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A Healing, Demons, and Fear Abound

Read Mark 5: 1-20

 

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Way back in my very first post about Mark, themes were laid out and one of those themes was “Jesus has authority.”

The end of Mark Chapter 4 and the beginning of Mark Chapter 5 is about demonstrating the breadth and power of that authority.  If you have read the Gospel of Mark before or even just the first few posts on Mark in this blog then you are aware that Jesus has the authority to cast out demons.   We have seen this already.

A quick word about demons.  Some times modern readers of the Bible are put off by the appearance of the supernatural.  Being scientifically minded they cannot find the wisdom in the account because they are too busy worrying about the validity of the concept of demons. I personally do not know if demons exist.  I do know that the world is full of many strange and wondrous things and I am not willing to say that the supernatural doesn’t exist.  If you want to chalk demons in the Bible up to primitive understandings of mental illness and the like that is your choice.  It is one of those things that cannot be proven beyond all doubt.  The choice you make will change the story some and will limit the range and power of God but it is at the end of the day your choice to make.

Jesus and the disciples arrive in the land of the Gentiles on the other side of the Sea of Galilee some time in the morning.  We are told that they encounter a man who lives in the caves that serve as tombs; a man who is crazed and who cannot be bound or controlled by anyone or even held by chains.  Wow!  We are told that he spends his days and his nights crying out and cutting himself with stones.

I do think it is useful to spend a moment empathizing with the man.  Have you ever felt outcast from the group?  Have you ever seen fear in the eyes of other people when they encounter you? I do not suspect that he chose to live in the tombs but rather had to because that is where the people allowed him to be.  Children were probably warned to stay away from him.  Older brothers probably threatened to turn their younger siblings over to him.  He probably had a host of unflattering nicknames.  Clearly, he has no community.  He has no positive interaction with others.  They fear him and shun him.  He lives in the ancient equivalent of the cemetery.  The community has left him for dead.

We soon learn the reason for this man’s isolation.  He is tormented by something greater than himself that seeks to destroy him completely.  When he sees Jesus in the distance he immediately closes the gap and falls at his feet.  Some translations say worshiped but the context means that he likely just went prostrate before Jesus; it is the same word in Greek for both.  The man speaks “What is it that you want from me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you by God leave me alone.”

Again we learn from context that this wasn’t the man speaking but rather the demonic entity that has possessed him.  In the beginning of Mark the only ones who know who Jesus is are the demons, they address him by the title Son of God.  They also seem to know that the purpose of Jesus is counter to their own purposes because their response is always one of fear.  As the letter of James says, the demons believe and they tremble.

There is an irony here that the demon seems to pray to God that Jesus would be gracious unto them.  Jesus will not answer that prayer because they are at cross purposes.  The demonic, in so far as it is real (remember, you get to choose), has a singular purpose to destroy that which God has created.  More specifically to destroy the image of God present in this human being.  This is the purpose of the torment and the cutting and the driving the man out of the community.  God is love.  As such, God is relational.  In effecting the isolation of the host the demon has been working on destroying him physically as well as mentally through self-inflicted wounds.  The presence of Jesus introduces the purpose of the Holy One to effect salvation and redemption, not just for individuals but for all of creation.

And so the battle is enjoined.  Christ demands that the spirit comes out and that the demon reveal his name.  Legion is the name because they are many and they make a request of Jesus that they not be sent out of the country but rather be allowed to infest a neighboring herd of pigs.  Jesus allows it and immediately the demons leave the man, enter the pigs, and drive them all headlong into the ocean drowning them some 2000 in total!

The pig herders report to their bosses what has happened and people from the neighboring town come out to see for themselves.  They find Jesus and with him the man that had been crazy seated beside him.  He is right-minded, calm, and clothed even! For emphasis, Mark says the very same man that had been possessed by Legion just so there is no mistake for us. And a curious thing has happened the people are afraid.  So afraid in fact that they demand that Jesus and his friends leave at once.

Here is another good place to camp out and reflect.  Fear?  Anger would be the more likely response.  2000 pigs killed is a lot of money and the people may not have seen that as a good trade, one crazy man made well at the cost of 2000 pigs.  By modern standards the loss of that many pigs could have been a price tag of half a million dollars or more! Even at the cheapest level you would be looking at a hundred grand for a herd that size.  Is the peace of mind of one person worth the economic output of the community?  Praise the Lord in the eyes of Jesus the answer is yes.  Perhaps the fear is related to the power of Jesus to compel the demon in the first place.  Forget the pigs, let’s be afraid of the exorcist!  It makes sense to a point although you would like for someone to be happy for the formerly demon-possessed man.

I think the fear is reflective of something deeper within us as sinners.

The people were comfortable with the way things were.  Sure there was the demon possessed guy, but he lived away in the tombs where the evil people belong. He was avoidable and that meant no one had to deal with the reality that they were powerless to help him. They didn’t have to admit to themselves that they didn’t care about him.  they didn’t have to wrestle with the truth that they were too much like him and could have easily been him had the demons chosen differently.  He had his place and so long as he was out there they didn’t have to wrestle with what it meant.  He was darkness personified, but a darkness contained, and that is what people want is the darkness contained — categorized and prioritized; this sin unacceptable and outside the community but these other sins normalized and accepted.  People fear the devil but the devil can be avoided or explained away.  Recall that the demons were afraid because they knew they were at cross purpose with God.  The power of God invokes a greater fear and far too many of us want nothing to do with it because it exposes us as those who also are at cross purposes with the Lord.

Jesus knows when he isn’t wanted and leaves.  Before he goes however, the man who had been possessed, who now has been healed and restored to fullness of life, wishes to come along.  In fact the language that is used is the language of discipleship.  He wishes to follow Jesus.  Who can blame him for wanting to get way from the place that is filled with such ugly memories. Why wouldn’t you want to rid yourselves of the community that is more concerned about the loss of pigs than they are about what has happened to you?

Jesus refuses.  Not the offer of discipleship, but rather the change of venue; instead of allowing him to leave Jesus tells him that he is to stay and share with others what the Lord has done for him.  And we are told that he does this.

When you think about all that has befallen this man it can seem cruel that Jesus makes him stay amidst a people who must have mistreated him and labelled him.  I think the lesson to all of us that follow Jesus is that sometimes Jesus bids us stay in the very place that caused us pain, albeit pain that we were rescued from because that is where we will make the most difference.  It is a difficult place to be.  It couldn’t have been easy for this man but I cannot help but think that a few years later in the aftermath of Resurrection and Pentecost that his seed-sowing bore much fruit.

  • Where do you find yourself in this story?
  • Have you ever wanted to run when you felt the urge of Jesus to remain?
  • Are you afraid of the power of God to bring light into your heart? your community? your church? your world?
  • Are you afraid to admit that you are at cross purposes with the Holy One of God?
  • What sins are you too comfortable with and which sins do you ignore because they are over there?
  • Is there someone you have left for dead amidst the tombs?

As always this reflection is freely given. Use this Bible Study for your own groups or discussion.  If you do share it with a group I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

the-freak-liquid-mountains-of-lake-erie_880

Read Mark 4:35-41

Jesus has just finished a long day of teaching near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The time has come for them to head to the opposite side of the lake and begin healing and teaching in the communities there.  We are told a couple of pertinent details about the journey.  A significant storm began as they were making there way across the 7 mile span and Jesus was taking a well deserved nap.

I grew up around lakes in Texas and I can tell you that storms on a lake are no small thing.  Apparently, this is particularly true of the Sea of Galilee because of the unique topography around it.  All of Isarel, west to east, is a series of radical changes in elevations in a comparatively short distance.  As a result the Sea of Galilee is in a basin of sorts that channels the wind across the water when a storm rages through the region.  A similar dynamic can be experienced when the wind is channeled through office buildings in a modern city or even apartment complexes in a smaller town.  The point is that the storms on the Sea of Galilee can be nasty and we need to remember that these guys are not in some modern style watercraft, but a homemade boat designed for fishing and not much else.

