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.