in chapter 9 he repeated it again, reminding them that he was going to be raised from the dead, and that he, like John the Baptist, "must suffer much and be rejected" (Mark 9:12). Jesus is the Messiah, the radiance of God's glory, but he has chosen the way to the cross. He has the king on a cross. He has come to die for his people, and to be raised again so that we can live.

This has huge implications for us, because the path we have been called to follow is also the path to the cross. Jesus says: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). To take up the cross means to take up the instrument of our own execution. In those days, criminals and slaves who were condemned to death, before they crucified, were made to carry their crosses to the place of execution. Jesus says that following him means that we follow without limits, even to the point of being condemned and killed for him. The path he chose - the path to the cross - is the path he calls us to. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "The cross is laid on every Christian...When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Why is this important for us today? Because once you understand who Jesus is, there is no limit to what he can ask you. There is no upper limit price. Following Jesus means that you will experience ultimate glory, but it also means that we follow him to the cross.

C.S. Lewis writes:

Christ says, "Give me all. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think are innocent as well as the ones you think are wicked--the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself: my own will shall become yours."

Let's pray.

Father, I pray first for those who are wrestling with the first question: who is Jesus? Would you help them in their search. Reveal yourself to them, that even today they can respond in faith, recognizing Jesus as the radiance of God's glory, the Messiah, the king on the cross who has come to die so that we can live.

I pray as well for those of us wrestling with the second question: what does it mean to follow Jesus? Jesus is God's Son, and he has called us to follow him with no upper price. May we respond in obedience, and may we see that to lose our lives for Jesus' sake and the gospel's sake is really to find true life. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

Blindness (Mark 8:11-26)

One of the keys to reading the Bible is to notice details in the passage that are unusual, and to then begin to probe why they're there. We say, "That was odd," and then begin to look for clues for why things are different in that passage.

Today is a good example. There are many different miracles in the Gospel of Mark, but none like this one. In verses 22 to 26, Jesus heals a blind man. But something happens that doesn't happen any other time in this Gospel or in any other. The man is only partially healed. Jesus partially heals him, and then like a physician who's checking the results of surgery, asks, "Do you see anything?" Jesus never does that. He never has to check to see if his healing worked. But he does here. Jesus never has any trouble healing blind people any other time. All he has to say is, "Receive your sight."

But surprisingly, this time, the healing doesn't take the first time. The man says, ""I see people; they look like trees walking around" (Mark 8:24). If you're a careful reader then you have to stop and ask exactly what is going on here. And I think you have to conclude that Jesus is giving us a picture of something.

And as we look at this passage and the two preceding events, we're going to see three things. First, we're going to see our spiritual condition. Then we're going to see the two different types of this condition. Finally, we're going to see the cure.

It's very important that you take note of this passage because this is one that will both give you confidence and humble you at the same time. If you really understand this passage, you'll be humbled, but at the same time you'll be filled with hope that God is not done with you yet.

So let's look first at what this passage reveals about our spiritual condition.

As we get to this passage, we're getting near the climax of the first section of the Gospel of Mark. The big question as the Gospel unfolds is: who exactly is Jesus? It's still actually the most important question we face, because if Jesus is indeed God's Son, then it changes everything.

As we come to Mark 8, we encounter two groups of people who are dealing with this question. The first are the Pharisees. "The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven" (Mark 8:11).

At first glance, this seems like an innocent request. There are lots of examples of authenticating signs in Scripture. When Moses went before Pharaoh, God gave him signs like his staff turning into a snake. "This is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob--has appeared to you," God said (Exodus 4:5).

Here, though, Jesus reacts very strongly to their request. He sighs, tells them that they won't be getting any authenticating signs, and then takes off and leaves them. It's almost like, at this point, Jesus writes off the Pharisees and says that there's nothing more that can be done with them. He doesn't try to convince them or reason with them. He's done with them.

Why such a strong reaction?

You get a hint as Jesus talks to his disciples about the Pharisees. Jesus says in verse 15, "Be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod."

This makes absolutely no sense to us, so let me explain what Jesus is saying here. In those days, when you baked bread, you would bake with leaven or yeast so that the bread would rise. You would keep some of the bread containing yeast for the next batch. The problem is that the yeast could become tainted and spread poison when baked with the rest of the dough, and the contamination would spread from batch to batch. Jesus is saying that the Pharisees, and Herod, have a condition that will spread to them if they're not careful.

And then Mark, with some humor, lets us know that it's too late. They've already been contaminated. They think that Jesus is talking about something completely different. They completely miss the point. Jesus identifies the condition in verse 18: "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?"

It's no accident that Mark follows this with the story of blindness that is hard to heal. What Mark is telling us is this: that the blind man is a parable of the spiritual condition of both the Pharisees and the disciples. The enemies of Jesus (the Pharisees) and the friends of Jesus (the disciples) have exactly the same problem: spiritual blindness. They can't see.

What Mark is telling us is that we are all in the same boat. We all suffer from the same problem. We have a spiritual perception issue. Years ago, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached on this passage and said:

I have no hesitation in asserting again that one of the reasons why the Christian Church counts for so little in the modern world is that so many Christians are in this condition...I believe he dealt with the blind man as He did to give them a picture of themselves. He adopted this technique in the case before us, in order to enable the disciples to see themselves as they were. It goes beyond that, however: it is a permanent lesson always for God's people.

We are all spiritual versions of Mr. Magoo. Do you remember that cartoon character? He was a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of sticky situations as a result of his nearsightedness, compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem. That's exactly our problem too. Not only can't we see, but we can't see that we can't see.

So this is our problem. As we read the story of the blind man in verses 22 to 26, we're supposed to say, "That is a picture of me." It's not only a picture of the enemies of Jesus; it's also a picture of his friends. Every person here is or has been spiritually blind. John Newton, the man who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, once said, "There are many who stumble in the noon day, not for want of light, but for the want of eyes." That includes all of us.

So we've seen what Jesus and Mark are telling us about our spiritual condition.

We then need to see that there are two kinds of spiritual blindness.

There is something in this passage that is very humbling. It's that there really isn't much difference between the friends of Jesus and the enemies of Jesus. Both are blind. This means that if you consider yourself to be a friend of Jesus, there really isn't any room for feeling superior. You're really no different from anyone else. One of the commentaries I read on this passage used this title for this passage: "Both opponents and supporters still have a lot to learn." This should give us great humility. Spiritual blindness is not something those people have. It's common to everybody. You're either spiritually blind right now or you have been in the past.

It's important to see this. Being an insider - even a disciple - is no guarantee that you understand. Proximity to Jesus is no guarantee that you have spiritual perception. You can go to church all your life and be spiritually blind as the enemies of Jesus.

So, in one sense, everyone is blind. Yet in this passage we see that there are two types of spiritual blindness. When Jesus confronts the Pharisees, you get the sense that there isn't much hope for that type of blindness. Jesus abandons the Pharisees at this point. Why? It's because they had already seen more than enough to demonstrate who Jesus was. They had chosen to reject Jesus even when the evidence was right in their face. They were already plotting his death. They weren't looking to be convinced. They wanted an excuse for refusing to respond. They had chosen a permanent case of spiritual blindness.

Henry Fonda starred in a 1957 movie called Twelve Angry Men. A young man is on trial for the murder of his father. The twelve jurists walk into a hot, cramped jury room. All but one of the jurists (Henry Fonda) is ready to be done with the inconvenience of this trial. They've heard all they want to hear and seem unwilling to consider the possibility that the young man could be innocent. Only Henry Fonda's character seems sensitive to the fact that something important hangs in the balance--a man's life.

As Fonda's character argues for reasonable doubt, the others don't want to listen. One man points to the unique murder weapon as proof positive of the defendant's guilt. Everyone seems convinced the knife is so rare and the boy's story so implausible that the defendant must be guilty. Frustrated with Fonda as the lone holdout, he says, "Take a look at that knife. It's a very unusual knife. I've never seen one like it." The other men in the room murmur agreement.

"I'm just saying it's possible," says Fonda. One of the jurists steps forward angrily and shouts, "It's not possible!" At that moment, Fonda reaches calmly into his pocket, pulls out an identical knife, pops the blade, and plants it into the middle of the table.

"Where did you get that?" one jurist asks. Fonda responds, "I went out walking for a couple of hours last night. I walked through the boy's neighborhood. I bought that at a little pawn shop just two blocks from the boy's house. It cost six dollars."

Fonda's character alone stopped long enough to take an honest, careful, unbiased look at the evidence. One by one, through honest struggle, all the jurists come to the same conclusion, and a young man facing death is set free. It's possible to make up your mind, just like the Pharisees and just like these jurists, before honestly examining the evidence. If you willfully refuse to see what is right in front of you, there isn't much hope for your blindness.

There's another type of spiritual blindness. You see it with the disciples. They were blind, but you get the sense that there's hope for them. Their type of blindness is almost comical. They're so distracted by temporal things - really, by lunch - that they don't get it. Jesus had fed nine thousand people with next to nothing, and they are worried about fixing lunch for 13. They are so trapped in their own little worlds, with their petty concerns, that they can't see the kingdom of God breaking into history right in front of them.

We can't be too hard on the disciples because we're really not too different. There is something about us that tends to be distracted by our daily needs, so much so that we can't see what God is doing all around us. We miss what God is doing because we're too busy thinking about what we're going to have for lunch.

That's us, but there's hope. Jesus doesn't give up on the disciples. He asks them questions to lead them towards what they need to see. Gradually, and with great difficulty, they will see. There's hope for these disciples. They will eventually see.

That's why I love that Jesus healed the blind man in two stages. If Jesus had left him only halfway healed, he would have spent the rest of his life saying hi to trees and chopping down people. This should give us confidence. Even if we aren't there yet, even if we can see only part way, we can know that God isn't done with us yet. We will see clearly. Jesus can heal even the most difficult cases.

John Calvin puts it this way:

No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success...Our labour is not lost when today is better than yesterday...If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of the flesh we are admitted to the full fellowship of God.

These are the disciples that have been chosen by Christ himself. They still don't get it, but they will. I told you that this passage humbles us, because we realize we aren't so different. We're all blind. But it should also encourage us, because Jesus will not leave us halfway blind. He will complete the work that he's begun in us.

So you really have two kinds of blindness here. I'm afraid that there isn't much hope for the first kind of blindness. But the story of the blind man, healed in stages, gives us hope that if Jesus has started to heal our blindness, then he will certainly finish his work.

So what, then, is the cure?

I want you to see this morning how encouraging this passage is. If you ended at verse 21, you'd be discouraged. The question that Jesus asked - "Do you still not understand?" - would be an open question. But the passage doesn't end there. The passage ends with a picture of someone who is blind seeing. It may be slow, and it may come in stages, but some who are blind now will one day see clearly.