Have you ever napped on a boat?  It’s glorious! The boat rocks back and forth and if you are sleeping directly on centerline it is the closest thing to being in a cradle that you can experience.  When you consider the crazy compacted schedule that Jesus has been keeping and the incredible amounts of physical and mental energy he has exerted it is no wonder that he is “dead to the world” in the back of the boat.

We are told that when the disciples, all of whom are experienced fishermen, decide to wake Jesus they are worried about dying because the boat was already taking on water.  I think it is important to pause here and really put yourself in the moment.  The storm is wicked, perhaps there was rain and perhaps there was just wind and waves.  Even without rain the waves alone could be devastating and frightening.  The image above is described as one of the “mountains of water” that form on Lake Erie during a storm.  A fishing boat in those days would have had a very low side to make it easier to haul a net of fish onto the boat.  It wouldn’t take much for a series of significant waves to begin filling the hull up.  Water is coming into the vessel, each wave striking the boat would have began to feel like invisible fists pounding the side threatening to capsize her or worse break her apart. If the worst happens it is several miles to shore in storm driven waters.  Every one of these men grew up around these waters and every one of them likely has known someone who has drowned there. No wonder they were afraid!

That last point about the deadliness of the sea is pretty crucial for really understanding this story.  In the ancient Jewish tradition, the sea represents evil and chaos.  The sea is unpredictable and kills.  You see this in the very first verses of the scriptures.  God’s spirit hovers over the waters of the void and begins to bring order out of chaos.  The sea is given its limits but is always there as a symbol of the forces that are opposed to God.  You see it in the final pages of scripture when the beast rises up from the sea in Revelation and when the new creation is finalized we are told that the sea is no more.  So while the story is about the day that the disciples nearly died on a boat trip across the Sea of Galilee it metaphorically means so much more.

The disciples rouse Jesus from his deep sleep and level an accusation against him, “Do you not care that we are perishing!

Jesus stood and rebuked the wind and commanded the sea, ” Be silent” and the lake became calm.

calm lake

Take a moment and meditate on the two images.

How would you feel?

Try to imagine the feelings of fear and dread of the waves and the storm replaced with the feelings of relief and dread at what just happened.  The fellow next to you in the boat just told the weather to stop and it did.  Not impressed? Try it yourself sometime.  You won’t get very far.   As I write this it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit before 10 AM in Texas.  You don’t think I want to make it cooler with the sheer power of my will?  How many brides would kill to be able to control the weather before their outdoor wedding?  Each of us is powerless against the forces of heat, cold, wind and rain.  Each of us except Jesus.  That is by the way I think Mark’s point in his retelling.  Recall that Mark is a gospel bent on guiding every reader / hearer into making a decision about who Jesus is and in this moment he wants you to realize that Jesus commands the forces of nature and they obey.

In verse 41, the disciples ask “who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  They would have had the benefit of growing up hearing the dozens of references in the psalms, proverbs, Job and prophets that YHWH does this very thing.  They would have grown up being told to remember how YHWH had delivered their people from Egypt by commanding the sea to part and allowing them to cross over on dry land.  This is what they were dealing with and why we are told a great fear (literally a mega phobia) gripped them in the wake of Jesus action.

“Who is this guy?”

That is the question with which we must wrestle.

Now some of you will respond to this with a ho-hum.  Maybe you are a life-long Christian and you settled on the answer “who is this guy?” a long time ago.  You may ask, what about the storms of my life?  My boat is floundering.  Where is the word for me the reassurance that Jesus will calm my storms?  I have come to this post wanting to know that Jesus can stop the storms in my life.  I have job trouble.  I have debts.  I have addictions.  I have marital strife.  I have cancer.  What about me?  Doesn’t Jesus care that I am perishing?

The very same accusation that the disciples leveled against Jesus is on our own lips many times.

And Jesus said to them,  “Why are you so cowardly; do you still have no faith?”

It is not two questions as most translations put it but a single question.  The nature of Jesus question, condemnation really, is to link the fear with the faith.  In other words, if you had faith you would not fear but rather trust.  I know this because the Greek word used is particular.  It is not, phobos, from which we get the word phobia.  Phobos is the word used in verse 41 to describe the awe struck fear that has over come them.  Phobos is the word used throughout the New Testament (Phillipians 2 for example) to render the “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom as the Old Testament (proverbs 1) so succinctly summarized the journey of faith in YHWH.  Here though, in verse 40, the word is deilos, a word that used in ancient Greek to describe the cowardice of soldiers who desert in battle and the inaction of the farmer who is paralyzed by fear of the future.  Deilos is always used negatively and connotes a paralyzing fear.  Incidentally this seems backwards for English speakers because the word phobia was picked up in psychology to describe the rational and irrational fears that effect us.

We are also used to thinking of faith as a matter of the mind alone.  To many of us, having faith is having the correct belief.  In linking faith and cowardice Jesus is linking faith with action.  The person who has faith is the person who trusts.  The person who does not have faith is the person who is paralyzed by fear.  It is not simply understanding (mind) who Jesus is but knowing (heart and mind) who he is and allowing that deeper knowledge to guide our actions and our responses.  Jesus is surprised that after watching him cast out demons and healing people that the disciples are still so timid when the storm comes.

Think back on your life and recall the times that God has provided for you what you needed: the doors that have opened, the healings that have occurred, the resources that were given. The life of faith is not simply understanding who God is but allowing that understanding to put you in a place of trust where you can live in a relationship towards God that is a life marked by the expectation that God will provide.

The accusation was “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  The answer is if you trust me then you know that I care and that you matter.

I do not think that the life of faith means that there is never a reason to fear.  There are scary things out there: violence, war, famine, disease, divorce, unemployment, snakes… it is a long list.  There is nothing wrong with the instinct to fear but faith calls us to get past the fear to trust that the Lord will carry us through all things even death when that day comes.

So how do we live it?

Be assured.  Fear not.  The Lord knows your circumstance and your need before you ever vocalize it.  Use the Lord’s prayer as your guide and pray that pattern daily: Praise God, ask for your needs, seek forgiveness and grant forgiveness, ask for deliverance from the evil that is out there, expect and look for the will of God to be done more than your own solutions, and finish reminding yourself that all glory and honor will forever belong to God.  Doing so will train your heart and mind to trust in God’s provision and in God’s timing. When in doubt recall what God has done and know that God will do what is necessary.

Amen.

Questions:

  • What makes you afraid?
  • Are there areas of your life where you are not acting because of fear?
  • When was the last time you prayed the Lord’s prayer?
  • What is one thing you could do today to trust God more?

Are you enjoying the Hypocritical Christian? If you are please share the website with someone else and encourage them to try it out. If you receive it through email and choose to share it with some else let them know where they can find new posts for themselves. Also note that you are welcome to ask questions or even “argue” back through the comments.  Dialogue is always encouraged.  I ask that you suggest the website to others because knowing that people are going to the website encourages me to keep posting.

As always the above reflection is given freely. If you choose to share it in a group bible study of your own or as a devotional before a small group meeting, etc. please let folks know where you got it.  It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is just trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

 

Be Patient for the Kingdom Comes

Read Mark 4:26-34

Christians are always concerned about the Kingdom of God and how long it seems to be taking to arrive. Do you suppose it has always been this way?  Could it be that Christians in the West have become so conditioned for instant gratification that they more impatient for the Kingdom of God than their predecessors?  The anecdotal evidence is that every generation of Christian from the beginning have been anxious for the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom just read Acts 1:6-7.

In North America, denominations are very focused on the Kingdom of God albeit in very separate ways.  The more conservative a Church / Christian the more focused they seem to be on teasing out the signs of the imminent return of Christ. Like “Preppers” storing up for the downfall of civilization, their bug-out-bag is their zippered, handle-covered Bible and instead of a sign indicating they reserve the right to shoot trespassers they warn the trespassers that will be “left behind” that their cars will be driver-less in the event of the rapture through a thoughtfully placed bumper sticker.  Their counterparts in the more liberal arms of the Church have seemed to forgotten that Jesus promised to return at all, focused instead on doing all this hard kingdom work themselves through political rallies for the justice issue du jour. In case your curious they often decorate their car with bumper stickers encouraging coexisting religious faiths / sects as though the true arrival of the Kingdom of God will look like a joint summit meeting.

