These devotions were written in the spring and early summer of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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I have a confession to make. At times I tend toward obsessing on video games. Now I’m not talking about blasting mutants in Doom or chasing fantastic quarry in EverQuest. Instead, I tend to get hung up in strategy games. Right now, it’s SimCity. And what have I learned from playing SimCity? That’s easy. You can’t build the city that you’re wanting unless you make careful preparations for it. High-tech industries don’t just appear in a city. They need a highly educated workforce and low pollution before they’ll appear. My son Tom wants to plunk a major-league baseball stadium down into his city of 500 citizens. That just won’t work.
What does that have to do with the shortest of the four gospels? This reading for today is all about preparation. First, we have John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets. When I was a kid and heard John referred to as the greatest of the prophets, I couldn’t understand it. After all, I’d seen page after page of Isaiah and Jeremiah in my Bible. John’s message on the other hand could have fit into the blank space that they leave on the page at the end of one of the minor prophets. What I didn’t understand, of course, was that John’s greatness lay not in how much he said, but in what he was called to do. When John points and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world,” he in that brief moment sealed his reputation as the greatest. All of the over prophets could only gesture vaguely in the direction of the Messiah, but John could indicate clearly.
Where John prepared the way for the Lord, Jesus prepared himself to travel down that way. In these few verses, Jesus asks John to baptize him and then heads out to the wilderness for forty days of spiritual preparation. It’s truly remarkable to think that God Incarnate would need to set himself aside for forty days in order to make spiritual preparation. If Jesus needed that, how much more do you or I need it? Yet how often do we try to accomplish great things with insufficient spiritual preparation. I’ve seen myself head into a Sunday School classroom with little more prayer than a mealtime grace. No wonder things don’t always go swimmingly.
I’ve found that I can waste a lot of time playing SimCity, but I can also learn some useful things. Today, the lesson is not just to prepare the way for the Lord but to prepare to be the Lord’s.
It was probably five years ago that I attended a concert at a Christian Music Festival. The second of three acts for the evening, a band I’d never heard of before, was filling the night air with their raucous brand of music, and I found myself sitting back toward the fringe of the crowd, waiting impatiently for the headliner—perhaps it was the SuperTones—to hit the stage. Probably two thirds of the way through this band’s set, something peculiar happened. The drummer got up from his drum-kit, grabbed a single snare drum, moved it and himself to the very brink of the stage, and began doing a drum solo. Through the years, I’ve been to plenty of concerts and heard plenty of drum solos. In my opinion, long drum, guitar, nose-flute, or triangle solos are much more often endured than they are enjoyed. The typical instrumental solo in a rock act is among the purer forms of human self-indulgence. But that’s just my opinion.
Armed with that opinion, however, how could I think anything good would come out of this clown with a snare drum? But that’s just what happened. This guy beat every possible surface of that drum in every possible way. He created rhythms that human ears have never known they longed to hear. It was mesmerizing. I found myself carried toward him, bodily. By that, I mean that I quite involuntarily got to my feet and made my way through the crowd so that I could be as near this gorgeous cacophony as I could possible get. This drummer was irresistible. His was one of those rare solos that is actually enjoyed. When he finally finished and carried his snare drum back to the land of drum-kits, we all went nuts with applause.
Whatever it was that drummer—whose name I can’t even remember—had is something that I don’t have much of. Some people have that quality—that “It”—when they talk. You just have to listen to them. Some have it when they sing. Some have it in their appearance. Some people are just born leaders, who everybody wants to follow. That drummer, on a hot July evening, had it dripping from his drumsticks.
These verses from Mark’s gospel remind us that Jesus had that irresistible quality about him. I don’t know if it came partly through his appearance or his voice. The Bible is silent on those matters. But it’s clear that when Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” nobody just ignored him. Some naysayers—those scholars who are always trying to minimize the Scripture—will point out that Peter, Andrew, James, and John probably knew Jesus before that seaside encounter. That’s apparently true, since John tells us how Jesus first met Peter and Andrew, but that’s hardly the point. I don’t know anybody whom I could go to and say, “Hey, leave your family and your career so that you can traipse around with me and preach the gospel.” Well, I could say it, but I don’t know anybody who would listen. Even people I’ve known for many years would simply dismiss me as overly enthused. But Jesus couldn’t be denied, couldn’t be ignored. You have to take a stand either for or against this man. That’s the way it remains to this day.
Not everybody at that concert found themselves drawn to the sound of the drums. Not everybody finds themselves drawn to Jesus. But for those of us who do, we simply have to get into the rhythm and join with the song. Let the beat go on!
“If you build it, they will come.” That whispered phrase has entered our cultural vocabulary as surely as “To be or not to be” or the Hallelujah Chorus. In that movie, Field of Dreams, the thing that was to be built was a baseball park and the “they” who were to come were first the spirits of old ballplayers and then the droves of baseball tourists who would drive up and hand over their money in search of a baseball-induced peace of mind. That must be one of the sillier premises for a movie in the last twenty-five years.
But the basic idea of that statement—“If you build it, they will come.”—is a sound one. If you build a better car, people will presumably buy it. If you make a better television program, people will eventually watch it. If you build a better mousetrap, the mice will beat a path from your door. Or something like that.
As we read this section of Mark’s gospel, we see this idea in action. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Then he heals all sorts of people from Capernaum. After pretty well saturating the market in that town, he tells his disciples that they need to take their healing and teaching ministry on the road. Finally, after dramatic success away from Capernaum, Jesus’ reputation becomes so great that he couldn’t even go into town without being mobbed.
One of the great things about Mark’s writing is that he rarely wastes time. Here in the course of one chapter, Jesus has gone from an unknown to a cultural phenomenon. As fascinating as this rapid rise seems, I’m really more interested in what these actions of Jesus say to us today. I once knew a nice Christian lady who, watching as her church dwindled from over 200 to below 100 in attendance, blamed its decreases on the fact that “those realtors don’t sell houses around here to young people.” What she ignored was that a church only a couple of blocks to our north was running about 800 in worship, while another a mile or so to the south brought in 1,500 people every week. I don’t believe that the realtors should shoulder the blame for this one. When a church fails to reach its community, you can’t blame the community. When the church builds itself up in the image of Jesus, they will come.
“If you build it, they will come” applies to churches, but it also applies to individuals. Jesus said that we’d know his followers by their fruit, yet all too often we blame our lack of fruit on any number of things beyond our own control. Those rationalizations might be comforting, but they don’t reflect the truth. We are called to an imitation of Christ. When we build up that image, then the fruits will come. The work is harder than building a ballfield, but the results will far outshine some shadowy baseball players.
I knew Russ since he was a Cub Scout. I was his Den Chief then and later I took him under my wing when he became a Scout. Russ, like a lot of Scouts, made great progress in his earlier years, breezing through the various levels of advancement and racking up merit badges like so many baseball cards. But then, when girls, cars, and jobs entered the picture, Russ slowed down. By the time he turned 18, Russ had accomplished nearly everything required to be an Eagle Scout. He’d done all the hard merit badges and completed his Eagle service project. All he needed to do was write up the report on the service project and finish one rather simple merit badge. All in all, he faced some two hours of work at his kitchen table. That’s why, on the morning before Russ’ eighteenth birthday, his Scoutmaster showed up at the front door.
“Russ, get dressed,” Don urged him. “We can get this stuff done in no time and you can still make Eagle.”
Russ reportedly looked at Don and assessed his own physical attitude. “I have to work a late shift tonight. I’d better get some sleep,” he replied.
Here it was, the last chance Russ would get to become an Eagle Scout. The next day, the opportunity would evaporate like dew on a summer morning, but today, by sacrificing a couple of hours of sleep, the guy could finish the achievement that he had all but earned. All he had to do was suck it up and deprive himself this one time. But he wouldn’t or couldn’t.
I still think highly of Russ. He’s a good guy, but on that one morning, he decided that sleep was more important than the path of greater resistance that would lead to an Eagle medal for him. That’s a shame.
As I read this well-known story about the four men bringing their paralyzed friend to Jesus, I’m always struck by their tenacity. If he couldn’t walk, they’d carry him. If they couldn’t get through the crowd, they’d go through the roof. Think about that! Just getting a paralyzed guy onto the roof would be quite a chore, but they tore a hole in the roof and lowered him through it. Why?
Those guys understood what Russ didn’t understand. They saw the thing they were after, a healing from Jesus, as something worth pursuing without fail. They wanted it badly for their friend—not tomorrow, but today. So many people in our world invest themselves in extreme efforts to achieve things that really don’t matter. They invest themselves in fashion and the accumulation of money. They pursue cars and thrills, sex and success. But things are fleeting and inconsequential compared to the pursuit of Christ. Even an education or an Eagle Scout award are nothing when compared to hearing the creator of the universe say, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” We must wake ourselves from our sleep and pursue those things—or that one thing—that really matter.
It was when I was nine years old that I attended a revival service at Birchwood Baptist Church. My mother, who usually planted the family two-thirds of the way back in the sanctuary, managed to find us seats on the aisle on the second or third row. Toward the end of the sermon, the revivalist asked anyone who had never accepted Christ to raise their hand. Dutifully, I raised my hand. Two bars into “Just as I Am,” one of the visiting ministers was at my side, asking if I wanted to make a decision for Christ. I nodded and followed him to the front of the pews. A couple of weeks later, I was baptized, but other than that, nothing happened.
It was when I was seventeen years old that Jesus Christ found me in the pit of my despair and thrust his hand down to draw me out. I got baptized again, but this time the change in my life had already commenced. I’m reminded of this aspect of my testimony tonight as I read these verses. I see that a great crowd was following Jesus along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Scores of people were reaching out to him, but what did Jesus do? Did he select one of them? No, he found Levi, whom we also know as Matthew, sitting in his tax-collector shop. Levi was no more reaching out for Jesus than the Metropolitan Opera is reaching out for me as a featured baritone.
All too often, when we think about our religious life, we want to be in control. We want to decide when the worship service should begin and end, what sort of music ought to be played, and how long the pastor ought to preach. But that’s just not the way that the worship of the one true God is meant to be. Look all through the Old Testament and you will not find a single time when Yahweh does an opinion poll or forms a focus group. He knew how Israel wanted to worship and how they wanted to devote themselves to him. He knew that and he wasn’t terribly impressed.
The same thing holds in the New Testament. Jesus didn’t come to be the popular Messiah. He didn’t immediately embrace all of those people who thronged after him. Instead, he selected whoever he wanted to select. Why? I’m not at all sure, but I’m quite sure that it’s none of my business.
Those Pharisees who took exception to Jesus eating with sinners, were really fussing about their lack of control. They wanted to set the standards according to which God chooses to dispense his grace. They wanted to be the rule-setters and gate-keepers, but God would have none of that.
That revival preacher and his assistant tried to manipulate things when I was nine years old. They probably patted themselves on the back for getting us fence-sitters to make a decision. Now to be fair, those men undoubtedly led a good number of people to the Lord, but they erred when they tried to be in control in my case, leading to many years of confusion on my part.
In the end, God will always be in control. Anything that denies that is just self-delusion.
In the year after we moved into our present home, Penny and I endured a very nice but very inefficient man whom we hired to renovate the basement. I remember one particular exchange, as we neared the end of our patience with his glacier-like movement toward completion. He grabbed me one afternoon to elicit input on a few matters in the new master bathroom.
“You want a light for the mirror and sink, I’m sure,” he half said and half told.
“I’m sure we do,” I replied.
“Do you want one fixture above the mirror or two fixtures—one on each side,” he continued before I could pull away and get back to my work.
Not about to answer a question of such earth-shaking import on my own, I consulted Penny. She answered emphatically. “I just want one fixture above the mirror.”
I had to agree with but for a completely different reason. My mind was looking at the slow pace of this guy’s work and thinking that the installation of one electrical box had to be faster than two, so I was delighted with Penny’s answer. But he wasn’t.
“You know, they’ve done studies that show that two lights give a lot better coverage for when you’re putting on makeup and that sort of thing,” he said.
Part of me wanted to feign outrage at the very notion that my wife wore makeup, but I really just needed to get this exchange concluded as quickly as I could. Penny handled it before I could. “No, I really want just one light at the top.”
“I see, but you know the two light approach gives you more flexibility,” he continued.
“One light will be great.”
We left the matter there. A couple of days later, we went back to the bathroom only to find that he had installed two lights in the bathroom. Rather than insisting that he tear up the already sheetrocked wall and rewire things, we decided to let this matter slide. Only after he vacated the premises did Penny realize that the mirror she had for that spot wouldn’t fit between the two light fixtures. But of course, two lights would be better.
What our contractor forgot was that the work he was doing was for us. It wasn’t for him and his satisfaction or his sense of the better way to do things. It wasn’t an end in itself. It was for us. I’m reminded of this in today’s reading. In looking at fasting and the Sabbath, the Pharisees seemed to conclude that these religious exercises were ends in themselves. Instead, like all spiritual disciplines, they were then and are now tools designed to point us to God. It’s as easy to forget that as it is to think that our work is for our benefit rather than someone else’s.
I call it the “Trip of a Lifetime Syndrome,” a tragic but mostly preventable affliction of the human spirit. Allow me to explain. When I was a child, I had the wonderful privilege of going to Europe four times with my parents. Without fail, on each trip there would be one or more people who, despite the wonders of Florence and Paris that they saw during the day, despite the marvelous food they ate in the evening, found something to complain about. “My bed isn’t parallel to the wall.” “The bus seats have ugly upholstery.” “They don’t have Diet Coke in the café.” These and other complaints would consume the days of our fellow travelers. Why?
I have a theory. For most of the people with whom we traveled, this trip was a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime affair. They’d been looking forward to this couple of weeks for five or ten years, saving and scrimping to make the journey possible. For all of those years they had been constructing the mental image of the perfect trip to Europe. And then, when the blessed event arrived, the slightest deviation from their mental image sent their spirits spiraling downward. Once they had found the first thing that offended, the next seemed all the more visible. And pretty soon, misery bred itself as surely as rabbits in the springtime.
Of course, the “Trip of a Lifetime Syndrome” does not restrict itself to vacation trips. People get just as exercised over tiny problems with new houses, weddings, and any of a dozen other events. It’s said that misery loves company, but sometimes that company seems to build up with a single miserable person, the person who, determined to disapprove, watches with eagle eyes for the deal to go south. You surely know the type, and if you’re honest, you’ll probably have to admit that, at least on occasion, you can be the type.
When I read about Jesus teaching in the synagogue, I recognize the syndrome clearly. “Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.” These guys managed to find the dark cloud in front of the silver lining. When Jesus miraculously healed a man, they quibbled about the day on which he had done it. This gang would have complained about the lack of honey mustard when Jesus fed the 5,000!
From the distance of 2,000 years, it’s pretty easy not to fall into their trap. Most of us won’t be tempted to criticize Jesus, but we do still have that tendency to misery. Perhaps you like to snipe and gripe about your pastor, the music in your church, the Bible study curriculum, or some devotional writer whom you read—no, that couldn’t be it. I like to pick at things sometimes. Lately, it’s been picking about my fellow choir members, some of whom don’t know how to report a prayer request in less than 500 words. It’s a real gripe, but is it necessary? Or am I just acting like those synagogue-goers, looking for a reason to complain?
When we focus ourselves on the hope we have through Christ, all of those minor complaints should fade into the background. Let’s keep our focus on the miracle and not on how it deviates from our ideal image.
When I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of friends. There were the popular kids, as in any school, and then there were the unpopular kids. Then there was me. I certainly wasn’t a popular kid, but I didn’t really fit into the unpopular set either. I was just me. When I on rare occasions thought to grouse about this to my parents, I’d hear some tired cliché: “You have to be a friend to have a friend” or somesuch. I tried that, but, for me, it just didn’t work all that well.
I guess I really recognized this situation for the first time when I got married. At one point in the preparation for the wedding, Penny toyed with increasing her number of bridesmaids from three to five. I rebelled at this, not because of the added expense or because I thought such a collection of humanity would look rather ridiculous. No, I protested because I could not think of a single additional person whom I’d want standing up there with me. After all, I already had my two childhood neighbor-friends and my college roommate. Who else was I supposed to get?
Even today, I’m not a guy with friends. Now before you think that I’m trawling for sympathy, let me assure you that I am not miserable. I do have the best friend of my entire life—my bride—and I’m friendly with loads of other people. But if I had to pick out friends, people with whom I hang out, I’d have a pretty short list. I’ve learned that “You have to be a friend to have a friend” doesn’t really fill all available situations. No, you just can’t will yourself into friendships. You don’t go knocking on doors and saying, “Will you be my friend.”
These words probably won’t shock anybody. We all know that you don’t make friends by forcing yourself on the other party. Yet sometimes we seem to think that we can approach Jesus in just that way. Look at the crowds mentioned in this reading. Jesus was friendly but he wasn’t a friend in the sense of drawing them into his inner circle and trusting them. In fact, Jesus put some distance—physical distance—between himself and the crowd by escaping in a boat.
Yes, we do have a friend in Jesus, but it’s not because we crowded up to him at the seashore and forced ourselves upon him.. We have a friend in Jesus because he chose us. Although Jesus had a veritable army following him around, he chose twelve men, eleven of whom he eventually refers to as his friends. Yes, those friends had to choose Jesus. They had to approach him and make themselves available, but until he reciprocated and chose them, they were no more his friends than they were his uncles. One of those twelve, Judas, turned out to be a false friend.
Sometimes we overemphasize our side of the relationship between us and Christ. Certainly we must be open to him and approach him, but he is the one who will determine whether or not we are chosen. We don’t force our way in.