This morning there is hope for those of us who can't see. There isn't hope if you're like the Pharisees. If you are looking for excuses not to believe, willfully turning your back on what you know to be true about God, then there is not much hope for your blindness.

But if you can relate to the disciples, there is hope for you. You may be distracted by immediate needs. You may find that you are falling flat on your face. Spiritually speaking you may find that things look as clear as they did for this blind man part way through his healing. People look like trees. But be thankful. If you have the smallest insight spiritually into the gospel, that is evidence that Jesus may be at work in your life restoring your spiritual eyesight so that you can see.

I'm going to close this morning by giving you some advice from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who preached a famous sermon from this passage. It's found in his book Spiritual Depression. He describes those who are half-way healed: "They seem to know enough about Christianity to spoil their enjoyment of the world, and yet they do not know enough to feel happy about themselves." He says that the good news is that nobody has to stay in this condition. Lloyd Jones offers some advice if your spiritual eyesight is lacking and you'd like to be healed.

First, he says, avoid making a premature claim that your blindness is healed. In other words, face up to reality. What a tragedy it would have been if the blind man had settled for seeing men as trees permanently. It would have been a big improvement, but it wouldn't have been enough. So don't settle for where you are right now. Admit that you have need to see better than you do.

Secondly: don't be discouraged. You're going to probably get frustrated. Lloyd-Jones says:

Such people come often come to me and say that they cannot see the Truth clearly. In their confusion they become desperate and ask, "Why cannot I see? The whole thing is hopeless." They stop reading their Bible, they stop praying. The devil has discouraged many with lies. Do not listen to him.

When Jesus asks, "Do you see?" answer honestly, but don't be discouraged.

Finally, come to Jesus. Submit to him and trust him to heal your spiritual eyesight. Jesus is our only hope; he will not leave anything incomplete.

Do you believe that the Son of God came from heaven and lived and did all that He did on earth, that He died on a Cross and was buried and rose again, that He ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit, in order to leave us in a state of confusion? It is impossible. He came that we might see clearly, that we would know God...

Come to Him, come to His Word, wait upon Him, plead with Him, hold on to Him...[and] You will be able to say, "I see, I see in Him all that I need and more, and I know that I belong to Him."

Let's pray.

Father, this passage humbles us, because we see our problem. But it gives us confidence, because you know how to deal with our problem. Thank you that we can be "confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).

We plead with you to heal our spiritual blindness. Let us see Jesus, and to see in Him all that we need and more We pray in his name. Amen.

More Than Crumbs (Mark 7:24-8:10)

Today's passage is unsettling at first. You can't read it without wondering if Jesus is being a tad insensitive - even rude - to a woman who genuinely needs help. It also leaves you with some questions. Why is Jesus so dramatic when he heals a deaf person? And then it also seems a little repetitive. Jesus feeds another crowd with a few loaves and small fish. So it's a passage that gets under the skin and raises all kinds of questions.

But it's also a startling passage that actually gives a lot of hope to those of us who feel like we're the least likely people to be part of what God is doing. If you feel like you don't quite belong, or that there's a whole list of reasons why you shouldn't be in relationship with God and part of what he's doing, then this passage is for you.

Let's look at the three stories this morning. We're going to see first why we're not worthy to be part of Jesus' kingdom, why this doesn't matter, and then why this is good news for everyone here this morning.

First, let's look at all the reasons that we're not worthy, all the reasons why we shouldn't be part of God's kingdom and what he's doing.

In verse 24 we read that Jesus leaves from the Sea of Galilee area to the area around Tyre, which would have been on the coast of the Mediterranean. To understand what's about to happen here, you need to know why this is significant. Jesus is moving from a predominantly Jewish area to an area that was much more Gentile, much more Greek. He was traveling to an area that was known for its paganism. Tyre is a place known in the Old Testament as being wicked. It's the hometown of Jezebel, one of the famous villains of the Hebrew Scriptures. Josephus, who was a Jewish historian who lived shortly after this time, said that the people of Tyre are "as our bitterest enemies." It's also an area that, at the time, was known to be economically oppressive towards where Jesus was coming from. Tyre was known for eating food produced in Galilee while Galilee itself went hungry.

Why did Jesus leave Galilee for this Gentile and, from a Jewish perspective, somewhat shady place? I think there are a couple of reasons. Twice now Jesus has tried to get away with his disciples for a period of rest. Every time he tries to get away, though, the crowds follow him. It looks like this may be another attempt. "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it," according to verse 24. If you study this passage carefully and map out Jesus' route, you'll notice that he goes way out of his way to avoid Galilee. Jesus is aware that the crowds want him as king, but that the political and religious leaders want him dead. So he takes some time to get away with his disciples out of the spotlight and away from all of the demands. They are trying to lie low for a while after Jesus has said and done some risky things. They are not there to preach and to heal. They just want to get away for a short time.

This helps us understand the emotional tone of the end of verse 24. "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret." It also helps us understand a little bit about the exchange between Jesus and the Greek woman born in Syrian Phoenicia. There is hardly a less likely person to get anything from Jesus in all the gospels. She's Gentile and is not part of the covenant that God made with the Jewish people. She has no business approaching a Jewish rabbi.

She really has three strikes against her. One: she's a woman at a time when women were not viewed as equal to men. Two: she's a Greek Gentile at a time of great tension between Jews and Gentiles. The Messiah was expected to subdue and expel the Gentiles, not to visit and embrace them. Three: she's from pagan Syrian Phoenicia, which is a pretty shady place for anyone coming from Israel, especially from Galilee. You could even add a fourth strike: Jesus isn't there to heal or minister. He's there to get away. There's no reason to expect Jesus to respond positively to this woman.

That's why Jesus responds the way that he does to her. She came to Jesus and begged him to drive the demon from her daughter. Jesus replied in verse 27: "'First let the children eat all they want,' he told her, 'for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.'"

What is this? In Jesus' day, Jews often referred to Gentiles as dogs. We're not talking men's best friend either. We're talking about wild dogs, repulsive scavengers that get into your garbage and eat everything and are never satisfied. They were seen as the most despicable, insolent, and miserable of creatures. It seems shocking that Jesus would buy into this type of language. It's pretty hard to avoid seeing these words as being somewhat scandalous, somewhat offensive.

But if that's all you see, then you aren't seeing enough. Jesus didn't use the normal word for a scavenger dog. The word he actually used was not the one that was normally used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. He didn't call her a wild scavenger dog roaming around the countryside. He used a word that means small dog, the type of dog you would keep as a household pet.

This still sounds offensive, and it probably should sound a little offensive, but we need to see what this woman actually came to see. Jesus was speaking using a parable. He's giving us an image that communicates a message. When Jesus had sent the disciples out, we read in Matthew that he said, "Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus was clear about his purpose. His purpose at this point was not to spread the gospel to the Gentile world, but to tell the Jewish people that their long-awaited salvation was at hand. He came to bring salvation to Israel. Later on the gospel would be shared with the entire world, but not yet. Jesus had a specific task and limited time, and this woman was jumping the queue. Jesus was saying, in essence, "I really need to feed my family first. Your turn is coming." Jesus wasn't called to go around and be helpful to everyone. He had to bring his salvation and his kingdom to Israel before it could be offered to the whole world.

We're going to see in a minute that this woman actually gets and agrees with Jesus' statement. But let's pause for a minute and consider that there are probably some of us here who can relate to this fascinating woman with four strikes against her. There are probably some of us here who would have to say that there's no real reason why Jesus should choose to respond to our cries. There are some of us who were raised in church, and you've never done anything scandalous in your life. You look like you've been in church every Sunday in your life, except for two weeks when you were sick back in the second grade. But there are others here who could easily come up with four reasons why Jesus should look at you and say, "Sorry, not interested." We can come up with lots of reasons why Jesus should look at us and say that it's not our turn just yet. What happens to this woman matters a lot to us.

And that's why it's so surprising to discover what did happen. This woman finds a way through.

Let's look at how this woman teaches us that our unworthiness doesn't even matter when we come to Jesus.

What's shocking is that this woman, with so much against her, actually gets it. This is amazing. Hardly anyone in Mark's gospel grasps what Jesus says to them, but she does.

How would you respond if Jesus said to you like he did to her? Some of us would slink away. Jesus has used the image of a dog. You've seen a dog with its ears tucked down, tail between its legs, scampering away. That's what some of us would have done. Jesus' challenge would have been enough to put us off.

Some of us would have defended ourselves. We would have said, "How dare you compare me to a dog?" We would have put up a fight saying that we deserved some of what Jesus offers. Our argument would be about who we are and what we deserve.

But this amazing woman doesn't scamper away, nor does she defend herself by arguing based on her merit. Look at what she says instead: "'Lord,' she replied, 'even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs'" (Mark 7:28).

This woman has a clearer understanding of Jesus' mission than anyone else we've met in Mark so far. She's the first person in Mark to get it and to engage Jesus in a constructive dialogue. She refuses to take no for an answer, and she becomes like a female version of Jacob wrestling with the angel, saying, "I will not let you go unless you bless me" (Genesis 32:26).

And what is the basis of her argument? Her argument is that the life-giving bread of Jesus' kingdom is so abundant that there is more than enough to feed not just Israel, but the entire world. She gets it. Bread here is an image of all the blessings of the Messiah's ministry. She understands that there is so much blessing found in what Jesus is doing that there's food enough for her, even though she is the most unlikely of persons to share in what God is doing.

Do you understand what she's doing? She's actually given us insight into the only way we can share in the blessings of Jesus' salvation. We're not worthy. We should never come to Christ arguing that we have a right to the blessings that he brings in his kingdom. We clearly don't. But we can grab ahold of Jesus, admit that we don't deserve the blessings of his kingdom, and then argue based on the abundance of God's grace. Because God's grace is so abundant, even the crumbs will be enough. The bread of Jesus' saving kingdom is so abundant that it's available to all, even the most unlikely person.

When we scamper away, or argue based on our merit, we forfeit the blessings of what Jesus has done. But when we down at his feet and argue based on the abundance of his provision, we're on very solid ground. There's more than enough in what Jesus provides to overcome anything that could keep us away.

Jesus replied to her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter." And then we read, "She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone" (Mark 7:29-30).

Somebody's said, "Her only cover letter was her desperate need." But when we come to Jesus, all we need is need, because the bread of Jesus' saving kingdom is so abundant that it's available to all. Martin Luther said of her, "She took Christ at his own words. He then treated her not as a dog but as a child of Israel."