These two short parables in Mark suggest where the Kingdom of God is concerned patience is required.

Jesus told them that the Kingdom of God was like a man who cast seed on the ground.  At first we may naturally think of the parable of the sower we recently looked at but here the emphasis is not on the action of the sower but rather on the seed itself.  Jesus says the  Kingdom of God is like the person who casts seed on the ground and while they sleep the seed sprouts and grows “– HOW; he himself does not know“.

Maybe this parable has lost some of its strength in a world where so many people have looked at pictures of a bean sprout plant growing in schoolbooks.  There are even a select few people who really do understand how it all works.  But it seems the point Jesus is trying to make in his pre-scientific method world is that it just happens over time and it seems almost magical.

Coupled with the Parable of the Sower, we have been given some simple instructions. We are to scatter the Word of God and then let the Word do its thing.   Apparently even while we are sleeping the Word of God is at working sprouting and developing into a great big crop ready for harvest.  When the harvest comes there is more work to be done.

This parable although short works on two levels.  On the one hand it is a reminder to Christians that their efforts do not end with the sharing of the gospel but that they also need to be ready when the harvest is evident.  So if you have been demonstrating the truth of Christ through words and actions you need to be ready when the one with whom you share is ready for the next step be it accepting Christ, attending worship, or being baptized.  The parable also works on the cosmic level.  Jesus will return when the harvest is ripe some day in the future.  Patience fellow Christ-followers, the Ancient of Days, like a seasoned farmer, will know the right time.

The second parable is another call to patience.  Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a Mustard Seed though it is small it grows into a tremendous plant.  There are some critics out their that mock Jesus because as they point out  the mustard seed is neither the smallest seed nor is the mature plant the largest on Earth.  C. S. Lewis once commented that it was incumbent upon us to read the scriptures like adults and this is the sort of ill-conceived criticism he was referencing.

Allow me to update the parable imagery so that anyone can understand Jesus’ point.

 

Sequoia-Seed-on-Fingertip

Then Jesus said, “How can we picture the Kingdom of God or to what can we compare it to? The Kingdom of God is like this seed on my finger that breaks off from the seed pod on the ground and although it is so tiny and insignificant grows to become an awesome and amazing tree like this: 

sequoia

a tree so large that it can’t be captured on film in its entirety and it would take more than a classroom of children to encircle its trunk. 

The point of the parable isn’t about the literalness of the seed or the plant, but the fact that the Kingdom is growing all the time, slowly, unseen into something massive and beautiful and only God knows when the harvest will be complete.

The mustard seed, or Sequoia seed, is Jesus.  A poor builder, a crucified criminal, in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire two millennia ago couldn’t be more small and insignificant; yet, the 2.2 billion Christians alive today all trace their lineage back to this one man and his Resurrection around 34 C.E. (AD).  Not only that, but the estimated 13 billion confessing Christians of the past 2000 years — a Giant Sequoia indeed!

And the Kingdom of God is still growing at its own divinely ordained pace until that promised day when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is the LORD to the glory of God.

What to do between now and then?  Well, one don’t smugly look for signs of THE RETURN and forget to do the work of sowing the gospel.  To do so is to risk a self-righteousness that awaits the judgment of the neighbor without practicing the love of neighbor God requires.  Two, don’t go about trying to rework the whole world into the Kingdom of God as you think it should look because the outcome is guaranteed to be a vision of justice viewed through sinful eyes.  Third, focus on living out Romans 12:9- 13:11  as best you can individually and collectively seeking guidance always first and foremost through scripture, prayer, and confession.

And be patient for the Kingdom is both growing and coming.

Questions:

  • Do you pray regularly for the return of Christ? If so, why? If not, why?
  • When you pray for THE RETURN are you secretly hoping that it come so others will face their comeuppance? 
  • What is the kingdom working balance in your life between prayer and study and good works? 
  • Do you read the Bible regularly? Pray daily? Are you looking for the chance to spread the gospel? 
  • How are you harvesting the growth that is ready until THE RETURN?
  • What are you or your faith community doing to serve God by serving others?

As always the above reflection is given freely. If you choose to share it in a group bible study of your own or as a devotional before a small group meeting, etc. please let folks know where you got it.  It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is just trying to figure out the road ahead.

Are you enjoying the Hypocritical Christian? If you are please share the website with someone else and encourage them to try it out. If you receive it through email and choose to share it with some else let them know where they can find new posts for themselves. Also note that you are welcome to ask questions or even “argue” back through the comments.  Dialogue is always encouraged.  I ask that you suggest the website to others because knowing that people are going to the website encourages me to keep posting.

 

The Parable of the Sower

Read Mark 4:1-20

James_Tissot_The_Parable_of_the_Sower_300

“Behold a Sower went out to sow…”  thus begins one of the more famous parables of Jesus and the only one that is given a full explanation by the man himself.  Ironically, this parable is often interpreted by theologians and preachers independently of the explanation Jesus gives when the most complete explanation that we can give someone is read verses 13-20 if you have any questions.

Instead we are given sermons where people are asked “what kind of soil are you?”  We get messages about not worrying about those who are yet to believe because they are just not as fertile a soil as you the faithful listener here this Sunday morning. I almost fell back into that trap myself by very nearly writing a blog post where I intended to ask myself and you how our actions and decisions were impacting the soil of other people’s hearts.

Why are we so quick to try and add to or change the meaning Jesus gives this parable? The cynic in me says that some people want to avoid the fact that Jesus flat out mentions Satan in the explanation.  While I do think that the notion of Satan is disturbing to a great many “modern-minded” Christians, I suspect that the real reason efforts are made to come up with clever extensions of the parable or outright changes in the meaning is because we want the parable to be about us.

The parable is not about us.

The sower sows the word.  The word is the gospel and the gospel is thus: in the person of Jesus, God has initiated the Kingdom of God.  If you are still struggling with that being the fundamental truth of the gospel please reread the first three chapters of Mark, or review this blog post.

In this point in Mark, Jesus is sharing this parable to explain to those who believe in him (presumably the disciples) why some folks, like the pharisees, are so unbelieving that they wish to have him eliminated and other folks, like his immediate family, think that he is bonkers.  “Bonkers” is a technical term in this instance that theologians use so we don’t have to conjure up a confusing word like egotheistical.

There are a lot of reasons why people fail to believe in Jesus. Some are hard soil and there is no way for the truth to take root before the birds and such eat it. Some are rocky and there is an initial taking hold but the plant doesn’t survive the heat and the wind, like the flowers that I put on my west facing apartment balcony. Others get choked out by the weeds. Finally there are those who are the good soil and the gospel takes root in the heart and grows strong and true and yields fruit.

That’s the meaning plain and simple.

sower images

I am not going to try and change that interpretation, but I am going to try and draw a couple of interpretative lessons out of that explanation.  Personally, I come from a family of farmers although I admit I know more or less nothing about farming.  I only know a little about gardening.  When I was a kid I wanted to help my mother plant a garden so she showed me how. We bought some seeds and we created a pretty good sized garden in the land next to our house. It had several rows that we had created with a tiller that mom borrowed for the purpose.  By the time we were done it was that classic Norman Rockwell style garden with little posts on the end to mark the rows and the seed packet stapled to them so we could remember whether that row was radishes or corn.  What I learned over that weekend was that gardening is hard work.

The first lesson that I would point out to from this sower story is this: the Word is not an annual. This gospel is not a one time yield sort of crop here today and gone tomorrow.  You will note that most of the times that Jesus gets all horticultural on us it is about vineyards or trees.  The Gospel when it takes root is going to be a perennial plant.  This is important because whenever we try to make the parable about us (focusing on the soil rather than the sower /seed) we can become fixated on whether or not we are good soil.  If we are good soil, then the yield can become a way for us to qualify ourselves among the other good soil out there i.e. am I yielding 30 times or 60 times? We can either compare ourselves this way to make ourselves feel like we are better Christians or we can get down on ourselves because we aren’t bearing as much fruit as someone else.

Stop it.