Some of my favorite programs on television are the various incarnations of Law and Order. They manage to explore the grittier side of life without getting overly vulgar. I appreciate that approach, but there’s something that troubles me about those shows. At least three times now, I’ve seen episodes in which a religious character—a devout believer, minister, or so forth—played a central part. Invariably, like most popular media, Law and Order portrays the religious believer in one of several, equally unflattering, ways. One typical portrayal is the unsavory, untrustworthy grifter, a sort of latter-day Elmer Gantry. Another character is the delusional, dangerous nut, while a third is the impotent, largely harmless devotee, more to be pitied than feared.
Lest you think that the poking fun at religious folks is a new thing, I could point you to the anti-clerical writings in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, some six hundred years in the past. Jane Austen portrays a fairly absurd Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice two hundred years ago. And Sinclair Lewis created the aforementioned Gantry over half a century back. For that matter, look at two figures from the Bible. Hannah in 1 Samuel and the apostles in Acts 2, as they enact their religious enthusiasm, are accused of being drunk. No, it’s nothing new to think badly of the religious. I can’t blame Law and Order for everything.
Why do I bring this up today? It’s simple. In these three verses of scripture we encounter two of the most common impediments to living the fullest Christian lives that we might. First, we encounter a simple problem: What will my family think? What will my mother think if I decide to dump my career as a teacher and become a pastor? What would my family think if I were called to become a missionary in Turkey or Nepal? We talk about the effects of peer pressure on kids, but there’s a definite family pressure that can be exerted in most cases. In some situations, that family pressure is a positive thing, but in others it can be a real roadblock.
Even if you can get past the objections and curious thoughts of your family, though, you have to face the second obstacle: What will other people think? Many people with supportive and understanding families—or who manage to just ignore their families—will find the overwhelming range of society pressure to be too much. As an academic, I face this frequently. Being an outspoken Christian does not fit the standard American view of a scholar; therefore, I find myself tempted to change my writing or to sacrifice opportunities.
I wish I had an easy solution to the problems of family and social pressure. Unfortunately, God did not give most of us the gift of ignoring these pressures when he saved us. While it might be comforting to know that Jesus faced similar pressures, that information does not make dealing with them much easier. Like Jesus, we simply have to do our best to remain true, keeping our eye on what is truly important.
My mother’s church has experienced a rough year. While I’m not privy to all of the lurid details, I know that a sizeable group of somewhat influential members lined up behind an associate pastor and against the senior pastor. When the smoke cleared, something like a third of the church’s active membership had faded away. A few months later, the pastor announced his retirement. The church has just finished going through the Rick Warren Forty Days of Purpose program. One member of my mother’s class announced to whoever would listen that he’d see them all “after the forty days.” It seems that he didn’t need any of that purpose nonsense. No, he just wanted plain old, purposeless church, the sort of church where you can play political games and grouse about the preaching and feel superior.
If only my mother’s church were unique. Unfortunately, however, churches all over the country suffer from the sort of internal divisions that we see here. Some suffer from egotistical pastors or power hungry lay people. Some suffer from turf wars among the staff. Some suffer when the members find important things on which disagree—things like the color of paint for the foyer or whether to buy padded or unpadded pews.
Back in 1992, most observers agreed that George Bush lost his bid for a second term not because Bill Clinton was such a strong candidate but because Ross Perot siphoned off sufficient support to tip the election to Clinton. The conservative side of the political spectrum divided just enough to change the outcome of the election. Similarly, the small but significant number of votes garnered by Ralph Nader in 2000 may well have cost Al Gore the presidency. Houses, political or religious, divided against themselves are greatly weakened.
Most of us read Jesus’ words about a house divided and nod, but do we apply them to ourselves. Certainly Satan cannot be divided against Satan and remain Satan, but that’s not a terribly useful piece of information from my vantage point. Yes, it does suggest that we shouldn’t be overly eager to dismiss some other Christian expression—the Roman Catholic Church, for instance—as the work of Satan, but I think we’ll find more value in applying this to our own houses.
I am a member of a number of houses, a collection of kingdoms. I’m part of the Browning family. I’m part of a children’s ministry and a choir. I belong to a deacon body and to a church. I’m a Baptist and an Evangelical Christian. You could probably make your own list of houses of which you’re a part. But the important question is whether you are a peacemaker, a force for unity, within those houses.
Please don’t lump me in the Neville Chamberlain, peace at all costs, camp. Certainly there are times when we must stand up for what is right and against those who hold the opposing view, but we as American Christians seem far too eager to think we’ve come to that crossroads. In fact, most of the time, when we think we’re taking a stand for righteousness, we’re just dividing the house unnecessarily. Satan is the one who delights in that.
Our street could be a gallery of lawn styles and results. A couple of doors down the street from me are several houses with putting-green-quality grass. I love that look. The grass is thick and deep green, perfectly mowed and edged in laser-straight lines. Across from this perfect property, you’ll find a house suffering great neglect. Their grass is growing very nicely, but they have yet to mow this year. A lovely crop of dandelions crowns a lawn where much of the grass has gone to seed. Next door to our house, you’ll see the vacant property where a hearty sediment of leaves lay over much of the grass last summer. Since the new owners have raked off the worst of those leaves, we now see a lawn dappled in patches of thick grass and bare dirt. It’s lovely. My own yard is somewhere between these extremes. I have more dandelions than I can accept this season, and I’ve got a vast patch of some strange weed covering one whole end of the yard. We have good coverage over most of the ground, but there are a few resistant patches of dirt that seem permanently disinclined to fertility.
One of the things that I have discovered in the past is that a reasonable amount of attention and a dollop of patience will yield a nice-looking lawn. My expectation is that I’ll have my place looking pretty good by the end of summer. I also expect that the neglected yard down the street will still look pretty bad by year’s end, the people living there lacking the ability or will to stay on top of the project.
What I know most of all, however, is that the project is up to me and each homeowner along the street. The patchy look next door may persist or it may be remedied by the new owners. The soil all along this street is basically the same. The dirt around my house is not going to suddenly will itself to produce a marvelous stand of grass. If the grass is greener on the other side, it isn’t because the other side is trying harder. It’s because of the person working the other side. The difference is in the person within the house.
When I consider Christ’s parable of the sower, I have to be incredibly humble. In the parable, God is the farmer. The Word is the seed. And what am I? And what are you? We’re dirt!
When the seed of the Word doesn’t sprout, it’s not the fault of the soil. The soil can’t help being rocky or shallow or weed-infested. The farmer can, of course, invest some time in preparing the soil, but the soil can’t do a thing to improve itself.
On the other hand, we need to recall that if we have seed sprouting in us and yielding a great crop, it’s not because we of anything we did. After all we’re just dirt—fertile dirt by the grace of God, but dirt nonetheless.
“They just don’t get it.” These five words become something of a mantra for feminists in the 1980s as they shook their heads disbelievingly at some supposed example of male insensitivity and abuse. I remember hearing those words directed at me when a young woman, a graduate student in English, launched into a twenty minute screed about the inadequacies, inequities, and injustices of higher education. She came armed with an array of preselected, predigested statistics that she did not fully understand. Foolishly, after she had blamed everything from the extinction of the dinosaurs to higher gasoline prices on men, I lifted my head above cover and questioned some of her conclusions.
“You just don’t get it!” she replied, as if that settled matters.
Realizing that a wise man (or woman) knows what battles are worth fighting, I swallowed my response. I wanted to point out to her that she was the one who didn’t get it as she scuttled her own academic future with this irrelevant diatribe. I have no doubt that this student failed to complete her degree and is today working in some snooty bookstore where she bitterly decries the male privilege system that kept her down.
In fairness, I should point out that I’ve known plenty of guys who really didn’t get it when they approached male-female relations or most anything else. But in her case, she was the one who didn’t get it.
This isn’t a feminist thing, however. Often I hear Christians wringing their hands and wondering at the fact that the world “just doesn’t get it.” Why don’t worldly people understand the importance of marriage? Why don’t worldly people reverence God? Why do worldly people struggle so hard to explain everything in this universe in a way that doesn’t require divine activity? In short, these people—and yes, I’m one of them sometimes—are asking why worldly people “just don’t get it.”
Jesus tells his disciples, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” But, he continues, those on the outside will hear but not understand. The thing that we as Christians should find amazing is not that the world doesn’t get the things of the spiritual realm. The natural state of fallen man is to fail to understand. It seems that when the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened to understand good and evil, they were closed to perceive the spiritual realm. Therefore, it’s not at all unexpected that non-Christians should “just not get it.”
What we should find amazing is not their failure to comprehend but our ability to see, even if we only see imperfectly. Yesterday, I pointed out the passive nature of dirt. Dirt doesn’t do anything except provide a place for a seed to sprout. If the dirt of the world understood the power and gift of the gospel, then it would immediately latch onto it. An understanding world would never allow that seed to be taken away. But dirt can’t do that. Why did God choose me to have receptive, seed-sprouting soil? I can’t explain that. I just don’t get it.
As I drove home from church Sunday, I noticed a tent—the sort that they use at funerals—standing in the large side-yard of our local elementary school. Glancing at the not-quite-perfect expanse of lawn around that tent, I turned to Penny and joked, “I guess they’re having the dandelion festival here this year.” Granted, this wasn’t the best joke I’ve ever heard, but it wasn’t too bad for a ten-minute drive home from church.
The grass along the side of the school, however, was one of the best stands of dandelions I had ever seen. Thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of dandelions dappled the green expanse. Each of those blossoms, having gone to seed this week, sported a white crown of perhaps two hundred little parachute-equipped seeds. The dandelion potential in that one chunk of property was truly impressive. If only a tenth of those seeds were to find their way to good soil and sprout, we’d have enough dandelion greens to stock a salad bar for everyone in Raytown.
A dandelion seed, especially one that has been separated from its white hang-glide apparatus, is a pretty unimpressive thing. Nature has many more impressive sights. In fact, the oak and maple trees that have been growing all around my neighborhood for the past fifty someodd years make the dandelion seed seem pretty puny. For that matter, a single leaf from one of my oaks can completely overshadow the seeds. But the dandelion is a resilient and persistent critter. We had an ice storm two years ago. That thick coating of ice severely damaged nearly all of the big trees in the area. That ice, however, did no appreciable damage to the dandelion population. The young trees, products of the showers of acorns and little whirly-gig maple seed-copters, get whacked down very quickly by a lawnmower, while the dandelions bounce back very quickly. It’s tough to kill dandelions without resorting to chemical warfare. Even after I spread fertilizer laced with a dandelion-killer, I still found little pockets of resistance, rebellious yellow flowers thumbing their nose at my feeble attempts at dominance.
Why did Jesus use seeds as object lessons so frequently? He did it because seeds are powerful little packages. In the right condition, the tiniest of seeds—like the mustard seed in verses 31 and 32—can produce something astounding. But even more than that, within the seed is the potential for reproduction and mind-staggering growth. A single seed (or a couple of them if pollination is required) have the theoretical potential to produce many millions of plants in just a couple of seasons. That’s worth mentioning, I think.
When we accepted Christ, a seed was planted within each one of us. That seed holds great potential—explosive potential—yet virtually no one allows the seed to grow to its potential. Even the best of us fall short, and most of us show very little growth at all. Isn’t it time that we started tending this seed with more care?
I’ve met some pretty unamazing people in my life. No, I didn’t mistype that word. I’m talking about unamazing people. Sure, I’ve met some amazing ones as well, but for right now, I want to talk about the stunningly ordinary folks who populate most of our world. These are the people who fail to talk to their way out of the speeding tickets, who fail to achieve amazing things in business, who fail to raise perfect, charming, brilliant children. These are people like me.
Even people who are amazing in one realm of their life might struggle in another. For example, Don Chaffer, the guitar-playing, song-writing leader of a moderately successful band, performs on stage in such an effortless manner. The notes just seem to fly from his fingers. He can make just about any musical situation entrancing. But Don has not been able to translate that amazing musical ability into the sort of economic success that would allow him to make a solid career of his band. That’s rather a shame, but that’s the way the world is. I have people who marvel at my writing, treating me as if I were some sort of illusionist of words, conjuring all manner of wonders. To those people, though, I have to point out my many failures. When it comes, for example, to parking our full-size van, I look really unamazing and even less than ordinary.
The truth is that the people who look to be in complete control all of the time are simply avoiding those things over which they exercise very weak control. President Carter could hold the reins of power for the United States but managed to look very out-of-control when attacked by a swimming rabbit. (If you don’t recall that, I’m really not making it up.) The elder President Bush could stand tall in foreign relations, yet he managed to look like quite a klutz when he went fishing in Kennebunkport.
The simple fact is that we’re not in control at all. Yes, we can give the illusion of control over a limited space and time, but it’s really just influence rather than control. I can’t completely control the growth of plants in my yard, the uneven settling of my patio, or the aging and wearing of my house’s paint. Perhaps more to the point, I can’t control the way that time and the environment will wear on me. I might be able to exert some influence over how and when death catches up with me, but I can’t control the matter.
When Jesus stilled that storm on the Sea of Galilee, he was demonstrating that he wasn’t like anyone who the disciples had ever seen before. They’d been impressed with his healings and with his teachings, but those, while amazing, weren’t really evidence of complete control. But a guy who can control the weather has his finger on the very pulse of creation.
This miracle is one of those that is very hard for liberal theologians to “de-mythologize.” They have to either dismiss the story altogether, ascribe it to an absurd coincidence, or accept it as a mark of Jesus’ unique and God-like power. We can’t afford to forget that this man we follow is in control of even the wind and the waves.
A few years ago, Amy, a friend of Penny’s, set a noble goal for herself. Amy decided to quit smoking. Although she’d puffed away at cigarettes for many years, she decided that the time was ripe to kick the habit. For the benefit of her husband, her children, and her family budget, not to mention her own health, Amy had to quit. And so she did.
At about the same time, my father-in-law Bill, an over-the-road trucker who had smoked for more than forty years, came to the same conclusion. Bill didn’t get his motivation from the budget or his kids. Instead, he listened to a doctor who told him that he’d better knock off the smoking or risk all sorts of medical problem sooner rather than later. Bill smoked up the last of his current supply of cigarettes and quit.
The difference in the success that these two experienced couldn’t have been greater. Bill quit smoking one day and that was simply the end of it. Never once did I hear him complain about it. I’m sure he suffered the withdrawal effects of nicotine, but he had made up his mind to quit and he did. Amy, on the other hand, started suffering even before she was due for her next cigarette. After a couple of days, she seemed to come unglued. I half expected to see her crying out and cutting herself with stones.
What was the difference? It’s possible that Amy had less motivation than Bill. Maybe her tolerance for pain is less than his. But I have another theory.
While it doesn’t sound like the work of an educated, scientific sort of person, I believe that Amy suffered from a demonic oppression. She wasn’t possessed, but I feel certain that she encountered incredible stress from the dark side. And why not? If Satan could convince Amy that she simply couldn’t overcome this one addiction in her life, then wouldn’t he fare better when it came to convincing her that she couldn’t serve God in other, more meaningful ways?
Besides, I’ve seen this sort of thing in the most reliable of sources: The Flintstones. You remember all of those episodes when a tempted Fred Flintstone heard the competing voices of a good and a bad angel on his shoulder? Something tells me that isn’t too far from the truth. In some areas of our lives, the good angel’s words speak much louder, but in other, more vulnerable places, the voice of temptation speaks like a megaphone. For some people, that evil voice seems to move in and take control.
That was the story with this man on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. We can’t rationalize this story away and claim that he simply suffered from some mental disease. Yes, he had a mental problem; he’d been possessed by an evil spirit. Mere diseases don’t talk back and ask to be placed in a herd of pigs. Diseases don’t drive pigs into the lake.
We discount accounts of the demonic at our own peril. There’s nothing an enemy would like to have us believe more than that that enemy doesn’t exist or poses no threat.
In the summer of 1995, I inexplicably got into fitness. I rode my bike a few times, enjoyed it, and got absolutely maniacal about exercise. Pretty soon I was riding sixty to eighty miles each week. I began running on days when I didn’t ride. Then I amended my diet, trying to knock out as much fat as I could. Over the course of the summer, the weight simply fell off of me. Starting at about 225 in May, I reached a low around 180 in early September.
What a difference forty-five pounds can make. Back in those days, I used to play basketball on Thursday evenings. In the first months that I played, I found myself sucking wind pretty soon after hitting the court. But after I started losing weight and exercising, my stamina shot up quickly. Not only that, but I found that my quickness improved immensely. Legs that could jump only so high when carrying 225 pounds could jump a couple of inches higher as the fat fell off. The confidence I gained even made me shoot the basketball better.
Late in August of that year, I went canoeing with some Boy Scouts. After going through a challenging bit of water, several of our canoes paused to let the group re-assemble. And the rest of the group didn’t show up for several minutes. After we waited and wondered for a good ten minutes, I decided to swim upstream against a fairly solid current and look into this mystery. It was as a made my way up that river, feeling the current against me, that I realized how strong I had become in the previous months. It felt great.
As great as I felt, as good as I looked, as much as I knew my health had improved, how can I explain the fact that in the fall of 2005, I stopped the exercise. My diet returned to the garbage I normally ate. The weight, over several months, came back on. How could I taste the fruits of my efforts and then just let them rot away? It doesn’t make sense.
That’s really what the Gerasenes did on the day we read about in Mark 5. They saw the fruit of Jesus in the person of the formerly demon-possessed man. They could see that an amazing and powerful man had arrived on their shore, and they “began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.”
Why did they not want Jesus around? Perhaps they were afraid of losing all of their pigs, but I think they also worried about the changes Jesus might cause in them. Like me when I found my way to the land of fitness, these people saw the path ahead of them. They understood what that path held in store for them. They counted the cost and decided that they’d rather have a cheeseburger today than to run faster and have clothes fit better. They decided that they’d rather hang onto their demons than to risk the loss of a few more pigs. They met the Christ, and they sent him away. What a tragedy.
