Mark 1 – Action!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Matthew 24 – Signs of the Times

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Did you know that humanity has survived at least 154 past “end of the world” dates?  Sadly, that number is actually much greater, and there are at least 13 (most likely more) predicted armageddon dates in humanity’s future.  It seems that humanity is obsessed with our own extinction.  Unfortunately, a large amount of this obsession has been fueled by the Christian community and emphasized by Christian fundamentalism.  A large number of Christian leaders seem to have missed this section of Scripture and have instead placed their focus on figuring out the very thing Jesus says only God knows.

Jesus talks about earthquakes and famines, wars and rumors of such, all of which are signs that the end is coming.  Let’s be honest: this is true of every single year since Jesus was on earth.  Lately, it seems, people have been pointing to cultural and moral decline as a sign that this end is getting even closer, which could arguably be said about every day and year since Jesus was on earth too.

The point that Jesus is trying to make here is not actually to instill a longing for the end, for us to “get out of here” and for heaven to come, but to remind us of the readiness we should live with as those who believe.  More than this, though, I think what we should read out of this is a sense of urgency that comes with knowing that the “end is near.”  There are many out there that do not know the love of God that is in Christ Jesus; the end for them would truly be the end.

Those that say they know, Jesus says, are the ones we shouldn’t listen to.  Instead, our focus should be where it always should have been: proclaiming the Gospel!

Matthew 23 – Walk the Talk

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Yikes!  Jesus’ teaching takes on a rather angry tone today!  This scathing section of Scripture tears the Phariesses and other teachers of the Law apart for their practices as the leaders of Israel.  It is interesting, and sometimes we miss this, how Jesus begins this section; He acknowledges their position, their seat, and tells His listeners that they are to”do and observe whatever they tell you…”  Doesn’t this seem a bit contradictory to the harsh verbal beating that follows?

This isn’t the only time that Jesus acknowledges earthly authority as being valid.  In fact, multiple places in the Old and New Testament we are presented with the fact that earthly authority and government is ordained by God and we are called to respect those seats.  That does not, however, mean that we are to do what they do which is a major distinction to say the least.

The “7 woes” that Jesus speaks of here revole largely around the how the teachings of the Pharisees don’t match up with their actions.  They set up Law and practice which they themselves do not follow; “heavy burdens” that they are unwilling to bear.  Yet the things that they do follow are those outward rituals that make them to appear pious and righteous in the eyes of the people.  During those times they take honored and very visible seats so all can see their “holiness.”

Jesus points out the depth of their hypocracy; this is, in fact, the very thing that condemns them.  They don’t even walk their own talk.  The greatest leader, Jesus reminds us, is the one who humbly serves.  These are important reminders for us, in a country and culture of would-be leaders, ones who speak of great things but are betrayed by their actions, or lack thereof.

Matthew 22 – Ulterior Motives

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Have you ever done something that would seemingly benefit someone else but, in reality, you did it to benefit yourself?  Whether it is helping someone so as to receive public affirmation or being publically generous, the true intentions of our hearts are something that we have to contend with.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were such people, always having an ulterior motive in their minds when the questioned Jesus.

For Jesus, questions like this were not uncommon for religious teachers.  Leaders would question each other so as to affirm the truth of their teaching, or to garner more followers for themselves.  We see this in our culture a great deal, especially during election years.  In Jesus’ case, however, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were looking for an excuse to have Jesus arrested and to rid themselves of this nuisance.

Yet Jesus is unphased by these questions, not simply because He knows that they are trying to trick Him, but because He understands what is most important, what the Father truly cares about: the heart.  Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were “experts” in the law; they “knew” how to follow God.  When they questioned Jesus though, the Lord redirected the question to expose the true fault of their hearts.

God does not concern Himself with “temple taxes,” He wants the heart of the giver.  We need not concern ourselves with holding on to worldly things, even some of our closest relationships.  Instead, He desires our trust that, when resurrection happens, all things will be made right.  The things we hold as important now will pale in comparison to what life will be like then.

What does God desire then?  The answer seems so simple: Love God and Love your neighbor; love like that has no ulterior motives.

Matthew 21 – The Greatest Danger

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Matthew continues to point his audience, primarily intended to be Jews,  back to the Old Testament Scriptures, showing Jesus as the fulfillment of all prophecy.  In the two major events that we are familiar with, the Triumphal Entry and the cleansing of the temple, Scripture is directed toward Jesus as the fulfillment.  Even Jesus’ teaching contains Scripture that references Himself as the Messiah.

However, it isn’t the presence of Scripture that has the Pharisees so concerned, but it’s content.  Israel’s past when it comes to listening to those whom God has sent as prophets is sorted, at best.  Most of the prophets that God sent were rejected and even killed because of their message.  While God continued to try and draw His covenant people back to Himself so that they could live into their true identity, the people continued in their disobedience and, in some ways, became much like the fig tree that Jesus cursed: fruitless.