Sometimes the vineyard has a bumper crop.  Some years are lean.  Some years a fruit tree will produce more fruit than you know what to do with and some years there aren’t any fruits at all.  When I lived in Corpus there was a grapefruit tree in the backyard that produced far more grapefruit than I could have ever consumed.  Truth be told, even one grapefruit is generally more than I want to consume. Right across the fence in the neighbors yard, not even 10 feet away there was a grapefruit tree that was a perennial disappointment.  So much so that the neighbor always made sure I knew that he didn’t want me to prune the limbs that stretched over the fence from the superstar tree because he wanted to harvest those grapefruits.

It is like that with Christians.  We have seasons when we produce much fruit in our own lives or in the lives of others and there are seasons when the pickings are slim.  Both are OK.  Both bring glory to the Father because throughout it all we are good soil.   Jesus says, “they are the ones that hear the word and accept it” meaning that the good soil are those who have begun to orient themselves around the truth of Jesus Christ.  What does that mean?  Read Romans 12.  Most people think that the gospel is doing all those things, but those things flow out of understanding the truth about Jesus (Romans 1-11) not the other way around.

In short, if you want to be bear more fruit, then double down on your understanding of who Christ is and the fruit will follow.

Why is that? Because the word is being sown haphazardly all the time.  I mentioned earlier that when it came time to plant the garden my mother and I prepped the plot of land.  We tilled and readied the soil for the seed.  Not this sower named Jesus, this guy is chunking that seed all over the place. I once thought that this was really silly and not the most effective way to plant anything but I recently learned that this was common practice in his day.  A sower would sow the seed and then go back and till the ground turning over the dirt, rocks, weeds, etc whatever with the seed.  They did this for two reasons.  One, they didn’t always have the best soil to work with in the first place.  Let’s face it, Israel ain’t Kansas.  Two, there wasn’t a place down the road to buy potting soil and fertilizer and Weed-B-Gone.  You turned over the dirt and everything in it good and bad to have whatever nutrients you could get in the soil for the plant and you hoped that the Lord would bless you with rain and the right combination of stuff to find out where the good soil was and grow you some produce.

And therein lies the second take away from the parable for the believer: you WILL BE tilled.

Far too many Christians think that the after accepting Christ into their hearts life is going to be a long period of perfect.  When the tough stuff happens they ask themselves “Why is the Lord doing this to me?”  They ask themselves why God is punishing them.

“We rejoice in our suffering because we know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint because God has poured out His love for us through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:4)   

 

parable-of-soils

Ignore every preacher you hear (most of them are on TV) that try to sell you this Pollyana notion that the life of the Christian is smooth sailing.  Do your best to ignore your well-meaning Christian friends who try to tell you the same.  As my good buddy Sam used to say “It is hard to be a Christian”.  But when the stuff happens keep in mind that you are being tilled, the Sower is working His soil to make you produce fruit.

I will speak for myself.  Too often I have asked myself what does God want me to learn from this experience.  Too often I have listened to other people ask me that same question to which I have had very little in the way of answer.  What if our question became “God, how do I bear fruit in this moment?”   Don’t hear what I am not saying.  I am not suggesting that there is never a lesson or a pruning of the vine where we need to get ourselves aligned with God more closely.  What I am saying is that always asking the the first questions is putting the focus on us and our experience, pain, and hurt rather than putting the focus on God and asking how we can grow and bloom.

Questions:

  1. Have you found yourself focused more on the soils (you) in the story than on the seed (word)?
  2. Have you ever judged yourself for the amount of fruit your life is yielding for the Lord?
  3. Have you asked yourself recently “Why me Lord?”
  4. How would your walk of faith be different if you asked God to help you bear fruit in times of trial and suffering?
  5. What can you do to focus more on the word during this season of your life?

Are you enjoying the Hypocritical Christian? If you are please share the website with someone else and encourage them to try it out. If you receive it through email and choose to share it with some else let them know where they can find new posts for themselves. Also note that you are welcome to ask questions or even “argue” back through the comments.  Dialogue is always encouraged.  I ask that you suggest the website to others because knowing that people are going to the website encourages me to keep posting.

As always this is given freely and if you choose to use it in a bible study of your own or as a devotional before a small group meeting, etc. please let folks know where you got it.  It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is just trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

To the Moon and Back Again… Why The Believer Shouldn’t Fear Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit

Read Mark 3:20-30

 

to the moon and back

I Love You to the Moon and Back is a popular book for little children.  My guess is that it was written by someone inspired during a reading of Do You Know How Much I Love You? given that the latter ends with this very phrase.  It is a fitting sentiment of parental love and has inspired a cottage industry of wall art like the image above and posters and wedding invitations and coffee mugs and who knows what else.

The moon is officially 238900 miles away from the Earth.  Imagine how large the moon must be to be so visible in the night sky? Interesting fact, at apogee, the moon is over 250000 miles away from the earth. So when someone says they love you to the moon and back they are saying a lot. In fact you would circle the earth’s equator 7.5 times to equal the distance to the moon and a total of 15 times to go there and back.  So, I guess when a person says that they love you to the moon and back they are saying that they would chase a you around the world 15 times to woo or save you.  Most parents have felt like they have chased their children that far at one time or another.  No one ever says I love you to the Sun and back (186 million miles) probably because the Sun is not out when you are trying to get a child to go to bed; except in Texas where the sun is seemingly always out!

we_are_so_tiny-100047037-large

This image is from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech.  The larger dot is the Earth and the smaller dot is the moon seen from 900 million miles away! In case you are wondering that is a picture taken from a spacecraft near Saturn. Brief conspiracy note: I have no way of proving that this is a picture from 900 million miles away. It could be zoomed out capture of a light bright with a pinprick in the paper for all I know.  Still if Saturn which I have seen through a telescope is 900 million miles away then why don’t we start saying “I love you to Saturn and back”?

Since we are going for hyperbole of the highest order here, the furthest known visible distant “object” from earth is a galaxy, MACS0647-JD, that is 13.3 billion light years away. If you are curious how many miles that is it is 13.3 billion multiplied by 5.87 trillion or 7.81 e+22 miles.

“I love you to MACS0647-JD and back” just doesn’t have the same appeal as the Moon or Saturn; nor does it lend itself easily to wall art you can find at Hobby Lobby.  Truth be told 7.81 e+22 miles only makes sense to like 2% of the population.

Thus far in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been healing folks, casting out demons, preaching and sharing the truth about the arrival of the hour of the Kingdom of God.  Demons have recognized him.  People have begun following him.  The powers that be in Jerusalem have taken notice and especially since he has healed people on the Sabbath.  Now, in these verses, we learn the smear campaign that has begun.

Jesus is possessed of some sort of unholy spirit or is using the power of Beelzebub to perform magic and seduce the people.  In fact, the presence of the Scribes may very well be a sign that the Sanhedrin are conducting an official investigation into whether or not Capernaum has been seduced by evil.  This was a very real thing in first century Palestine.  We also know from documents in the second century that the idea of Jesus as sorcerer and seducer of minds was still a charge leveled against him by Jewish authorities and pagans in their arguments with Christians.

Jesus answers the charge here with a simple parable: a house divided against itself can not stand.  If I am empowered by Satan then how can Satan succeed if the things you see me do are actively working against the demonic powers in the world? This is the question that Jesus asks.  It is sound logic.  After all, an army never turns its guns on itself and shoots half the troops before engaging in battle.  There are lots of places we can look for examples of this wisdom.  If a husband and wife are struggling we sometimes see the symptoms in the children. If the offense unit and defense unit of a football team do not respect each other or the coaching staff the team is seldom successful.  Abraham Lincoln famously applied this saying to the competing sides of the War Between the States. Even today, we see it in the struggles of the Democratic and Republican parties not to mention the Congress as a whole. Indeed, when a house struggles against itself it cannot stand. Thus, it was ridiculous to consider that Jesus might be invoking the power of Satan to attack the demonic forces in the world.