Ronald Reagan, in dealing with arms control and the Soviet Union, had a saying: “Trust but verify.” The idea was that when the two sides agreed to reduce their enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons, they were each to trust the other to comply with the agreement. They were each to trust the other . . . and to verify that indeed the agreement had been maintained. That’s an interesting sort of trust and certainly not the sort of trust that we’re supposed to show toward God.
Trust but verify, however, is just the sort of trust that many of us show toward God. We trust that God will get us a good job or find us the right spouse or work out our financial problems for us. We trust God, but just in case, we pad that résumé, cruise the singles scene, and cheat on our taxes. We trust God, but we seem to want to lighten his load for him.
In this famous passage from Mark, we encounter two very different but very trusting people. Jairus, the synagogue leader, was the city big shot. For him to come and fall at the feet of Jesus had to take some doing. After all, how would Jairus explain this behavior at the country club next week if Jesus couldn’t deliver on his promise to heal the daughter? No, Jairus stuck his neck out pretty thoroughly. He trusted in Jesus and didn’t have a back-up plan or fall-back position. On the other hand, the woman in the crowd had been through it all before. She’d tried all of the doctors and cures available, only to see her condition worsen. She had nothing to lose when she reached out to Jesus, and her faith healed her.
We can learn something from each of these figures. From Jairus, we can learn to humble ourselves, prostrating ourselves before the King of Kings. He teaches us that no matter how respectable and established we might be, our only hope lies in falling at the feet of Jesus. The woman, on the other hand, teaches us that despite years of failures, our reaching out toward Jesus won’t be rebuffed. But in both cases, we see trusting that didn’t ask for verification. These people took a leap of faith with no guarantee that they’d have anyplace safe to land. They trusted and left the verification for someone else.
They said during World War II that “Loose lips sink ships.” If I’d been around during those years, I’m afraid that my lips would have caused all sorts of problems. I’ve never been particularly good at keeping secrets. People confide in me and the next thing that I want to do is blab the news to the world. Actually, I’ve been getting a little better at this in recent days. Rather than telling ten people immediately after learning some choice bit of gossip, I only tell five people and I wait until the next day.
It’s hard to keep a secret. Often, when we learn something intriguing, witness something peculiar, or find ourselves privy to morsel of news, we can’t wait to share that knowledge. I remember a truly dreadful Sunday morning when I learned of the death of a teen from my church. As I walked around the building all through the morning, I heard at least a dozen youths asking someone, “Did you hear about Doug?” They wanted nothing more than to be the one who got to break the story to their listener. I’d scoff at them, but I fully understand the feeling. What’s the point of learning hot news if you don’t get to spread it on?
That’s the part of the story of raising Jairus’ daughter that sticks in my mind. Jesus led Peter, James, and John, along with Jairus and his wife, into the room where the girl lay dead. He took the child by the hand, told her to get up, and she got up! I’d be wanting to bust open the walls and start a revival meeting if I saw such a thing happen. I’d be out in the streets of the town in a heartbeat, running up to everybody that I saw and saying, “Did you hear about Jairus’ daughter?” But Jesus told the five onlookers to keep this information to themselves.
I’m not sure why Jesus swore this group to silence. Obviously, since we read about the story in the Bible, they eventually told their tale, but why the secrecy? Actually, I can think of a couple of possible explanations, but there’s no certainty to those. Jesus doesn’t explain himself in all cases, and that’s my point. Sometimes we are asked to do what seems counter-intuitive. Sometimes Christ demands of us something that goes against our very nature. And what are we to do when we are so instructed? We simply have to obey. Trust and obey, the old hymn says. It’s funny how often such simple words make sense.
An expert, I am told on expert authority, is someone who lives more than fifty miles away. Think about that for a moment. When I go to academic conferences, I experience this phenomenon. You walk into a room because the program indicated that several experts would be speaking on the topic, “Epistemological Difficulties in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Okay, you wouldn’t walk into that room, but indulge me for a moment. I might walk into that room. But I wouldn’t walk into that room if the program indicated that Dr. Gerson and Dr. Northam and Professor Davis would be speaking. Why? I know those three guys. I know that the height of Dr. Gerson’s day is walking into my office and eating my M&M’s. I know that Dr. Northam can be reduced to giggles by the word, “spackle,” and I know that Professor Davis spends more time reading vampire stories than Shakespeare. Why would I want to listen to those guys?
As it turns out, these three friends of mine are pretty astute in their given areas, although those areas don’t include epistemology or Shakespeare’s sonnets. Gerson’s a whiz at technical writing. Northam knows more about eighteenth-century British literature than I’m ever likely to know, and Davis is turning into quite an expert in the horror genres. Still, it’s hard for me to take these guys seriously. After all, I’ve been to their houses. I’ve watched them eat pasta. I’ve seen them in shorts. These guys can’t be experts. Not real experts.
We have this tendency, you know. For various reasons we cannot see people who we know personally as being experts, as being extraordinary. Perhaps it’s envy; perhaps it’s familiarity, but we do find that contempt for these people comes pretty easily. We know their foibles. We’ve seen them wear mis-matched socks or heard them on their bad days. On the surface, then, the response of Jesus’ friends and neighbors shouldn’t be all that surprising. They watched this guy grow up. They’d seen him at such flattering ages as thirteen. How easily could they accept him prancing into town with his train of followers, acting as if he were God’s gift to mankind?
But that’s just the problem. He was God’s gift to mankind, and these people had been blessed by an accident of birth with a front-row seat. Jesus didn’t start out his life as the fully finished product. These people had seen him grow in wisdom and stature, but they hadn’t seen him do the foolish things that kids do. They couldn’t tell us the story about Jesus putting the frog in the rabbi’s hat or how he stole the honey cakes from the lady next door. You’d think that these people would have caught on that Jesus really was something special.
You’d think that, but then how easily do you and I start to think of Jesus as just that guy that we learn about at church. Familiarity, even when it comes to the Son of God, does breed contempt if it isn’t tempered with respect and a constant appreciation of our special relationship.
Just around the corner from my house, we’re expecting a death. It’s not an octogenarian lying at death’s door. No, it’s a forty-something church. I attended this church for a brief time. Back then, they were drawing in forty to forty-five on a good Sunday. When my family of six came and then left, we effected quite a roller coaster in their hopes.
Frankly, I don’t know why this church is suffering from such woes. They have a terrific location, plenty of parking, a quite serviceable building, and all of the other things that a church ought to have. To top it all off, they even have a sign out in front of the building that reads, “Come worship with us. Everyone welcome.” Why are the people staying away? They’re welcome after all.
Am I being unkind? Perhaps. But there this notion among some people that the way to have a church grow is to make sure that the doors are open at the proper time on Sunday morning and then just wait for the people to roll in. Maybe, if you’re really out there on the cutting edge, you could put a sign up. We have a church nearby, another church that is slowly dwindling itself out of existence, that encouraged its members to place yard signs in front of their houses. I don’t remember the exact wording of those signs, but they were fairly similar to the place around the corner. “Come and worship with us. Everyone welcome.” Makes you want to beat feet to get there, doesn’t it?
I have to admit to being partial to such passive approaches to marketing. I’m not a face-to-face person. Given a choice between making telephone calls and sending emails, I’ll choose the email every time. When I do telephone, I much prefer talking to machines, since they won’t ask any awkward questions. But if I had my druthers, I’d do all of my communicating by means of a big moveable letter sign in the front yard. “Tom, take out the trash,” I’d put on the sign. I’m sure that would work.
There’s a reason why Jesus didn’t establish a passive church. In the verses we’ve just read, we see him sending people out. He made these first missionaries get into the faces of the people of Galilee. He forced a confrontation. Jesus might just as easily have opened a church in Capernaum. They could even put up a sign that said, “Come and worship with us. Everyone welcome.” But that’s not what he chose to do.
If Jesus had chosen the passive approach to church-building, the church would never have survived the first century. Those first disciples would have sat around in their comfortable digs. They would have worshiped. They might have even hung out a sign. But gradually, time would have taken its toll.
My passion here is not to save local churches from a slow death. A congregation can come or go as it pleases. What I worry about is people not being reached by the gospel and Christians not obeying the command of their Savior to “Go!”
“When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled, yet he liked to listen to him.” I have to admit that when I read those words today, they fairly jumped off the page at me. I know that I must have read them at least a half dozen times before, yet I can’t recall ever noticing them. Today, though, they stand out. I wonder why that is.
In the world of Biblical Studies, you can find a lot of people who seem a little bit like Herod in this case. These are people who find the text of the Bible intriguing—pleasing even—but they certainly don’t find the text authoritative. Yes, it might be puzzling, but it’s not going to control them. They wouldn’t, for example, give up their sinful lifestyles just because the Bible says to do so.
These scholars and other students attempt to lock up the words of God just as surely as Herod locked up John the Baptist. In the case of the Baptist, Herod used chains and prison cells. Modern scholars use form criticism, forced hypotheses, and plain old untruth to box up and contain the sound of the prophets’ voices. If you can dismiss the predictive voice of Isaiah as actually two voices, an early voice that didn’t make specific predictions and a later voice that only predicted matters after they had happened, then you don’t really have to pay much heed to any moral pronouncements that this voice would make. If you can bring the words of the Torah away from the mouth of Moses and place them into the hands of four different writers, each with his or her own agenda, then all of that unpleasant “Thou shalt” stuff becomes much easier to ignore. Yes, the modern age is remarkable in its ability to imprison a prophet while keeping him in plain view.
I don’t write this to trash liberal Bible scholars, however. As tempting as that sort of thing might be, these scholars aren’t really my concern. I’m concerned with me and with you. While we might not talk about redactors and Persian loan words and the like, we, like just about all believers, have the tendency to imprison God’s words as surely as the scholars do. We’re really good about noticing the Ten Commandments. Maybe we even got steamed when a boulder with those commandments engraved on it was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court. But are we as good when it comes to applying those commandments.
Let’s just take that “Do not steal” thing for an example. In my car, you’ll find a stash of napkins that I liberated from Taco Bell. On my computer hard-drive, you’ll find a scattering of music that I downloaded back in the days of Napster. On a bookshelf to my right, I can see a book, Grandmasters of Chess that I neglected to return to my high school’s library some twenty-four years ago. Imagine the overdue fine on that! I could probably go on. In fact, I’m probably just picking the examples that don’t seem too bad to print.
Maybe I’m not placing John the Baptist in chains. Perhaps I’m not publishing rambling, self-important skeptical scholarship. But when I manage to wall part of the scripture off so that my heart remains immune from it, then I’m every bit as bad as Herod. I reduce the Word of God to something puzzling but vaguely pleasant. That’s not what God intended, I assure you.
Frustration comes easily to me today, and I’m not sure why. Let me share just one of the frustrating matters that I’ve encountered today. A few minutes ago, after waiting an interminable span for my red beans and rice to finish cooking, I noticed two lovely plastic boxes sitting near the television. Yes, a week ago I broke down, went to Blockbuster, and rented a couple of insipid kids movies for my kids. And now, a few minutes after noon on the ninth day past when I rented the movies . . . I realized that I had just missed the deadline for returning them.
Let me just be perfectly clear that I hate, detest, despise, and deplore paying late fees for video rentals. It’s not as if the people at Blockbuster have been turning away scads of would-be renters for these movies, right?
As I stewed on the way to deliver the tapes, I considered my various approaches to this matter. Perhaps I should go in, announce that I was only an hour late, and demand that they either forgive my late fees or immediately cancel my account. Or maybe I should wait until the next time that I went to rent something and fly into a rage, assuring them that I had indeed turned in the movies at 11:59 on the due date and accusing their store of a sprawling conspiracy designed to defraud the common man. In the end, I simply skulked up to the drop off slot, slid the tapes in, and got back into my car grumbling. Now, ninety minutes later, I’m still pretty sure that there’s something wicked going on at that place, but I just can’t put my finger on it.
Oh, who am I fooling? The problem with those tapes and my undoubted amount due at Blockbuster is no great fault of theirs. Sure, they could simply forgive the amount, but why should they? They gave me eight and a half days to bring the movies back. It’s my fault. I put myself into this position. I rented the tapes. I didn’t set any sort of reminder for myself. I slept until 10am this morning. It’s all my fault. I put myself into this awkward position, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I wind up with a crick in my neck.
That’s what I think about when I read of Herod being tricked by a teenaged girl’s dancing into lopping off John the Baptist’s head. “The king was greatly distressed,” Mark tells us, but what did he expect. What happens when you try to show off like Herod did? What happens? Some girl has you chopping prisoners’ heads off.
Oftentimes, like this morning, I find myself moaning about the sad straits that I’ve found myself foundering in. But when I’m honest, I realize that I’m the one who sailed his boat into these waters. I’m the one who didn’t pack a life jacket.
We can’t blame God for the predicaments of life most of the time. Yes, John the Baptist could claim to be a blameless victim, but for every John there are a hundred Herods, shooting their mouths off and then reaping the results. We need to work on evening that ratio somewhat.
I know a seminary professor who has a wonderful metaphor that he uses to describe the transition from seminary to ministry. “When you’re in the seminary,” he explains, “It’s as if you’re trying to take a drink out of a fire hydrant. But once you go into ministry, you become a well and everybody has a bucket.” I’ve felt like that before. In fact, I’ve found myself on both ends of that equation. I’ve seen times when I couldn’t soak up all of the blessings that God was pouring out onto me. But at other times, you can feel yourself being used up. It’s a draining thing.
How did Jesus respond when his apostles returned to him after their initial “mission trip”? Did he say, “Okay, boys, now that you’re warmed up, let’s get to work for real”? No, he encouraged them to come away to somewhere removed from the crowd so that could “get some rest.” If I know anything about human nature, I can just imagine what those guys were like when they returned. I’ve been on mission trips before, and when I return I’m usually walking on air. I’m ready to conquer the world. “Let me at them,” I might say. Probably Peter, James, John, and the rest were the same way. You have to know that Peter felt that way.
The simple fact of ministry, however, is that no matter how deep our wells might seem, no matter how quickly the waters seem to flow into those wells, we cannot keep ourselves watered on our own power. Jesus understood that his followers needed not only to work and serve but to get some rest.
With that in mind, the story of feeding the 5,000 takes on a different color. Jesus pointed out that the people listening to him needed something to eat. The disciples replied with the equivalent of “It would cost a fortune to feed these people.” They couldn’t feed the people on their own. They’d have needed eight months wages to do it.
Jesus then used the moment to teach much better than words could have taught. “Okay,” his actions said. “You can’t feed these people, so don’t rely on yourself. Rely on me.”
When we seek to serve God under our own power, we are a well that will eventually run dry. Nobody can fill their well fast enough to keep up with the demands that the world will put on it. But the wonderful fact of the gospel is that I don’t have to fill my own well. I have access to Living Water.
I’m tempted at times to claim that I’m too busy to access that Living Water. When I do that, my well quickly runs dry. The sad truth is that this drought is never necessary. Let’s drink deeply from what Christ offers us.
I’m floundering here today. I just wrote about 300 words of a devotion before realizing that it really wasn’t going anywhere. That happens sometimes. Sometimes the ideas flow like the waters from the springs at En Gedi and the words just seem to tumble in an endless stream, but other times there’s a dryness that seems unending. It’s like when Elijah promised Ahab that no rain would fall in Israel.
I’ve had these times before in various settings. I’ve seen it before in my writing. It’s not that I’ve ever been one for writer’s block. No, the words always go on the page for me, but sometimes they’re just dreadful words, words that go nowhere. Beyond writing, though, I’ve seen times like this with my finances, in my teaching, and with my kids. Sometimes, nothing seems to work, while other times, life is easy and success is cheap. Today, I’m thirsty for words that mean something.
You’ve probably experienced this sort of thing yourself. And it always hurts worst when the dry spell comes right after a long rainy season. I think about those people I knew in high school for whom everything came so easily. Those were the guys who made the good grades, earned the letters in football, had their pick of the girls, and got elected class president. The guy I have in mind got into a selective school and did quite nicely there. But then things got hard. The dry spell came. And that sort of a dry spell, the dry time after the rain, hurts all the more. When you’ve never known success, failure doesn’t seem all that remarkable. But when you’ve gotten used to success, failure hurts badly.
In this passage of Mark’s gospel, the apostles have been living high. After watching Jesus make a name for himself, they accept the challenge of being sent out. We know from the other gospels that this mission trip was a rousing success, and they naturally came home on the crest of a wave. Then, before they even had a chance to take some time off to rest and recover, they got to watch Jesus transform a tiny basket of food into dinner for 5,000 with twelve baskets left over. You have to agree that the followers of Jesus were on a pretty good run.
And then adversity struck. Making their way across the lake, they found themselves in a dry place—paradoxically, in the middle of the water. All night long they battled their way against a contrary wind. Apparently Jesus set the disciples into the boat around dusk, and he let them fight the wind until after three o’clock in the morning. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in situations where I’d face physical adversity for five or six hours straight. It’s amazing in those situations how quickly all of the good times seem to fade into nothingness. It’s astounding how, just a few hours after all was sweetness and light, life can seem a dismal mess.
Can there be a better time for a dismal mess than three in the morning, when you’re tired from work, excitement, and lack of sleep? Can there be a place more suited to despair than in the middle of a stormy sea when you can see the safety of the shore but cannot make your way there?
That’s when Jesus appeared to his followers. If we trust him—and sometimes even if we don’t—that’s when he’ll appear to us. He just bailed me out of my predicament and allowed me to write something passable. What might he do for you?
Back in my junior year of high school, I played a fairly tiny part in Fiddler on the Roof. Ever since that production, I’ve had a warm spot in my heart for Tevye, the poor milkman torn between tradition and the new ways. Tevye struggled over his loyalties. On the one hand, he argued, how can he forget about everything that he and his ancestors have held dear? On the other hand, how can he turn his back on his daughter. I’m happy not to be a nineteenth-century Russian Jew. The conflicts were horrible!
