Mark 8 – Desolate Place

Read Mark 8

We have all seen fads come and go many times in our lives.  Whether it’s a diet, a lifestyle, a game, or some technology, there are things in our life and culture that look like, and feel like they are leading us down a fulfilling and enjoyable path.  However, there will always come a point when we feel like we somehow stumbled into the middle of nowhere, and we find ourselves hungry and wondering when we will next be able to be nourished.

Everything in our life takes us places, whether we are aware of it or not.  We travel down the proverbial road, following it wherever it leads us.  Think about a marathon of watching your favorite show on Netflix, how you get wrapped up in the characters and begin feeling for them and with them.  But at some point, that show or series will end and you are left with a bit of an empty feeling, something this commercial calls the “show hole.”

Sure, you can start watching another show but they all lead to the same desolate place.

Jesus recognizes that there have been many people following Him all over the countryside, many have come from long distances.  For many of them, He isn’t the first teacher to come along and offer hope, yet He will not leave them, or us, in the wilderness with no nourishment.

Jesus’ call to take up our crosses daily is one in which we will find ourselves in desolate places, feeling alone and hungry, yet we are never abandoned.  Jesus is the only one who will truly give us the nourishment we need and not leave us stranded and hungry, left to fend for ourselves and find our own way home.  He always provides it for us.

Mark 12:28-34 "What Matters Most?"

There are a lot of things that we consider to be important; sometimes too important.  We make big deals about little things, promoting them to be the true test of orthodoxy (right faith).  Jesus says here that the most important thing is relationships:

  1. Our relationship with God
  2. Our relationship with our neighbor

Mark 7 – Traditions

Read Mark 7

The word “tradition” has become one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the church in recent years.  Some people hear this word and cringe, their minds rapidly moving toward visions of hymnals, organs, and hard wooden church pews.  Others hear it and are drawn by warm feelings to the “good ole days” where they sung familiar songs, had notes to read and music to follow, and sung in 4-part harmony.  While each group tends to have considerable disdain (though we wouldn’t necessarily name that) for the other,  neither inclination is, in itself, a bad thing.

However, as is often true, when our priorities get mixed up and we uphold the thing we cherish (musical style, way of doing things, etc.) over and above that to which those things point (namely: Jesus Christ), we fall into idolatry.  Indeed, much of the struggle with worship style actually falls into the label of idolatry, worshipping worship… or at least the way that we want to worship… which is actually worshipping ourselves.  Sadly, this has been applied more readily to the “traditionalist,” but is just as true for the “contemporary-ist.”

At the root of the problem for us and for the Pharisees here is where the heart is.  The Law was meant to be a guide for the hearts of the people, much like Sunday services are, in large part, meant to be a time to corporately direct our hearts toward God.  Yet we have a funny way of trying to make that time be more about us whilst making it sound like we are trying to make it about God.

Jesus’ words here are a gut check for Christians: when something we do to “worship” God is divisive, it may be “that which defiles” more than “that which honors.”

Mark 6 – Abundance

Read Mark 6

If there is one thing that we could say defines America, it would be that we pride ourselves on having more than enough.  Maybe this is not something we like to claim, but the reality of how we act, what we own, and how we eat shows this to be true.  We don’t like to rely on anyone for anything.  Americans fulfill their own destiny, provide for themselves, and create their own abundance.

Jesus, however, creates a different picture of abundance; that of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It isn’t a picture of self-help books or 3-step guides to a better life, neither is it a list of rules and regulations you must follow to earn their keep, it is an image of full and complete dependence on God who provides far more than we could ask or imagine.

Our Savior provides food, more than they could possibly eat, out of scarcity.  Yet the lesson that is meant to be taught here is not one of physical nourishment, but rather the nature of God’s Kingdom which is illustrated in the following two narratives as well.

In all three cases, Jesus provides for the needs that they have.  This, I believe, is the true nature of God’s Kingdom economy, full provision.  There is never scarcity in the Kingdom of Heaven and never need.  God provides for it all at every moment and Jesus shows this as He provides for physical nourishment, safety, and healing.

The catch, if you could call it that, is our trust and dependence.  While the feeding of the 5,000 did not depend necessarily on the disciple’s trust in Jesus’ ability, nor did the calming of the storm, but healing, like that of the women in the previous chapter, happened because of faith, trust, and dependence on Jesus.