Jesus goes on to talk about the inability to plunder the strong man’s house without first binding the strong man. For years I could not follow this notion because I did not know who the strong man was.  I always supposed that the strong man was God and that no one would be able to enter into his kingdom and bind him up and pillage.  Sometimes I even wondered how to apply it to the life of a believer.  How can we be the strong man and avoid the binding and the robbing?  Now I am older and hopefully a little wiser and I have come to realize that the strong man is Satan.  Jesus is not describing what Satan is trying to do to God or us, as I always thought; rather, Jesus is describing what he is doing while on Earth.  He is the one who is entering into the realm of the strong man where he will bind him up and loot the house.

Recall way back in chapter 1, specifically verses 7 and 8 where John the Baptizer says that one is coming who is greater than he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is this greater than.  Not only is the bringer of the Holy Spirit greater than John the Baptizer, he is greater than  the strong man, Beelzebub.  The mission of Jesus includes His entering into the house of the devil, binding him up, and spoiling his house.

What are the spoils of Jesus work of binding Satan?   Read his next statement, the beautiful sublime truth about what Christ does in his spoiling of the Devil’s domain.

“Truly,  ALL sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter…”  I realize that this is half the verse but it is so crucial that we linger here for bit.  Three little letters (only 5 in Greek) but so complete and full.  ALL.  Think of the ways that word is used in our own language:  All expenses paid.  All-inclusive. Open all the windows. Deal all the cards.  The team won all of their games.   It means every.  It means completely.  It means in-totality. ALL means ALL and it never means less than every last thing that it references.

ALL SINS shall be forgiven (sons of men is a colloquialism for people) and whatever blasphemies they utter.  What does Jesus plunder from the strong man’s house?  Our guiltiness.  Satan is the accuser.  He is the district attorney who brings the charges against people before God. Jesus enters into the house and takes from him the power of sin over us by providing for the forgiveness of ALL our sins.  As the great hymn puts it “my sin not in part but in whole.” ALL.

Whatever you are doing right now, stop.  Stop and let that truth sink in and devastate your heart.  Give the Holy Spirit the silence to work and reveal and wash.

 

 

Every single sin you can think of from your past or present is forgiven.  

The sins you are yet to commit, for the believer they too are forgiven. 

ALL

This is what Christ has done.  Here in this moment he is foreshadowing, but when he utters “it is finished” on the cross, the work is done. His death the atoning sacrifice for your sins. The only sacrifice that you will ever need.  The only work that will ever suffice for your sin.  Done!

Praise God for his love for you.  Confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that He has completed this mighty work for you and for all who put their faith and trust in Him. This is the gospel.  This and nothing else.

but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin!”

This is why I asked you to stop and ponder the beauty of all your sins being forgiven, because if you read too quickly you will become afraid of this half of the verse.  There is but one unpardonable sin and that is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  Unpardonable means that it cannot be forgiven.  The inability to forgive it is what makes it an eternal sin.

The gospel of John tells us that the work of the Holy Spirit is straightforward.  The Holy Spirit is tasked with convicting the hearts of people about sin and with the truth about who Christ is.  To make it simpler, it is to reveal your guilt before a just and Almighty God and then reveal the pardon that is available to ALL who believe that Christ has died and risen to secure that pardon.

This is why blaspheming the Holy Spirit is unpardonable because it literally means denying the truth of who Christ is and what he has done.  When a person rejects this truth, that person has placed themselves at complete antagonism to God’s will.  So, if you are a believer in Christ, be encouraged for you have already avoided the one eternal sin.

The scribes with their claims that Jesus was an operative of Satan were treading very dangerous ground.  They were at risk of the ultimate blasphemy.  For rejecting Jesus is to reject God himself.

If you are reading this then you are most likely a believer in Jesus Christ; therefore, fear not blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  Embrace the profound love of Christ that would forgive you ALL of your sins.

  • What are you holding onto that is sinful?
  • What guilt from past action or inaction do you still feel?
  • What sins of other believers are you still holding against them?
  • If God has forgive you much shouldn’t you forgive others?

ALL

The universe is suspected to be 46 billion light years across or around 2.6 sextillion miles, with the visible expanse of space a mere 13.3 billion light years.  I sometimes like to ponder the expansion of the universe from the Big Bang as the creation of the universe rocketing way from its source, God.  My head cannot completely picture that and I have absolutely no reference for the exceptional distance the universe is from one side to the other.  What I know (and I use know in the sense of deepest truth not just in my mind) is that the Divine Author of all that is exists outside of the limitations of time and space.  What I know is that before all was created Jesus was meant to happen.  I mean, Jesus knew when the creation began that there would be a cross and a death. God chose to create all that is from love.  Jesus chose to love by agreeing to create and therefore to die. The Holy Spirit chose to love by binding the hearts of people and the glories of creation to the Creator.  So, Jesus traveled those sextillion miles that all of your sins might be forgiven.

Or in other words, “God loves you to MACS0647-JD and back!”

And then some.

 

 

Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion.  It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

Dig Deeper

Read Mark 3:1-6

a_boulder

I don’t know if this is true of all kids but it certainly was true of me.  Some times I dug up rocks in the ground.  Whether I was looking for “skipping stones” or just goofing around I sometimes went looking for rocks. More than once, I started digging out a rock and soon realized that the rock was actually much bigger than the part that I had seen at ground level.  Now I live in the Texas Hill Country and if you dig at all in this area you soon learn there can be all sorts of rocks beneath the surface and even the seemingly smallest rock can suddenly be huge!

If you never start digging though the rock always just seems small and small rocks are manageable. Scripture can be the same way. You read a passage from the Bible and it seems simple and straightforward and small.  After doing a little more digging you figure out there is a lot more to it and it is heavy!

In the first three verses of Mark 3, we read a straightforward story. Jesus goes into a synagogue on the Sabbath and ‘yawn’ he is going to heal someone.  Simple, straightforward, nothing complicated: a man needs healing, it is the Sabbath, Jesus is going to do it, and its going to upset those pesky Pharisees all over again.  Really, Mark? we think, can’t you move on we have seen all this before already.  Blah, blah, blah Jesus heals on the Sabbath.  Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.  We get it.  This story is a pebble.

That impulse isn’t limited to everyday readers of the gospel.  It happens to well-educated trained readers of scripture too.  In fact, you can probably already hear the sermons written from this passage in your head:

“Jesus was a radical who upset the political and religious authorities of his day by disregarding the rules in favor of caring for people in their time of need.  What rules do we need to flaunt today to continue the good work of our political revolutionary Jesus?”

“How are we like the Pharisees allowing our traditions to keep us from doing good or making worship a more inviting place for the weak, the weary, and the downtrodden.  Is not our emphases on music and liturgy a modern expression of the legalism of Pharisees?  How must we change to ensure that the grace of Christ is first and foremost?”  

“The Pharisees felt there power slipping away at the hands of this Jesus who did what was right in a moment when everyone else would not.  This is why they sought to kill him.  Fortunately, we would never make that mistake today as we would welcome Jesus and his miracles into our midst.”

O.K.  That last one is less likely to be preached, but you know you have heard the others.  And they come from a superficial reading of this passage.  Some Christians, mostly progressive, never get farther than considering Jesus to be a better Caesar Chavez.  Other Christians, mostly conservative, never get any deeper in these scriptures than judging the Pharisees for there legalism and failure to recognize the Messiah when he showed up.

Dig a little deeper, sweep away some dirt, find the bigger rock buried in the ground.

Jesus follows his habits, he is in worship on the Sabbath. (For modern Christians there is a whole sermon in the first sentence!) Mark tells us that there was a man with a withered hand present and that “they” were watching Jesus to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus asks the man to come forward to the middle of the synagogue, the center of attention.  Here is where we get confused, because the man has been brought front and center we assume that the healing is the big deal.  But this man will remain anonymous throughout and Jesus is never going to comment on his faith.  This latter point is how we know Mark is telling us something different from the previous arguments about the Sabbath or healing events.  So much for the meaning of the text to be about the poor and needy.

