Dying and Living

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Chapter eight of Mark’s gospel is the hinge of his book and features a turning point.  There, Jesus reveals to the disciples for the first time his impending death.  Mark says Jesus spoke “plainly” about it and Mark himself is equally “plain” that the disciples didn’t get it – underscoring their denseness three times between 8:31 and 9:32.

Interestingly, while they focus on the “rising from the dead” part, Jesus focuses on the “dying” part.  Nearly seventy years ago one writer penned these words: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our  lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 99).

But the call is not just to die.  It is also a call to live anew. We die to who we are, that we might become the likeness of our resurrected Lord.  Yet, there can be no rising without the dying.

Slow Recovery

He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” (Mark 8:23-24)

Blindness plays an important role in the gospel accounts.

Matthew has three ‘healing of the blind’ stories, Mark two, Luke and John one each.

In Mark, this story comes hot on the heels of Jesus’ frustration with his disciples after a second ‘feeding of the multitude’ story which, except for the number of people fed, sounds much like the first story.  The second story underscores the disciples’ amazing spiritual blindness.

John has a similar story, but there are subtle differences – one of which is that John’s account highlights the spiritual blindness of Israel’s religious leaders.  Mark’s account highlights the blindness of the disciples.  That this healing story happens in stages makes it different from not only John, but every other miracle Jesus performs.

Mark’s account helps to explain why Jesus, though disappointed with his disciples, doesn’t just leave them in disgust.  Some blindness doesn’t go away immediately – even by the power of God.  It takes time, and the patient persistent ministry of the sighted. Lives aren’t changed just because they are taught better.  It’s a point we all should  remember as we serve.

Eventually, of course, with proper treatment, the spiritually blind are expected to see; willful blindness is not an option for the child of God.  It’s all a part of the required ever changing, ever growing Christian life.

Frustrated Again

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? . . . Do you still not understand? (Mark 8:17-21)

It may well be the closest Jesus gets to losing his cool.  The words are not addressed to his enemies, but to his disciples, and few early readers would be surprised by Jesus’ frustration.

Mark 1:16 – 8:21 is marked by three callings of Jesus: a call to follow him, a call to be with him, and a call to imitate him.  At the beginning of the last call, Jesus feeds 5000 people from 5 loaves of bread and two fish. At the end of the last call, he feeds four thousand from a sack lunch.

Both stories:
* begin with a need to feed the crowd.
* continue with Jesus delegating the task to the disciples
* have the disciples insisting it cannot be done.
* have Jesus asking “how many loaves do you have?”
* mention Jesus telling the crowd to sit on the ground.
* mention Jesus praying
* have Jesus feeding the crowd.

And then, scant hours later, the disciples are arguing with one another because they have no food.

Hopefully, you can understand why Jesus comes a bit unhinged.

When we’re too busy bemoaning our challenges, worrying about them, or even hoping they never come our way, we become willingly blind to the matchless power of God to provide –  and eyes that won’t see are the blindest of all.

Listen

“There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. . . He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means ‘Be opened!’)” At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly” (Mark 7:32-34).

Though Jesus met people randomly in his travels, and many sought him out , the gospels tell us some sought Jesus for what he could do for others.

You’d think that would be a good thing, but Mark has another point to make.

I can only think of one case where someone was invited to come hear what Jesus had to say. And yet, Jesus’ ministry was intended to be more about teaching people how to live than helping them through the rough patches of their lives. The Lord did both of course, but like raising people from the dead, his miracles were only temporary. Other illnesses would come, and so too would death. But what Jesus had to say would be of eternal benefit.

Here, faced with yet another plaintive plea for healing, Jesus, with a bit of exasperation – that’s that sighing deeply part – consents. And people are “overwhelmed with amazement” and speak glowingly of his work. Yet Mark tells us they paid no attention to what Jesus said (see verse 36).

It’s not the first time Mark makes this observation. It won’t be the last. The message is subtle but vital: turning to Jesus in moments of crisis may be wise. But wiser still is to listen to what he has to say, and obey.

Tradition

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” . . . And [Jesus] said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:5, 9).

Britain’s House of Commons has traditionally inscribed its laws on parchment. Recently, after 600 years, it voted to use paper instead.  The vote wasn’t without rancor.  At least one MP protested: “This is destroying a piece of culture, history and tradition for no particular reason.”

I wouldn’t say “no” reason.  Parchment costs $45 a sheet.  Archival paper only costs twenty cents.  At my house, this would be a “no brainer.”

Tradition is often “the way we’ve always done it.”  Sometimes, tossing tradition is a good idea.  Sometimes not. Jesus wasn’t against tradition – not even in our text.  What he was against were traditions that violated the will of God, or competed with that will. Jesus condemned his critics because their tradition got in the way of their obedience.

An obedient faith, practiced over time, becomes a tradition.  But it is not just a tradition. In at least three places Paul refers to obedient Christian practice as “tradition” – 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:8.

Let’s be careful of three things: First, that we never refer to any of our faith practices as just traditions when they in fact have a divine mandate.  Second, that we not allow any faith practice that is just tradition to compete with what God has actually said.  Third, let’s be careful to make following the will of God the tradition of our lives.

Separation

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:5-6).

Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:51-52).

These two stories are tied together by two words translated as “stubborn” (or hardened) “hearts.”

In the first, Jesus did what his opponents thought he shouldn’t do, and for that transgression of orthodoxy, they were willing to kill him.

In the second, Jesus refused to do what his disciples thought he ought to do.  They were equally “put out” with Jesus – though perhaps not enough to kill him.