Of course, while the details have changed, the same sorts of conflicts arise today. Some of those tradition-vs.-innovation questions are quite trivial. Is it okay to colorize the classic black and white movies? Should we maintain the designated hitter in baseball? But some other conflicts are matters of great import. Take homosexuality, for instance. On the one hand, how can we turn our back on the words of the scriptures and the teachings of 2,000 years of Christianity? But on the other hand, how can we turn our back on these people whom God has created? On the other hand, can we just wink at sin and pretend that it makes no difference? But on the other hand, what if these people were created this way? They certainly believe they were created this way. Perhaps I’d have it easier as a nineteenth-century Russian Jew after all.
Curiously, though, the sorts of traditions that people will get most exercised about aren’t the great moral questions of the day. No, many church members who wouldn’t spend more than a few minutes considering the proper response to homosexuality, have a great deal to say about the music that is played within the church’s four walls. “It was when they brought that drum set in here that I knew we were headed the wrong way,” I heard somebody say once. What would Tevye have said to that?
We can learn a great deal about the proper way to handle these “tradition struggles” by looking at this passage from Mark. Jesus shows the way quite clearly: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Now let’s apply this. Did God ever command us to keep drums out of the worship service? No. But did he command that they be used? No. He did, however, command us to love one another, to support another, and the bear with each others’ weaknesses. To me, that suggests that traditionalists should be less stubborn and innovators should be more thoughtful.
On to an item of more gravity, did God ever command us to hate homosexuals? No. Did he command us to ignore their sin or explain it away? No. When we hate a sinner, we’re not holding to the commands of God. All of us hold fast to some of the commands of man. It might not be about music or homosexuality, but we do it. Like Tevye, we need to learn to discern the voice of God and grow in our ability to follow only his commands.
What little I know about Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer who defended John Scopes in the “Monkey Trial,” tells me that he’ll never be my role-model. Far from the character in the play Inherit the Wind who picked up the Bible and Origin of Species, weighed them in his hands, and put them together into his bag, Darrow stood as an inveterate hater of all things religious. He also seemed to have a pretty significant problem with the criminal justice system, seeing virtually every criminal as innocent on one peculiar pretext or another. Darrow didn’t follow the lead of today’s super lawyers, actually claiming that his clients didn’t do what they’d been accused of doing. No, he frequently admitted that his client had indeed robbed, stolen, killed, kicked, or whatever. Darrow’s defense in those cases was that the defendant had no choice but to commit the crime. In short, he argued that society was to blame or mental illness was to blame or bad parenting was to blame or somesuch.
That’s a seductive sort of thinking. If I think cleverly, I can shift the blame for every mistake, disappointment, and tactical blunder I’ve ever seen in my life onto someone or something else. Yeah, I could have gone to Harvard if my parents had given me better academic habits. I could have been a star football player if it weren’t for these flat feet. I could have written a best-seller if my repressive religious upbringing hadn’t made me chafe against writing soft-core porn. I coulda been a contender!
What Jesus tells his disciples, though, is that you cannot blame the externals of life. You can’t blame the food you eat or the people that you spend your time with. You can’t blame your parents or your friends. You can’t blame anybody except yourself. Your goodness or your badness comes from within. Your success or failure, your holiness or sinfulness start out in your own heart. That’s the message of this passage
Clarence Darrow didn’t invent the idea of passing the buck. He wasn’t even the first person to make that move popular. And, for all his fame in this regard, Harry Truman didn’t put and end to the passing of the buck. If the buck indeed did “stop here” on Truman’s desk, it only paused for a while. Pretty soon, people started shifting responsibility again.
Jesus showed his disciples that evil deeds come not from outside a person but from an evil heart. Since we all commit evil deeds, we must all have some element of an evil heart within us. We need some sort of heart surgery. Although Clarence Darrow would undoubtedly disagree, we need doctors far more than we need lawyers. What’s a person to do with an evil heart? Get a heart transplant from the Great Physician.
When I was nine years old, I went to revival service at my home church. That night, I walked down an aisle as “Just as I Am” or a similar hymn played. I remember filling out a form, and I suppose I might have prayed or actually talked with somebody about my decision for Christ. A week or so later, I walked through the baptismal font at the church. For years after that event, I assumed that I had indeed been saved. After all, I reminded myself, “once saved always saved.” I’d been taught a thing or two in all of those years of Sunday School. I’d even learned some of the things. The problem was that I remained just as crummy a person—indeed a crummier person—after going through that font as I had been before that evening service.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not trying to play that “Chief of Sinners” game. I’m not here to try to out-story Paul and John Bunyan. There have been plenty of crummy things that I have done since, eight years after that first experience, I actually did get saved. But there was a difference between me at age nine and age seventeen. The sins that I committed between those two dates were largely unrepented. I hated getting caught, and I wasn’t a very clever sinner. I got caught a lot. But I didn’t really hate sinning. Today, more than twenty years after accepting Christ, I’m still a sinner to an extent that embarrasses me, but I almost always feel awful about my sins almost as soon as I commit them.
Also, in those years between nine and seventeen, there wasn’t a lot of good stuff about me to offset the bad. What, in those years, did I ever do that showed any sort of devotion to God? The answer is that I didn’t do much of anything. I volunteered to serve on the staff of a Cub Scout camp, but I did that more out of a desire to be a big-shot than to help the kids. No, I was a miserable wretch in those years.
On the other hand, after accepting Christ during my first year of college, I became a different person. I started writing Christian songs. I volunteered for programs not for what I could gain from it but for what I could give. I read all the way through the Bible. I prayed—not just when the sky was about to fall, but all the time. I became a different person.
The reason I tell you all of this today is that I read verse twenty-four and had it really strike me. “He could not keep his presence secret.” That’s the story of Jesus Christ. When he is present—whether we’re talking about during his earthly ministry or today living spiritually through believers—his presence cannot be kept secret. That, I think, is why James says that a faith without works is a dead faith. Whatever faith I had at age nine was dead, but the faith that I possessed at age seventeen absolutely teemed with the person of Jesus Christ. He cannot be kept hidden.
I’m going to run the risk of alienating some of you today. For many years, I have taught at a school with a large deaf population. Many times, I have conducted class with a sign-language interpreter at my side. Overall, I’ve found this a very rewarding experience, but there’s one aspect of the deaf world that I don’t understand. That is their resistance to cochlear implants.
If you aren’t up on these things, a cochlear implant is a device that is implanted directly into a person’s head and attached to the auditory nerve, allowing a deaf person to hear reasonably well. This would, to my mind, seem like a no-brainer. When I recognized that my eyesight wasn’t as great as it used to be, I didn’t hesitate to get glasses and use them. If my knees give out in twenty years or so, I’ll be happy to receive artificial knees. If I’m broken in any way, I want to be fixed.
Some of the deaf, however, will argue that they aren’t broken, and therefore they have no need to be fixed. (Some of them have medical and economic reasons to oppose the implants, but I’m going to gloss over those.) No, the real hard-core opponents of the implants argue that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being deaf. To them, grafting a cochlear implant into a deaf child would be as wrong-headed as trying to bleach the melatonin out of an African-American child. Deaf, they argue, is different, but not deficient.
I don’t want to argue with these people, but there’s a big difference between deafness and racial diversity. We can imagine a day when people will be judged by their merits rather than by their skin color. We can’t imagine a day when a deaf person will be able to hear a truck coming their way. While I absolutely love, respect, and value my deaf acquaintances, I would insist that their condition creates far more intractable problems than race. They have a problem for which there is a solution. They should avail themselves of that solution. But they won’t have any of that.
Far too many people in the world today are spiritually deaf. They have a problem with sin, but they will not open their ears to hear of the solution that is so readily available to them. The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, just as surely as the cochlear implant is foolishness to those who are not hearing.
I’ll admit that I might be wrong when it comes to the deaf, although I have to think they’ll be hearing in heaven. On the other hand, I’m absolutely sure that I’m not wrong when it comes to the spiritually deaf, those who have ears but will not hear. Far too many of them are perishing needlessly, yet we can hardly unstop their ears by ourselves. Our prayer must be that Jesus, working from heaven, will place his fingers in their ears, spit, and touch their tongues. Then the deaf will hear.
A few years ago, a former student of mine, a guy whom I had failed the previous semester, walked into my office. The reason for his failure was simple. His work throughout the semester had been borderline but passing. However, he failed a departmental final. The department’s policy on this was simple: fail the final and you fail the class. Therefore, when I say that I failed him, it’s not entirely accurate.
Scarcely had the guy gotten in the door when he began to argue with me and complain about failing. I offered my sympathy and showed him the gradebook. “From all of the papers and other work during the semester, you earned a D,” I explained. “But you failed the final. The department says that failing the final means I must fail you for the course. And even if it didn’t, that F on the final turned your D into an F.” I was tempted to ask him if he really saw a D on his transcript as some sort of triumph, but I decided to stick to the simpler course.
“But there were some journals that you didn’t give me credit for,” the kid countered.
“I normally keep good records,” I explained. “But it really doesn’t matter. When you fail the final you must fail the course.”
“But those journals were worth about twenty points!” he insisted.
Again, my sarcastic self wanted to burst out. I wanted to say, “You want a million points for the journals? Okay, you can have a million points, and you still fail, because you failed the final. Don’t you get it?” To my credit, though, I kept my sarcastic self on leash. When the student walked out, he could see that he wasn’t going to get anywhere, but he wasn’t convinced. I’m sure that he went back to his frat and belly-ached about those journals that I didn’t give him credit for.
I’m reminded of that encounter today because of the way that people often interpret or attempt to interpret this miracle of feeding 4,000 people. These interpreters try to figure out some sort of calculus that will make sense of five loaves and two fishes feeding 5,000 with twelve baskets left over, while seven loaves and a “few small fish” feed 4,000 with seven baskets left over. Yes, the twelve might represent the tribes of Israel and the seven might represent the days of creation. Frankly, I think they represent how many baskets they had to make the collection with. Like that guy in my office, these interpreters pay a great deal of attention to the trifles while completely ignoring the important thing right before their faces.
What’s important to me in this passage is not some numerological hocus pocus. No, the important thing to me has nothing to do with a number of loaves, fishes, baskets, or men fed. It has to do with a single line: “The people ate and were satisfied.” Yes, there are wonderful nuances and subtleties within the Bible, but anyone who spends their time consumed with those matters while missing the big picture—“The people ate and were satisfied”—is running astray. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not found in tricky formulas and arcane symbolism. It’s found in the fact that hungry people can come to Christ, eat, and be satisfied. If we miss that, we wind up starving with full stomachs.
There’s an old joke about a guy sitting on his roof during a flood. When his neighbor offers him an escape in his canoe, the guy declines. “I’m trusting God to save me!” he announces. He repeats this process when offered rescue by people in a boat and a helicopter. At length, the guy drowns. As he reaches the gates of heaven, he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?”
Without hesitation, God replies, “I sent a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. What were you waiting for?”
That guy on the roof could have been one of the Pharisees who asked for a miraculous sign from Jesus. He had healed people of all manner of illnesses. He’d fed people by the thousands. He’d done everything that you could hope in the way of a miraculous sign, yet they still asked him for a sign. Why? Those Pharisees didn’t want to see a miraculous sign from Jesus. When confronted with one, they found some way to explain the sign away. People are still doing that today. “You see, Jesus was just walking on the shore, but it looked as if he was walking on the water.” “When Jesus took the food from that little boy, everybody just felt warm and fuzzy and decided to share.” Right. And those people were packing enough food for everybody with twelve baskets of leftovers.
When I look at the field of biology, I see people who are determined to explain away the grandest of miraculous signs. They invent marvelous “Just-So Stories” to explain why elephants have trunks and how partially formed eyes might really be somehow useful to an evolving creature. Why do people work so hard to write God out of his own creation?
There’s an easy answer to that question, and it is one that we really have to apply to ourselves as well as all of those heathen folks. If I can explain away the miraculous signs of God, then I can pretty easily shrug off any authority that God has over me. That explains to me why so many people work so hard, and so contrary to a thoroughly skeptical attitude, in order to create a God-free zone from the universe. But it also explains to me some of the behaviors of Christians.
How many Christians—perhaps some of us sometimes—can be found nodding their assent to the miraculous signs of Jesus’ life, but still waiting for miraculous signs in their own life. “Sure, I got over that nasty cancer, but that was just medicine at work. It wasn’t a miracle.” “Yes, I have a gift for making money, but that’s just my genes talking. That doesn’t mean that I need to actually tithe.” “Sure, I got over my addiction to drugs, but that was my hard work. That doesn’t give God any claim on me.”
Too often, we just see the miracles that we want to see. We’ll insist that the miracles in the gospels really happened, but deny any similar miracles in our own lives. And we do it for the same sort of reason that people always deny miracles.
He’s sent us canoes, boats, and helicopters already. Isn't it time we let him take us somewhere?
While a freshman in high school, I set a nice reward ahead of myself. I decided that on the day that I won the Missouri state wrestling championship for my weight class, I’d visit a particularly wonderful ice cream establishment near my house and eat the most enormous creation on their menu. I think they called it the Matterhorn. I could envision myself sitting down to an entire Alp of ice cream, syrup, whipped cream, nuts, and cherries. Just as easily, I could see myself exulting in victory, returning to school in proud possession of the championship, and wearing the spoils of the tournament on my letterman’s jacket.
I never ate that ice cream. I never won the championship. I never earned a letter in wrestling. Truth be told, the only varsity match I ever won was a forfeit. In two seasons of wrestling, I won all of two matches—one JV and one varsity—both on the same night. I fantasized about winning all sorts of matches, but I didn’t do the things that I’d need to do to make even being a respectable wrestler—forget about a really good wrestler—a real possibility. For all of my focus on that ice cream, for all of the practice I did in celebrating—“and the crowd goes wild”—I rarely worked out except during the season. Did I go to the various wrestling camps that might have improved my skills? No. Did I lift weights so that my arms didn’t look like matchsticks? No. Did I even keep my weight in control so that I didn’t have to go up a weight class with each passing year? No. By Thanksgiving week of my junior season, I faced a tough choice. I could starve myself through the holiday and still probably struggle to make weight, or I could give up this pipe dream. I opted for pumpkin pie.
I’ve never been much of an athlete, but I would find this story much easier to live with if it weren’t so indicative of much of my younger (and some of my more recent) life. With relish I embrace the dream. I envision the outcome. I imagine the rewards and practice my celebration speech—“You like me. You really like me.” But all too often, I fail to do the things that will make the dream a reality. I fail to embrace the bitter along with the sweet.
Following Jesus is a sweet thing and it leads to an eternity of bliss that we on earth can scarcely imagine. All too often, though, people find that road of discipleship too steep. Many—perhaps most—believers struggle to become anything like the Spirit-led people that God wants them to be.
In today’s passage, the fruits were on the tree. A blind man was healed. Peter got to say something heroic and bold. Life in the Jesus crowd was good. But then the Teacher had to go and explain that following him couldn’t always be cheering crowds and ice cream. God didn’t promise us some sort of ticker-tape parade of triumph. No, he promised us the opportunity to lose our lives for his sake. I wasn’t willing to lose my life in pursuit of a wrestling trophy. I pray I can perform better for the higher prize Christ holds out.
The computer world went ga-ga about fifteen years ago with the advent of the first WYSIWYG page layout and graphics programs. In case you aren’t up on your pointless acronyms, WYSIWYG stands for “What you see is what you get.” A WYSIWYG program is probably what you use when you type on your computer. If you mark the text as bold, it looks bold. If you narrow the margins, they look narrow. That’s WYSIWYG. Now WYSIWYG might not seem like all that big of a deal in 2004, but in 1984, it was an enormously big deal. Back in those days, if you wanted to underline something, you would have to type the words and then insert a command code—maybe something like <ul>--before the words. Another command code--</ul> perhaps—would tell the computer to stop underlining. Despite the obvious irritation involved in having to insert all of those codes, there was the problem of not being able to see the actual results until you printed. If you happened to forget that </ul> at the end of the underlining, then you’d underline everything from where you started until the end of the document. I’m happy to have WYSIWYG.
Some people, of course, are more WYSIWYG than others. I tend to be pretty transparent most of the time. My true colors are normally shining through. That isn’t always a good thing. Not very many people think that I’m terribly charming, but at least I’m honestly un-charming. Not everybody can claim that.
Other people put on a nice front. I met a guy about a year ago. He seemed like the warmest, most caring person you’d ever care to meet. He had a genuine way about him, but he was dreadfully ingenuine. In the end, he stabbed his business partner in the back, lied to everyone in sight, and set about schmoozing some new people. His true colors were pretty hard to see.
Most of us, if the truth be told, are not completely WYSIWYG. Most of us manage to mask a few of our grosser qualities. There are some things about me—not awful things, mind you—that I simply don’t allow other people to see or know about. As much as I’d like to deny it, though, those negative and hidden qualities have an influence on what you get from me.
On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John to have a glimpse at what he was really like. Unlike most of us, Jesus cloaked his incredible glory in the garb of an ordinary man. He looked, smelled, walked, and talked like a typical sinful person. But that wasn’t what Jesus was. Jesus was man at his ultimate potential.
On that mountaintop, however, Jesus peeled back the covering of humanity. For just a moment he showed these three key disciples the truth. What they saw was what they got.
I wish I could have been there and seen that revelation of Christ’s nature. The closest I’m likely to come on earth, however, is when I draw close to God in worship. There are those moments—and I hope you’ve had them, too—when you get a glimpse of what you get. Those moments make you want to set up a shelter with Peter. Those moments can keep you going through the hard times.