We've seen all the reasons why this woman shouldn't have received the blessings of Jesus' kingdom. And we've seen why this didn't matter: because she understood that there's more than enough in what Jesus is doing for everyone. Mark wants us to see one more thing from this passage.

He wants us to understand why this is good news for everyone here this morning.

Mark follows this incident with two other ones, not because they happened next. In fact, there are some hints that the last incident he mentions didn't necessarily happen next. He ties them together because he wants us to see that this woman was right. He wants us to see how the abundance of the bread in Jesus' kingdom is really good news for everyone.

In verses 31 to 36, Jesus travels to another Gentile region on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. There Jesus encounters a man who's deaf and has a speech impediment. You'll notice the drama involved with the healing. Jesus takes him aside, touches his ears and tongue, looks up to heaven. What's Jesus doing here? His healings aren't usually this dramatic. What's he doing? He's signing. He's communicating through his movements what he is doing to someone who can't hear his words. Just as Jesus has healed those who belong to Israel, Jesus now heals a Gentile. Remember that the miracles of Jesus point to what the kingdom will one day look like? Jesus demonstrates here that Gentiles are going to share in all the blessings of the kingdom, where there will be no evil or illness or death. What Isaiah prophesied is true even for the Gentiles:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened

and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,

and the mute tongue shout for joy.

Water will gush forth in the wilderness

and streams in the desert.
(Isaiah 35:5-6)

And then we read about Jesus feeding four thousand with just a few loaves of bread and a few small fish. He's just fed five thousand back in chapter 6. Why include a similar event here? There are some differences. There are fewer people, more loaves, and less food left over. The biggest difference, though, is that this meal takes place among the Gentiles. Jesus makes his bread available to a wider Gentile community. He is the living bread for Gentiles as well. They also ate and were satisfied. Mark is telling us that everyone is invited to participate in the Messianic banquet. All are invited to come and be satisfied.

And that's why it's good news for everyone here this morning. Even the most unlikely person is invited to come. Your invitation to eat the bread has nothing to do with your worthiness; it has everything to do with the abundance of what has been provided for us in Jesus Christ. All you need is need. You can come eat the bread of life, and be satisfied.

Father, this morning I pray especially for those who are the least likely to experience the blessings of the kingdom. There are many here today who would never think they would have a place at the table with Jesus.

But today you've shown us that the blessings are available to everyone, because the blessing is not based on how worthy we are. It is based on the abundant provision of blessings that are available in Jesus Christ.

This is very good news. So I pray that the most unlikely people today would come and wrestle, refusing to leave until they get a blessing. May they fall before Jesus' feet and argue for even crumbs from his table. May their ears be opened, and may they find their place at the table. May they understand the salvation that is available to them through Jesus and what he has done, and may they eat and be satisfied. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

Becoming Clean (Mark 7:1-23)

At first glance, today's passage seems like it's a fight over an arcane issue that doesn't involve us at all. But, actually, this passage is very much about an issue that concerns all of us. The issue is really what is wrong with us, and what we should do about it. In this passage, the religious leaders of Jesus' day point out a problem that, when we think about it, affects all of us. Jesus even agrees with them that there's a problem. But then Jesus shows us that the way we normally deal with the problem is wrong, before we get a hint of the right way to deal with the problem.

So first, what's the problem?

The real issue in this passage is simply moral purity. It's easy to lose what's really under discussion in this passage because the problem is expressed in terms of the Jewish laws and traditions about being clean, but the underlying issue is one that touches all of us. It's the sense that something is wrong with us, and that we need something that is going to cleanse us, something that is going to change us so that we are who we know we're supposed to be.

If you read the Old Testament laws, especially in the book of Leviticus, then you discover that there are a lot of laws about uncleanness. Over and over again you read about clean and unclean and holy in the book of Leviticus. Some of the laws seem so arcane that when we read them we get frustrated and wonder what in the world they have to do with us.

One of the problems we have is that we think that clean means hygienic, like when your mother tells you to wash your hands because they're dirty before you come to eat your lunch. Clean in the Bible really doesn't have to do with hygiene, but of being purified and cleansed so that you could approach God. Because God is completely holy and without any defilement at all, God required that the people approach him in purity. And so Leviticus spends a lot of time explaining what makes people clean and unclean. The term occurs over 70 times in the book of Leviticus. We don't understand all the reasons behind all of these commands, but we kind of get the idea that we can't approach God just as we are because we're unclean. We know that there's something wrong with us. The issue, again, isn't hygiene, but our readiness to approach God.

The bottom line in Leviticus is that if you're unclean - and there are many ways that you can become unclean - you have no access to God. If you're an ordinary person and you are unclean for whatever reason, then you are temporarily cut off from the other people until you're made clean again. But if you're a priest, then it's even more serious. God says to the priests, "For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD" (Leviticus 22:3).

As you read the Old Testament, you at first think that it's all about these arbitrary rules about what you can touch and what you can eat. It's frustrating too because there's no real way you can avoid becoming unclean at least some of the time. It's only later that you begin to see that it's not really about rules and technicalities. All of these point to something much deeper: our hearts. So when Isaiah encounters God, he's filled with fear and cries out, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (Isaiah 6:5). He knows that he's in no condition to stand in God's presence. His very life is in danger. Isaiah says again in chapter 64, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away."

If we're honest, all of us can look at ourselves as well and acknowledge that yes, no matter who we are, that this is a problem. All of us sense that there's something deeply wrong, deeply unclean about our hearts. And it affects even the best of us. Kay Warren, a pastor's wife, tells of the first time she visited Rwanda. She had heard about the 1994 genocide that had left a million people dead - tortured, raped, and murdered. "I naively assumed I would be able to look men and women in the eyes and tell if they had ben involved," she says.

I was full of self-righteous judgment...Instead of finding leering, menacing creatures, I met men and women who looked and behaved a lot like me...There were no monsters in Rwanda, just people like you and me...Before that trip, I can't tell you the number of times I reacted to evil I read about or witnessed by saying, "I would never do that!" But thousands of years of bloody human history prove differently. Fifty-four years of my own history prove differently. We are all proficient in our ability to conceive, plan, and execute evil...You might as well face the shameful truth: You and I, put in the right situation, will do absolutely anything. Given the right circumstances, I am capable of any sin. I've grown more afraid of the monster lurking in the dark corners of my soul than of any monster lurking in the dark corners of my house.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts the problem well:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

This is our biggest problem. And if you look carefully at this passage, Jesus agrees that this is our problem. In fact, he even raises the stakes in identifying the seriousness of the problem. We are unclean. We're like Lady Macbeth, crying, "Out, damn'd spot!" This is our problem.

So how do we normally deal with this problem?

As detailed as the laws in the Old Testament are, they only required priests to wash hands before offering a sacrifice. Only priests, and only when offering a sacrifice. Exodus 30:18-21 says:

Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the LORD, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.

God's Law never required that ordinary people eat regular meals in a state or ritual cleanliness. But we get to Mark 7, and we read in verses 3 and 4:

The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.

They had taken instructions meant for priestly washing at the moment of sacrifice, and applied it to all of life in a way that God had never intended. This wasn't written in Scripture, but we read that these traditions had developed - as yet unwritten rules that many held to be on par with God's written commands.

What had happened is that people had identified a legitimate problem: the impurity of our hearts. And they had devised a system of dealing with this problem: manmade rules that, if kept, made them feel like they were no longer unclean. And not only did they adopt these manmade rules for themselves, but they used them as a club to judge others. In this passage, they use their manmade rules as a way of clubbing Jesus. When we sense the uncleanness of our hearts, we always look to some other justification, some other standard by which we approve ourselves and judge others. This is actually the basis of all religion and even many within Christianity: we think that if we meet certain standards and do certain things, unlike those dirty people, then we're in. Then we've dealt with our uncleanness problem. These are outside-in approaches. We think if we adopt certain behaviors and meet certain standards, then we're in.

Let me give you a test. If I said, "What makes you acceptable to God?" what would you say? Most of the answers we give reveal what we're looking to in order to be justified before God. If we think that there is anything that we have done or can do to make us clean before God, then we are in the exact same position that these religious leaders were in. We're trusting in something to justify us before God that won't work no matter how well we meet the standards.

Jesus had very harsh words for this. He just tears into the religious leaders. There are two basic problems with trying to justify God through our manmade, external rules.

First, Jesus says, we end up undermining the Word of God. When we create manmade rules in what starts out to be a well-meaning attempt to justify ourselves with God, it isn't long before we create rules that end up rejecting God-given priorities. He gives the example of somebody making a vow to dedicate some of their money to God, therefore making that money unavailable for honoring their father and mother. But there are other examples:

  • being so careful about morality that we forget that Christ died for the ungodly;
  • being so focused on church attendance and activities that we neglect our families and our neighbors;
  • being so concerned with good theology that we stop loving those who don't agree in every detail with us

Religion always gets us focused on the wrong things at the expense of what God wants us to be about. "You do many things like that," Jesus says in verse 13.

The other problem is that our when we try to justify ourselves using manmade, external rules, we never really get to the heart of the issue, which is the heart. To illustrate this, Jesus uses a crude example. If you eat a piece of unclean food, he says, it goes into your mouth, and down to your stomach, and eventually, he says, it goes into the latrine. It never gets to your heart. So the problem is actually more serious than you think, because all the hand-washing in the world, all the external manmade rules, never get to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is that we have impure hearts. The problem is that at our core, and the center of who we really are, there's something seriously wrong.

Jesus says in verses 21 to 23:

For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.

Nothing you do externally will deal with the problem of an unclean heart. This is actually very depressing. Jesus says that yes, the Pharisees and scribes are right that there is something fundamentally unclean with us. But he rejects religion as a way of dealing with this. There is nothing we can do to scrub ourselves and make us clean no matter what we do. The ultimate problem with us is the impurity of our heart, and religion can't solve that problem.

So this passage shows us the extent of our problem. It also shows us the impossibility of cleansing ourselves. As one theologian put it, "Even saints cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation" (John Calvin). Where does this leave us?

This passage also points us to what has to happen, what is, after all, our only hope.

So we see we have this problem. We also see that religion and manmade rules really don't solve this problem. So what do we do?

There's an interesting parenthetical comment at the end of verse 19. It's significant because Mark hardly makes any editorial comments. He says, "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean." What does Mark mean by this? There are all kinds of laws about clean and unclean food in the Old Testament. What Mark is telling us is that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of these laws, and that he has done something that renders all of the laws about clean and unclean food obsolete.

Hundreds of years earlier, God revealed that the day would come that he would deal with this problem.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. (Ezekiel 36:26-29)

The day will come, God said, when we won't have to worry about our unclean hearts anymore, because God will give us new hearts. "I will save you from all your uncleanness," God promises.