In both, hardheartedness — a determination to have one’s own way — separates from Christ. Of all the gospel writers, Mark is hardest on the disciples.  Were I one of the twelve, reading Mark would have been embarrassing.  I surely would think: “If only I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have behaved that way!”  And I think that was Mark’s goal: to tell us now what we will come to learn later so that we won’t be embarrassed when we finally see it on our own.  God’s way is best.  Better I should seek His will now rather than my own and content myself with His leading.  Wherever He is taking me, it will be better than anywhere I can go without Him.

Frustration

He was about to pass by them . . .  (Mark 6:48).

The story of Jesus feeding the 5000 had to be the best known story of the early church.  The only miracle story told in all four gospels it goes like this:

The disciples, sent out to preach the Kingdom of God returned from their mission with a following fiercely determined to get to Jesus – so determined that Jesus could not escape them. So determined that they came without provisions.  Though hungry and tired himself, Jesus taught them, and fed them – and they responded by attempting to make Jesus a king by force.

Utterly chagrined, Jesus dismissed the disciples (first) and the crowds and, perhaps in frustration, sought time alone with his Father in prayer.

The extent of Jesus’ frustration is seen in our verse.  The disciples were working hard rowing to their destination and Jesus, unhindered by wind and waves, was determined to get there without them.  Jesus wasn’t “about” to pass them by.  He had decided to pass them by.  Intent is the meaning of the word. They were as upset with Jesus as he was with them and the Lord decided to let them stew in their difficulties for a while.

But he didn’t.  He couldn’t – any more than he could let the crowd go hungry.  They too were frustrated, and they were afraid.  And Jesus made a detour to help them.

When you are frustrated with others, remember they may well be frustrated with you.  Perhaps their frustration is a result of their own feelings, actions or prejudices.  What they might need is not alienation, but a reassuring fellowship that while things might not yet be alright, they will be.

Predictability

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-2).

When I read the story of the woman “caught in the act” of adultery (John 8:1ff) I get the impression the whole thing was staged. In other words, I don’t think they just “happened” to catch her. I think it was a setup (more on that another time).

But I don’t get the impression a “setup” is what is happening in Mark 3. It is simply a confluence of events. Certain things were going to happen at a certain time. The Pharisees and Herodians simply determined they would use them for their own purpose.

They knew it was the Sabbath. They knew where the crippled man would be on the Sabbath. They knew Jesus was in town. They knew where he would be on the Sabbath – gathering with God’s people (Luke says it was Jesus’ “custom” – Luke 4:16). They knew what Jesus would do upon meeting the crippled man.

Which leads me to this: Our lives, like that of Jesus, should have a bit of predictability about them. In particular, when God’s people gather, everyone should be able to count on us gathering too. And folks who know us should be able to tell how we will react to situations we encounter – always like Jesus.

Jesus Surprised

“He was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mark 6:6).

I doubt much surprised Jesus – but it did happen.

He had gone to his hometown and taught in the synagogue. If he taught what he usually did, it was “get ready for the Kingdom of God” – and one got ready by repentance and entrusting one’s life to Jesus.

This Nazareth story comes just after four vignettes about death. First, the disciples thought they were going to die in a storm on the Galilee. Second was the story of a demon possessed gentile who lived among the dead. Third was the woman who has been dying for twelve years with a bleeding problem. Finally, there was the little dead girl Jesus raised.

Sharyn Dowd remarks: “There is a progression through the four stories of the seriousness from which Jesus rescues people. . . Mark makes the point that through Jesus, God’s power overcomes every threat to life and wholeness, even the ultimate threat of death. Moreover, Jesus extends this wholeness to men and women, Jews and gentiles, the pure and the polluted. No place or condition is beyond the reach of God’s saving power.”

Those stories lead to this one. After all Jesus had done, his kinsmen refused to take advantage. Mark gives two reasons: First, they couldn’t imagine one of their own being so successful. Second was Jesus’ teaching: The benefits of the power of God are not up for grabs to any and all. They require submitting to the way of Jesus – a notion the home folks just couldn’t abide.

Given all Jesus had to offer, their rejection was surprising.

When we reject him, I imagine it still is.

Finding Peace In Chaos

For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well (Mark 5:28).

The Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus with a prologue of fifteen verses.  The next section of the book (1:16 – 3:6) contains five important scenes of exorcism or healing, followed by five controversial actions of Jesus.  The section ends with the plot of the Pharisees and Herodians to kill Jesus.

As the second section unfolds (3:7 – 6:6), the opposition to Jesus intensifies – beginning (and ending) with his own family – and with increasing opposition comes increasing chaos.  People are crowding Jesus, falling before Jesus, and falling on Jesus.  In the middle of it all come two people: Jarius, a synagogue ruler, and an unnamed woman.  The woman needs healing for herself, the ruler needs healing for his daughter.  The two stories are set up to be read in comparison.  “Jarius is a man of distinction, honor, and has a name.  The woman is “unclean” and is unnamed. Jarius can approach Jesus from the front and ask Jesus for help.  The woman must approach from behind and steal it. Jarius is rich.  The woman is destitute. Jarius has a family.  The woman will never have a family.” Jarius’ daughter is twelve years old.  The woman has been ill for twelve years.

For all their differences, these two have three things in common: both believe in Jesus, neither escape anxiety, and both find peace.
Life will always have times of chaos and in those times faith will always be challenged by anxiety. But those who focus on their confidence in Jesus will find both removed and peace restored.