I used to love the old Star Trek series, the original one with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and so forth. One particular episode has been in my mind lately. In this one, Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy were mysteriously transported to an extraterrestrial soundstage that looked like the set from the movie Oklahoma. In other words, the place was vaguely western and thoroughly weird. As the episode progressed, we realized that the place was supposed to be Tombstone, Arizona and the day was that of the Gunfight at O.K. Coral. Unfortunately for our heroes, they were cast as the cowboys who would be gunned down by the Earp brothers. Happily, though, Mr. Spock discovered a means of escape. Since this entire experience was only a sort of dream being imposed on their minds, all they had to do was completely believe that the Earps’ bullets wouldn’t kill them. Any shadow of doubt would have them laid out of Boot Hill. But if they could manage this little mind feat, Spock could use the old neck pinch and Kirk could throw in some fisticuffs. And then everything would be all better. On the other hand, if they believed for even a moment that those bullets were really about to kill them . . . ouch!
Sometimes when we hear about faith in Christ, we think that it has to be that sort of faith. We have to believe utterly, absolutely, one-hundred-percently. Any glimmer of doubt and then—pow!—you’re cast off into the lake of fire. Happily, that’s not the sort of faith that God seems to expect from us. If it were, then Peter would certainly have been in trouble, and if it were, I would certainly be in trouble.
Yes, I sometimes suffer from doubts. These aren’t big, raging, Rottweiler kind of doubts. They’re more like drowsy Chihuahua doubts. They spend most of their time snoozing at the end of the couch, but then they yap annoyingly at the worst times. What if—I find myself wondering at times—what if I’ve just deluded myself with all of this belief stuff? Those doubts pass fairly quickly, but they’re the sort of doubts that would have left the Star Trek guys as a peculiar footnote to Western history.
I find this story about the demon-possessed boy comforting for one thing that it says about faith. The boy’s father, his faith challenged by Jesus, says, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” Isn’t that sort of like saying “I am clean; help me wash up”? I don’t think that this guy was really suffering from a split personality. In a way, he was saying something like I might say to my wife: “I love you; help me stop being unloving.” Belief is not an absolute, forever, alabaster wall. For most of us, belief will have a chink here or there. For us mere humans, belief will be corrupted by a mixture of unbelief. Unlike Captain Kirk at the O.K. Coral, we don’t need an absolutely perfect belief. Our hope is that Jesus will take our childlike belief and refine it over the years of our discipleship. Only with time can we overcome our unbelief.
If I play my cards right, I can amount to something in the Church of Jesus Christ. Right now, I’m pretty much a nobody. I publish devotions on the web everyday. I write a few things for a big publisher. Besides that, I do a fair number of things in my church. Yeah, I’ve gotten some good things accomplished in recent years, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.
I figure that a couple more years of toiling in the underbrush, teaching a class here and writing a minor project there, and I’ll be ready to break out. That’s when we’ll be talking book contracts and lecture tours. I’ll be getting the guest spots on Focus on the Family and speaking at PromiseKeepers. Right now, I’m just paying my dues, but one of these days—and it won’t be too long now—I’m going to be giving Max Lucado and Chuck Swindoll a run for their money.
These are the thoughts that I think in weaker moments. I suppose that all of us who toil within the church, entertain these sorts of self-serving thoughts now and again. We spend some time trying to position ourselves to be Deacon Chairman or Head Usher or Grand Poobah of the lodge. The church can be neatly divided between those people who are working on their résumés and those who are working for the kingdom. I like to think that I don’t spend too much time in that former group, but I’d be fooling myself to say I’m never guilty.
We come by it honestly I think. What ten-year-old boy ever stood in the back yard and fantasized about winning a meaningless minor league baseball game with a sacrifice fly? No, we all dream of winning the World Series with a grand slam. Nobody dreams about being the junior member on the local school board. Instead, we dream about being President.
As I read this passage today, I’m reminded that the call to follow Christ is not a call to self-exaltation. The heroes of the New Testament could scarcely be imagined as big-time celebrities. They were not the popular musicians or wealthy industrialists of their day. They were just plain people who spent their lives after meeting Christ living among the poor, walking from one nondescript town to the next, and sharing with countless faceless individuals about the kingdom of God. Their moments of glory were incredibly few and far between. Brittany Spears gets more adulation and acclaim walking across the street than Peter and Timothy and Barnabas received in a lifetime.
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God? Who cares? God will sort those matters out. We are all—without exception—sinners, rescued from the flames by a God who loves us and by the blood of his Son. I have to remind myself that the honor of being on this ship of the church is so great that where I serve—whether as executive officer or deck swabber—is completely irrelevant.
Several years ago, I rode a bicycle all over the countryside around my home. Throughout a vigorous summer, I averaged better than sixty miles a week. In order to avoid tedium, then, I had to constantly explore new routes. My able assistant in this process of discovery was a multi-page map of the Kansas City area. On one marvelous, wandering ride, I found myself in a new neighborhood. Having put in a good eight miles that day, I determined to head for home. If only, I thought, I could get down to the Blue River floodplain, some sixty vertical feet down the hill before me, I’d have an easy ride home. But getting down that hill was the trick. I consulted my mental map and realized that the only route I knew would add some five miles to my day. I pulled out my atlas and looked at the proper page. My finger traced a path through various suburban byways to the road I sought. Perfect. I saddled up and wound my way through the neighborhood. Then, just as I had nearly found my way through these roads, I realized something annoying. One of the necessary roads didn’t exist. It existed on the map, but in reality, there was no road to be ridden. Disgusted with my map, I had to turn and climb back up the hill to seek another route.
A map that leads a person astray is not a map that can be trusted. It’s as troubling as an unreliable car or a friend who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t show up at the appointed time. My map, while correct the vast majority of the time, had let me down at the critical moment. We all have experiences of this sort, and we learn not to rely too heavily on the unreliable.
Jesus pointed out the various unreliable attributes of the human being. Our hands and feet can cause us to sin. Our eyes can present real problems. Sure, most of the time my hands, feet, and eyes provide perfect service, but from time to time they get me into real difficulty. If I take this passage literally, then I’m afraid I’d have to knock off both of my feet, gouge out both of my eyes, and then somehow manage to remove both hands. If they get me into sin? Please! It’s not a matter of if but of when.
I don’t believe that Jesus wants us going around mutilating ourselves, but he does call us to rid our lives of things that we might hold just as dear. There’s the old joke about Jack Benny, confronted with a mugger, thinking long and hard about the question, “Your money or your life?” That miserly Benny character would have sooner removed a hand than give up his money.
Money is good, but if it is unreliable and causes us trouble, then it must go. Other things—power, beauty, technology, success—are good, but when they prove unreliable, leading us into sin, then they must go.
I valued that map when I was biking, but after that day on the hill, I realized that I could trust it no longer. I left it behind the next day. If only I could be so resolute on matters of my soul.
Years ago, some friends of ours adopted Donnie, a little boy about eight years of age. He seemed like a really sweet kid, but after years of dealing with scads of kids—my own and other people’s—I realize that Donnie undoubtedly came into my friends’ house with some unpleasant baggage from wherever he’d spent the first eight years of his life. We didn’t spend a lot of time with these people, so I don’t know all of the details of this matter. All I know for sure is that one day, when we asked about Donnie, the friends indicated that he had become too much of a problem and had been “returned.”
Even today, twenty or more years after that event, I shudder at the idea of returning an adopted child to whatever agency placed him. My friends, it seems, treated Donnie much as I might treat a sweater from J.C. Penney. When things didn’t work out, they just sent him back and un-adopted him. In fairness to these friends, there may have been a compelling reason why this happened, but it still seems troubling.
There are some relationships that we have no compulsion to preserve. In our twenty-two years of marriage, Penny and I have owned four houses and rented three more. We’ve been through a dozen cars. I can’t say how many computers, TVs, cordless phones, couches, and other household necessities that we’ve owned, given away, sold, lost, or whatever. Lamentably, our record on household pets is not very good either, but we’re working on that one right now.
While I’ve had the same job for the bulk of our married life, Penny has gone through jobs—both paying and volunteer—like some people go through underwear. Once, as she decided to quit some position or another, she asked me if it made her a bad person to quit so many things. I answered without hesitation: “As long as you don’t quit on me, I have no complaints.” Penny has not and will not quit on me or our children. Those relationships, unlike her relationships to dish soaps, TV shows, and volunteer gigs, are sacred and permanent.
It has seemed to me that when Donnie was adopted, he should have become a permanent fixture in that family. But we live in a society where relationships are made to be broken. People often show more loyalty to a NASCAR driver than to a spouse. They’ll remain dedicated to their car brand longer than to their kids. That’s a terrible shame.
The church is the Bride of Christ. Thanks be to God that he is not as cavalier about that marriage covenant as Americans tend to be these days. Individual believers are portrayed as adopted sons and daughters of God. Again, we must thank God that his adoption is for eternity.
Lest I seem smug about my relationships, I’ll confess that they are, while intact, not always as loving and respectful as they should be. Let us turn our hearts as believers to making our family relationships upon the earth mirror those that God has established in heaven.
I sing in the choir at my church. Perched up there, in the middle of the second row of the choir loft, I’m afforded a truly fine opportunity for people watching. I can spy on the middle-school boys who like to sit in the far recesses of the balcony just as easily as I can watch the enthusiasts who populate the first couple of rows. Probably, my time is misspent as I watch these people rather than turning my attentions to the Lord, but I’ll confess here that I watch them all the same. Let me tell you about one guy.
He wears nice clothes, a tasteful blue or grey suit, white shirt, and tie. I can’t see his shoes, but I’m sure that they’re wingtips, polished just the night before. This fellow is probably in his late sixties. He’s spent a solid career in insurance, law, or some other respectable business. He might have been a car dealer, but he certainly wasn’t a mere salesman. No, this guy is substantial. As the music plays in the Sunday service, he stands because everybody else is standing. It’s what you do, after all. But he doesn’t sing. You’re not going to get him to sing. He could sing. He’s probably a pretty fair singer. Maybe he was in the choir in college, but that was many years ago. He won’t be singing today. His arms folded stiffly across his chest, he glowers through the entire music section of the service. “When will all of this nonsense be over?” his body language seems to ask. When the music is upbeat and people begin to clap along with it, his arms don’t budge. He won’t be clapping today.
After church, this guy takes his wife out to dinner somewhere nice. He’s a good guy after all. Over the meal, he might grouse about the music. It was too loud or too fast. It was too modern or too sentimental. There were those awful people raising their hands in the air. It’s annoying when they do that. And don’t even get him started on the preacher!
Do you know this guy? He comes in all shapes, genders, and ages, so don’t think I’m picking on the sixty-somethings. If you look around your church, you’ll see this fellow and his fellow travelers. What unifies them is that they can’t let go of their pride and enter the time of worship.
Now you don’t have to be jumping pews and waving your arms to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, but you do have to let go of your pride. If you’ve ever watched a children’s choir, you’ve seen people worshiping without pride. Some of the kids will be demonstrative and some won’t be, but they’re usually not so full of themselves, not so consumed with how they’ll look, not so afraid to let go that they can’t lift up their voices joyfully to the Lord.
Christ calls us to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. I’m going to start watching children on Sunday morning, because the pride brothers are really depressing.
I have a confession to make. Back in a younger age, when I worked full-time for the Boy Scouts of America as a District Executive, I used to take long afternoons and squander some of my princely salary, a quarter at a time, playing video games at a local arcade. I played one game, called Rush’n Attack, obsessively. After a while, I could make a quarter last a very long time on that game.
Why did I waste time and money in such a manner? That’s easy. I enjoyed it. If I had the choice between driving around town and visiting various pastors and principals who more or less cared about the Scouting program on the one hand and vegging out on video games on the other, I know which one I’d prefer. On the other hand, I'd drive all over town to collect application forms for new boys. I could see immediately how those numbers would translate into my performance evaluation. In the final tally, I wasn’t a terrible professional Scouter, but I could certainly have been a good deal better. And part of being better would have come out of investing those video afternoons into something more productive than an arcade game.
I’d love to say that when I left the employ of the BSA I left behind my wasteful ways, but that wouldn’t be true. Today, I have to choose between watching Law and Order or working on my writing. I have to choose between playing SimCity and mowing the grass in the real city. At school, I've been known to while away a good afternoon playing "Elf Bowling." The more things change, the more things stay the same.
You probably have your dilemmas as well. Would you rather sleep an extra hour or do intensive prayer and Bible study each morning? Ouch! That one hits me where I live. I’d much rather do my Bible study in mid-afternoon, but I have to think it’ll do me more good in terms of controlling the day if I start off in the morning in God’s presence.
Part of my rationalization back in my Scouting days came from the knowledge that a fifteen-minute meeting with Pastor Smith would probably just annoy him and bore me. Those undone tasks were largely like missing a basketball game to polish the inside of the gutters on my house. I could do it, but it really wouldn’t pay off at all. So why?
The promise in today’s reading, however, is that no sacrifice that we make on behalf of Christ will go unrewarded. We can’t think of this promise as some sort of celestial Ponzi scheme, where we get to invest a dollar and reap a hundred. Jesus doesn’t promise us exactly how we’ll be rewarded for our sacrifices. But he promises that we will be rewarded. That’s enough for me.
While I’m in the confessing mode, I thought that I’d mention another part of my past—not my finest hour. Back when Penny and I were dating, she proposed an activity that went something like this: “We can drive thirty miles out of town to our friends’ house and load up all of our cars and trucks with furniture. Then we can follow them into town and move them into their new house.” That was it. Not even the obligatory, moving-day offer of pizza was in sight. I stared back at Penny.
“What’s in it for me?” I asked.
I might as well have been driving nails into her skull for the reaction that I got. What’s in it for me? Penny couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t want to dedicate a Saturday to driving my car on my gas out of town and then lugging a bunch of heavy junk downstairs and into vehicles. Never mind the driving back and moving stuff into the new place. Penny just couldn’t understand my lack of desire to do this selfless act. I guess, in the final analysis, I’m just not a naturally selfless person.
That’s why the words of James and John bring me such comfort. After hearing Jesus describe his impending arrest and execution in a great deal of detail, did the sons of Zebedee go over and put their arms around Jesus and say, “What can I do to help?” No, they said, “Hey, if you’re going to be dying soon, then we’d better start dividing up the inheritance, right?” In essence, the brothers were looking at the greatest crisis that Jesus would face in his entire life and saying, “What’s in it for me?”
It’s a natural thing, I guess. We humans tend to think a great deal about what’s in this world for us. Why else would we sit and grouse about the music at our church or agonize over whether tithing means a tenth of our gross or net income. We want things for ourselves.
The glorious thing about Jesus the man is that he was not a selfish guy. The gospels give us no indication that Jesus ever asked, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, he told his disciples that he “did not come to be served, but to serve.” When I think back to my whining about a Saturday spent helping someone move, I just have to realize that Jesus spent better than thirty years putting himself out, interrupting his comfortable life and helping other. That’s enough to make me feel ashamed.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better about the whole, “What’s in it for me?” thing. I tend to volunteer to help people out—at least some of the time. But I’m still a selfish person. There’s no way that I’m going to sacrifice my life in the way Jesus did—even if it doesn’t involve death. I’m still much more like James and John, looking out for my interests. And that’s why I need Jesus and why I need to grow to be more like him.
My father was a source of much good, practical advice. One of the things he told me many times was “Don’t burn your bridges behind you.” Okay, that’s not exactly in the order of a revelation, but it is useful. Far too often, we’re tempted to blast some employer as we head out the door, rip some pastor as we move our membership, or otherwise muddy the waters we’re leaving. I recall when I finished one of my academic stints having a legitimate beef against one of the professors. Part of me wanted to lash out at this guy the moment my degree was safely in the books. But a better part of me remembered my father’s words. I held my tongue and allowed my anger to calm. Years later, I found myself needing a favor from this man. As I spoke with him on the phone, I realized two things. First of all, he wasn’t a wholly awful person, and second, Dad was right about burning bridges.
The bridge burning advice doesn’t just apply to human relationships, either. Recently, my daughter asked me to help her write a letter to her landlord to get her ought of a lease early. My question was simple: “Do you have somewhere to move?” You don’t go breaking leases when you don’t have a place to move. You don’t quit your job before you have a new one lined up. You don’t give away your old refrigerator until the new one is in place and running—unless you want the milk to go bad.
I say all of that today by way of preface, because I’m going to praise a bridge burner. There’s an element in the story of blind Bartimaeus that most of us gloss over as we read through that part of Mark. Between his crying out to Jesus and the miracle itself, Bartimaeus does something that the literature student in me takes as merely a scene-enriching detail. This detail is so apparently tiny that it doesn’t even warrant its own sentence. Instead, Mark presents it—or at least the NIV translators present it—as an introductory participial phrase. (I’m sorry. The English teacher in me comes out sometimes.) What is this detail? “Throwing his cloak aside.”
What’s so big a deal about Bartimaeus throwing his cloak aside? We should remember that the guy was blind when he stood up. For you and me, that would be akin to throwing aside our coat in a dark room. You might be able to find your coat, but you can’t depend on it. And Bartimaeus was a beggar. He couldn’t just run out to Old Navy and buy himself a new cloak should he not manage to find this one. And he was poor, so this cloak probably served him as bed, shelter, and warmth. What kind of fool was this blind man?
Bartimaeus, apparently, stood up fully assuming that Jesus would be willing and able to give him sight. He assumed, when he threw that cloak, that he’d be able to find it with his own eyes. That’s faith. How often do we latch onto things and avoid “burning bridges” when we should be trusting Jesus to provide for us? I’m not saying that we should live foolishly, but I am saying that oftentimes what we might call prudence simply demonstrates our lack of real faith and dependence.
Twenty-two years ago today, I stood at the front of a church and watched as the love of my life, decked out in full bridal finery, walked down the aisle to become my wife. I’m half surprised that she didn’t turn on her heel and head for the door when she saw me there blubbering like a baby. If only we’d known.
Aged only eighteen and nineteen, Penny and I knew that we wanted to be married, but we really didn’t have a clue what we were getting ourselves into. Where would we live? What sort of work would we pursue? Would she work? Would I be able to get decent work? Would we get along? How many kids would we have? Who would do the grilling? These are just a few of the important questions that we didn’t have answers to on that evening in 1982.