One of the most beautiful pictures of this is found in a passage in Zechariah 3. Zechariah sees a scene in heaven in which Joshua, the high priest at that time, appears before God. Remember how much work the priests had to go through in order to cleanse themselves? The High Priest would only come before God once a year at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, after a week of preparation because you can't appear before God in an unclean state.

Zechariah sees Joshua appear before God. Satan is there too to accuse him. And we read, "Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel" (Zechariah 3:3). In the original it says he's in clothes that are covered with excrement. It's a picture of how we must look to God as we come before him in all our righteousness. He's there on the Day of Atonement, but there's big trouble because he's unclean. There's no way he can stand before God, and Satan is there to accuse him. It's a disaster.

But before Satan can even speak, the angel says, "Take off his filthy clothes." And then the angel says to Joshua, "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you" (Zechariah 3:4). God strips away his uncleanness and provides clothes that he couldn't provide for himself. He's reclothed in God's presence and even given a turban, which at that time would have signified royalty. He comes before God covered with excrement, and in God's presence he's given ceremonially pure garments as a sign that God accepts him and the people that he represents.

The prophets point us to the cleansing that only God can provide. God, they say, will deal with the uncleanness of his people by providing cleansing and acceptance at the deepest level. God will take away our filthy clothes in his presence, and Satan our accuser won't be allowed to say a word.

Mark has told us that the laws of clean and unclean laws have found their fulfillment in Christ. Christ cleanses the heart.

No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine! Alive in Him, my living Head, And clothed in righteousness divine, Bold I approach the eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Father, we repent of our efforts to cleanse ourselves. We thank you that in your presence, our filthy clothes can be removed, and we can be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. May everyone here experience that cleansing and sing: Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

I Am in the Storm (Mark 6:45-56)

This Fall, we've been studying the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest account of Jesus' life and ministry. Today we come to a passage of Scripture that has a lot to say to us. If you're like me, you're going to recognize yourself in this passage, and this passage is going to give you a much-needed rebuke and some hope as well. At least that's what it did for me.

In this passage we learn something about our situation, something about Jesus, and then we face a test. It's important that we pay attention to what this passage teaches us, because if we pass this test we'll be prepared to deal with anything that comes our way.

So let's look at what this passage teaches us about us and our situation.

Jesus has just fed five thousand men, as well as additional women and children, with five small loaves of bread and two fish. In verse 45 we read, "Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd." You sense an urgency in Jesus' actions. He wants the disciples gone, and according to verse 46, he wants to be alone to pray. What's going on here?

What had just happened - the five thousand - became a test for both Jesus and for the disciples.

For Jesus, the test was one that we usually don't recognize as a test. We read in the Gospel of John that the crowd that Jesus fed was ready to force him to become King. Jesus was so popular at that point that he faced the temptation to get sidetracked from his mission due to the acclaim of the crowds. Jesus also knew that the path ahead led to the cross, not to glory and conquest. The glory and victory would come, but not before betrayal and death. So Jesus was going through his own storm, and so he retreated and spent most of the night in prayer.

But the focus in this passage really isn't on the storm that Jesus faced. Mark doesn't even go there. Instead, he draws our attention to what the disciples are going through. We read in verses 47 and 48:

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake.

Now notice this. Jesus has sent the disciples onto the boat alone. If you know these disciples well, you should have the same feeling that you have when the neighbor down the road goes out and leaves the kids at home alone. You know it's not going to be a good situation. Almost every time these disciples are away from Jesus, they encounter some kind of problem.

But then notice what Jesus had sent them into. This wasn't like the storm they had already faced in which their lives were in danger. This was more like a wind that wouldn't let up. We read that they are straining at the oars making very limited progress. By the time Jesus does anything about it, it's between three and six in the morning. It seems that he doesn't even respond right away.

One commentator says:

This episode is a good illustration of the life of discipleship...It was not through stubborn self-will, but through direct obedience to the Lord's command, that the disciples found themselves in this plight. Thus the storm in now way showed that they had deviated from the path of God's will: God's path for them lay through the storm, to the other shore of the lake. Moreover, it appeared as if the Lord had forgotten them; they were alone, at night, making heavy weather with the rowing. (R. Alan Cole)

Ask yourself: Why would Jesus allow the disciples to go through this crisis alone? The answer has to be that this is part of the preparation process that the disciples needed as part of their training. We are going to be placed in situations, believing that God has sent us. We are going to be straining at the oars making very little progress at all. It's going to seem as if we're alone and that Jesus is off somewhere else. We can expect this to be part of our experience.

There really are three lessons we're expected to learn:

We will face adversity and hardship. Following Christ does not mean an exemption from suffering. Following Christ will sometimes lead us directly into a position of suffering and hardship. We should not be surprised to encounter times of suffering. When we follow Jesus, adversity and hardship will be part of the path.

There are going to be times when we're at the end of our own resources. The picture of the disciples "straining at the oars" is a good one for us. There are going to be times that we are working very hard but seemingly making very little progress. Reaching the point of helplessness and desperation is actually a step forward spiritually.

There will be times that Jesus seems absent. We will be in the storm and it will seem like God has abandoned us.

If you are in one of these moments right now of suffering and hardship, of being at the end of your resources, feeling that God is perhaps absent, then you are in a very good spot. As Eugene Peterson says:

Suffering is not evidence of God's absence, but of God's presence, and it is in our experience of being broken that God does his surest and most characteristic salvation work.

There is a way to accept, embrace, and deal with suffering that results in a better life, not a worse one, and more of the experience of God, not less.

God is working out his salvation in our lives the way he has always worked

We're going to face situations like this, and it's in these very situations that we learn something about Jesus.

Well, what does this passage help us learn about Jesus?

As the disciples face this hardship, what does Jesus teach them, and us, about himself?

There are a few details here that point to something deeper going on here. Verse 48 says, "Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them..." Throughout the years, people have struggled with the idea of Jesus walking on the water. They should too. We all know that people don't walk on water. Scripture teaches that treading the water is something that only God can do. Job 9:8 says:

He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads on the waves of the sea.

This is, by the way, the point. Jesus walking on the water reveals that he is more than a teacher or a prophet. Once again we're forced to ask, "Who in the world is this?"

Then we come to the phrase, "He was about to pass by them..." This seems to make no sense. The disciples are struggling to make progress. Why would Jesus just pass by? Bible scholars have proposed all kinds of theories. To really understand what's happening, you need to understand what it means to "pass by."

In Exodus 33, Moses said to God, "Show me your glory." God replied, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence...When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by" (Exodus 33:19,22). In 1 Kings, God told Elijah, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by" (1 Kings 19:11). Jesus is not only walking on water here, which tells us that this is no normal person, but now he's also passing by. This is the language of God revealing himself. As God revealed himself to Moses at Sinai, and on Horeb to Elijah, God now reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ to the disciples.

There's one more clue that we need to spot. When the disciples saw Jesus passing by, walking on the water, they thought he was a ghost. Jesus immediately spoke to them and said - in my translation - "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." What Jesus said is actually, "Take courage. I am. Don't be afraid." Do you know what this means? When Moses asked God for his name when God first revealed himself to Moses, God gave his name as "I AM" (Exodus 3:14). I AM is God's personal name. It's how God describes himself. Jesus is saying that the God who created the world from nothing, who set the stars in place, who gave us life, who made a covenant with his people, and who delivered Israel out of Egypt - that great I AM is now walking on the water in the middle of the storm. Jesus passes by them and reveals his presence and identity so that they can have confidence in the storm. The point isn't that Jesus will rescue them from the storm - although, as we'll see in a moment, he does that. The point is that I AM is with them in the storm.

When you begin to put this together with the other events that have taken place, you begin to realize what Mark is teaching about Jesus. Can you of another time that God led his people safely through the waters and fed them in the wilderness when there was no food? During the exodus, when God brought his people out of slavery and into freedom. Mark is saying that Jesus is the new and better Moses bringing his people out of slavery and into freedom. But he's even better than Moses: he's the great I AM in person. That who Jesus is, and that is what he's up to.

Now, let's just pause here for a moment. We said that this was part of the disciple preparation process. Jesus knew that these disciples were going to face many hardships in the future. Jesus knew that the path for him would lead through many sufferings to the cross. He would be rejected and killed and suffer many terrible things (Mark 8:31). He knew that the path for the disciples would also involve suffering and hardship.

If the point of this passage was that God will deliver us from every hardship, and that he will rescue us from every storm, then we wouldn't be very well prepared for what lies ahead. As we've already said today, we will face adversity and hardship. There are going to be times that we're at the end of our own resources, and Jesus seems absent. Every single person here this morning is going to suffer. The point is not that we will be exempt from storms. The point is that the great I AM is with us in the storm. Because he is Lord, we don't need to be afraid no matter how the sea may rage or the winds blow.

But now, this is what the LORD says--
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you;

and when you pass through the rivers,

they will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

you will not be burned;

the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior..."
(Isaiah 43:1-3)

God reveals his presence and identity so we can have confidence in the storm. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Horse and His Boy, "Aslan was among them though no one had seen him coming."

We've seen that this passage teaches us that we're going to experience times of hardship in which we're at the end of our resources, and in which it seems that Jesus is absent. We've also seen that this passage reveals that Jesus is the great I AM who assures us of his presence. This passage also does one more thing.

This passage leaves us with a test.

Verses 51 and 52 say, "Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened."

Mark ties together the feeding of the loaves to Jesus' revelation of himself as God on the water, and concludes that they had missed something that they should have grasped. They'd witnessed the miracle of the loaves, Jesus walking on water, and many other miracles, but their hearts were hard - a description, by the way, that Mark usually reserves for Peter's opponents.

It seems that things get delayed. The original destination was Bethsaida, we read in verse 45. They don't get there for another couple of chapters. And Mark contrasts the hard hearts of the disciples with the crowds in verses 53 to 56 who come to Jesus with faith.

The disciples failed to grasp who Jesus is. They also failed to consider how God had worked in the past, and apply that knowledge to their current situation.

We're left with the same test. If we understand that God has visited us in the person of Jesus, we can be assured of his presence no matter what we go through. We can have confidence in any storm that we go through.

Let's pray.

The disciples failed the test. But when Jesus passed through the mother of all storms - when he was betrayed and killed, and when he bore our sins - he passed the test. Because he remained faithful in the storm, there's hope for all of us who are faithless. "If we are faithless, he remains faithful" (2 Timothy 2:13).