Similarly Jesus begins addressing his detractors and he does so using the common parlance of the rabbis of his day: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?”  The first clause was a common interpretive argument of Rabbis predating Jesus and after.  It is a rhetorical question the answer to which must be: “Of course it is lawful to do good the Sabbath.”  Many rabbis had debated these things and it was determined that saving a life must take precedence over inaction in the law of God.  If we are to love our neighbors first and foremost then doing good is part and parcel of the Sabbath.  To put a modern spin on it, you naturally would have surgeons and EMTs work on the Sabbath.  It couldn’t be unlawful to aid an accident victim.  It would be appropriate to defend a lamb from a wolf on the Sabbath.

Christ-heals-the-man-with-a-paralyzed-hand-610x353

Back to the text: the Pharisees do not say anything.  Their silence upsets Jesus greatly.  Of course they don’t argue with Jesus because the question is rhetorical.  Naturally the Sabbath allows for life saving and other acts of good.  Of course, Jesus doesn’t stop with the basic question.  He has brought the man forward.  Between his question and the presence of the man he is implying that healing the withered hand is the equivalent of “saving a life” and failure to heal the withered hand is the equivalent of killing.  What?

Let’s be clear, Jesus is nobody’s fool.  He knows as well as anyone that the withered hand could wait a day or even 12 hours.  This is the key to understanding that the story is not simply about the perils of legalism or about the way that people become so rigid interpreting right from wrong that they fail to see the effect of such legalism on others.

Here is where the buried rock is revealed.

If you have been following this blog you know that I feel that scriptures are best understood in the broader context of the chapter / book that they are found in.  The Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc) promoted the notion that scripture should be used to interpret scripture.  That is a great principle and scripture should be used to interpret other scriptures.  That said, it is also important that a reader of scripture first looks to the rest of the current book before jumping to other books in the Bible.  If you have been reading Mark (or this blog) then you know that Jesus is making a claim about the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  According to Jesus, the hour is now that God is acting.  In the healing of the paralytic there was the tacit claim that Jesus (as the Son of Man) has the authority to forgive sins (something that is YHWH’s purview) and in the conversations about Sabbath-keeping the implication is that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath (also the purview of YHWH). Throughout Mark, Jesus is saying look at this; see by what I do that what I say is true.

So many people describe the Gospel of John as Christocentric, but how can you miss the fact that in Mark the center of every story thus far and the focus of every point has been Jesus and who he is.  This gospel is extremely Christocentric.

Back to the paradox that healing the withered hand is not a matter of life and death. Robert Guelich, NT scholar, writes, “‘To do good’ and ‘to save a life’ takes on an eschatological ring of the coming of the day of salvation, the fulfillment of God’s promised activity in history.” God is acting, breaking into the world with the arrival of the Kingdom.  The kingdom is present wherever Jesus is present. I think that Jesus before the man in the synagogue is a moment where Mark wants us to recognize ourselves present in the presence of God. For Jesus to do good  / heal meant to give life and to refrain from good / not heal was to kill, meaning depriving another of the benefits of the redemptive / restorative power of God.  Failing to act would be cheating the man and all the gathered community of the right now benefits of the Kingdom of God even as they would have to wait for the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom. But the key is that the presence of Jesus brings life and changes things.

This is what we have seen throughout the Gospel of Mark.  A demon possessed man comes before Jesus and is made whole–saved–and Jesus demonstrates power over the forces of evil.  A paralyzed man is brought before him and made whole and Jesus demonstrates the power to forgive sin. A tax-collector is called into his retinue and redeemed from a sinful life and Jesus demonstrates the need for God’s Anointed to be amidst the sinners. Hyper-religious folk judge the followers of Jesus for not following the law more closely and Jesus proclaims an authority over the law itself.  Every aspect of Mark so far has been an effort to nudge the reader to make a decision about the true nature of Jesus. Is he the embodiment of the rule of God among us or not?

Every encounter from the demon possessed to the disciple; from the physically deformed to the self-righteous has been at its core a question of life and death because this is the moment that they have encountered Jesus. How each responded to that encounter is what has mattered most.

So how have you responded?  Have you acknowledged the truth of who Christ is?

How has your limited idea of Jesus prevented another from encountering Christ? If Jesus is just a great teacher why should anyone care? If he is a social radical then why should anyone make a decision for him rather than just see him as another Ghandi or Malcolm X?

Maybe you have chosen for Jesus and welcomed the encounter for yourself and your salvation.  Have your actions and your efforts encouraged others to know who He is?  Have you expressed forgiveness and grace to those whom you see as sinners? Or are you silent in the face of this life and death moment for others?

Maybe you have called out to God in your hours of need, a cancer diagnosis, a child who is sick, or a loss of  job. Upon restoration have you turned your heart over to the Lord or just thanked God glibly for granting your wishes?

Let’s be clear, Jesus is not just healing a man with a withered hand, rather, he is restoring a life.  Just as Jesus does when he brings the alcoholic to sobriety, the addict to wholeness, or reunites estranged family. Jesus acts and the proper response is deeper faith, deeper trust, and deeper praise of who God is for each of us.

Jesus never touches the man.  He tells him to reach out his hand and the as the man does so his hand is restored.  We are not told how the man responded to this act.  We are told that the Pharisees in seeing this incredible moment of life-giving miracle went from that place conspiring to end a life.

A final thought: if Mark wants us to see ourselves as the man with the withered hand, in the presence of God with nothing to account for but our limitations then Mark also wants us to ask ourselves how often are we like the Pharisees.  How often do we see the restorative work of God (an addict finding sobriety, a tax cheat attending worship, a murderer released from a prison sentence, the list is exhaustive) and question the wisdom and grace of God perhaps even to the point of considering the need to stop this radical love rather than celebrating that someone has experienced the overwhelming healing power of Christ?  There are really only two places to be in those moments.  One of them deepens our own salvation and the other leads to rejection of Jesus.

Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion.  It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

 

Ahem, Please Direct Your Attention…

Read Mark 2:18-28

Note: Did you know that you can follow the Hypocritical Christian blog?  At the bottom of the page simply click follow and you can even have the latest blog post delivered to you via email. 

the word jesus

It was a slow day today at the dealership. Eh, it happens.  When it happens there are opportunities to talk with fellow suffering sales colleagues or strike up an argument on Facebook.  Today, I did both.

A colleague of mine came out complaining of the proposal of New York City’s mayor to allocate $10 million in taxpayer’s money for aiding those newly released from New York City prisons in finding employment.  “How Stupid is that?” we were asked.  Being sometimes inclined to cause problems I responded with “why do you let them do that to you?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, I mean, you let the people on the news get you all ginned up over things that do not make any difference to you whatsoever.  If NYC decides to spend their tax revenues in that manner it has absolutely no impact on you in Boerne, Texas in any way, shape or form.”

“Well I just think it is stupid.”

“Sure.  It may be but it doesn’t make any difference for you. It is not your money.  It isn’t your time.  I mean if it were the Governor of Texas or the Mayor of Boerne, sure, but this will not impact you at all.”

We sometimes get upset over stuff because we think we should or because it doesn’t follow how we understand things to be best done.  The Pharisees were apparently good at getting upset at how other people were choosing to conduct themselves or live out their faith.  In this they are not alone.  The above is a story from contemporary politics but I could have just as easily referenced the recent kerfuffle at Princeton Seminary over their decision to first award the Kuyper Prize to Tim Keller and then to rescind the same award under complaints from some of their current students, professors, and alumni.

The Facebook argument I got involved in was one about interpretation of the U.S. Constitution of all things.  Like I said it was slow today.  That all started from a reaction to a tweet that Trump made about the Freedom Caucus and the relative constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and the right of the Federal Government to be involved in health care at all. Seems each of us can get bent out of shape over things that have little direct impact on us.  In the midst of that argument the person I was debating with and I got so caught up in minutiae that I think we both lost the point of the original argument.  We lost the forest for the trees as the saying goes.

I mention these two events as a strange segue to the last 10 verses of Mark.  Pharisees indeed seem throughout the gospels to be really concerned about “the how” of others’ living and in the process lose sight of the forest for the trees.  New Testament scholars sometimes get so caught up in details that they lose sight of the broader point that either a Biblical writer or Jesus is trying to make.

