Disappointment — 3

And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17).

On Monday of Jesus’ final week, the Lord returned to Jerusalem only to discover (as Mark presents the story) another disappointment.  Within the temple wall, the outermost court (court of the gentiles) was as close as a non-Jew could get to the temple.  Any attempt to get closer than that would result in capital punishment for the offending gentile.

The temple was to be place where everyone (regardless of nationality) could come worship the God of Israel.  What Jesus found however was not a place of worship, but a shopping mall where hawkers sold their wares at inflated prices.  The only spot where everyone could worship was not a place conducive to worship for anyone!

In a story told by all the gospel writers, Jesus cleared the mall of its merchants – much to the disappointment of the religious leadership profiting from the transactions (who begin to lay plans in earnest to kill him).

The road to God is intended to be marked and lined with the people of God who encourage all to come to God.  There is only one road.  There is neither provision nor permission to pioneer alternate routes.  God’s people have to be sure they are on that road, and living in such a way that will mark it brightly and invitingly for all who would seek God – a road more easily traveled with the help of every pilgrim along the way.

Disappointment — 2

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.  (Mark 11:13-14).

This story is found only in Matthew and Mark and its lessons would be rather straight forward except for Mark’s cryptic little comment: “It was not the season for figs.”

Why expect figs on the tree if it wasn’t the season for figs?

After the fall harvest, Palestinian fig trees lose their leaves and begin to bear small buds that remain undeveloped until spring.  In the early spring, before leaves appear, these buds begin to develop into an immature fruit called “paggim.”  By the time the leaves appear again, the “paggim” is quite edible, but not yet a mature fig (see a reference to this “early fruit” in Song of Solomon 2:13). Thus the appearance of leaves on the fig tree proclaims the existence of fruit (however undeveloped).  If there is no “paggim,” there will be no figs on the tree that season.

Jesus has been acclaimed by joyous throngs all the way to Jerusalem, but once at the city, there is no reception at all.  The story of the fig tree presents another disappointment. After all Jesus has done, there ought to be at least a fledgling momentum of excitement anticipating the Kingdom.  There is not. Israel is fruitless and stands condemned.  So will the Church if she is unfruitful.  No matter how immature, the Church of Christ should always be producing the fruit of Christ.

Disappointment – 1

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve”(Mark 11:11).

The story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem the week before Passover is told in all four gospel accounts, but Mark presents it differently.  The other gospel writers have Jesus going to Jerusalem several times in his ministry and great things always happen.  But if we only had Mark, we might think this was the Lord’s first visit.  To the other gospel writers, this is a triumphal entry into Jerusalem with Jesus being proclaimed a king.  But to Mark, the big parade seems over before they ever get to Jerusalem – and there is no mention of Jesus being proclaimed a “king.”

In Mark, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is an anti-climax – a real balloon popper. Professor James Edwards puts it like this: “The whole scene comes to nothing.  Like the seed in the parable of the sower that receives the word with joy but has no root and lasts but a short time, the crowd disperses as mysteriously as it assembled.”

The disappointment in this story continues with the next, but there is an additional point here: Christianity is more than excitement, hype, and parade.  It is fundamentally about discipleship.  There’s nothing wrong with the new, innovative, and exciting – unless their presence and our thirst for them distracts us from very difficult business of following and being Jesus in the world.

That is our calling.

Sight!

The blind man said: “Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mark 10:52).

Jesus has done a lot of healing in Mark: I count eight healing stories thus far.

All these have at least one thing in common: we don’t know their names.

The only healed person whose name we know in Mark is the subject of our text: Bartimaeus. We first meet him at Jericho sitting in the road begging.  He may be blind, but there is nothing wrong with his hearing!  He hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.  He’s heard of this Jesus fellow.  He’s heard of the amazing things he has done.  He believes Jesus can make him see and when he gets a chance, he asks for precisely that – despite the fact that a host of people stand in his way.