I wonder if this is the greatest danger God’s people face today.  Over and above the decentralization of the church, societal marginalization, and even persecution both physical and ideological, when God’s people become content to simply exist, to play it safe, and to pursue those things that make us comfortable… not that which makes us disciples called to make disciples.

Jesus’ parables were directed at the people of Israel; the Pharisees and Matthew’s readers would have recognized this.  However, the teaching holds incredibly true for God’s people today as well.  The Church in North America has rested on it’s laurels for far too long.  Her past achievements have been enough, some think, to warrant a voice in today’s culture, however those passing too often see a tree with leaves but no fruit, and Jesus says, “A tree is known by it’s fruit.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-14; 32:45-47 "That You May Have Life"

Moses exhorts the people of Israel to remember and be in the Word of God.  It is not too difficult to know; it is not far off.  God’s Word is very near to them, and to us as well.  We need to Engage the Word, to know the voice of the Shepherd, and we will then see the transformative work of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 20 – Equality

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This could arguably be the least popular text in Matthew, at least in the U.S.A.  We are the land of the “American Dream,” where anyone can work hard and be rewarded accordingly.  The harder one works, the more wealth, authority, and power one can acquire.  Writing this during the 2016 election cycle, no clearer picture could be painted of this reality.  Candidates tout their “desires” to help all people, that all would benefit from their leadership, and yet their actions and drive for more wealth and power show no real concern for they seek to lead.

Jesus illustrates the paradigm of true equality in the parable of the vineyard, a story that almost everyone who heard it in that day would have had an aversion to.  How is it possible for someone who worked an hour to get paid the same as one who works 12?

Once again Jesus takes on our notions of what is fair and equal, notions that are usually self-interested, and redefining them in light of God’s immeasurable grace and mercy.  As is always true, God’s ways are not our ways, and are often in direct opposition to human norms, the ways we tend to opperate.

In a culture and time when cries for freedom and equality ring louder than ever, we all most recognize that God’s definition of equality far surpasses those of any social movement.  Indeed true equality has nothing to do with money, status, or even race, but in the reconition of where we stand before God as sinners saved by grace alone.  This understanding of God’s indescriminate love for everyone, and His call to love as He loves, must be the basis and the imputus for our desires of equality and justice for all… in the truest sense of what that means.

Matthew 19 – First and Last

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Having never been divorced, I find it hard to understand the thought process that goes into divorce.  In fact, as a pastor, walking alongside people who are struggling with things I have not directly experienced is one of the most difficult things for me.

Jesus, as He continues teaching about turning from selfishness, brings in the sensitive subjects of both divorce and money.  Like those asking who would be first in God’s Kingdom, certainly a self-interested question if ever one existed, Jesus addresses other situations in which self-interest certainly can play a role.

I would not presume to cast judgment on those struggling through divorce or picking up the pieces of life after one, and do not want to paint with broad brush strokes over the experiences of individuals in relationships I know nothing about.  I believe that this passage has been used far too many times to judge and hurt, condemn, label, and nullify people’s feelings without consideration of the details of their situation.  I firmly believe that it is not God’s intention to force people to stay in relationships that are unsafe and dangerous.

As He continues to teach, Jesus challenges our notions of selfishness and self-interest.  As those who are “in Christ,” we are called to put off such temptations, to put others before ourselves.  Ultimately we are called to what Paul calls a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).  This calling is a life of freedom, not being bound to our own self-interest but putting others first.  Our freedom is to love in the way that Christ loved: self-sacrificially.  What does this mean for us?  Perhaps it means not pursuing wealth, actually living out marriage vows, or giving our children the time they need and desire after a long day’s work.  Can you think of others?

Matthew 18 – All the Wrong Questions

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We often get caught up in pursuing what we think is most important.  In our pursuit, we inquire and investigate how we can achieve these ‘important’ things in our lives.  Today, at least, we can know that we are in good company.  Jesus’ disciples also had their priorities a little mixed up and we find them asking Jesus all the wrong questions.

As they see Jesus’ ministry growing and continued talk about the Kingdom of Heaven being near, His disciples begin to dwell on a common human question: “where is my place in this Kingdom?”  Jesus has called these 12 men to be His inner circle; they want to know who is going to be Jesus’ #2, His go to guy.  More importantly, they want to know how they can become that person, something accented by Peter’s question later in verse 21.

Jesus’ response turns the usual notions of importance on their head by pointing to the true concern of God in His Kingdom.  Unlike the dominions of men in which power and authority are things to be taken and exercised over others, the Kingdom of Heaven concerns itself with but one thing: that those who are not a part of it are found and welcomed in.  He illustrates this point through teaching and a parable.

It may seem backward, caring for the one lost sheep amidst the 99 that aren’t, or emphasizing forgiveness and reconciliation rather than holding a grudge (a form of having power over someone) and revenge, but this is the way of God’s Kingdom; it’s how God’s economy works.  Those who would find life in Christ must lose their own; we must die to ourselves daily.  Here and only here, when our dependence is on God, do we find true freedom and our place in God’s Kingdom.