Father, we will go through hardships. May we grasp that Jesus is the great I AM who is present with us in the storm, and may that change us. Soften our hearts. May his presence give us confidence no matter how the sea may rage or the winds blow. In the name of the one who stills storms and multiplies loaves and walks on water, in the name of the great I AM, in the name of the one who died for our sins and who invites us to repent and follow him - in Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Hungry (Mark 6:30-44)

At first glance, the story that we've just read is a simple one. It's one that we tell our children in Sunday school. Jesus sees a need, and miraculously he provides for that need in a way that can't be explained using just a few loaves of bread and fishes. It's a story that warms the heart.

But as usual, there's more than meets the eye in this passage. This morning I'd like to simply look at three things that this passage shows us: what we need; how Jesus meets that need; and what this means about our role today.

First, let's look at what we need.

The apostles have just returned from preaching and teaching and healing. They were so overwhelmed by ministry that they didn't even have time to eat. Jesus suggested that they get away to a solitary place. But before they even got there in the boat, verse 33 tells us, "But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them." You can imagine their disappointment. They needed to rest, but what they got was more ministry.

The apostles may have been disappointed, but Jesus saw the crowd and saw their need. Verse 34 says, "When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."

What does this mean, "sheep without a shepherd"? Thousands of years earlier, Moses was a leader over Israel. He brought the people out of Egypt and led them as they wandered through the wilderness for forty years. When Moses was about to die, we read that he said to God:

May the LORD, the God of every human spirit, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16-17)

In other words, a shepherd was a leader who could lead and care for the people. God answered Moses' prayer by telling him to appoint Joshua, who led Israel to battle as they entered the land that God promised them. When David was made king, the Lord said to him, "You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler" (2 Samuel 5:2). But all of that paled compared to the promise God had made to them.

For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As shepherds look after their scattered flocks when they are with them, so will I look after my sheep...There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. (2 Samuel 34:11-15)

Do you see what this means? The people came with a need. You don't go outrun a boat around a lake unless something drives you there. They came wanting more of what Jesus had to offer. Maybe some of them wanted more teaching or healing. Some of them may have been coming for political deliverance. I'm sure many of them didn't even know what they were looking for.

But Jesus saw them and recognized their real need. He looked at the crowds and he saw there deep hunger for something they longed for but had never experienced. They were starved and impoverished, and nobody seemed to care. Their forefathers had even experienced hints of what they longed for, but they had never experienced the real thing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes their need this way: "There were questions but no answers, distress but no relief, anguish of conscience but no deliverance, tears but no consolation, sin but no forgiveness."

Now, I know that we're a long way from where these people were. But the irony is that this passage also reveals our need. Mother Teresa once looked at the Western world and said, "The spiritual poverty of the Western world is much greater than the physical poverty of our people. You in the West have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness." Did you hear that? We have everything - success, family, wealth, pleasure - and yet there's still a sense that something is missing.

Most of us can't even put our finger on what the problem is. As a result we try all kinds of things to address our deep hunger. One author said:

It is the desire for God which is the most fundamental appetite of all, and it is an appetite we can never eliminate. We may seek to disown it, but it will not go away. If we deny that it is there, we shall in fact only divert it to some other object or range of objects. And that will mean that we invest some creature or creatures with the full burden of our need for God, a burden which no creature can carry. (Simon Tugwell)

We all have this hunger within us. We can't deny it, because the hunger comes from our most fundamental appetite, one that we can't eliminate. Because we don't recognize our deepest hunger, we try to fill the hole our relationships, our careers, our accomplishments, our positions, our experiences. But none of these can fill the hunger, because our need can only be met by God. It puts pressure on ourselves, our careers, our families, because we are putting a pressure on them that they were never meant to bear. Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied…. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows, but enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.

So this passage first of all confronts us with our need. We are experiencing a deep hunger that we've never had satisfied, and nothing has filled it no matter what we try.

Secondly, then, let's look at how Jesus meets that need.

Verse 34 says, "When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things." Later on he feeds them miraculously with bread and fish. From this passage we learn that Jesus meets our deepest spiritual hunger in two ways. First, he feeds us with his Word. Then he points us to the future feast in which our deepest needs will be finally satisfied.

When Jesus saw the need of the people, he responded first by nourishing them with his Word. Now don't forget that we are talking about an ultimate hunger, a hunger that nothing in this world can fill. What Jesus is showing us here is that what they really needed to hear is a word from God. If his teaching was anything like what we read in the rest of the Gospel of Mark, then what they really needed to hear was about the arrival of the Kingdom of God, that God is setting things right, and that they needed to repent and believe. It's why we spend time looking at God's Word every Sunday. What we need at our deepest level is found in God's Word for us. God reveals himself through his Word, and we desperately need it. Jesus himself makes a connection between the Word of God and our deepest hunger. When he was tempted by Satan, Jesus said, "People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). What we long for most can only be met through the God who is revealed in His Word.

So Jesus meets their deepest need through nourishing them through his Word. But then he does something that points forward to when our deepest needs will be met and completely fulfilled. He gets them to sit down in groups, takes a quantity of food that would barely even feed the Apostles, and nourishes the entire crowd so that, according to verse 42, they were all satisfied. Not only that, but there were leftovers. What is all this about?

In the Gospels, miracles are never random displays of power. Jesus never does something to just demonstrate his power or wow the audience. Every miracle is a signpost that points to when the kingdom of God is fully here. So when he heals, he's pointing to the day that there will be no illness. When he casts out demons, he points to the day when evil will be defeated. When he raises people from the dead, he points to the day when there will be no more death. And when he feeds the people in this miracle, he points to the day when there will be no more hunger. Our deepest longings will be met, and we will be fully satisfied. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35).

What Jesus points us to is the banquet that we've always longed for, the one that's promised in the ancient Scriptures. Jeremiah had written:

They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;

they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD--
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,

the young of the flocks and herds....

I will satisfy the priests with abundance,

and my people will be filled with my bounty,"

declares the LORD.
(Jeremiah 31:12, 14)

And God said through Isaiah:

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.
(Isaiah 55:1-2)

There will come a day, Jesus said, when our deepest longings will be met, when we will eat and be completely satisfied, and there will be no more hunger, no more illness, no more death, no more evil and injustice. What we long for will finally be true.

And here's the thing: we haven't experienced this yet, but we will. And knowing that this is coming is bread enough for today. Knowing this helps us endure almost anything. Paul wrote, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).

So Jesus nourishes us with his Word and he points us to the day when our hunger will ultimately be fulfilled. But then there's a hint of something else. Did you notice verse 41? "Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all." Taking bread, giving thanks, and breaking it. In a few chapters, Mark is going to write these words: "Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take it; this is my body'" (Mark 14:22).

Jesus meets our deepest hunger with the bread we're about to eat. But he did so at infinite cost. Bread must be broken if it's going to nourish someone. Unbroken bread will never meet anyone's hunger. Jesus took bread and gave it to his disciples and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:24). At the cross, Jesus who is the bread of life was broken so that we may be filled.

In a few minutes, we are going to come to Communion. Jesus told us to regularly celebrate Communion so that we could look back to what he did for us at the cross. He forgave all of our sins, defeated evil, and conquered sin and death. But it also looks forward to the day when we will eat at the banquet we've always wanted, to when our deepest hungers will be finally satisfied. The reason he told us to celebrate Communion so often is so that we would never forget what he has done for us, and so that we would never forget that it he is the one who fills us, who meets our deepest needs.

The banquet has an infinite cost, but it's been paid for. And now anyone can come and eat freely. There's an open invitation. The only requirement is that you come hungry.

We're going to come to that in just a minute, but there's one more thing we need to see in this passage. We've seen our need. We've seen how Jesus meets our deepest need. This passage reveals one more thing.

Let's finally look at what this passage says about our role today.

What is the role of the apostles in this passage? They are dispensers of bread. All they do is take what Jesus has given them, and they pass it out. That's pretty much all we are as well: dispensers of bread. We have nothing to offer people other than what Jesus has given us to give to them.

The biggest thing that we have to offer anyone is the bread of life, Jesus Christ. The kindest thing we can do is tell them about the Kingdom of God and invite them to the banquet where their needs can be ultimately satisfied. That's all. There's nothing more. We're simply dispensers of the bread that Jesus has given us.

But we also need to see that it's a pretty impossible task. There's lots of sarcasm in the Bible, but I can't think of a more sarcastic comment than the one the apostles made to Jesus in verse 37. The ESV gets at the sarcasm better than some translations. Jesus told them to give something to the crowd to eat. The disciples replied, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?" Two hundred denarii represented about 200 days' wages for a laborer. The disciples were being a little testy in their response to Jesus. In their defense, they knew that what Jesus had told them was impossible. They didn't have that kind of bread, and they didn't have that kind of money. They were in way over their head.

And that's just the point. Our struggle ever since then has been to believe that what Jesus offers us is enough, that the little pieces of bread and the little cups we're about to use point us to what can meet the hunger of the whole world. Our greatest struggle is to do what Jesus tells us to do and pass out the bread, knowing full well that we're in way over our heads, that what he's asking us to do is humanly impossible. In the kingdom of God, only the inadequate are adequate. Only the hungry are filled, and only the inadequate get to pass out the bread to others.

I love how somebody put it:

It is not God's intention that we should in ourselves be adequate for our tasks, rather He wants that we should be inadequate. If we only accept the tasks which we think are adapted to our powers we are not responding to the call of God. The church is always in a crisis and always will be. There will be difficulties, limitations, insolvable problems, lack of people and money, a menacing outlook, endless misunderstandings and misrepresentations. We are not only to do our work despite these things; they are precisely the conditions requisite for the doing of it.

Let's pray.

Thank you for inviting us to the meal we're about to celebrate. Thank you that it points us to what Jesus did for us, and to the day when our hunger will be fully and finally satisfied. Thank you for making us dispensers of bread. And thank you that in your kingdom, only the hungry are filled, and only the inadequate are adequate.

So we come hungry.

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

The Call and Cost of Ministry (Mark 6:7-30)

We've been looking together at the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest account of Jesus' life and ministry. Today we come to a transition in the Gospel of Mark.

When Jesus began his ministry, he called twelve people. Chapter 3 says, "He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mark 3:14-15). From the very beginning, Jesus created a community of followers who would be with him and do the things that he does. Up until now in the Gospel, they've been with Jesus, and even that hasn't been too impressive. They're still trying to understand who Jesus is and what he's all about. They've been with Jesus, but they haven't done anything yet. In the passage that we just read, that all changes.

This morning's passage tells us two things we need to know. First, we learn about our calling to ministry. Secondly, we learn the cost of ministry.

Let's first look about our calling to ministry.

Verse 7 says, "Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits."