The story concludes a long section (beginning in 8:1) that has to do with blindness. The disciples are blind to what Jesus’ power means for their lives.  They are blind to the will of God.  They are blind to who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.

But Bartimaeus, blind though he is, sees Jesus as the cure and when Jesus heals him, he does what no other healed person does; does what few sighted people do: he casts everything aside and follows Jesus.

Spiritually blind people struggle with discipleship.  But those who see clearly have only one goal: to follow the Lord and they let nothing, particularly the influence of the crowd, deter them. At heart though is this: you gotta want to see.

Fire and Salt

“Everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49).

I like salt.  Perhaps too much.  I’ve been known to salt my food before tasting it – a real faux pas in a fine restaurant and an (unintended on my part) insult to the chief.  Salt gives bland food flavor.  It can also act as a preservative and (according to Reader’s Digest) it can remove wine stains from carpet, deodorize sneakers, relieve the itching of mosquito bites and poison ivy, extinguish grease fires, rid gardens of weeds, snails and slugs, freshen breath and get rid of dandruff.

In the ancient world, salt was considered so valuable that it was often used as a synonym for wisdom.  Paul uses it this way in Colossians 3:6 when he says “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt [wisdom].”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all preserve Jesus’ remarks about salt and the warning that if salt loses its saltiness, it is worthless.  The fact is though,  salt cannot be made less salty.  Salt is salt.

However, when salt is mixed with something else, it takes more of it to do the job and if it is mixed with the wrong thing (virtually anything), it becomes not only less salty, but worthless.  Who would want to use salt that had been mixed with dirt?

Only Mark records Jesus’ words “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  His point is this: Life is full of trials.  Some of them God deliberately sends our way to teach us, mold us, make us better.  But will God succeed?  Not if we don’t learn from them, not if we don’t take those lessons to heart, and not if we forget the lessons we learn.  In each case, this divine salt of our lives becomes worthless.  God doesn’t send every trial we face, but he intends every trial to make us better.  Let’s not waste the opportunity.

Divorce as Illustration

He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

Not much “wiggle room” there.

Most folks don’t have a problem with this rule until they (or someone they know) break the rule.  Then what?

Mark does not address the “then what” – and neither should we (at least not from Mark).  He just lays down the rule.  The significance is why he lays it down where he does.

Mark 9:30 informs us of Jesus’ second prediction of his impending death.  From there, right through the third prediction and 10:45, Mark focuses on selfless living.  Almost squarely in the middle, he presents Jesus’ teaching on divorce.

It’s not just a “divorce” passage.  The passage is there, without compromise, to illustrate the seriousness of self-centeredness.  It leads to a condition described as adultery.  Every divorce is caused, at root, by selfishness on the part of one or both partners.  But it isn’t just in marriage.  In every phase of life, self-centeredness removes God from the throne in favor of self.  That action is called “adultery,” and when God wanted to talk about Israel’s faithlessness, that’s the word he used.

Marriage is serious business.  To make it work requires selflessness.  Failure is not consequence free option because selfishness is not a consequence free option.  It would be better to have an anchor tied about your neck and be thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).  The illustration underscores the seriousness and personal impact of following Jesus.

Selflessness

“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

I’d say this command ranks up there with “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” as the most difficult of Jesus’ expectations.  In an age like our own, characterized by privilege, entitlement, and an insistence on having our way, maintaining our rights and being respected, it may be a deal-breaker for some.

And yet, Jesus is dead serious.

The words come after another of the disciples’ “arguments.”  This time, they were fussing over who among them would be the greatest.  To their shame, the argument took place just after Jesus had told them (for the second time) that he would be betrayed and killed (“Never mind you Jesus.  What about us?”).  Beginning with this second prediction, and moving through the third, Mark devotes the next sixty-five verses to the discipleship requirement of selfless living. Three times in that section, he illustrates his message with children.

