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.

Insiders and Outsiders (Mark 3:13-35)

You can say a lot sometimes without coming right out and saying it. In this morning's passage, the gospel writer presents a series of vignettes. He's skillful in how he arranges them, and if you look carefully and meditate on them, you begin to realize exactly what he's saying.

So what's going on here? Mark presents three stories - about his disciples, the scribes from Jerusalem, and his family. And the picture he creates using these stories is of two groups of people.

  • The first group are the insiders: those who are close to Jesus. Mark says in this passage that Jesus is creating a new group of people who may be the most unlikely group of people.
  • And then there's a second group of people: the outsiders. There is another group of people who are opposed to Jesus and his purposes, and it's not who you would expect.

This passage is all about describing these two groups of people: insiders and outsiders. Mark intends for those of us who read this passage to ask which group we belong to. He wants us to see that those who assume that they are close to Jesus should think again; those who assume that they are far from him should take hope.

So let's look at this passage, and ask two questions: what's it like to be an outsider? And what does it take to become an insider, one who is in relationship with Jesus and on track with what he is doing?

Outsiders

The ultimate image of what it means to be an outsider in this passage is found in verse 31: "Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him."

When you read this verse at first, you may think that Mark is simply describing the physical location of the people in the scene he describes. He is doing that for sure, but he's doing more. Mark has just told us stories of people who are part of what Jesus is doing, but he's also told us stories of people who are not getting it. The last story that Mark tells, in verses 31 to 35, tie the stories together, and give us a vivid image of what it looks like to be an outsider: standing outside. The contrast, of course, is found in verses 32 and 34: "A crowd was sitting around him" and "he looked at those seated in a circle around him."

What is Mark telling us? He's saying that there are two categories of people, two categories that apply to us today just as much as they did when these events took place. There is no third option. This morning you are either standing outside, or you are inside seated in a circle around Jesus Christ. One or the other.

Even more than that, this image is surprising, because Mark includes Jesus' own family in the group of outsiders. We see in verse 21 that his family wanted to seize him because they thought that he was out of his mind. These are Jesus' own brothers - those who knew Jesus best. I'll grant that having Jesus as your older brother would not be the easiest thing in the world. I don't know how many times they were told as they were asked as they grew up, "Why can't you be more like Jesus?" It wouldn't have been easy, but as they saw Jesus grow and as they began to see and hear what Jesus was doing - preaching, healing, casting out demons - I wonder if they recalled stories they may have heard as they were growing up about the birth of Jesus; of their mother being visited by an angel, and of her realization that this was no ordinary child. We don't know, but we do know that at this point his own family stood outside. Even the holy family - including his brother who would one day be the key leader in the early church - are placed under question.

What this means is that relationship with God is not a matter of genetics. You can be a blood relative of Jesus and still be an outsider. You can grow up amid the trappings of Christianity, grow up in a Christian home, attend church regularly, be baptized, and give sacrificially, and still stand outside. You can think you're in and still be out. Mark is asking us to consider where we stand, keeping in mind that sometimes those who are close to Jesus should think again, because they in fact are outside even though they think they're in.

What does it mean to be an outsider? What does it mean to be an outsider? The two groups of outsiders in this passage give us two ways of being outsiders. They're not exhaustive. There are lots more ways to be outsiders, but Mark highlights two especially that are relevant to us.

The first type of outsider is typified by Jesus' family. Notice verses 20 and 21, and verse

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."

...Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.

We don't know why Jesus' family sent someone in to call him, but it's possible that they were still trying to seize him, believing that Jesus had somehow become unhinged.

It's impossible to know exactly what Jesus' family was thinking in this passage. We should notice, by the way, how remarkable it is that Mark included this account. Later on, Jesus' brother James became a key leader in the early church, and wrote the book of James. Jesus' brother Jude wrote what we have in our Bibles as the second last book in our Bibles, the book of Jude. If Mark was simply making stuff up, he would never have included such incriminating and embarrassing information about the very family of Jesus. He's clear that Jesus' very own family, including those who became key leaders in the early church, were at one time completely wrong in their understanding of Jesus no better in a sense than his enemies.

What this tells us is that you can be an outsider if you are sincere but misguided about Jesus' identity and mission. This is scary, because Jesus' family were no doubt very sincere and well-meaning in their efforts. They weren't willfully disobedient. They just didn't get it. This means that some outsiders are people who in fact are very sincere, who actually like Jesus and want the best for Jesus, but who don't completely buy in to what he's doing. Outsiders are sometimes people who like Jesus quite a bit, and are very sincere, but are a little uncomfortable - maybe a lot uncomfortable - with some of what we read in Mark.

On one hand, this makes total sense if Jesus isn't the Son of God. C.S. Lewis argued this very well. You can't simply say that Jesus was a good man and a good teacher. Jesus Christ was one of three things; a liar, a mad-man or the son of God. You have to admire that Jesus' family at least had the courage to face up to the only choices that exist. If you don't believe that he is the Son of God, then you have to conclude that he's completely off his rocker, or else a baldfaced liar.

But consider if Jesus is really who he says he is. To sincerely disbelieve would be a tragedy. A recent promotion by H. R. Block offered walk-in customers a chance to win a drawing for a million dollars. Glen and Gloria Sims of Sewell, New Jersey, won the prize, but they refused to believe it when a representative phoned them with the good news.

