A couple of summers ago, our family went swimming in the ocean. It was a beautiful day, and we had a blast. It was one of those days that makes you wish that summer could last forever - beautiful rays, great water, and complete relaxation.
It was only when we were leaving the beach that we read the sign that was posted at the entrance to the beach. The sign warned of extreme danger. The water was indeed beautiful, but underneath the surface there were strong undercurrents that could sweep you away.
I'm used to ignoring warnings that can seem a little over the top, but this warning seemed to be the real deal. We wondered later if we would have been so carefree if we knew the danger that existed right where we were swimming.
The passage we're looking at this morning is a little like that. At first glance, it's beautiful. This morning we're going to see things that should make our hearts sing for joy as we read about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. At first glance, it's all beauty. It's one of these passages that make you revel in the Word of God.
But not too far below the surface, there are dangerous undercurrents that threaten to sweep us away. This passage, which really should be all good news, ends up leaving us a bit unsettled. This morning I want to show you the beauty. I don't want us to miss seeing the very good news in this passage. But then, as we come out the back end, I want to point to the warning in this passage that alerts us to a very real danger that could sweep us away.
First, though, let's look at the beauty.
You can't look at this passage without seeing the very good news. The passage that we just read contains five stories. We could camp out at any of these stories for a while, because each one contains so much.
Let's look at the first story, found in the first 12 verses of chapter 2. In this story we see that Jesus offers far more than we ask for. The scene is a house in Capernaum, a small town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. This may have been Peter's house, but verse 1 leaves us wondering if this was Jesus' home. At the very least, it was Jesus' adopted home town. Jesus was preaching the Word in this packed house that could hold up to maybe 50 people, and people are packed even outside. It's unbelievable.
But what's even more unbelievable is what happened next. As Jesus preached, parts of the roof began to fall on people's heads inside. You can imagine everybody looking up. The roof would have been flat, overlaid with reeds, palm branches, and dried mud. This group of people dug through the roof, and lowered a paralyzed man on a cheap mattress, a poor man's mat, through the opening in the roof down to where Jesus was.
What happened next boggles the mind. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'" (Mark 2:5). Why would Jesus talk about his sins instead of just healing him? We know that sickness is in general a result of the sin that entered the world, but the Bible is very clear that sickness is not always a direct result of sin. Perhaps Jesus knew that this paralyzed man was struggling not only with his paralysis but with a sense of guilt. Maybe Jesus or this man saw the link.
But remember what we said last week? Jesus' miracles are not just displays of power. They point to what the world will be like when the kingdom comes in its fullness. So Jesus does more than this man asks for: he not only heals this man, but he forgives his sins. It's a picture for us of what life will be like in the kingdom. Not only will our bodies be perfectly healthy for the first time, but our souls will be healed as well. We will be forgiven - completely forgiven. Jesus offers far more than we even expected.
Then there's the second story found in verses 13 to 17. There was a major trade route near Capernaum. As Jesus walked and taught the crowd, he saw a tax collector at what was probably a toll booth.
Now, you and I aren't fans of the tax collector. If you're at a party and you ask what somebody does for a living, and they say they're an auditor for the Canada Revenue Agency, you'll probably say, "Oh" and walk away. We may not like the tax collector today, but you have to magnify this many times to get to the way people felt about tax collectors back then. In that day tax collectors were seen as traitors and cheats. They were Jewish and yet were collaborating with the enemy. They'd sold out to a hostile and culture. They were also known for their dishonesty - you could even say extortion. Tax collectors were seen so negatively that rabbis taught that it was permissible to lie to them.
So you can picture the crowd coming to this tax booth. There were maybe glares. Others looked away. Some might have been ready to insult the tax man as they passed by. But Jesus looked at him and said, "Follow me." Not only that, but he then went to his house and, according to verse 15, had dinner with "many tax collectors and sinners".