Mark 5 – Recognize

Read Mark 5

There seems to be an increase in the recognition of the spiritual realm and its influence and impact on our lives in today’s culture.  As we move out of the age of modernity, marked by the attainment of knowledge, scientific advancement, and the need for concrete evidence for proof, culture has seen a much wider acceptance of a reality that is both coinciding with ours and also beyond our vision and understanding.  This truth, however, is not one that took Jesus by surprise.

I am struck by the recognition that takes place from different characters in this narrative.  The demons see Jesus and instantly recognize who He is and are aware of what His presence means for them.  Jesus is quite aware of them too.  Whether or not the man they possess knows Jesus is uncertain, but what we do know is it took much more than human strength to bring him healing.  Yet the reaction of the people in that region is puzzlingly similar to that of the demons, both want to get away from Jesus.  Why, after such healing had taken place, would the people be fearful to the point of sending Jesus away?

Sometimes I wonder if people are actually afraid of healing, afraid of the light.  When we are confronted with our sin, and shown the way toward healing, it can be uncomfortable… even scary.  Our current way of living may not be the best, but it’s certainly familiar.  This is a constant theme in the Old Testament.  Israel complains everytime the going gets rough, wanting to go back to Egypt because at least they knew what to expect.

I wonder if our churches today engage in these same reactions, settling for the safe and familiar rather than the abundant healing Jesus offers us?

Mark 4 – Parables

Read Mark 4

I know a good number of people who like to tell stories.  Whenever I get together with them I expect to hear at least one story about something, whether hunting or fishing, building or other life experiences, these stories are reminders of lessons learned and wisdom gained.  Jesus often spoke in parables which were something like mini stories.  In talking to my friends, they could tell me of wisdom gained from their experiences, but without a context, I have no way of recognizing how they arrived at their conclusion.

Jesus used metaphors that the people following Him would understand.  In an agriculturally dominated society, people could relate to sowing seed and harvesting a crop.  Yet there is a much deeper meaning contained within these seemingly simple stories, truths that we repeatedly turn to and learn from.

For seed to be sown, there must be a sower; for seeds to grow, they must be tended.  However these are not explicitly mentioned in all of these parables.  The size of the seed doesn’t seem to matter either, but rather the soil is important for growing.  That has often been a comfort for me as a pastor, especially when I am feeling uneasy about how I shared God’s Word on a particular day.

Maybe I am taking the metaphor too far, but I realize today that, though we often talk about being good soil, in agriculture the farmer is responsible for both the soil and the seed, another wonderful truth that is not explicitly mentioned here.

The Holy Spirit is always at work within us, working on our hearts to prepare them to receive the seed of the Word of God and then tending those seeds to carefully cultivate them within us, producing faith and fruit many times what was sown.

Mark 3 – Divided Kingdom

Read Mark 3

After healing a man with a shrivled hand, the religious leaders have trouble finding a way to accuse Jesus and destroy His ministry.  Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, they finally decide to accuse Jesus of being on the side of the enemy, working for satan himself.  Sometimes the words of the pharisees remind me of the ways that our politicians act, accusing each other of different things so as to gain the upper hand, to retain their power and status.

Jesus is not so easily swayed or overcome by these arguments.  Whereas it seems today that the accusation of anything in today’s political arena would garner a recant, reversal, or otherwise change of action or statement, Jesus stands firm in His mission, His Kingdom focus.

Sometimes it feels like the church faces this sort of division in our culture.  We desire to advance the Kingdom, to be on mission with God, and yet we fear the reprisal and accusations of those around us.

The Kingdom of Heaven in not one of timidity, it is not one of scared political correctness or middle of the road decisions.  Jesus doesn’t, in the face of questions about keeping the Sabbath or any such thing, decide to heal the shrivled hand tommorow, He takes action now.  This is the nature of God’s work of grace, healing and transformation.

This doesn’t mean biligerence.  Scripture says often to remember the “weaker brother.”  Jesus doesn’t get in their face, He doesn’t start a protest movement against the religious leaders or an “occupy the Temple” movement against the observation of the law.  Rather, calmly and consistently, He brings healing in God’s name, and teaches about the true nature of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom that above all finds it’s foundation on God’s unquenchable love and desire for reconciliation.

Mark 2 – Doctor! Doctor!

Read Mark 2

Have you ever looked at friends, neighbors, or family members and wondered what they were doing hanging out with that person or that group?  It has probably happened to all of us.  Or maybe it was you, hanging out with someone questionable or suspect.  You may have thought to yourself, “What will (insert name here) say when he/she sees me with these people?”