The illustration is a bit lost on us because our world prizes children, gives them priority, and does everything to protect them and see to their success.  But in Jesus’ world, children were regarded little more than slaves.  Abortion was common, as was infanticide.  Jesus’ point was this: if you are going to follow Him, you must be willing to take the status of a child in the ancient world – which was no status at all.  How important is this selfless attitude?  Without it, Jesus will say later, there is no entrance into the Kingdom of God.  Whereas selfless living may be a deal-breaker for us, self-centered living was a deal breaker for Jesus.

Faith Struggle

“If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23)

Deb Hotaling has a 20 year old son. He is six and a half feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. Over all in excellent health, he does however, have autism. He functions at the intellectual level of a 6 year old and like most 6 year olds, he can get violent when frustrated. Unlike other 6 year olds however, his outbursts can be dangerous to himself and others.

Ms. Hotaling is her son’s care-giver. What will she do when she can’t calm him any more? What will happen to him should something happen to her?

Reading her plight this morning I was reminded of this story in Mark 9. A father had an adult son, demon possessed all his life. Periodically, the young man would lose physical control of himself, sometimes endangering his life. I would imagine a father in such circumstances would try anything to help his boy, and in such desperation he came to Jesus.

He made a mistake though: he confessed a lack of faith – to which Jesus responded with enough incredulity to make the father think help might not be forthcoming.

Everybody struggles with faith. Does God care? Can God help? Will God help? Will He help the way I want him to? Yes, yes, yes, and perhaps. The hard part of the struggle is confidence with the yeses, and being happy with whatever the “perhaps” brings. Only then will we truly overcome unbelief. Fortunately, as he did for the father in Mark 9, Jesus works in our behalf in the meantime.

Instead of Prayer

“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. (Mark 9:16)

Whenever I read the story in Mark 9:14-29 I am reminded of the Israelites at Sinai. Moses went up Sinai to be with God, and left on her own, Israel turned quickly to idolatry. Here, Jesus leaves nine apostles on their own while he ascends the Mount of Transfiguration. The next thing he knows, they’ve gotten themselves into an argument.

A man with a desperately ill adult son has brought his boy to Jesus for healing – but Jesus isn’t there. So the father settles on the nine disciples. Here, the details of the story become sketchy. What becomes prominent however is NOT the inability of the disciples to heal the son, but what they spend their time on instead – arguing with the scribes.

Arguing gets a lot of press in Mark. The people argue with each other about who Jesus is. The Pharisees argue with Jesus. The disciples argue among themselves. And now, the disciples argue with the teachers of the law.

Jesus doesn’t argue. He just heals the boy.

Later, when the disciples ask “why” they couldn’t do the healing, Jesus says the healing could only come about by prayer.

Do you get the contrast? The disciples could have accomplished more had they spent less time arguing and more time in prayer. Around us are people desperate for hope. They won’t find it among a people who spend their time bickering. They will only find it in a confident people who in times desperate and otherwise have their eyes focused heavenward on the only hope there is.

Hear . . . and obey.

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).

The story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John to a high mountain where he is “transfigured” is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and at exactly the same place: right after Peter confesses, on behalf of all the disciples, their faith that Jesus is the son of God.

Mark opens his gospel with the announcement that with the coming of Jesus, the Kingdom (or rule) of God has come near (1:15). This has a positive consequence for the believer as the next nine chapters unfold: There is no reason for the disciple of Jesus to fear in the misfortunes of life, nor the challenges that life may present nor the demonic powers who may present them. Jesus is superior to them all and ready to deliver.

But there are responsibilities: the disciple must not try to cram his discipleship into his old life. He must live a new life. Second, old rules and traditions must be jettisoned in favor of a new way of living, and that way must be lived according to the word of God. On the Mount of Transfiguration, for the third time in the book (see Mark 3:35; 7:1-13; and here), this point is made. In all three gospels the point is the same: those who confess Christ must do as He says. Put another way, the benefits of the Kingdom of God belong only to those who are subject to its king.