Today, twenty-two years later, we possess answers to those questions, but we’ve discovered a whole range of new questions that we’d never even considered. For one thing, we’re asking ourselves how to behave as in-laws and grandparents. I have to wonder, if I had known all of the stuff that I’d be facing in these twenty-two years of marriage, if I would have been more frightened than moved on that long-ago evening.
Please don’t misread me here. I have absolutely no regrets about making Penny my wife, and, if she’s telling the truth, she has no regrets about marrying me. We’ve had our share of good and rocky times, but on balance we’ve found the ride to be a good one—certainly better than what some of our friends have described. But I am saying that while I knew the importance of that ceremony with all of its flowers, tuxedos, and frilly dresses, I really didn’t understand the fundamental shift that was about to work itself through my life. I would have told you that night that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Penny, but I had only the haziest of notions about what that meant. If I had known, I’m fairly sure that my emotions would have been a bit more troubled.
You married types understand that I have to write about my marriage for my anniversary, but I think it does tie in nicely with the story of the Triumphal Entry. You see, when Jesus went through that ceremony, when he heard the crowds shout “Hosanna” and saw them wave palm branches, he understood fully what was going to transpire in the next week. He knew that for all the glory of the moment, he’d be suffering a most horrible pain and death just a few days hence. And yet he stayed on that donkey and road on into town. Is that the action of a rational man?
Jesus road on into Jerusalem for the same reason that Penny and I exchanged those vows: love. We couldn’t know precisely what lay ahead, but we knew that we wanted to walk the road together. Jesus knew that awful things lay ahead, but his love for you and for me was sufficient to allow him to carry on with God’s plan for him. That’s a far better love than I can claim for or from my wife, and I thank God every day for that love.
Every semester in my English classes, I like to observe what I call I-Thought-He-Was-A-Nice-Guy Day. That’s the day when the first papers of the semester are returned to the students covered with my comments and, most ominously, the first grades of the term. On that day, at least a few students feel as if they’ve stumbled into some sort of cruel bait-and-switch routine. On the first day of the semester, I played music—and silly music at that—and joked around. Through the first several class periods, I did things that seemed as if I really cared about their lives. I asked them to bring something that represented success to class and talk about it. I showed them Far Side cartoons. They thought I was a nice guy. But then the papers came back. People who were expecting to dash out something in twenty minutes before class and get an A-minus wound up looking at a D or a “No Grade As Is.” Clearly, this teacher is not a nice guy.
Maybe you’ve had the same sort of experience in a different setting. Just as I wrote these last words, my son came to me and asked me to do something for him. When I explained that I was in the middle of something and would have to do his thing later, he stormed out, accused me of yelling at him, and, I’m sure, decided that I wasn’t a nice guy after all. Police officers, managers, basketball referees, and all sorts of other people have to deal with their own version of “I-Thought-You-Were-A-Nice-Guy Day.”
The Jesus who is often portrayed in art and film and popular imagination is always a nice guy. All too often, the image of Jesus is this sort of willowy, limp-gripped fellow who floats about the countryside loving the children and smiling at everyone. Now I firmly believe that Jesus was indeed a nice guy. But he wasn’t the sort of nice guy that my students are looking for when those first papers come back. He wasn’t the sort of nice guy that my son was looking for a few minutes ago. The sort of nice guy who never speaks an angry word, who never offers criticism, and who calls bad “good” is really not a nice guy at all. It’s no surprise that Jesus wasn’t that sort of nice guy.
Jesus was a very nice guy, but there were times when his niceness didn’t translate into social pleasantness. There were times when his love for people made him behave in a stern and demanding way. In this passage of Mark, we see two examples of the “Not Nice” Jesus. Many people find the image of Jesus cursing a fig tree strange. Even more, people find the idea of Jesus driving money-changers from the Temple to be repellant. Surely that’s not the act of our Nice-Guy Jesus. In fact, that is exactly the sort of thing that the nice, loving Jesus would do. Anything less would have been less than nice.
I need to remember this when Jesus makes unpleasant demands on me. When I fail to produce fruit, I shouldn’t be surprised at the Lord’s harshness. This has nothing to do with niceness and everything to do with love.
Two guys square off in the finals of the Olympic downhill skiing race. Each athlete has spent years on the slopes of his particular country. He has undergone a year-round training regimen and spent more time on skies than most of us spend out of chairs each day. These are the bona fide ski junkies. And, it so happens in this year’s Olympics, each of them is a believer in Christ.
Each man, before he takes his final run of the competition, the race that will determine who wins gold, silver, bronze, and a hearty handshake from the lift operator, bows himself in heartfelt and humble prayer. “Dear God,” each skier says in his own language. “You know how hard I’ve trained for this day. I trust that you will allow me to win this race. In fact, in my heart I have no doubt that you will deliver to me the victory in today’s race.” And then they race.
So who wins? Jesus says in Mark 11:23 that we can tell mountains to go swimming and they’ll go swimming, if we believe in our hearts that it will indeed happen. So what happens if both of these skiers pray this same prayer. Will they tie? I guess that’s possible, but it’s not very satisfying. Let me change the situation now. What if I pray that a certain mountain will throw itself into the sea and you pray that it won’t? If we both believe equally, what will the mountain do?
Don’t you love those questions? After spending many years teaching children’s Sunday School, I have come to recognize that kids will always go to those marvelous questions. Adults will manage to gloss over the whole thing. We’ll say, “Well, you know that you really have to pray for what is in God’s will in the first place and therefore there’s really no question as to whether the mountain would go into the sea or not.” Really? If that’s the case, then why did Jesus use the example? Why didn’t Jesus just say, “God will give you anything you want as long as it’s what he wants you to want.” That’s not what he said and it’s not what it meant.
Before we get too hung up on the potentials for prayer-generated geologic shift, maybe we should look at the whole context of this teaching. Jesus has just cursed an unproductive fig tree and seen that tree shrivel up and die. Then he talks about praying mountains into the sea. And then he starts talking about forgiving people when we pray. Are these just miscellaneous thoughts? No, Jesus isn’t giving instructions on impressive magic tricks. He’s talking far more about truly daunting mountains, the sort of mountains that we cannot go around or climb over.
I’ve never prayed a mountain into the sea, but I have prayed and seen a mountain of my sins moved out their place and tossed into a figurative sea, never to be seen again. Tell me, which of these represents the greater miracle?
Friends of mine made an unwise move a few years back. They bought a new house as their family grew, but, rather than selling the old house, they decided to step into the brave new world of being landlords. These people, I have to say, are about as suited to be landlords as I am to be a gymnast. After several years of agonizing over their rental house, they decided that the time had come for their renters to move out and for the house to be sold. There was something about these people not paying the rent for three straight months, while my friends had to continue to make the mortgage payments, that pushed them in the direction of selling the place.
When the renters finally did vacate, they left the place in an incredible disaster. The floors were trashed. What carpet remained had to be removed. The kitchen faucet, installed new just a couple of years back, was missing. How on earth do you lose a kitchen faucet? In the laundry room, they found an immense pile of dirty laundry, something the size of a sub-compact car. These were the clothes that these people simply abandoned. One wonders just how much they took with them. I could go on enumerating the messes, but I think you get the idea.
My daughter and her husband are renting a house right now. It’s kind of dump with a number of problems that the landlord really should attend to. They want to buy a place of their own in the near future, so I advised them to do something simple: treat the place as if it were their own. Instead of waiting for the weeds to grow up to the bottoms of the windows, they should maintain the yard like they’d do if they owned the place. Rather than waiting for the repair fairy to come along and do simple repairs, they should do them. I told them this not just to be nice to the landlords but so that they’ll develop good habits. But it’s certainly true that we tend to care more for things that we own than for things that other people own.
As I read this parable that Jesus tells about the people leasing the vineyard, I struggled to fit it into a Christian’s life. You see, unlike the Pharisees and others against whom Jesus preached these words, Christians are not renters. We are joint heirs with Jesus. The church is not the vineyard that we’re renting from God. No, the church is our inheritance. Having been adopted into the family and claiming Jesus as our brother, we’re already the proprietors—or at least we have an ownership stake established.
I mention this because, despite our ownership stake, we often treat our inheritance, the church, as if we were renters. We want to use it up and grouse about the landlord not doing this or that. All too often we allow someone else to do the heavy work and actually treat the thing like owners. We don’t get visitations from the owner any longer, because the owner is present. We should start taking care of our possessions better. We won’t get a security deposit back, but there will be a reward down the road.
In A.D. 325 in a small town called Nicaea, the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first professed Christian Emperor the Romans had known, convened a meeting of all of the bishops of the Christian church. Of the approximately 500 bishops—or senior pastors, if you will—who were invited, more than 300 attended. What brought them together? Was it to vote on the budget for missions for the next year? Did they need to vote on boycotting Michael Moore’s movies? No. While the Council of Nicaea discussed a number of theological and administrative matters, the burning issue that prompted and dominated the assembly was the question of the trinity.
In one corner, we had the followers of Arius. This crowd taught that Jesus was a sort of subordinate, created being—a great being, but not at all on a par with God the Father.
In another corner, we had those who followed the teachings of Sabellius. According to their school of thought, Father, Son, and Spirit all simply represented different modes or faces of the same being.
In a third corner were those who found both of those positions to be heretical and who sought to explain the trinity in a way that expressed Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct persons while preserving monotheism.
In the final corner sat a large group whose heads were spinning from all of the theological talk being done by the first three corners. Perhaps you would place yourself into that fourth corner. I know that I often want to sit there when the questions get vexing.
Theology is important. We should ask difficult questions and work hard to answer those questions. But the questioning process can get us into some pretty deep muck and mire. Look at the two sets of questions—one on taxation and one on marriage—that Jesus’ detractors were asking him. Certainly they asked these things because they wanted to trip Jesus up, but they knew to ask them because they recognized that these were tough questions. These guys spent their days sitting around posing difficult questions to each other and then trying to answer them. That’s a fine exercise, but it can lead to problems.
Using human reason to understand the very nature of God is a lot like exploring the upper atmosphere in a Toyota Corolla. You might make some progress, but you’re very limited. Questions about the nature of God tend to lead us to paradoxes: Can the God who can do everything make himself unable to do something? These are interesting little questions, but they’re bound to lead to unsatisfying results.
The assembled bishops at Nicaea, at the behest of Constantine, wanted a hard and fast answer to the question of the trinity. What a fool’s errand. We can say that Arianism or Sabellianism are heresies, but we cannot pin down the nature of the trinity like a bug in an insect collection. God’s biggest questions simply aren’t that easy to answer.
At times, we must accept the limited scope of the human mind. We must ask the questions and then accept the fact that some questions can’t be immediately answered. Happily, I don’t have to thoroughly understand the ways of God to enjoy the salvation that he offers.
If I’ve done this once, I’ve done it a thousand times. The conversation goes something like this:
“Hi, my name is Walter.”
“Good to meet you, Mark.”
“It’s good to be here,” I reply, wondering, what did that guy say his name was?
You’ve probably done this as well. You meet somebody, hear their name, and then promptly forget it. I’m also accused—unjustly, I must insist—of being equally cavalier when it comes to heeding my wife’s words. She’ll tell me that she’s going to the store and then stopping off at Rebecca’s house for a cup of coffee. When she returns, I’ll rail about how long it takes her to go to the store. One of these days, I’m sure, she’ll be testing me by saying that she’s going to Rebecca’s house for pickle juice.
Listening is an important skill, something that most of us don’t do nearly well enough. When others talk with us, we spend too much time framing our next response to fully consider what we’ll be responding to. The sounds of their words strike our eardrums, but the meanings behind those words don’t always penetrate into our minds. That’s sad. I’m sure that I miss a great deal from not hearing all that goes on around me.
When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, he went to a familiar text in Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” He went on from that sentence to what we normally think of as the greatest and the second greatest commandments: love God and love others. Rather than focusing our thoughts on those two commandments today, I’d like to spend a moment looking at Jesus’ initial response. When asked which is the greatest commandment, what was the first word in the imperative mood—that is, the first word of command—that Jesus offered. It wasn’t “love,” as in “love the Lord your God.” It was “hear.” Now I’m not here to say that Jesus meant that hearing is more important than loving God, but it is intriguing to notice that Jesus prefaced his great commandment speech with those words: “Hear, O Israel.”
The Bible tells us a thousand and more things that we should do. It records hundreds of instances in which the people of God strayed from his will. And what do those instances have in common? The people didn’t hear what God had to say to them. Like me, instantly forgetting the name of someone I’ve just met, otherwise decent people find themselves in trouble time and again for the want of listening.
Are these two commandments—listening to God and loving God—related? Of course they are. Think about it. Do I show my wife any real love and respect when I neglect her words? Did I show any consideration to poor Walter when I instantly forgot his name? No. We listen to those whom we love.
So if I truly love God, then I really should do my best to listen, to hear his words. I might just hear something of value if I do.
During the summer of 1985, I spent three weeks in Dallas at a training seminar. We stayed in a reasonably nice hotel and were fed quite well on this trip. To top things off, I was getting paid back at home while I sat through the various classes in Texas. One evening, when the events of the day had wrapped up, I decided to take a walk, a mile or so to the south of our hotel, to a nearby mall. Strolling along a busy road, trying not to step into the fire ant nests along the way, I walked alone toward my destination. Just before I reached the mecca of mercantilism, I had to pass over the Interstate that connects Dallas and Fort Worth. Looking down onto the buzz of traffic, I noticed a stalled car. Three young people, obviously bedraggled and on their last dime, were worrying over the open hood of their wounded car.
They called out to me, asking if I had any money to spare. Now frankly, if I were looking for an example of desperation, I couldn’t do a lot better than asking for handouts from a stranger on a highway overpass. Without much thought, I gave my standard panhandler response: “Sorry, I can’t help you.” They didn’t seem surprised.
As I walked on, however, I realized that I could help them. My wallet had a row of twenties in it that I would have very little need to spend before returning home to an unspent paycheck. I pulled $20 out of my billfold and found a piece of fairly heavy litter—a milk carton as I recall—on the road. Placing the money in the carton, I yelled at the people and tossed this valuable litter down to them. It took just a bit of pantomime for them to realize they needed to look inside. They were ecstatic over this largesse, and I must admit that I felt pretty good about it.
It’s been years since I’ve thought about that event, and probably that’s a good thing. You see, like those rich people whom Jesus watched putting their money into the temple collection that day, I was simply giving out of my abundance, out of my wealth, out of what I would never miss. Sure, I could have bought a nice souvenir T-shirt with that money, but I sure didn’t miss out on anything needful once I threw that money over the edge of the bridge.
If we think this thing through, we have to recognize that giving out of our abundance is not a bad thing. If you have abundance, how can you ever give like the widow gave if you don’t first give out of your abundance? The problem is that we all too often stop giving before any faith is required. We stop giving before there’s any real sacrifice. How often do we give to God out of only our abundance? I can’t speak for you, but with me the answer is “normally.” For me, a tithe is a significant gift, but it leaves me plenty to live quite comfortably. It certainly shouldn’t be any cause for pride on my part.
I don’t regret tossing that twenty to those kids in 1985. They needed it and I didn’t. But I’d best not get too impressed with myself for that act of charity. It was just a gift from abundance.
Sitting in my office one day, I mulled over the marvelousness of my life at that moment. I’d finished my classes for the day. No stack of ungraded papers rose on my desk to threaten my moments of ease. In some forty minutes, I’d be able to drift down with some friends to eat a Chick-fil-A sandwich. Then, in mid-afternoon, I’d cruise home, ahead of the evening rush hour, to spend a couple of hours playing with my kids at our new house, which was surrounded by five acres of potential playground. Then the phone rang.
In thirty seconds, my life changed. Alyson, doing her best to maintain her composure, informed me that Tom had been badly burned at home. Penny was taking him to the hospital. In just a few seconds, I grabbed my jacket and headed for the car—no time to tell people I was leaving. I certainly hadn’t seen something like this coming.
If Alyson had called and said that Tom had bounced off of our new trampoline, spilling his brains onto the lawn, I’d have been a good deal less surprised. Penny and I had agonized over the safety issue of the tramp, but had finally decided to buy it. Who would have thought that hot water and melted wax would have been the great threat to Tom’s well-being?
Bad stuff tends to happen when we don’t expect it. I remember working with my table saw a few months back. Penny urged me to be careful. I started to say, “I’m not going to hurt myself,” but I stopped. After all, do all of those people who mangle themselves with power tools every year see it coming? Do they think, “Oh yeah, today’s the day I’m going to cut two of my fingers off.” Of course not. Had Penny known that today was the day that Tom would manage to pull a pan of hot water and wax on top of himself, she’d have never let him within a quarter mile of it. But bad things sneak up on us. They come when we’re least expecting them. That’s why the Boy Scouts have “Be Prepared” as their motto. Lord Baden-Powell knew that you couldn’t always see problems coming down the road, so the best you could hope to do was “be prepared.”
Somewhere around here, I have a book titled Christ Returns by 1988. He didn’t make it, did he? Jesus will return, but there are far too many Christians wasting their time trying to figure out exactly when that will be. As far as I’m concerned, it shouldn’t make a whit of difference in how I live today whether Jesus’ return comes before I finish this sentence or a thousand years from now. As believers, we’re not called to figure out the time and day of Christ’s return, but we are called to live each day as if that return is certain and could very well be today. No matter when it comes, I’m sure we’ll find it a surprise.