In Jesus’ day, the religious people were the  determiners of who was “in” and who was “out.”  The out people were considered sinners and were lumped in with the sick and the tax collectors, the lowest of the low.  No teacher or upstanding person would be seen with these people, much less eat with them.  Yet Jesus, as He calls yet another disciple, reclines with them at the table, the pinnacle of relation and familiarity; the religious leaders can’t stand it.

Jesus’ response is striking and convicting.  Why on earth would He hang out with those people that are already righteous?  You can probably sense a bit of irony here too.  Maybe the question would be, why would Jesus hang out with those who think they don’t need Him?  The analogy of His ministry and the work of a physician drives home the point.

I’ve often wondered if Jesus would have a similar response to the groups of people gathered in our churches today.  It is said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America, and not just from a racial standpoint.  We gather to worship with groups of people just like us, but where are the sick, the outcast, those that Matthew reminds us we are called to minister to?  Are we welcoming the sick that they may find healing, or shutting them out for fear of the disease?

Mark 1 – Action!

Read Mark 1

Mark’s Gospel is a story of action.  Right from the very beginning, he records Jesus’ works of healing, casting out unclean spirits, and calling His disciples.  While some of the nuances that Matthew’s writing brings may be less prevalent here, the message that Mark’s record of Jesus’ life brings is no less profound.

Jesus’ ministry doesn’t begin timidly; it appears out of practically nowhere here and spreads like wildfire.  The Gospel of John describes the coming of Jesus like a light shining in the darkness and I think that is a rather apt description of what is happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

If you stand in a dark room and light a match, it does not take the light a little while to spread throughout the area; it is practically instantaneous.  Though your eyes may need a moment to adjust, that light is  already there lighting up the room.

When Jesus’ ministry beings, it is much like that light.  It doesn’t begin with Him trying out a few different places to see if it’s a good fit for Him, He calls some disciples and starts healing people.  This is the nature of the Kingdom and God’s impact on our lives, instant work.  When we accept Jesus as our Savior, we are instantly transformed into something new, an act that we call Justification.  Paul says in Romans 3, “We are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Sometimes, though, it takes us a while to adjust to the new “light” that is shining; we call this process sanctification, God’s continuing work through the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ.  Like Jesus’ ministry, the impact of God’s love and grace brings healing in both the short term and the long.

Introduction to Mark

The Book of Mark is the most brief of the Gospels and is filled with action.  One of the identifying characteristics of this second Gospel is how the action takes place “immediately.”  Mark uses this word a great deal throughout this text always keeping the action going.

There are several other unique qualities about Mark, including how He jumps right into the action, completely passing over any sort of birth narrative.  For us, who have just read the book of Matthew, it may feel like Mark is missing something.  However, Mark’s brevity may be related to two different things.  First, Mark was writing to the Romans, recording who Jesus was and what He was about.  Jesus is cast as the “suffering servant,” an image that he draws out of Isaiah 52-53, amongst others.  While I cannot validate this, it seems to me that, in writing to those who do not believe, compactness is an ally in communicating all that you want to before they tune you out.

Picture Credit:

Picture Credit:

The second reason for Mark’s brief, action-packed writing, may be due to the fact that he is widely considered (by scholarly folks that have time to think about such things) to be the first to record the Gospel, the story of Jesus, in letter form that would have circulated throughout the early Church.  While this is hard to prove, there are studies that show Mark to be the “least unique” in regards to content, meaning that the other Gospel writers may have borrowed from His writing.  The above graphic shows one version of people’s thoughts as far as dates and locations of writings.  At the beginning of Luke, we will talk briefly about “source material” for the Gospels.

May you be blessed as you encounter Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.

Matthew 28 – Sabbath & Re-Creation

Read Matthew 28

The Sabbath day is one of the most significant days in Jewish life.  Apart from humanity being the crown of creation, the significance of the Sabbath is the first declaration in Genesis 2.  Today I am struck by the fact that Jesus’ full day in the tomb is the Sabbath day, the day of rest.

In Hebrews 10, the author makes this connection between the work accomplished by Christ.  His once for all sacrifice for the sins of the whole world ushers believers into a “sabbath rest,” the reality that we no longer have to do ritual sacrifices to gain forgiveness.  Instead, we rest in the assurance of faith in Jesus Christ and that we are heirs of eternal life.

It is no coincidence then, that Jesus resurrection happens on the first day of the week then, the same day that God begins work on creation, the day that New Life is sealed in Christ’s defeat of death itself.  The work of God in creating the world and the work of Christ is redeeming it, bringing new life out of death are intimately related, and the theme of Sabbath flows through both.