As we've just said, up until now, Jesus has been preaching and healing and casting out demons, and the Twelve have been watching. They've now spent quite a bit of time with Jesus. He hasn't always been easy to understand. They still haven't come to really grasp who this is, but they know that God is up to something in Jesus. Three of the twelve have even seen Jesus raise a little girl from the dead.

Now Jesus turns to them and commissions them to do exactly what he has been doing. Everything that he has been doing, he calls them to do. Anyone who has ever delegated an important task to someone who just may not be ready understands what is happening here. It's one thing for God in human flesh to go around preaching, healing, and casting out demons. But now God is going to entrust this job to a bunch of nobodies who don't even get it yet? And yet that's exactly what Jesus does in this passage.

Now in a sense, as we're going to see, not everything here applies to us today. Jesus gave these commands to the Twelve and not to us. And yet there are implications for us. God is on a mission, and he invites us to join him. As Jesus is going to say later to his disciples, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (John 20:21). Or as the apostle Paul writes, "We are God's co-workers" (1 Corinthians 3:9). We get to join God in what he is doing. We have been invited to join God on his mission.

This means that God is on a mission in west Toronto - in the townhouses at Clement and Martingrove, in WillowRidge, in Rexdale, at the Tim Horton's at Westway and Martingrove, at the Residence, wherever we are. And he invites us as his people to join him in what he is doing. Jesus calls us to carry on his ministry, to do what he did as he travelled around Galilee. This should blow us away. God is on mission all around us, and he invites us to join him in what he is doing.

We learn three things about our mission from this passage.

First, we learn that our mission is comprehensive. Did you notice verse 7, and then verses 12 and 13?

Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits....They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:7, 12-13)

You'll notice here that their mission is a comprehensive one. It involves preaching and calling people to repentance, we read. The disciples go out and preach. They have a message that they proclaim, and they are calling people to respond. But that's not all that they do. They also drive out demons and the heal sick people. They point people to God's Kingdom, in which God deals not only with sin, but with all of the effects of sin as well.

This teaches us that our mission has to be a comprehensive one. Some churches are very good at preaching. They are excellent at telling people about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. They're good at calling people to repent. But quite often these churches aren't good at caring for the other needs that people have.

Some churches are very good at caring for sick people and those who are struggling with problems. They are good at social action and justice. But quite often these churches are not as good at proclaiming the gospel.

In this passage we see that we are called to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom and to care for people in every area of life. We are called to take the whole gospel to the whole person to the whole world. The gospel is comprehensive and touches every area of life. We're called to point to a gospel in which God not only forgives sins but will also undo all the effects of sin as well. The gospel is good news to the poor and the sick and the imprisoned and the suffering. We're called to preach the good news and to demonstrate God's care in every area of life. Our mission is comprehensive.

Second, we learn that our mission is urgent. In this passage, Jesus tells the Twelve that they don't really have time to waste packing for their trips. These are emergency instructions for a swift and dangerous mission. There's no time to waste. They can't get weighed down with extra stuff that will hold them back. Israel is at a crossroads.

God's mission is urgent. It's not something that can wait until next month or next year. Over 200,000 people live within five kilometers of where we sit right now. 20,000 of those people are going to move in the next year. 150 people are going to die. Many of those people have never heard about the good news of the gospel: that the Kingdom of God is near, and that God has come in the person of Jesus to bring people back to himself and to set all things right. God is on mission in this community, and he's commissioned us to join him. But there's an urgency. It's not something that can wait. It means traveling light because the mission can't be delayed.

Finally, we see that our mission involves dependency. When Jesus tells them to go out with no food or money, he's telling them that they are going to be dependent on others - and ultimately on God - to provide for them. When Jesus tells them to enter a place and depend on the hospitality of others, it means that they aren't always going to know where they are going to sleep the next night. Jesus even hints that it isn't going to go well for them. There are going to be villages that do not receive them. There are maybe going to be nights that they don't have a place to sleep. They are going to have to learn dependence on others - and ultimately they are going to have to learn dependence on God.

One of the subtle and deadly dangers that we face is self-reliance. Jack Miller was a pastor in Philadelphia. He went through some tough experiences in his life that were so bad that he quit his ministry. Miller looked back on those times and believes that God was teaching him to stop being so self-reliant. He came to realize that when we are self-reliant - when we depend on ourselves, our technology, and our skills - it shows that we aren't dependent on Christ. He wrote to a missionary and said:

What we fail to see is that reliance on people, their capabilities, their keeping their promises is a demonic faith, a cooperation in heart with the powers of darkness. We join the enemy, Satan, when we fail to rely on the promises of God to move on our behalf.

Spurgeon, a famous preacher in Britain, believed that this was one of the greatest dangers facing his church. When the church was doing quite well, he turned to them one Sunday and said:

I tremble for the church of which I am the pastor. I never trembled for it when we were few, when we were earnest in prayer, and devout in supplication, when it was a thing of contempt to go into "that miserable Baptist Chapel in Park Street," when we were despised and maligned and slandered. I never trembled for them then...But I tremble for it now, now that God hath enlarged our borders...O churches! take heed lest ye trust in yourselves; take heed lest ye say, "We are a respectable body," "We are a mighty number," "We are a potent people;" take heed lest ye begin to glory in your own strength; for when that is done, "Ichabod" shall be written on your walls and your glory shall depart from you.

The minute we lose our dependency and think we have what's needed on our own, we're in big trouble. Dependency is essential to mission. When a church is just starting out, they are dependent. They have to be. But churches get established, and by the a church gets to our stage it's easy to lose our sense of dependence. We're about to be tested in this area in the next few weeks. God is asking us to take on some things that are beyond what many of us think we can handle. When God calls us to mission, he calls us to dependence on him. God invites us to join him on mission.

Before we finish this morning, there's one more thing this passage teaches us. We've learned about our call to ministry.

Let's now look at the cost of ministry.

Mark describes the sending of the Twelve in verses 7 to 13. Then he switches the topic to the popular reaction to Jesus and the execution of John the Baptist in verses 14 to 29. Then in verse 30 he returns to the original topic. Verse 30 says, "The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught."

Question: Why does Mark do this? Why does Mark get us going on a subject, then change the subject, and then continue his original subject all over again? Mark does this all the time. Is Mark easily distracted? Does he have ADD? Of course, the answer is no. Mark does this deliberately. They even have a name for this: a Markan sandwich. Mark takes two seemingly unrelated stories and ties them together, telling us that we have to learn something from the combination.

What could Mark possibly be telling us from these two stories? John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus, and here he becomes the forerunner of Jesus and all who follow him. Mark here shows us the cost of ministry. Preaching repentance can be deadly. It cost John his life. Later on it cost Jesus his life. His mission is a dangerous one. What happened to John in his mission will happen to Jesus in his mission, and to the disciples in theirs.

Next Sunday is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Today around the world over 200 million are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ. Paul said that this is part of what it means to follow Jesus. "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him" (Philippians 1:29). When the apostles were persecuted, they rejoiced "because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41).

Jesus calls us to take the whole gospel to the whole person even at the cost of our lives. This is the call and this is the cost of mission.

This morning I have the privilege of standing before you and saying that God is inviting every person here to join him on mission. Every person here has been called. If you look at yourself and feel rather ordinary, then you're in good company. That's exactly what each person in the Twelve was: an ordinary person.

God turns to ordinary people like us an invites us to join him in what he is doing. I know there are people here who are hearing God's call to join him on mission. It involves announcing what God has done through Jesus, and calling them to repent and trust in him. And it involves caring for people in a holistic way.

If this morning you feel inadequate or that you lack the resources, then that's a good sign. You're well positioned to realize how dependent you are on God. I have the sense that the problem with a lot of us - maybe the problem with our church - is that we haven't done anything in a long time that requires us to be dependent on God. We live in safe worlds and we never fail because we never try anything. God is calling some of us this morning to move into his dangerous mission in which it's clear we don't have what it takes. He's calling our church to leave the safety and to join him in mission. It's urgent. There's really nothing more important.

Is it dangerous? Well, it got Jesus and John the Baptist killed. Not just them either. Next Sunday is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Over 200 million Christians today are experiencing persecution because of their faith. Is the mission dangerous? It could get you killed.

But it's the only mission that lasts. Herod killed John the Baptist. Herod's kingdom is long gone, but John's message is still being heard around the world. They killed Jesus, but Jesus' death led to our life. God's kingdom advances despite murderous evil. Nobody wastes his life who gives his life for God's kingdom.

Let's pray.

God has been speaking to some of you this morning through this passage. I know he's speaking to us as a church to leave our places of safety and move into his risky and dangerous mission.

It's not a safe mission. And it's not one that we can handle on our own. It requires dependence on him. If you aren't in the place where you feel your sense of dependence, it probably means you're not on mission yet.

God calls ordinary people like us to join him. How will we respond?

Thank you, Father, that Jesus came to announce the good news that the kingdom is near. Thank you that he left heaven to enter a dangerous world, and that he gave his life so that we may be saved.

Thank you that he invites us to follow him. May we serve as Jesus served. Move us to the place where we have to depend on you. May we even be willing to risk our lives to join you on mission. Move among us now we pray. We ask in Jesus' name, Amen.

Jesus and Hopeless Causes (Mark 4:35-6:6)

For the past couple of months, we've been looking at the Gospel of Mark. It's the earliest record of the life of Jesus based on an eyewitness account. In case you've missed any of what we've looked at so far, let me catch you up. Jesus, according to Mark, is introducing the Kingdom of God to earth. He's setting things right again, announcing the good news that God is on the move. He's forgiving sins and healing diseases - but he's also making lots of enemies. Mark is asking us to consider what we do with Jesus.

This morning's passage is a long one. In this passage you have four miracles and then a story that concludes by framing a question that we need to answer in response to what's happened. We could have looked at each of these separately, but then we may have missed what Mark is communicating by tying these stories together.

So let's look at the four miracle stories, unpacking them a little, and then let's conclude by posing two questions from this passage.

Let's look at the stories, which are all stories of hopelessness, of being at the end of human resources.

In this passage, Mark introduces us to four problems, four sets of people who have one thing in common: they face impossible problems. I'm not talking about big problems. Good stories have conflict, and the point of the story is for the character to overcome that conflict or that problem, and emerge on the other side triumphant. We're not talking about that kind of thing. The people that Mark introduces us to do not face big problems. Their problems are impossible. They've exhausted every human hope. There is no where else to turn.