Sixty years ago this weekend, General Dwight Eisenhower launched the greatest military offensive in recorded history when thousands of aircraft and ships carried wave after wave of soldiers onto the beaches of Normandy, France. Recently, every cable channel has been trying to tie into the anniversary. Although I haven’t looked, I’m sure that Trading Spaces is doing some sort of gun emplacement redecoration project. On the more normal front, the movie channels have been running World War II films. For the first time in years, I watched part of The Longest Day this week. One image from that movie stands out in my mind. Just as the naval bombardment began in preparation for the arrival of the first landing crafts, a rather portly and listless German soldier stood in utter panic while shells exploded all around him. Behind this poor guy, a middle-aged Frenchman celebrated, waving his tri-color French flag amidst the shattered glass and crumbled plaster of his home. The Frenchman’s wife cowered sensibly behind their bed, but that couldn’t stop him from dancing at the prospect of the arrival of his day of deliverance. I don’t recall if the movie ever shows what happens to these characters, but I found great empathy for them as they suffered through a moment of exhilarating terror.
I don’t like to get too hung up on prophecy study—the sort that has people deciding that Bob Barker is the anti-Christ or that finds the NFL mentioned in the pages of Daniel—but I do believe that this passage of Mark speaks of the future. Some would argue that it talks about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, but if that were the case, then what do we make of the verses following 25. No, I think this clearly talks of a time that we haven’t seen yet.
Unlike some of the prophecy gurus, I have no clue what exactly this ominous day that Jesus describes will look like. Will there be a plague, a nuclear accident, a huge war, or something we can’t even imagine? I don’t know, but it’s clear from this text that this day and its aftermath will be bad for everyone. The people of God will not be spared from any ill effects just because they are the people of God. In fact, verse 20 tells us that God will have to shorten this period to keep the elect, the people of God, from being wiped out. That sounds like a pretty rough time.
Sometimes we have the notion—especially living in twenty-first-century America where we think that persecution means not having the Ten Commandments in a courthouse—that we’ll escape any bad fallout from God’s plans. But that’s not the case. As we’ve seen in recent years, people still die for the gospel. In fact, the church seems to grow strongest where there’s the most resistance.
As I read about this future event and imagine what it might comprise, I have to wonder how I will fare if I face real persecution. Will I wilt before the flames or stand strong? Although I hope I know the answer, I’m not at all sure. Just like the soldiers who hit Omaha Beach in 1944, I won’t know until I get there how exactly I’ll react. All I can do is remind myself that things can get pretty bad and get myself ready.
This morning, I had the marvelous pleasure of sweating over a borrowed chain-saw as I struggled to reduce a bunch of fallen branches in my yard to cordwood. Not a month ago, I stood along my back fence and looked up at this fifty-year-old maple and noticed the rotted branches—big branches—that threatened to fall into my neighbor’s yard. “That part of the tree is not long for this world,” I said, figuring that I’d be out here cleaning up the mess sometime in the next couple of years. Little did I know that a stout wind would drop about a fourth of the tree’s overall foliage into the yard within a couple of weeks instead. I won’t be surprised if the entire tree would be dead within five years given its overall disastrous condition.
We have four more trees, all planted in the 1950s when the house was built, that look quite a bit better. They need some trimming and care, but, barring unforeseen catastrophe, they’ll last longer than we want to remain in this house. Back in the house in which I was raised, there are four masterful pin oaks that are just now into their prime, some forty years after they were planted there.
Near the stadium at the University of Kansas, an enormous sycamore, certainly well over fifty years old, rises and shades a good half-acre of land. I’ll admit it: I love trees. I find them magisterial. Frankly, I’m not entirely clear on what that word means or if it’s even relevant to trees, but it seems to fit in my mind. Trees can live so long, growing so tall and complex. They’re marvelous. They’re mighty. They’re magisterial.
There’s another word I might apply: “mickle.” I could refer to “a mickle tree.” You wouldn’t use that word, I’m sure. The Oxford English Dictionary marks the word as obsolete. The examples of its usage fade away, with only a couple of exceptions, after about 1500. Words, you see, just like trees, do not live forever. Sure, a word like “magisterial,” which we might say means “masterful,” comes from a Latin word meaning teacher or authority. As a direct descendant of that Latin word, then the “magisterial” family has been around for better than 2,000 years. That’s a pretty good run, but that run, like the run of “mickle,” will eventually end.
Trees, words, lives, empires—all of these things, while they might be long-lived, will pass away. Some things—Steven Seagal movies for example—don’t stick around at all, while others seem to linger forever. But ultimately, all things pass away. All of those things on earth that seem so permanent, so unchangeable, will fade away or change.
All things on earth—that is—except for the Word of God, the divine logos. Translate it, and it stays. Transplant it, and it flourishes. Try to prune away its embarrassing branches, and it resists. The Word of God is the one thing on which we can depend in an undependable world. It’s a solid place on which to stand.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, I look at praying and reading the scripture, at staying in contact with God, as a sort of duty on the order of brushing my teeth. What foolishness. My teeth will pass away. But those words of God, will outlast my teeth, my mouth, my head, and this world.
A few years ago, I took my 1986 Mazda 626 into a shop for its annual safety inspection. I had learned somewhere in my past that you should take your car to a place that specializes in some area of car repair—brakes for instance—for inspections. That way, they can only focus on potential problems with the brakes rather than pointing out emissions or electrical faults. I’m not sure that this approach actually works, and I’ve gotten away from it in later years, but it was how I operated in those days.
The mechanic looking at my car didn’t fill out the failure notice. Instead, he found me waiting for the car. “The windshield wipers don’t work,” he said. “I can’t pass the car.”
I thought for a moment and then realized the problem. “Oh, you have to lift up on the switch when you turn them on,” I explained. “Then they work great.”
“If you can get them to work, then they’ll pass,” he agreed. A few moments later, I performed the necessary movements to get the wipers going. The mechanic was pleased. The car passed muster.
Perhaps you have a device in your life that requires some sort of special control before it’ll work. Who among us hasn’t had a toilet that required “jiggling the handle” before it would shut off? I have a lamp has some sort of loose connection within the switch. If I wiggle the control a bit, it’ll come on. Computers routinely have to be cajoled and lied to in order to get proper results from them. That seems to be the way of the world.
One of the things that we learn as we pass through life is how to exert control over things. We learn to control our toys first. Then we proceed to tools. Ultimately we learn to control people. Probably, as you grew up, you learned fairly well just how you could (or if you could) manipulate your parents. Over time, we learn what buttons we can push and what levers we can twist in order to get the results that we desire.
As useful as manipulation can be when you’re teaching your children to eat their vegetables, far too often we take the practice too far. The entire field of advertising is an example of this, manipulating people into wanting and buying things that they have no real need to possess.
The people around Jesus, during the last days of his life, were manipulators. Our passage for today discusses various people who sought to control Jesus. But who gets the praise in this section? Wedged between religious leaders who sought to shut him up and so-called followers who sought to control responses to him, Jesus praised a woman who anointed him, performing a very visceral act of worship.
Attempting to manipulate the workings of your car or even the car inspection process might be okay, but doing the same thing toward the one through all things were created is a pretty feeble exercise. Yet how many of us, in our prayers, in our worship, in our daily lives, behave in ways designed to manipulate the king of kings? Instead, we should simply worship and obey.
My knee hurt when I watched the last Lord of the Rings movie about six months ago. Cooped up in the middle of a row in a packed theater, I found myself in misery from about the ninety minute mark. I could get some relief by shifting in my seat and stretching my leg out toward the left or the right, but in time even that exercise did little for me. Instead, the ache in my knee just kept getting worse. If I could have stood up and walked around for five minutes, then I would have been okay, but that wasn’t going to happen. So I suffered through the movie impatiently.
I mention that here because at the end of that movie, the director elected to spend what I consider a gratuitous amount of time lingering on knowing looks and impassioned hugs. Yes, these characters had gone through unspeakable adventures together and had developed a bond that transcended normal friendship, but did Peter Jackson have to show us three separate scenes of the four hobbits reveling in their falling action camaraderie? Did we have to look at the dewy eyes of Frodo and Sam for so long to understand that, yes, these characters meant a lot to each other? Having seen the movie again in relative comfort in my living room, I’d still say that the answer is no, but on that December day when I suffered silently in the theater, I wanted to stand up and shout, “Just get on with it!”
In Return of the King, the characters pass through these moments at the very end of the story, when the various conflicts and battles have been resolved. Sauron has been defeated. A new king has been crowned. The ring has been safely eliminated. All that remains for this lot is to hang around the pub back in the Shire and toast the good old days of adventure.
When Jesus celebrated his final Passover with his disciples, the situation was different. The critical moments of that movie had not yet been filmed. In fact, the unveiling of just who the key characters were hadn’t even been done yet. Still, as they gathered in that upper room, Jesus sought to use that time to underscore just how much they all meant to one another. He broke bread and said, “This is my body.” How much more giving can you be than to give your body to your friends? Of course the disciples didn’t get it. They hadn’t faced their battled with orcs or climbed Mount Doom yet. They didn’t understand just who this Jesus, who offered them bread and win as his body and his blood, truly was.
That’s where we come in. Unlike Peter, James, John, and the others, you and I, as we sit down to partake of the Lord’s Supper, understand the significance. We’re like those four hobbits at the end of the movie. We can look to Jesus and understand, far more than those eleven men at their Passover dinner, just how much he means to us.
Because of that knowledge, we have very little excuse in being impatient. We cannot afford to let an achy knee or an empty stomach to spoil this celebration of the most profound friendship that the world has ever seen. “This is my body,” Jesus told us. He gave his body and so much more for us. We must remember that gift.
I watched the finals of the National Spelling Bee earlier this week. Thirty-five kids began the competition. Each one an excellent speller, having survived who knows how many rounds of competition to get this far, they came to the microphone in turn and endeavored to spell words that mere humans have never known existed. After asking all manner of questions—“What is the language of origin?” “Are there any alternate pronunciations?”—each one would slowly, deliberately utter a string of letters and then repeat the word.
With each spelling, the audience, who somehow could see the word’s proper spelling—you know they didn’t all know how to spell those words—would erupt into applause. That is, they’d applaud a correct spelling. In the case of an error, a little would ring, dismissing that child from the competition. He or she would then walk off stage, working hard to avoid the surge of emotions that had to be waiting right below the surface.
In the end, an Indiana fourteen-year-old spelled “autochthonous” to take the top prize. This skinny kid got his full fifteen minutes of fame by doing well what most of us allow our computers to do for us. He could barely hoist the trophy by himself.
As I watched the competition and marveled at the hard work that must have gone into the preparation, it occurred to me that the whole structure of the program was a bit sad. Basically, competitors in the spelling bee get to keep going until they mess up. The winner is the one who has demonstrated perfection up to that point. What if basketball players had to bow out of their season the first time they missed a shot?
While I have a lot more respect for a fourteen-year-old spelling whiz than for a fourteen-year-old basketball phenom, I realize that real life is a lot more like basketball than like the spelling bee. When Jesus told his disciples that they would all fall away from him, he wasn’t just talking to Peter and company. Let’s face it, we all fail at times. Sometimes, when adversity strikes, we stand bravely before it and suffer through. But other times, we cower and hide. If we were in the spelling bee, we’d be out.
I’m reminded of the great English reformer, Thomas Cranmer. After serving as the principle architect of the Protestant Church of England, Cranmer, in the face of persecution by Queen Mary’s forces, recanted. When the flames around the stake were licking around Cranmer’s body, he thrust his hand into the fire as if to recant his recantation. But the deed was done. Had he been in the spelling bee, Cranmer would have been out.
The truth is that persecution, in whatever form it takes, will eventually wear us all down. We might like to say that we’d never deny Christ or recant other beliefs regardless of the tortures we face, but, barring divine protection, we all would eventually break down. Humans are not designed to suffer endlessly. We do all fall away in time. We’d all be out of the spelling bee, just as surely as young Mr. Tidmarsh would eventually have missed a word had he kept going forever.
Happily, life is not like the National Spelling Bee. Our God is a God of second chances. We might be tempted to look at this fact as license to fail, but in fact it is license to try, knowing that our failures are not permanent.
I’m going to start riding my bike again. I meant to do this back in May, about the time that school got out. If I could get myself on my bike four times a week and work up to an average of, say, sixty miles riding each week, I could do some serious good for my body. There’s a goal I have in front of me. The MS 150 will be coming around in September. About eight years ago I got started in late May and found myself ready to cruise for the 150, so why shouldn’t I be able to do it again. Sure, I was thirty-three then as opposed to forty-one now, but that’s not anything like old age. Senility hasn’t begun to set in. My bones are not crumbling. Let’s pedal.
What I’d really like to do is to buy some new clothes. I have so many clothes that have been hanging in the closet for so long that they’re either hopelessly out of style or threadbare. Also, I have a good selection of garments that are not threadbare because they don’t fit me any longer. Wouldn’t it be nice to get back to wearing that lovely 44-long tweed jacket again? Yeah, that’s a goal. That’s something to work toward. I can’t just go out and plunk down hundreds of dollars on clothes that won’t fit if I get fit. No, I really have to get the exercise and weight loss thing going before I get the new clothes.
But there’s the real crux of the matter: weight loss. The diet is a simple one. There’s no need to buy an expensive book. You eat an exceptionally low-fat diet for six days out of the week. Then on the seventh day—you pick the one—you get to observe “lousy eating day” and consume anything you’d like. This diet works. I’ve done it before successfully, but then I just get back to my own eating style, which involves shoveling as much high-fat food into my mouth as I can manage and then feeling miserable. If only I could get the exercise program started, then I know that the diet regimen would follow easily. And then, I’d start shedding not just pounds but inches. Before long, I’d be looking trim, feeling great, and enjoying the triumph.
So I just need to get started. I’m going to start riding my bike again. I’m going to start today. But then it’s raining today, so maybe I’ll wait until tomorrow. Yeah, one more day won’t hurt anything. Besides, I still have some Pop Tarts upstairs in the kitchen. Tomorrow will be good.
Jesus didn’t have anything quite so mundane in mind when he told his disciples that the “spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” but the same principle that keeps me eating junk food made his disciples struggle to remain awake in Gethsemane. We want to do right. We want to teach our kids well. We want to stop smoking. We want to get fit. We want to grow closer to God. Inside, we want all of the best, but the body is weak. The flesh says stay in bed, be selfish, watch TV, eat a doughnut, enjoy that drink, go on!
Jesus understood what we go through. He went through it that night in the garden, although in his case the spirit beat the body into submission. He understands that we suffer from weak bodies, but he still comes to us to encourage us to be strong, to let the spirit do the talking.
My body will always remain weak, even if I start riding my bike every day. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, I can play to my strength: a willing spirit.
As I write this, Ronald Reagan is lying in state in the United States Capital rotunda as thousands of people file past. He’ll be buried on Friday at the Reagan Presidential Library. Ronald Reagan spent eight years as the president of this country and sixteen years as a former president. But most notably, he spent the last ten years of his life living with Alzheimer’s Disease, that awful slow deterioration of that mind that is said to afflict as many half of those ninety years old and above. For the most part, in those last ten years of his life, Ronald Reagan stayed out of the public view. Whether at his discretion or that of his wife, the struggling sight of this man, who had been the most powerful leader in the world for eight years, was kept from us. We didn’t see him bumbling over words or unsure how to turn a doorknob. We didn’t witness it while his mind, a sharp one despite what any of his detractors might say, devolved into uselessness.
Probably Ronald Reagan’s most memorable role in the movies was as the Notre Dame football player George Gipp. In the years 1917 to 1920, Gipp played for Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame teams. In the last two of those seasons, the Irish went undefeated, led by Gipp on both sides of the ball. It’s said that not a single pass was ever completed against his area of the defense, an incredible claim. On offense, he scored eighty-three touchdowns over four seasons. People who watched him said that he seemed to do things on the field that no one else could do. He simply willed himself to accomplishments. But then, in 1920, George Gipp took ill with a strep infection. Before the close of the season, he died. Supposedly, in his waning days, Gipp told Rockne to have the team “win one for the Gipper.”
Both Ronald Reagan the man and George Gipp the man lost control at the end of their lives. These men who had shown such ability, such resolve, and such accomplishment before, found themselves dealing with an adversary they couldn’t fully understand. No one wants to lose control. It’s really no wonder that Nancy Reagan shielded her husband’s decline from our eyes.
With the approach of Judas in the garden, Jesus allowed himself to lose control. He had, up until that time, effectively mastered every situation. He taught as he saw fit, healed when he wanted, and never allowed his opponents to best him. Not until that night in Gethsemane, that is.
When the arrest mob came, Jesus, unlike Ronald Reagan or George Gipp, faced an adversary he could defeat. Unlike these two men, Jesus had to choose to relinquish control. And here’s the glorious part. If Jesus had not relinquished that control, then the loss of control suffered by Reagan or Gipp or you or me would be utterly tragic and hopeless. But because Jesus Christ did not insist on retaining control but allowed himself to be led to torture and execution by an unworthy mob, we have a hope for an eternity dwelling in the safety of God’s perfect control. The boys at Notre Dame didn’t have to win one for the Gipper. Jesus already did it.
Oyez! Oyez! This session of familial court is now in session, the honorable Judge Mark presiding. Let the case of Emily versus Alyson now commence.
As a parent, I have been called into service as the sole source of rational justice in my home many times. “She called me stupid!.” “But she took my CD.” “But it was my CD.” “And you gave it to me.” “And now I took it back!”
Invariably, my attempts at resolving family disputes strike somebody as unfair. In fact, I am frequently greeted with choruses of “That’s not fair” from my kids. This lets me know a bit how the judges on those ridiculous TV shows feel. No matter what steps are taken to arrive at justice, one or both parties wind up feeling that justice has not been served.
In the last six months, I’ve become hooked on watching re-runs of Law and Order. Frequently, the police and lawyers on those shows find themselves caught in a web of conflicting justice. They can only enforce one law by allowing another one to go unenforced. They see that this crime came about only because of an injustice that happened years ago. What complicated lives they must lead.