Case in point.  Mark gets a detail completely wrong.  The event of David and his colleagues feasting on the temple showbread did not happen during the tenure of Abiathar as the High Priest but rather occurred when Abiathar’s father was the High Priest.  Liberal Critical scholars and folks who like to undercut Biblical authority (not always the same people) will use this sort of “mistake” to suggest that the Bible is in error.  I think this is being picky. Mark may have gotten this wrong. A copyist may have messed this up (the High Priest at the time was Ahimelech). I think that the “mistake” is original to Mark because both Matthew and Luke rework the episode in their gospels to not include the name of the High Priest at all.  This implies they were cleaning it up if you hold to the theory that they had Mark’s gospel as a source document for their own work.  If you are interested in a reasonable explanation for this “mistake” by Mark, theologian Wiliam Placher provides one.  He suggests that it isn’t an error by the normally very careful Mark but an actual rendering of the words of Jesus. What? Blasphemy you say?  How could Jesus have made the error? Well, Placher suggests that Jesus is intentional in his saying the wrong name to highlight the poor scriptural knowledge of his critics.  Before you roll your eyes, think about the number of people who tell you something that the Bible says that the Bible doesn’t say.  To this day there are a lot of people who believe that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “God helps those who help themselves” are found in the pages of scripture.  Memory tells me that they are both from Ben Franklin although the latter may very well only be the work of erstwhile nuns. I like Placher’s clever Jesus answer.  I enjoy picturing Jesus appreciating the irony of his critics nodding in agreement as he mistells the story.

No matter, none of this is the point of these 10 verses!

Notice what Jesus does in response to the question about fasting and Sabbath.  He directs the attention to himself.

In the response to fasting it is apparent that Jesus intends for us to realize that he is the bridegroom.  John the Baptist and his disciples fasted in preparation for the arrival of the messiah, but in Jesus, the Messiah is arrived.  The pharisees were fasting to perpetuate an interpretation of the law that did not include the purpose of the law but rather was following the law solely for the sake of the law.  Example: why is there a set belt law or a helmet law?  To encourage safety of motorists and motorcyclists in the event of an accident. The law exists to develop and encourage a habit that is good for the individual and the community.  The Mosaic Law serves a similar purpose, it promotes practices and ways of interaction that are healthier for the spirit of the individual and the community.  Together the practice of the Mosaic law instructs the individual in the manner of Godly living and empowers the community to be a witness to God in the world.  This is precisely what Jesus means when he says that the Sabbath was created for people rather than people being created for the Sabbath.

Fasting in the manner of the Baptizer’s disciples made no sense now that the Kingdom had arrived, but fasting in the manner of the Pharisees was senseless as well since it was not for the purpose of deeper spiritual commitment to God but following the law only to follow the law.  The former is fasting to make ready a way for the Lord (literally building a road) even after the Lord has already arrived on the way created.  The latter is forgetting why the way (road) was being built in the first place!

Jesus focuses the attention on himself and if you think back he did that throughout this whole chapter.  When it came time to heal the paralytic he called attention to his authority to forgive sins. When asked why he was in fellowship with sinners he called attention to his purpose to bring healing to the sinner.  When asked about fasting he asks why fast when he is present and when asked about the Sabbath he claims authority over the strict interpretation of the Mosaic law by saying the Son of Man, he himself, is Lord of the Sabbath.  With this Son of Man comment the chapter comes full circle with Jesus claiming the authority understood to belong only to YHWH.

Do you see what Mark has done?  He is building the case that this Jesus is the one whom the Baptist foretold.  He is establishing step by step that Jesus is whom the demon in the first chapter said he was: “The Holy One of YHWH”!

  • Do you know Jesus to be these things, to be more than a great teacher?
  • Do you ever find yourself following the rules of church all the while losing sight of the why of the rules?
  • How often do you in the midst of controversies take your eyes off of Jesus?
  • Have you ever found yourself, like the pharisees, judging the piety of your neighbor because they aren’t following the law correctly?
  • Do you forget to keep Jesus in the center and in focus?

I suspect that for most of us an honest answer to these questions will give us pause.  Take heart fellow hypocrites, the only answer that matters at the end of the day is how you answer the first question.  And if the answer to that first question is negative then I encourage you to keep reading the gospel of Mark and to pray specifically that the Holy Spirit will convict you of the truth of whom Christ is for you and indeed for all.

And if you answered yes to the first question but struggled with the subsequent questions then I commend to you the words of a well known hymn:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in his wonderful face

and the things of earth will grow strangely dim

in the light of His glory and grace.

Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion.  It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is freely given and written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

 

Faith that Heals

faith

Take a moment to reread Mark Chapter 2, 1-12.

In the very first post on the Hypocritical Christian, I suggested the following themes for the gospel of Mark:

  • Origin of the Good News of Jesus Christ
  • Christ is the messiah for the purpose of salvation
  • Christ has authority
  • Repentance is about believing whom Christ is
  • The specific work of Christ is dealing with the sin problem.

Now in the first 12 verse of Mark 2, we see all of this playing out.  In fact at least one commentator has suggested that the entire Gospel of Mark is found in these 12 verses.  Of course that is a little bit of hyperbole, but the point is that in this one story the broadest themes and the major point that Mark is communicating is present in action.

You may recall that the paralytic has been lowered into the presence of Jesus and even though the friends clearly want a healing miracle for their pal what Jesus actually says is pretty astonishing.  “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

So astonishing in fact that there were present some professional religious folk (scribes) who were thinking to themselves, “Wait, what?!?  You can’t do that!”   They knew their Old Testament scriptures quite well and that told them that only YHWH can forgive sins. If you are not familiar with YHWH it is the four consonants of the sacred name of God.  The name given to Moses from the burning bush.  If you have ever heard the phrase “the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Issac” then you know what we mean when we say YHWH.  So the scribes know that only God can forgive sins.  Exodus 34:6-7; Isaiah 43:25 and 44:22 are just a few of the places that make this clear.

Mark tells us that the scribes believe Jesus to be blaspheming.  Blasphemy is a technical term and in Jesus day a religious crime.  Anything that discredited THE NAME (YHWH) was punishable by death through stoning. In the scribes’ minds claiming the ability to do something that only the ONE GOD can do was a serious act of discrediting God. It is hard to think of something that we have in our culture that is the equivalent of this.  Maybe using the parking space of the CEO or drinking from the Admiral’s private liquor cabinet, but these infractions are minor compared to the way they viewed blasphemy.  The closest thing I can think of is identity theft, but identity theft of someone enormously powerful like the President or the Queen of England or OPRAH!

Here is where it gets interesting. Jesus knows what they are thinking and calls them out on it. He issues a challenge for himself to them.  He starts by asking them a question: “Which is easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say ‘Get up.  Take your pallet and walk’?”

Note what is going on here in the question.  Sins are an intangible thing while paralysis is not. If I say to a person who can not walk get up and they do then I have clearly healed them of their paralysis.  If I say to a person that your sins are forgiven there is no way that anyone can prove it just by looking.  On the one hand, it is easier to say the first because no one can disprove you with empirical evidence unlike saying stand up because in the second case the person either gets up or they do not; on the other hand, the latter is the easier of the two because it is not something that only God can claim authority over.  Everyone had seen a faith healer work this sort of miracle before. Even if we only thought in terms of modern science the latter would still be easier because it is both prove-able and there are medical procedures for healing some forms of paralysis. Try and get a prescription for your sins filled at Walgreens!

But Jesus is not stopping with the rhetorical question, he is actually cleverly setting up the scribes because he follows the question up with the following statement: “but in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins — he said to the paralyzed one ‘I say to you, Rise, take up your pallet and go home.'”

See both the challenge and the set up?  If the paralytic stands up then the Son of Man has the authority (power) to forgive sins on earth. If the paralytic stands up the scribes will have to admit that the sins were forgiven and that no blasphemy took place.

(Note: “Son of Man” is a term that Mark uses about 2 dozen times in his gospel. Another time we can discuss what this title means, but please make note from the bold type above there can be zero question that Jesus means for it to refer to himself.)

Mark makes it crystal clear what happens next.  The paralytic, to the absolute astonishment of the crowd, stands up, picks up his pallet and left this time out the door and not the hole in the roof. Jesus proved his point spectacularly and everyone gave praise to God.