What's even better is that every one of the situations Mark describes is real. What do I mean by this? Many people read these stories and think they're wonderful, but that they're not real. But if you look at these stories carefully, you're going to see that they have all the marks of being eyewitness accounts. Back in Mark's day, things were written very differently than they are now. Details were never included that were not crucial to understanding what took place. Now, when we're writing, we like to set the scene, and we include details that help the reader visualize what things were like. Back then, they didn't do that. But here in this passage we have all kinds of small details that don't seem to matter: that Jesus went into the boat just as he was; where he was sleeping in the boat; that he had a pillow; the age of the little girl that was raised; that Jesus told people to get her something to eat after she was raised from the dead. Why did Mark include all of these details? Either Mark invented a style of writing that didn't exist before this time and wasn't used again for hundreds of years, or else this is eyewitness testimony. What Mark records here are stories that really took place with actual details, which is remarkable as we look at them.

Each of these stories deal with huge problems, impossible problems, that go far beyond any human help.

First, we see the disciples facing a life-threatening storm. At the end of chapter 4, Jesus and the disciples decide to cross the Sea of Galilee. He'd been teaching from a boat; now they use a boat to get away from the crowds. As they cross, a terrible storm arose. The Sea of Galilee is almost 700 feet below sea level. Nearby are valleys that funnel wind onto the lake. You have coo air from the Golan Heights meeting warm air coming from the lake, which leads to very unpredictable weather, and storms with waves that are over seven feet high.

That's exactly the situation that comes up in this passage. As they're crossing, this storm comes up. We read in verse 37, "A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped." They ask Jesus, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" Don't forget that you have professional fishermen on the boat. If you're on an airplane and the person beside you is hyperventilating, you may think nothing of it if it's somebody who has a fear of flying. But if you're flying through a storm, and the person sitting beside you is wearing an Air Canada pilot uniform and he's hyperventilating, maybe you decide it's not such a bad idea to be scared yourself. Jesus and the disciples are on a storm that's threatening to kill him. Storms are something that no human can control. We still call them acts of God. Only God can help someone caught in a storm on a lake like Jesus and the disciples were.

Second, we have a man who has an army of evil spirits tormenting him. We live in a modern age. Some of us read stories about demons and think that this is hopelessly primitive. It seems irrational and illogical to believe in demons. But if you believe in God who is both supernatural and good, as most people do, then why would it be illogical or irrational to believe in supernaturally bad forces? C.S. Lewis warned us that there are two mistakes we can make: one is to disbelieve their existence; the other is to feel an unhealthy and excessive interest in them. The gospels tell us that demons are real. They make a distinction between those who have evil spirits and those who are sick or even mentally ill. We still don't understand a lot about demons, but there is every reason to believe that they exist and that they are destructive and dangerous.

In the case of this man, they were both dangerous and destructive. Demons destroy everything they touch. We read:

This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. (Mark 5:3-5)

Here you have someone who has superhuman strength, who is isolated, self-destructive, and beyond any human remedy. In verse 9, when Jesus asks his name, he replies, "My name is Legion for we are many." This isn't just a man with one demon. You have a whole army here. A Roman legion consisted of some five to six thousand soldiers. You are dealing with an impossible situation here. To make it even worse, he was Gentile, which meant that he was not part of the people to whom God had committed himself. He was outside of the community of grace.

Then, finally, you have two stories of people who are beyond medical help. At the end of chapter 5 we have two medical crises sandwiched together. Both have things in common: they're both involve women; both have medical issues that are beyond human help; both are ceremonially unclean according to Old Testament laws, the woman because of her illness and the young girl when she dies. But what's even more striking are the differences:

  • one has a name; the other is nameless
  • one is in a family of influence and means; the other is destitute
  • one approaches Jesus openly; the other is hidden and approaches Jesus from behind

They're different, but they're not so different. In the middle of suffering, they reach the same place of hopelessness. In fact, the person with the advantages ends up even worse.

The stories are quite sad. The woman has been sick for twelve years. Verse 23 said that she had "suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors." In those days, some of the treatments for her disease included boiling onions in wine, drinking it, and being told, "Cease your discharge." The worst was eating barley grain from the dung of a white mule for three days. Not only had she been subject to these bizarre treatments, but she had spent all of her money on them and had grown worse. She would have been socially excluded and hopeless.

Then you have a young girl who dies while all of this takes place. Her father, a synagogue ruler, came to ask Jesus to come and heal her, but before he got there, she died. This is the ultimate person beyond any human help. You can't do anything to help a dead person. Sadly, her condition wouldn't have been unusual. Sixty percent of children who survived childbirth died by their mid-teens. More children died than survived. This is the ultimate hopeless situation. It doesn't get any worse than dead.

Somebody said that this chapter should be named after St. Jude, the saint of hopeless causes. Mark is piling up these stories to give us a sample of situations that are beyond any human help, where there is incredible human suffering and nothing that anyone can do about it.

When you think about it, pretty much every type of problem we face is here as well: natural disaster, evil spiritual forces, sickness, financial problems, loneliness and isolation, and death. When I think of the problems I encounter as pastor, that covers pretty much all of them. If we could just get rid of these problems, our lives would be a lot easier.

I love the honesty of Scripture as well. Scripture is honest about the limits of human ability to fix every problem. There are many problems too big for us to fix. Some problems are beyond professional help. Human might, medical knowledge, and money can't fix many problems. As in the case of the man who has evil spirits, you can't even explain every problem. If you are facing a hopeless situation beyond any human help, this passage is for you.

So we have five hopeless situations here. But then:

Look at how Jesus shows that he has authority over all the hopeless situations that nobody else can help.

It's almost humorous to see what happens when Jesus meets each of these situations. They're hopeless situations, destructive and even deadly, and yet look at how easily Jesus deals with them.

In the storm, Jesus says, "Quiet! Be still!" You could translate this, "Be quiet and stay quiet." It's how you talk to a child. Immediately, it says, the wind ceased, and there was great calm. It was dead calm. Even when a storm stops, the water remains choppy. Here the water becomes as still as a pool before anyone jumps in it. Nobody can do this, but God can. Mark is showing us that Jesus has authority over nature; and because only God has this authority, he's forcing us to confront the question the disciples ask in verse 41: "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!"

Nobody can deal with the demons that torment the man we encounter in chapter 5, but Jesus can. Instead of battling against Jesus, they immediately recognize his authority and beg again and again that they not be sent out of that area. These demons were out of control - until they encountered Jesus. Mark is showing us that Jesus has authority over demonic power. Jesus takes someone who is naked and demonized and and transforms him into someone in his right mind, the first missionary to the Gentiles.

Then you have the woman who had a discharge of blood. Jesus didn't even do anything to heal her. She touched him. She was ceremonially unclean, which meant that anyone she touched would become unclean. But instead, Jesus' uncleanness made her clean. Mark is showing us that Jesus has authority over disease.

Then there's the twelve-year-old girl who died. Jesus simply touches her hand and says, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" and she does. What he says to her is remarkable because it's so unremarkable. He says exactly what a mother would to a child on a sunny day when it's time to get out of bed. And then Jesus tells them to get her something to eat. This isn't the first time that a child was raised from the dead in Scripture, but when Elisha was used to raise a boy, it was much harder. Not only does Jesus have authority over nature, demons, and disease, he also has authority even over death. Every person in these stories is a victim of circumstances with no hope apart from Jesus. These problems are all beyond human help, but none of them are problems for Jesus. They almost seem inconsequential to Jesus in these stories that Mark offers us.

Mark is not saying that if you follow Jesus, he will calm all of the storms and heal all the diseases and deal with all of your problems. That's the last thing he's saying. What he is saying is that all of these problems came into the world as a result of sin, as a result of what the first Adam did. And now Jesus is the second Adam, who is undoing the effects of sin. He has authority over all the forces of evil that stand against his kingdom. He has authority over all powers that are hostile to God and that destroy us.

Jesus not only has authority, but he used that authority to save us. The one who had authority over evil took on evil at the cross. He was stripped and made unclean so that we could be clothed and be made clean and in our right mind. He who raised the dead died himself so that he could destroy death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel. He became unclean so we could be made clean; he died so that we may live.

This leads us to the last story, and two questions we're left to answer.

In chapter 6, Jesus returns to his hometown. Word of what Jesus did has reached them. They basically asked the same question the disciples asked when Jesus calmed the storm, back in Mark 4:41: "Who is this?" Look at Mark 6:2-3 as they react to his teaching and his miracles:

"Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

Jesus has divine authority over nature, evil, sickness, and death, which leads us to ask: who is he? The people in Jesus' hometown - even in his own family - couldn't accept the answer. They saw only a builder, the son of Mary, a village son who had returned for a visit. Jesus, we read in verse 6, was amazed by their unbelief.

We're left with two questions as we conclude this passage. The first question has to do with where we turn with our hopeless causes. Many of us here face situations that are far beyond human help. We're desperate like many of the people in this passage. We haven't yet learned what Martin Luther wrote about in an old hymn:

Did we in our own strength confide
our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.

This passage reminds us that our hope isn't in human strength. God won't take away all our suffering and all of our problems, but he has authority over everything that opposes him and destroys us. He has divine authority over nature, evil, sickness, and death. This gives us great confidence as we suffer. We may not have all the answers, but we can know that God is in control, and that he will one day set all things right.

This passage leaves us with a second question. Who is this? We can answer as they did in his hometown - or, like the Gentile man whose demons were cast out, we can tell what Jesus has done for us. Like Jairus, we can come and plead with him, presenting our hopeless case before him and pleading for him to do something with it. Or, if we lack faith, we can approach him quietly from behind trembling in fear. It's not the amount of faith that matters; it's that Jesus is the object of our weak faith.

Jesus has divine authority over nature, evil, sickness, and death. Who is he? The answer changes everything.

Father, we pray for those who have insurmountable problems. Some of us have problems beyond human help. We bring them to you today. We thank you that Jesus has authority over nature, evil, sickness, and death. Thank you that he became unclean so that we could be made clean; that he died so that we could live.

Help us to answer the question: who is this? "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" "Where did this man get these things?" May we come to understand who Jesus really is and what he has done. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

The Growth the Kingdom (Mark 4:1-34)

Elisabeth Elliot is a well-known Christian author who's written many well-known books, but, as far as I know, only one novel. It's called No Graven Image. And when this novel was published, people hated it.

It's the story of Margaret Sparhawk, a godly woman who goes to the mission field full of zeal and high ideals. She is going to completely surrender to God and she is going to give her life in service to him. She does go. She learns the language and creates a large body of work on the culture and language of the tribe. She works to build trust so she can spread the gospel. But after the tragic accidental death of an associate, the tribe of people turn against her and in minutes destroy all the work she has done, a lifetime of dedication taken away in an instant. That's how the book ends.

You can see why people hated the book. Where's the happy ending? How could God allow her work to go to waste? Many felt that God would never allow this to happen to somebody serving so faithfully. And yet others found the book to be refreshingly honest and realistic. Many missionaries do serve a lifetime and have nothing to show for it at the end. Many churches do work faithfully but never become what the world would term a success. Many parents do teach their children the gospel, but the children never respond. We've taught the youth group or a Sunday school class, but there's nothing to show for it. And it causes us to get discouraged, and even to give up.

