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.

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.

Tuesday, November 19. Mark 8 – 10

Mark 9 contains one of the sadder moments in this gospel account.

The chapter begins with the transfiguration story. The transfiguration itself must have been an amazing event but rather than ask Jesus about its meaning, Peter simply blurts out a response. Peter isn’t interested in knowing. He’s interested in doing, reminding me of a lot of Christians whose desire for good deeds runs ahead of God’s will.

The transfiguration is followed by the healing of a boy with a demon and there we learn that prayer hasn’t exactly been a part of the disciples’ lives.

Then, Jesus delivers the shortest of three statements about his impending death. The disciples not only don’t understand but they are afraid to ask Jesus about it.

And yet . . . they will argue among themselves about which of them will be the greatest. In the shadow of the Lord’s death, their focus is on themselves.

Perhaps in pointed response, Jesus tells them that if they are going to focus on themselves, they ought to focus on those things that will keep them from eternal life (verses 42-48).

As disciples of Jesus, we ought to be better listeners and particularly is that true when it comes to listening to God. The disciples wanted to understand. They wanted to be taught. But they didn’t want to listen. The gospel of Mark offers us all a chance in introspection: what is it that will keep us from eternal life? Are we more like the twelve bumbling twelve during Jesus’ ministry? We must answer thoughtfully and honestly. Whatever hindrance is there, we must excise with prejudice. The consequence of our action is eternal.