After several additional contacts by both mail and phone, the Sims still thought it was all just a scam, and usually hung up the phone or trashed the special notices. Weeks later, H. R. Block called one more time to let the Sims know the deadline for accepting the million-dollar prize was nearing and that the story of their refusal to accept the prize would appear on an upcoming NBC "Today Show." Mr. Sims decided to investigate further. A few days later he appeared on the "Today Show" to tell America that he and his wife had finally gone to H. R. Block to claim the million-dollar prize. His final words were: "From the time this has been going on, H. R. Block explained to us they really wanted a happy ending to all this, and they were ecstatic that we finally accepted the prize."

The Sims were sincere but misguided, and it almost cost them a million dollars. You can be sincere but misguided about Jesus, and end up an outsider at an even greater cost. Even Jesus' family was in that position in this passage.

Mark describes another way to be an outsider. You can be an outsider by deliberately scorning the power and forgiveness of God. You see this verses 22 to 30. Jesus has now come to the attention of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. They can't deny his power. There's no questioning that he's performing miracles. There's only one way to dodge the issue: they attribute his power to Satan. Jesus easily refutes this charge, of course. "How can Satan drive out Satan?" he asks (Mark 3:23). Someone strong has arrived - Jesus - and has bound Satan and is plundering his house. It's clear that Jesus' power comes from the Holy Spirit. But the teachers of the law miss it.

This is not a case of sincere but misguided beliefs. This is not a mistake. This is informed and willful rejection. It's a clear and intentional rejection of Jesus by people who should have known better. It's a second way to be lost - one that continues to today. Some people are outsiders, even though they know better, simply because they are not ready to yield to what is obviously true about Jesus. They suppress the truth, and they deliberately reject him.

Jesus says that this is a sin that won't be forgiven. Some people get worried when they read this, because they wonder if they've committed the unpardonable sin. The fact that you worry about this is probably a sign that you haven't. It's a sign that you probably haven't deliberately scorned the power and forgiveness of God. What Jesus is talking about here is being so out of touch with God that you attribute his works to that of his archenemy Satan. If you persist in your deliberate rejection of God and his work, you are an outsider, and you won't be forgiven. Your problem will be the same as the person who goes to the doctor who has medicine that can cure an illness, but that person refuses to take the lifesaving medication and dies.

These are two ways that you could be an outsider. They're very different at first glance, but in the end they're not that different at all. Whether you're sincere but misguided, or willfully scornful, in the end you're united as outsiders. You're united in your opposition, even if you are a Bible teacher, or even if you have family connections. Those who think they're close to Jesus need to be careful, Mark says, because they may in fact be outsiders. Remaining an outsider when Jesus is in the house is a tragedy beyond belief.

Insiders

What, then, does it mean to be an insider? The good news is that the insiders in this passage kind of look like outsiders, which means that you can be an insider even if you don't feel like it. The image that Mark gives us is a contrast to that of the outsiders. Rather than standing outside, they are sitting around him, seated in a circle. And they're not the Bible-believing religious crowd or blood relatives of Jesus. Those people are outside. Who is on the inside? The crowds. The rift-raft. Those who assume that they are close to Jesus should think again. Those who assume that they are far from him should take hope. They just may be insiders.

Jesus actually tells us what it means to be an insider. Verses 34 and 35 say:

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

The core family of God, Jesus says, are those who do God's will. They're the ones who obediently listen to Jesus and obey him.

Mark gives us another picture of those who are insiders. In verses 13 to 19 Jesus calls twelve out of the crowd to take on a special role. Israel had twelve tribes; this is like the formation of the new people of God.

They have a twofold job description, according to verse 14: "they might be with him." Secondly, in verses 14 and 15: "that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" - that they may be an extension of Jesus' ministry. Later on, Luke described people's reactions after observing some of these apostles: "they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13).

Being an insider means that we take our place before Jesus; that we commit to doing his will; that we enter into relationship with Jesus, spend time with him, and become extensions of his ministry. Anyone can be an insider who sits at Jesus' feet and does the will of his Father, and no one can be an insider who does not. And if you're an insider, Jesus says, you're closer to Jesus than family. You are his family.

Mark wants us to realize that there is no middle way. He's either the Son of God who's bringing God's Kingdom, or he's a madman. And based on what you do with Jesus, you're either standing outside, or you're inside doing God's will.

What you need to know is that, at the cross, Jesus became the ultimate outsider so that he could make us insiders. He became rejected by God so that we could be accepted by him. No middle ground. Some that you'd think would be in are actually out. Those who have no in actually are in - not because of who they are, but because Jesus has made them insiders.

I'd like to pray with two groups of people this morning. The first are those who, like the teachers of the law and Jesus' family, have every reason to think they're insiders. Some of you know the Bible well. You go to church regularly. You grew up in a Christian family. You are generous with your money. But you're an outsider because you haven't dealt with Jesus. Pray that God would reveal to you this morning that you're an outsider if you really are. It's far better to know. God prevent us from ever thinking we're in when we're not.

I'd like to pray for those here today who know they're outsiders. Jesus became an outsider so we could be brought inside. He looks around today and says to the most unlikely people: "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." You can be part of Jesus' new and larger family circle because of what he has done to bring you in.

Father, thank you that "now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:13). May this be true of everyone here. In Jesus' name, Amen.