So what does this mean that Jesus claims an authority that the Old Testament scriptures clearly indicate is the sole purview of YHWH? What is the implication? It is pretty inescapable, if Jesus makes the man walk in the way he structured the challenge then he also forgave the paralytic’s sins.  Don’t get caught up in the tortured discussions about how they viewed sin and illness as interconnected in those days and this is Jesus giving them some good old post-enlightenment sensibility about these matters of illness and the separation of the physical from the spiritual.  That is smoke and mirrors and clearly not the intent that Mark has here.  Mark wants to demonstrate here the key points that his Gospel is seeking to share: Jesus is the Christ (Messiah) and uniquely appointed by God to be God’s agent, the presence of the Kingdom on Earth. Jesus has authority.  Jesus is going to correct the sin problem.

Mark is sharing this story to persuade everyone who reads / hears it of the truth of who Christ is.  Remember the demon in the first chapter: “you are the Holy One of God.” Mark is asking all of us to ponder what it means that this Jesus can do something that only God can do.

Consider this.  When the the four bring the paralyzed one to Jesus we are told that when Jesus saw their faith he spoke to the paralytic.  I said in a previous post that what they did in action was demonstrate their faith that Jesus could do what they desired.  In New Testament Greek faith is the word pistis (this is the transliteration of the Greek letters) and it means assurance, conviction, etc. all those synonyms in English that you would expect.  What is interesting is that it is derived from the Greek word peitho which is strictly speaking “to win over; persuade.” With this information we can come to understand that faith is a demonstration of having been persuaded.  It is a confiding belief in the truth, veracity, reality of any person or thing.  In the case of the four, their actions demonstrated a belief in the truth of whom Jesus was and the authority that he possessed.

I think that Mark is trying to persuade us. In the last post I wrote: “faith that heals is faith that trusts.” A careful reader will note that the only difference in the title of the last post and this post is punctuation. Faith that heals is faith that trusts; faith that heals comes from having been persuaded about who Christ is.

I encourage you to spend a little time this week asking yourself what it truly meant that the paralytic got up and walked.  Is it not more than a miracle? Is it not more than the forgiveness of sins?

Mark seems to think so.

Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion.  It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is freely given and written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

Faith That Heals?

Years ago I purchased my first house.  It was a 75 year old bungalow made from stone. Over the course of 7 years, the interior of the house was restored to something like what it would have looked in the 1920s.  The work included reinstalling a wall so that one very large room was once again two bedrooms.  When the wall was rebuilt, closets were included to increase the storage. Not only was the wall build, but the trim work around the doors, the crown molding, and the toe moldings all had to be milled by me to make it look like the millwork from 7 decades before.  Some years later I had the opportunity to stop by and ask the current owner if my children could see where they used to live. The host was gracious. The house looked great and it was nice to bring back memories, but one thing was a little irritating.  The wall and closets had been removed again.  Ugh!

I mention this because I have often thought that the first miracle of Mark Chapter 2 is not the healing of the paralytic, but rather that Jesus does not get mad.  Many, many people have heard this tale of four men bringing a paralyzed man on a gurney of some sort to be healed. Kids like the story because the tearing a hole in the roof (literally digging up the roof) is a vivid image.  If you are not careful you will miss a little trivia fact in the start of the story.  This is Jesus’ home. This is Jesus’ roof!

So, just take a moment and ponder that. Imagine what it would be like to be at home, with…um… the whole town over.  They are piling in through the door -some of them are hacking and coughing; some of them have weeping pustules. Some of the people are probably just watching you work and wondering if there is more to drink or something to eat. You are teaching and healing, healing and teaching. You are trapped behind the couch because there is no room left. And then after all of this, four grown men climb up on your roof, dig a hole large enough for a man- a prostrate man- to pass through and they lower him down to you.

And miraculously, Jesus’ reaction is to be impressed with their faith to the point that he does what they ask.

Well, sort of.

What Mark actually tells us is “And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “my son, your sins are forgiven.”

This the first of two posts on these 12 verses of Mark.  When I started the Hypocritical Christian blog I expected to write a post a week on a single chapter of a book in the Bible.  I was probably foolish to think that was possible because there is so much in every passage of scripture that it is impossible to skip over stuff. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit keeps telling me to post more often.  I mention this simply to say in this post you may determine that I left out some stuff and you will be right to note I am not covering everything. This post is going to focus on the action of the four men and the revelation that Jesus is “cardiognostes”, the “heart-knower.” The subsequent post will look more directly at the controversy with the scribes with a emphasis on what faith means.

The story is really straightforward.  Four friends carry a man to Jesus.  They cannot reach him.  They go to exceptional lengths to overcome the crowd.  Jesus is impressed and pronounces forgiveness. The scribes think to themselves that Jesus is making a claim to do what only God can do. Jesus reads their minds.

Just these 8 verses force me to ask some questions. Can a person experience healing and salvation because of the faith of someone else? Gosh I hope so because Christians do a lot of praying for health.

  • When was the last time that you prayed extra hard for some oneelse’s healing?
  • When did you last pray for someone whose situation seemed helpless (paralysis is a big deal) with the total conviction that Jesus can make the change happen?
  • When was the last time you went the extra mile to bring someone else into the presence of Jesus?

It seems to me that what Jesus sees in the actions of the four men is their resolve not only to help their stricken friend, but that Jesus is the one who can make the difference. It is that latter part that labels what they do as faith versus just desperation. This conviction they have is what makes the difference for their friend.

I have a friend, Paul Burns, who wrote a book called Prayer Encounters. The book grew in part out of his own experience of leading people in life-changing prayers.  Paul would say to people that the key to effective prayer is the belief that God can do what is asked. Mark doesn’t record the conversation if any between the four and Jesus. All we get are the actions, but those actions demonstrate that these four believe that Jesus can do something.

Too many Christians pay lip-service to prayer.  Too many Christians spend too little time helping those in need get into the presence of the Lord.

In the next post, we will unpack the meaning of faith more fully. For now, consider that Jesus knows what the scribes are thinking in their hearts. We don’t know if that is simply because he sees something in their faces and he intuits their thoughts; or, if he is just straight up reading their minds. The trouble with Jesus is he may be a super-intuitive, smart person and he may just be God and therefore a mind reader.  Mark has an answer in mind that we will get to next time. Somehow Jesus knows. What if he knows what you are thinking as well?

Scared?

We all should be.

  • Have you been hiding some ill-will towards someone you work with? a spouse? a sibling? the President? the neighbor whose political affiliation is different? the person from a different race? The person poorer or richer than you?
  • Do you say one thing to people but “secretly” think another?
  • Do you judge others? do you judge self? do you lust? do you rage?

We could make that list go for a long time. I do not write these things to make any of us feel guilty.  I write them to say that when we read Mark Chapter 2, we should take seriously the reminder that Jesus knows our hearts.  It should remind us that as much as we need God’s healing for the physical things that ail us and as much as we need God’s blessing for the material needs that befall us; we need God’s forgiveness for the sins that plague us.

Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, encouraged his students to spend a few minutes daily doing a personal inventory.  The idea was to contemplate the effectiveness of our thoughts and actions with the intent of improving consistently. I invite you in light of the faith demonstrated by the four who carried the paralytic to do some personal inventory.  I urge you in light of Jesus’ knack for reading minds to take a moment to consider what is most often on your mind. Perhaps these questions can help:

  • When you pray for yourself or others are you convinced that Jesus can answer the prayer?  If not, what would it take for you to change your viewpoint (repent) and pray with more conviction?
  • Is there someone who needs your help? Is there someone who needs the witness of your faith or actions? If Jesus was watching your actions would he see your faith?
  • What secret thought do wish God couldn’t see?  When was the last time you confessed to God your sins? Just as importantly, what past sins do you keep apologizing to God because you doubt that He forgave you?
  • What is one thing that can be different in your life tomorrow that will move you closer to Jesus?

Just as we all need to pray to Christ with the belief that God can do what we ask, we need to pray to Christ to renew our minds and thoughts because our actions will follow. Faith that heals is faith that trusts.

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