Deciding right and wrong is often a fairly easy thing for us. You’ll hear people say something like, “I’m not that smart, but I do know right from wrong,” but when you pose one of these difficult questions of justice to these people, they’ll often struggle, coming up with a different answer depending on what they had for breakfast today. Justice, as much as we want to trumpet those guys in the black robes sometimes, just isn’t our strongest suit.
But lest we get into a judge-bashing festival, let’s realize that the sort of non-courtroom judging that we typically do is just as difficult. How many times have we heard somebody say, “I can’t believe in a God that would . . .” or “What kind of a God would do . . .” The people who say those sorts of things—and if we’re honest, all of us fall into that trap from time to time—look at the evidence about God and hold it up to some standard of justice that we have in our minds. They compare and they find this image of God wanting. “What kind of God is it that would create people knowing that some of them will go to Hell? That’s not the kind of God I want to believe in.”
What those people—people like the members of the Sanhedrin, people like us sometimes—fail to recognize is that God’s sense of justice is perfect. The Sanhedrin arrested God’s perfect Word and put him on trial. What a mockery! Talk about a Monkey Trial! They made a show of arriving at justice and probably thought that they had achieved it in the end.
Praise God that we do not live or die under man’s justice. Instead we can take confidence in the perfect judgment of him who created the universe. This justice doesn’t need the scales or the blindfold, and his decisions are absolutely just and fair.
There’s a photograph on my computer desktop of a lot of very old stones. Those stones are my subject today. Several years ago, when I visited Israel, I accompanied a group from my church as we moved from site to site around Jerusalem. I doubt I’ll forget that morning. I had to practically pry a weeping Margaret out of the church at Gethsemane. I remember thinking, “These places just aren’t having an effect on me.”
Half an hour later, as we stood outside the rediscovered home of Caiaphas, the place began to have an effect on me. Our guide pointed to some stone steps, the ones in the photograph on my computer. “Those steps date back to the first century,” he explained. “It is very likely that Jesus walked up those very steps on the way to his trial.” As I looked at those steps, the actions of Peter, actions that must have played out within a few yards of this spot, coursed through my mind. Three times that night, Peter found himself confronted with the choice between claiming to be a follower of Jesus and denying his connection with the man. Three times, Peter took the cowardly way out, denying Jesus.
I feel for Peter, but much more than that, I feel for me. If I never denied Jesus in much the way that Peter did, I could look at his actions much more objectively. I can look at the deeds of Judas objectively, largely because I’ve never done anything as terrible as Judas. But, as I look at it more, I wonder if the actions of Peter weren’t in the end worse. We might argue that Judas didn’t know what he was doing, but Peter knew. Peter was the one who had declared of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” How can we excuse his actions?
And how can my actions be excused? Every time I know the will of God and consciously choose otherwise, I’m just as bad as Peter. Every time I think about my duty and then choose to please my flesh, I’m as bad as Peter. When I yell at my children, when I prepare poorly for a lesson I’m teaching, when I choose to stay in bed rather than meet God in prayer, I’m just as bad as Peter.
How can I, a man as bad as Peter, have the slightest thing to say in an inspirational or devotional vein? The question, I now recognize, is how could anyone who isn’t just as bad as Peter say anything really useful? Just as Jesus had to be fully God and fully human in order to effect our salvation, Peter had to fully deny Jesus in order to fully depend on him. It seems to me that if Peter had not recognized his own weakness on that horrible night, if he had not been told, “Three times you’ll deny me” and then watched himself do it, he might have possessed some shred of pride, some sense that he could manage on his own. But that night, a broken man, weeping as the sound of the rooster faded into the darkness, recognized his own uselessness with Christ.
Can the stones in the photo cry out? If they can, they tell me of a paradox. I commit a sin when I deny Jesus, yet only because I deny him can I fully have a part in him. It doesn’t make me proud of my actions, but it gives me greater appreciation for those of Jesus.
“This is not Burger King. You will not get it your way.”
I would really love to have a sign bearing those words hung in our kitchen. With four kids in the family, we have plenty of exposure to preferences and pickiness about food. Emily went on a vegan kick at one point before she got married. She’s still as likely to cook a food with that awful, gritty soy-meat as she is to use real meat. Alyson would rather gouge her eyes out than eat vegetables. She’s sort of a meat and meat girl, the poster child for the Atkin’s Diet. Thomas will eat most anything as long as he can dump half a shaker of pepper onto it, but, oddly enough, he doesn’t like naturally spicy foods. His favorite meal, the thing that the kid lives on these days, is Ramen noodles. And then there’s Olivia. Olivia will eat anything as long as it’s peanut-butter and honey on crustless bread. I’ve watch Penny dance on the brink of a nervous breakdown several times as she tried to please the entire crowd.
Yesterday, I spent the day at the area Scout camp. Around 4,500 alumni of the camp gathered for its seventy-fifth anniversary. Since the camp’s dining hall capacity is probably less than half that number, some compromise had to be made. Those who did the planning for the event opted to feed us box meals for both lunch and dinner. You had a choice. You could either have box dinner number one or box dinner number two. Dinner number one contained a barbeque sandwich, potato salad, three-bean salad, lemonade, and a sort of strawberry-shortcake-leaning dessert. If that didn’t appeal to you, you could always opt for box dinner number two. The rub was that number two was exactly like number one. In fact, I’m making that whole thing up. Each of us—all 4,500—got the one meal they were offering. If you don’t like it, then you can drive forty minutes to Clinton for something else. I like that approach. You can please everybody, so why try.
I’ve known a lot of people who spend far too much of their time trying to please everybody. Now I wouldn’t propose that you go around ignoring everyone’s preferences, but there’s madness down the road that leads toward trying to please everyone. I thought of that today as I looked at these words about Pilate: “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” Where did Pilate go wrong? That’s a complex question, but I’d point to those opening five words. “Wanting to satisfy the crowd.” What do we get when we try to satisfy the crowd? Turn on your television and you’ll see a good example of what satisfies the crowd. Try to satisfy a crowd of elementary school boys and you’ll find yourself telling bodily-function jokes and serving Pez for lunch.
Leadership, whether it be as a Sunday School teacher or as a Roman governor does not lie in satisfying the crowd. Leadership entails leading. It consists of doing what you believe to be right and being the sort of person whom people will respect, even if they disagree.
A few days ago, some cousins of mine were in town and visited at my mother’s house. Penny and I happened to be there, so we got in on the story swapping and grandkid bragging session. It was nice.
Afterward, as we drove home, we discussed this branch of our family, which, because of matters of chance and geography, we don’t spend much time around. My uncle, Lloyd, was a pastor. In fact, he performed the wedding for my parents more than sixty years ago. Lloyd died quite young, but his three children prospered nonetheless. The one son became a minister of music and excelled in that calling. One of the two daughters married a man who became a very productive pastor, while the other daughter married a very active layman. Among the grandkids, you’ll find a missionary to Brazil, a Southern Baptist pastor in Wisconsin—which is just about as foreign as Brazil—and a host of other active church members. I have to think that my Uncle Lloyd would take some pride in his descendents.
Many of us can point with pride at our family members and our friends. It’s fun to have connections to people who seem important or noteworthy. I’m pleased that my niece’s husband’s brother has just been named to serve as a United States Appeals Court judge. I delight in telling people at school that a friend of mine was the first academic dean of our school. And my ninth great grandmother—that’s nine greats—was Pocahontas. Yeah, I’m really somebody.
A few years ago we were introduced to the idea of “degrees of separation.” This is the notion that everybody in America—or maybe it’s the world—is connected to everybody else by no more than six people. In other words, I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows the Queen of England. Just that thought makes me feel important.
But of course, those connections don’t make me anybody. When I read Mark’s account of the passion, I’m struck by a piece of information that he provided but nobody else did. “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus,” carried Jesus’ cross. Apparently Mark assumed that his readers would know Alexander and Rufus. Maybe they’d even know Simon. Do you suppose that Alexander and Rufus sat straighter in their seats when this part of the gospel story was related in church. “That was my dad,” they’d whisper to the person next to them.
I’m proud of my family and other connections. Thinking about those things brings me pleasure, but in the end, I have to recognize that those things mean virtually nothing. Alexander and Rufus were not important because of their relation to Simon. If they were to be important, they had to do something of their own. In fact, Simon’s importance is pretty limited. We’d have never heard of him had it not been for his call into service that day in Jerusalem. Simon is only important because of his connection with Jesus.
The world will hardly recall my connections in a hundred years. Whatever important friends I have will be long dead by then. My own descendents will probably wonder who that funny-looking guy is in the old photos. But I’m somebody for now and forever because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.
In eighth grade, I changed schools. One day in September of that year, I found myself dropped into an alien society full of strange creatures, most of whom had known each other for several years. It was on the first day of school that somebody called me a name other than my own. A guy everyone called Buzz decided that it was uproariously funny to refer to me as “Mr. Five” for reasons that would take too long to explain here. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have taken too seriously the opinions of someone called Buzz, but it did bug me. When you’re twelve years old and in a new school, it’s easy to let things get to you.
Over the five years that I spent at that school, I got called many things, only some of which are reprintable here. One guy—and a friend at that—continually called me Cakehead. I never did have a clue where that came from. I was called a geek and a spaz, a weirdo and a fatty, a wimp and a dummy. Over time, I came to realize that this is simply the way of high-school boys. It’s better to hurl insults than fists, I suppose.
My mother, of course, had taught me years ago the old rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” And there’s certainly truth in that. In the end, the only names that really bothered me were the ones that I knew had some truth to them. They could call me names that questioned my intelligence all they wanted, but I’d seen the test scores. Those names never bothered me. But the names that pointed out my pudgy exterior and my general lack of physical fitness did bother me.
Why do we use names and labels on people? One reason, and certainly the reason that Buzz had in mind in eighth grade, is to get control of the person being named. If I can dictate what you get called, then I exercise a certain measure of power over you. That’s why we have rightly changed some of the offensive things that we used to call certain people in the past. We see this in the case of military training. It’s become a cliché that drill instructors will refer to their recruits as “maggot.” I’m not sure it really happens, but I am sure that they carefully manage who gets called what.
When we look at Mark’s account of the crucifixion, you’ll notice there’s a good deal of name-calling going on. The Romans put up a sign. Robbers, passers-by, and priests hurled insults. Finally, at the end of the ordeal, a Roman centurion comments, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
People from before that day up to the present time have worked to label Jesus. If you examine that labeling, it’s generally done to establish the relationship between Jesus and the person speaking. Is he Lord and Savior or Wise Teacher? Is he the Lamb of God or a Misguided Martyr? Is he the Son of God or a Shameless Blasphemer?
Although you and I might agree on who Jesus is, we probably still label him in a way that suits our own purposes sometimes. Let’s remember that names can hurt us if they lead us away from submitting ourselves to Christ.
As I write this, I’m accompanied by Leo, a lovely mix between a Golden Retriever and a Collie with some Chow somewhere in the background. He’s a rather plump, very calm dog, some five months old now. When our neighbor’s poodle comes yapping at the fence, Leo just stands and stares, as if trying to figure out what all the fuss is about.
We got Leo about a month ago from a shelter. I felt empathy for those animals remaining at the shelter. Many of them had been abused and abandoned. Some were injured. Some were sick. Some were little more than skin-draped skeletons. Obviously someone had failed to provide for their needs. What needs does a dog have? They’re largely the same as you and I have. A dog needs food and water. It needs a safe place to sleep. Beyond that, it needs something to occupy its mind. Most dogs get into trouble, digging up the yard or chewing on the cell phone, when they’re bored. And it needs some interaction and affection. Like people, a dog can live without companionship, but that lack tends to change the personality.
At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I’d like to compare the life of Christ with the life of a dog right now. The reason for this is that in the passage we’ve read today, we see Jesus at probably his most human. I’m struck by the words in verse 41 telling us that these women had “cared for his needs.” We don’t typically think of Jesus as having needs, but he clearly did. He needed food and water. He needed clothing and shelter. I’m sure he managed to keep his own mind occupied, but I not so sure that Jesus didn’t need interaction and affection. My guess is that after spending all day with those rough-hewn fisherman, he enjoyed spending some time with these ladies.
But of course Jesus was infinitely different from a dog. He never honored by taking on their flesh, but he did see fit to become a man. Like you and me, he could be hungry. Like you and me, he could injure himself. Like you and me, Jesus could feel a sense of loneliness and maybe even discouragement. He felt temptation and pain. He must have experienced illness. He was, like you and me, a human.
What an honor these women—and Joseph of Arimathea—had as they were allowed to provide for the needs of Jesus, the man. That’s an honor that we can no longer possess, and somehow providing for Leo’s needs doesn’t seem sufficient. I used to wonder why Jesus said that “whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” I think that maybe this passage helps us understand why he feels that way.
An act of charity for those who cannot supply their own needs is admirable in its own right, but when it is motivated by the knowledge that Jesus Christ himself once wore human flesh and suffered hunger, thirst, weariness, and cold, then that act can become an act of worship.
For three summers while I was in college, I worked on the grounds crew of Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri. During two of those years, I worked on the funeral crew. Early in the morning, we’d go to the appropriate place or places in the cemetery and prepare for funeral, setting up the tent, rolling out cocoa mats, and placing green-fleece-covered folding chairs for the family. When the funeral rolled in, we were usually positioned a discreet distance from the scene, ready to lend a hand if needed. Once the crowd had departed, we sprang into action. We’d tear down the equipment, help place the lid on the vault, and then—the least pleasant part of the job—fill the grave.
Being that close to that many funerals, a person gets a first-hand view of the many different responses that people have to death. Most of those responses are rather subtle. Occasionally you’ll see a person collapse. One lady actually jumped on top of her husband’s casket, screaming, “Don’t leave me.” We all deal with these things differently, and it’s never as easy as it seems it should be.
When you see people erecting grandiose headstones or visiting the grave every single day, both of which I saw during those summers, you realize that they have issues and conflicts that haven’t been resolved yet. When you have someone chew you out because beside their loved-one’s headstone there’s a single piece of bluegrass that somehow dodged the trimmer, you understand that it’s not really you that they’re yelling at. No, death is painful and it’s mysterious, no matter how much we rationalize it to ourselves. It just isn’t something we can settle in our minds as easily as losing a job or a game. It’s the most profound of things we deal with on earth.
To some degree, those profound thoughts were going through the minds of the women who were up with the sun on the first day of the week to anoint Jesus’ body. After the horror of watching their beloved master die at the hands of the Romans, they just had to do something, even though they hadn’t thought the matter through sufficiently to have brought someone to move the stone.
And then what did they find? What did they hear? “He has risen!” What sort of nonsense must that have seemed to their ears. They thought they had this death thing figured out, although, just like us, they didn’t. But they knew even less than what we know.
Today, as difficult as death can be, we have a hope. We typically orient our graves to face the east. Why? Tradition holds that, on his return, Jesus will come from the east. The resurrected will simply have to rise up and find themselves facing him. While I hardly think it’s vital to be buried facing east, I love that symbolism. Facing east suggests that we don’t see death as the final act that so many people imagine. We have a hope, today and tomorrow.
It doesn’t make death easy. But it makes it easier.
Years ago, my father bought a painting, which still hangs above the couch in my parents’ home. “Pony Ride” by Leslie Cope appears to be an oil painting. It portrays a group of African-Americans congregated, clearly on the cheaper side of town, for the opportunity to ride a pony. Several times I heard my dad say that this painting was truly something special. The artist, he had been assured, was an up-and-comer. Someday, this painting would be quite valuable.
I’ve done a bit of research on Leslie Cope and found that he did not exactly break into the front ranks of American painters. In the end, he achieved some considerable notoriety in his adopted home of Ohio, and he enjoyed a few brief moments in the sun, including a one-man show in the United States Capital rotunda. All in all, however, he did not rise to the prominence that my father had been led to expect.
So was Dad wrong about the value of that painting? I’d have to answer that question with a resounding “no!” That painting, although it might not reach five-digit prices on eBay is valuable because it speaks to my family. The very fact that my parents would leave it hanging in a prominent place for forty years suggests that they like it. It is a very nice painting, although it’s one that, due to my familiarity with it, I can scarcely judge. Would the people on Antique Road Show drool and coo over it? Perhaps not. But it’s a fine painting regardless of what any price guide might suggest.
As I reach the end of Mark’s gospel today, you might wonder why I’m discussing this painting. There is method to my madness. According to many scholars, the verses from of chapter sixteen, from nine until the end, are, quite possibly, not authentic. Mark may not have written these, they say. My Bible interrupts the page with this note: “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.”
Some people find this uncertainty very troubling. Some use it as a wedge to try to discredit the dependability of the entire Bible. Others get very nervous admitting that there might be a question about the text. To all of these, I would simply say, “Relax.”
When we read these twelve verses, what do we find? There’s quite literally nothing in these verses that cannot be found somewhere else in the New Testament. The possible exception to this is the stuff about drinking poison, but it’s hardly out of keeping with what we know of the miracles in the early church.
Is this passage of Mark’s gospel exactly what we’ve traditionally taken it to be, the work of John Mark? No one can answer that question with certainty. I can’t say for sure that Mark wrote these verses, but I will say that I’m confident that God allowed them to appear in the Bible as it has come down to us. I’ll take that as inspiration.
Is that painting on my parents’ wall exactly what my Dad has always taken it to be, the work of a great American artist? I can be more certain answering that question. But once again, that question isn’t the truly important one.
Let’s remember where our confidence in the Bible should come from. To do that, we can look at one of these disputed verses, which, whoever wrote it, makes the case better than I can: “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” Just as somebody other than Mark may have continued Mark’s account, we as followers of Jesus are called to continue his ministry and to confirm his word by the signs that will accompany our work.
Tune My Heart is primarily an aid to the devotional life of its author, Mark Browning, who holds the copyright for this material. It is provided online in hopes that some will find it edifying. All contents, unless otherwise noted, may be redistributed freely provided that you give credit for its origin and do not charge anything.