Meals in that culture were a big deal. In eating with these tax collectors and sinners, Jesus wasn't just sharing a meal. He was expressing his acceptance of them. The meal was a concrete expression of God's forgiveness and acceptance of them. Jesus doesn't just tolerate them or reluctantly accept them; he sits and eats with them. He befriends them. Jesus befriends and feasts with those that others consider not worth saving.
This is great news for those of us who sometimes wonder if we're beyond God's reach. You probably know the hymn Amazing Grace. You may know that the person who wrote that hymn, John Newton, was a slave trader. In 1750, at the age of 25, he commanded an English slave ship. He purchased slaves in Africa. He put them on board below deck in two-foot-high pens to prevent suicides. As many as six hundred lay side by side like fireplace logs, row after row. There were no facilities and there was no ventilation. The ship had chains, neck collars, handcuffs, and thumbscrews, a torture device. Newton allowed the crew to rape female slaves, as he did himself. Sometimes a quarter of the slaves died on the journey. Newton blasphemed God and engaged in brutality and immorality.
So when John Newton wrote, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me," he knew what he was talking about. Years later, at the age of 82, shortly before his death, he said, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior." Jesus befriends and feasts with those that others consider not worth saving.
Then there's the third story, found in verses 18 to 21. It's a shorter story. Basically, Jesus was asked why he didn't fast more. Jews were only required to fast once a year, but some of them took it further and fasted twice a week. They wanted to know why Jesus wasn't more solemn.
Jesus answered this question using three pictures. First, he uses the picture of a wedding to say that the coming of the kingdom is a time for celebration. I've been to some solemn weddings, and it doesn't work. Weddings are supposed to be celebrations. In that day, a wedding party could take seven days. That's how you celebrate! Jesus says that the coming of the kingdom is not a time for solemnity. It's a time for celebration and joy.
Jesus then uses two pictures of putting a patch on old clothes, and pouring new wine into old wineskins. What he says in these pictures is that he is doing something completely new. The old forms of Judaism are incompatible with the new, he's saying. It's not that the old forms are bad; it's just that what Jesus is doing is so new and packs so much power that the old can't contain it.
There are some people who think that Jesus is not that different from the religious practices of other faiths. Jesus says here that his ministry and his gospel don't fit at all with anything else. They can't be plastered on to the law. He is doing something that is completely new, that the world has never seen before.
Not only that, but some people think that piety is all about solemnity. There's a place for solemnity, but solemnity and godliness are two different things. To quote Tony Campolo, the kingdom of God is a party. What God is doing should cause our hearts to rejoice like nothing else. When we really understand what Jesus is doing, it should fill us with joy that we can't get anywhere else.
Well, two more stories quickly. In verses 23 to 28 we see that Jesus sees past religious rules to the freedom that is found in truth. There are all kinds of rules that religious people teach. If you ask them why, I've found that they're sometimes pretty vague about the reasons. Later on as you read the Bible you find out that there's no biblical basis for many of the rules that they live by. Have you experienced this? Jesus has no time for this.
In that day, people had a concern about keeping the Sabbath. This was good: the Sabbath was a command, a way to honor God, and a profession of faith. But some people had taken things so far that they went way beyond what God had said about the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples walked along and picked some heads of grain as they walked. This didn't violate any law in the Old Testament. This didn't dishonor God in any way. But it violated religious rules that people had created. Jesus sees past the rules and even finds Old Testament precedent for what they're doing. You could say that Jesus rules over the rules.
This is great news for those of us who can't stand rules. God's laws are not burdensome; they are for our good and for our joy. Jesus breaks through religious rules and leads us to the freedom that is found in truth.
Last story in the first 6 verses of chapter 3: Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath despite the objections of the religiously scrupulous. This time, verse 5 says, Jesus gets angry and distressed at the reaction of the religious. Jesus cares far more for people than he does for religiously uptight rules.