Too often we subscribe to the idea that we have to do a lot of work for ourselves to earn a place in God’s Kingdom, to repay Him for what He did for us.  We Christians set up laws for ourselves, never saying that we have to earn salvation, but often implying it.  Certainly we are called to live out our faith, fulfilling the great commission to make disciples, but we do this out of grateful obedience, not to earn our salvation.  When we act as though we need to earn the grace we are given, we unknowingly diminish the power and work of Jesus on the cross.

Matthew 27 – Irony

Read Matthew 27

I’ve read and heard about Jesus’ death a countless number of times in my life.  However, in reading this today, I am struck by the repeated irony in all that was said to and about Jesus during the process of his conviction and crucifixion.  Matthew does not record Jesus’ request to the Father for the forgiveness of those who did this to Him, but truly the did not know anything about what they did.

The people cry out that Jesus’ “blood be on us and our children.”  Little do they know how much they truly want that to be true.

The soldiers bow down before Jesus and say “Hail, King of the Jews.”  Little do they know how they will be doing that for real one day.

The people walking by, beckoning Him to come down from the cross if He “truly is the Son of God.”  Little do they know that this is right where the Son of God needed to be.

The religious leaders chide that they will believe if Jesus comes down from the cross.  They mock Jesus for trusting in God.  Little do they know the trust that Jesus had for the plan of salvation being carried out at that very moment.

It wasn’t until Jesus’ last breath when all this had taken place that one man, a soldier guarding Jesus’ cross, recognizes the truth of Jesus’ identity.  But that acclimation wasn’t too late, it was the beginning of billions of faith professions that would follow since that day.

Once again we are reminded that God’s ways are not our ways.  Even when we think we know how God should act, we must submit our trust to God whose ways and love are far higher and greater than we could ever ask or imagine.

Matthew 26 – Put Your Sword Away

Read Matthew 26

There is so much that could be covered in today’s chapter.  Matthew puts much of the “passion narrative” together into chapters 26 and 27 which makes drawing out specific themes somewhat difficult.  However, the thing that strikes me the most here is the way that Jesus approaches what is about to take place.

It is clear that there is some apprehension; Jesus struggles with the “cup” He is to bear.  However, He is never unwilling and He never resists.  Indeed, this whole chapter is marked by Jesus’ willingness for the task set before Him.  Hebrew 12 says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  The Joy?!?  For me, that seems unfathomable.

This is another example of how the Kingdom of Heaven looks; not the suffering, but the willful setting aside of one’s self for the sake of others.  Jesus has said many times that the one who will be great in God’s Kingdom is the one who humbles him/herself and takes on the role of a servant.  In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

God’s Kingdom will not come about through the forceful conquest of military or weapons.  It will not come through advanced technology nor will it come from protesting loudly against culture.  The Kingdom of Heaven is revealed in the humble acts of those who love and serve their neighbor, their family, and their friends.

I wonder what the Church would look like if we focused in on living out God’s love in this way.  I wonder if the marginalization that the church experiences right now would fade if we lived and loved as Christ did.

James 1:19-27 "Action Word"

We talk a great deal about what the Word of God is transformative, guiding, equipping, and much more.  However, none of this really amounts to anything if we do not Engage it and respond to it.  James reminds us that we need to be “doers” of the Word, and to be good doers, we need to be good listeners to what God is saying through the Holy Spirit

Matthew 25 – Kingdom Investment

Read Matthew 25

Wise investing is one of the smartest things we can do with the money God has blessed us with.  While Jesus warns about allowing money to master us, we also must recognize the wisdom in future planning.  This could be illustrated in the Parable of the Talents.  However, I don’t think that money was on our Lord’s mind when He spoke this parable.

A talent was something very valuable.  It regulated the exchange of currency in those days.  But what is important in this teaching is not the “amount” or the “type” but rather what was done with it.  When the Master returns, it isn’t the amount of talent returned that mattered, otherwise the man with 5 would have received more praise than the one with 2, but the fact that they had put those talents to work and returned more than what was originally given them.

I have heard it preached before that these “talents” are related to our own gifts and abilities, that we should put them to work so that God receives a return on His investment in us; an apt metaphor to be sure.  However, keeping with the rest of this passage, I wonder if the meaning we are to gain from this comes from its relation to the parable of the sheep and the goats.

James 1 says that we are not to merely be “hearers” of God’s Word, but “doers.”  Those who were welcomed into the Kingdom were those that did something with the Word, “invested the talent” if you will.  Jesus said earlier that a tree will be known by its fruit.  Perhaps that is the fruit that comes from the sowing of the seed that is God’s Word in us which, in good soil, yields a crop far greater than what was sown.