This is exactly the situation that the passage in front of us addresses. This passage teaches us three things that we desperately need to learn. First: what ministry looks like. Second: what's really happening. And finally: the results. If we pay attention to this passage, it will renew us in our ministries like nothing else. I need to hear this, and maybe some of you do as well.

So let's begin by seeing what this passage teaches us about what ministry looks like.

When I was a child, I sensed that God was calling me to one day be a pastor. I'm not sure that I really knew what it would look like, but I think I expected that it would be glamorous work. But Eugene Peterson got it right. He's been pastor for much longer than me, and this is what he says about the people in the congregation:

...this haphazard collection of people who somehow get assembled into pews on Sundays, half-heartedly sing a few songs most of them don't like, tune in and out of a sermon according to the state of their digestion and the preacher's decibels, awkward in their commitments and jerky in their prayers.

I almost feel like I have to add what my grandfather used to say: "present company excepted." But you know what he's talking about. And here is what ministry is like:

It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.

There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious...I don't deny that there are moments of splendor in congregations. There are. Many and frequent. But there are also conditions of squalor...

Now, he's talking about pastoring, but I think we need to recognize that what he says is true of ministry in general. I don't know what type of ministry you're involved with. You may be a small group leader or a Bible study leader. You may be teaching kids or running the women's program. Your ministry may not show up on an org chart anywhere, because a lot of ministry takes place under the radar where nobody sees it. But I'll tell you this: ministry is unglamorous. It often looks insignificant, and the results are hard to measure. This is what ministry is like by its very nature.

We're going to get to more encouraging news in a minute, but we need to realize this because if we don't, we'll give up. But look with me for a minute at this passage. The reason that Jesus told these stories is, I think, to explain what may have been perplexing to his followers. Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand. He announced this good news, and he healed diseases and cast out demons as signposts pointing to what the kingdom looks like. You would expect that now that God had come in person that the results would be staggering. But we've seen already in Mark that it's not staggering at all. Many follow him, but the reviews are mixed. The Pharisees, the Herodians, and the scribes from Jerusalem hated Jesus and his message. Even Jesus' family thought he was crazy. By all accounts, Jesus' ministry at this point was a failure. And Jesus stops to teach his followers something that they need to know: ministry looks insignificant and often looks like a failure. Even Jesus' ministry did. But appearances can be deceiving. We should never judge ministry a failure just because it looks like a failure, because something much deeper is going on.

But just look for a minute at the stories Jesus told. In verses 1 to 20, he tells a story about a farmer who sows seed. Although the farmer works very hard, the seed fails three out of four times. Most of the time, it looks like failure.

Then, in verses 26 to 29, he tells the story of a farmer who scatters seed in the ground. If you've planted seed you know that it is an act of faith. I bought some grass seed a year ago, did all the prep work in the backyard. I eventually spread the seed. Every day I went out back and watered the dirt. The instructions said that I would start to see something happen in about 10 days. I have to admit that I had a crisis of faith on day 6, and again on day 7, and even on day 8. I'd done all the work and I had nothing to show for it yet, and there were no guarantees at that point that day 10 would be any different.

Then Jesus compares his kingdom in verses 30 to 32 to a mustard seed, which was a small, unnoticed, and insignificant seed that didn't look like much.

And in these three stories Jesus is telling us that his kingdom and his work often looks small. It often looks inconspicuous. It often seems that nothing is happening. You don't always see impressive results. The kingdom does not come in strength, but it comes in weakness. Quite honestly, it often looks like a failure.

Question: if this is what ministry looked like for Jesus, why would we expect it to be any different for us? If your ministry feels like a failure, if it feels small and insignificant, and if you don't have much to show for it at this point, then you're in good company. Jesus knows what it feels like. That's the very nature of ministry.

Now, if we ended the sermon here, it would be a little like saying that life is hard and then you die. You're all dismissed. Have a great week. But the passage doesn't end here, and neither does the sermon. Jesus wants us to realize what ministry looks like, but then he wants us to see something else.

Let's look at what's really happening.

Jesus' ministry looked like a failure. The religious leaders and even his family rejected him. But what's really going on?

When something goes wrong, our first temptation is to look at the person responsible to see if there is some fault in what they are doing. So we tend to look at ourselves and think there is something wrong with us, or that we are doing something wrong. This is sometimes the case - but according to this passage, not always. When it looks like we're failing in ministry, we should look at ourselves, but we should also look much deeper. Something else may be going on.

The first parable in verses 1 to 20 is often called the parable of the sower. But if you look carefully, the sower really isn't the main point of the parable at all. Others call it the parable of the seed, but even that isn't completely accurate. You could call the parable the parable of the soils, because the key and determining factor for the success of the crop is not the sower, or the seed. The sower is doing everything he can, and the same seed is sown everywhere. The difference is where the seed lands. When Jesus interprets the parable, he's saying that the apparent lack of success is not because he has failed, or because his gospel is deficient. It's because of the condition of those who are receiving his word: the Pharisees, the scribes, and even his family. He even quotes a puzzling passage from Isaiah, which a lot of people struggle over. But his point is that God's Word and the gospel separate us according to our response. The fact that some people reject the gospel is not a failure of God or his gospel. It's actually what's supposed to happen. And given the nature of the soil conditions, failure is not at all surprising. We shouldn't be discouraged, because even when it's rejected, the gospel is only revealing the condition of the heart of the person who has rejected it.

Notice also in verses 26 to 29 something we need to see. The farmer scatters seed. It's not that the farmer is unimportant. He has an important role. But notice what the farmer doesn't do. The farmer doesn't make the seed grow. He sleeps and gets up. Life goes on as it always does. It seems routine and mundane. But he contributes nothing in between sowing the seed and eventually harvesting it. All he does is wait. Jesus is telling us that we have a role in his kingdom. We have an important role. But the growth and success of his kingdom does not depend on us. It doesn't depend on human effort, and human insight can't even explain it. The seed grows, and so does the kingdom. God will take care of the results.

And then notice the mustard seed in verses 30 to 32 which looks small. But you see that the smallness of the mustard seed doesn't tell the whole story.

What is Jesus saying? He is telling us that his kingdom does look small and insignificant. It even looks like a failure. But beneath the surface, it is accomplishing exactly what it should. Jesus gives us the confidence to see that we have a role in ministry. It's an important role. He's chosen to use us. But the growth doesn't ultimately depend on us. He is in charge of the results. To human eyes, it looks futile and fruitless, resulting in repeated failures. But God is at work beneath the surface. It's not up to us. God is at work. Ignoring all failures and against all odds, God is carrying on his beginning to completion. God is at work despite appearances.

So we've seen what ministry looks like: small, insignificant, and often like it's a failure. We've seen what's happening below the surface: that we have a role, but God is at work despite all odds and despite the appearances. That's all good, but it still leaves us feeling like maybe things won't turn out well. But there's one more thing we have to see in this passage.

Let's look at the results.

You would think, wouldn't you, that if three-quarters of a farmer's labor is wasted, that the farmer would be discouraged? But notice that story of the sower and the seed ends on anything but a sad note. Jesus says in Mark 4:8: "Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times."

You would think, wouldn't you, that a mustard seed doesn't hold much promise? It looks small. But Jesus says in Mark 4:32: "Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade."

The kingdom begins in a small, unnoticed way. It mostly goes on unnoticed. It often looks insignificant. It's weak and unglamorous. Things don't go as we expect. But never look down on small beginnings. Never mistake apparent failure for true failure. The kingdom is growing. God is at work. He will bring about results that go beyond our asking or conceiving. The kingdom often meets with adversity, rejection, and delay, but Jesus says the results will be astounding in spite of inconspicuous beginnings. God is at work in hidden and unobserved ways. Despite discouraging odds, the harvest in Jesus' ministry - and in ours as we join him will be beyond compare.

Years ago, G. Campbell Morgan visited a cemetery in Italy. And he noticed a huge marble slab right in the center of the cemetery. It was massive and thick. Yet, somehow, almost 100 years earlier, a small acorn had fallen into the grave where the man was buried. Over the years that little acorn grew and grew until one day it broke through the surface and cracked that marble slab into two pieces. Eventually, that tree grew up and rolled the marble slab into two pieces. With some good soil, a little water, and just a hint of light, that seed released the power to crack that massive marble slab in two.

When that acorn dropped, nobody said, "Bombs away!" It fell in weakness. But that acorn had the power to break through the thickest slab. Despite appearances, the strength of that acorn prevailed over the apparent strength of the marble.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson commissioned two men to find the source of the Missouri river. They kept following the river. They kept following until 15 months later they came to its source. The journal of the explorer records that a member of the expedition "exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked God that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri."

Where we stand may look small, but as we trace things back we will find that we are a small tributary connected to a large river that would stagger us if we saw it. David Neff writes:

Is our gospel too small? From what Jesus says, I think that God likes small. Small and hidden, actually.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is like yeast. It is like a perfect pearl. It is like finding just one lost sheep. Or just one lost coin. It belongs to little children and others who were "small" in the estimation of Jesus' contemporaries.

God likes small beginnings. He likes to work in hidden ways that are easily overlooked. He loves any lost individual, even when he has 99 percent of the others safely under his care. He passionately cares for the socially unimportant whom others trample as they rush toward worldly prominence...

Small doesn't mean "insignificant" or "of no consequence." Indeed, the Good News of Jesus Christ is the most consequential news bulletin in the history of the world. And the individuals for whom he died are, as the old Sunday school song says, his "precious jewels."

God offered us something that could have been small, obscure, and forgettable. He didn't offer us some grand universal principle. His gift was the life and death (and resurrection!) of just one person in a small country repeatedly crushed and occupied by foreign powers. He does not give us love or peace or brotherhood. He gives us Jesus, who died like a common criminal.

But when we pay attention to the small thing God gives us, it changes our entire approach to life. We see the world differently. What had seemed insignificant now demands our full attention. What had seemed ordinary now seems interesting. What had seemed a dead end now promises great potential--the redemption of the whole world.

Let's pray.

Father, may we see you at work even when it's hidden and even when it's small. As somebody has said, "At the end of the life of Jesus, he cried out from the cross, 'It is finished.' So it must have been a success. But by human standards, his ministry at that point would have been judged a failure."

May we see that Jesus' work on the cross changes everything and offers hope to the weakest here. And because of that work, and because of Easter, may we be stand firm, letting nothing move us, giving ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, knowing that our labor is not in vain. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.