No wonder so many people followed him. We read in verses 7 to 12 that a large crowd followed him. Jesus' ministry is remarkable. There's such a beauty in this passage as we see what Jesus is up to:
- He restores people's health and forgives their sins
- He isn't put off by sinners, but he welcomes and befriends them
- He's doing something new and full of celebration
- He can't put up with rules but he brings freedom
- He really cares for people
This should all be good news. It is all really good news. It was certainly good news for a lot of the people who began to understand what Jesus is all about and who followed him. You can't help but read these stories without sensing the beauty and newness of what Jesus is doing.
But there's an undercurrent in these stories.
Each of these stories is a story of opposition. It's really a warning to all of us who are gathered here this morning, because the undercurrent generally tends to affect people just like us.
The people who struggled the most with Jesus in these stories are people we would have guessed would get it. If we were around back then, and we worried about the spiritual condition of people, these would have been the last people we would have worried about. We may have prayed about the sinners and the masses, but we wouldn't have been too worried about these people.
These were the scribes (learned and devout Jews who really knew the Hebrew Scriptures), and the Pharisees (a group of devout followers who were rigorous in their obedience to the Law). In each of these stories, these two groups struggled with Jesus. They're on a collision course with Jesus. It reaches a climax in Mark 3:5: "Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus."
This passage, these stories, are a warning sign to us of the undercurrent that can sweep us away, because we are just like these people. What are the warning signs?
Refusing to recognize who Jesus is - I know all kinds of religious people who believe that Jesus was a good man and a great teacher, but they have a hard time accepting that he is God. They believe that Jesus never claimed to be God.
That's exactly the mindset that tripped these people up. All through this passage, Jesus confronts us with who he is. He calls himself the "Son of Man" in 2:12 and 2:28. The term Son of Man comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. Daniel 7:13-14 says:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Jesus claims to be this one. He also claims to have authority to forgive sins, and he says he is the Lord of the Sabbath.
You may be a very religious person this morning who is willing to accept Jesus to a point, but unless you see Jesus for who he is - as God himself come as a person - then you are in danger of being swept away by the same undercurrent that swept these religious people away.
Not liking the people Jesus loves - Jesus loves people that we think are beyond saving. We wish he wouldn't be so extravagant with his love.
Westley Allan Dodd tortured, molested, and murdered three boys. He was scheduled to become the first U.S. criminal to be hanged in three decades. At dinner that evening, two Christian girls, aged eleven and thirteen, prayed that Dodd would repent and believe in Christ before he died. The father, also a Christian, agreed with their prayer - but only because he knew he should. His heart wasn't in it.
After he died, eyewitnesses to the execution reported Dodd's last words: "I had thought there was no hope and no peace. I was wrong. I have found hope and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ." The idea that God would offer grace to someone like that offended many. That father who prayed half-heartedly said that he came to realize that in God's eyes, "I am Dodd...Only by the virtue of Christ can I stand forgiven before a holy God" (Randy Alcorn, If God is Good). We dare not be offended at the people God forgives once we see our own need for grace.
Tim Keller says:
Jesus's teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.
Missing Jesus for all our religion - The thing we discover in these stories is that our religion can help us miss Jesus rather than find him. The thing that kept the religious leaders from seeing who Jesus is, and entering the celebration, is that they couldn't see Jesus for all their religious traditions and preferences. The people who missed God when he came were the people who were most convinced in their hearts that they knew God. They couldn't see him for all their rules and religion.
This morning, it's like Mark has taken us to the ocean of the gospel. He's showed us the beauty and he invites us to enter in and swim and revel in what God is doing. But he's also warned us that if we're not careful, we'll miss what God is doing, and we'll be swept away. You've seen the beauty and you've heard the warning. How will you respond?
Father, the people who should have welcomed Jesus missed him. They were swept away by the undercurrents and were ultimately destroyed.
This morning you invite us to see Jesus, the Son of Man, and to revel in the newness of power of what he is doing. Help us not to miss it. Especially help those of us who think we're religious not to miss Jesus, like the religious of his day did. Instead, may we see Jesus for who he is. May we love the people he loves with his scandalous grace. And may we never miss him because of all of our religion. We pray and plead this in Jesus' name. Amen.