Mark 9: 30-37: childlike foolishness

This passage is only seven verses long. However, it holds a message that has really been shaping my faith recently, as well as holding a lot of other lessons on how (not) to behave. In it, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be handed over to men and he will die. How do they respond? They bicker about who is the best out of them.

Now, imagine this. You have just been given a terminal diagnosis. You know soon you are going to die and it is probably a terrifying, daunting, sad prospect. So, of course, you tell your close family and friends. But rather than supporting you and consoling you, a fight breaks out. They start telling each other that they are better than the rest. Imagine how that would make you feel? This is pretty much what is happening to Jesus right now.

Jesus, knowing them pretty well, knows what the argument was about. He tells them that they need to stop worry about who is the greatest but who is the least. In fact, they need to be like children: utterly dependent on their father and having no status away from their family. I wrote about this in a blog post about 2 Peter 1. We often kid ourselves that God wants us to join in his work because we’ve got something important to contribute. Imagine the thought process in that. “Oh, I have been called to this work because God needs me.” I know I often fall for this trap. God does not need me whatsoever. He is wholly able to solve any problem or do any task infinitely better than I am. So, if I start thinking God needs me to do this, I am clearly missing the point.

However, God choose me. He chooses me despite my lack of qualifications, my inability, my sin. It’s like a really bizarre job interview process. My CV is scant and lacking. My references are appalling (God knows all my sin and failings) Yet he gives me the job because I am his son. It is the biggest case of nepotism I can think of.

So, I need to learn to live each day reminding myself, “I am just a foolish, dependent, needy child who is in the care of his heavenly Father.” I need to put aside all thoughts that God chose me because of my abilities and I need to really humble and submit myself into the hands of the Lord.

This may seem like I’m unnecessarily destroying my self-esteem for no reason. But have you ever seen a child play? When they make tea for their dolls or race their cars, they don’t care whether they are good enough to do that. They don’t worry, “Am I adequate enough to stack blocks?” It’s not stifling; it’s freeing! You are not good enough to do God’s work but you still get to do it anyway! It’s through God’s power and help that you accomplish great things. It’s such a privilege that God would use a loser like me.

Mark 9:1-29 – Transfigured and transformed

I don’t know about you, but the transfiguration passage in Mark (and it’s equivalent elsewhere) is probably the part of the gospels I find the hardest to wrap my head around. It seems relatively unbelievable. It’s one of the passages that I read with a hardened heart (much like the disciples hardened their heart after Jesus calms the storm previously). It all seems a bit too nebulous and, dare I say it, weird. I don’t know how to respond to this passage.

Peter and the other disciples, too, don’t know what to do. They are fearful by what they see. I suppose I am also fearful of this scene. It challenges my predefined ideas of what is acceptable and also pushes against my logical and empirical sensibilities. (Thanks, Enlightenment scholars for that heritage.) So, I often try to overlook this passage. (“Whoops, that’s obviously there by accident. Let’s move on.”)

As Peter babbles on — even in front of a transfigured Jesus and two dead prophets, he finds it hard to shut his mouth — God interrupts him. God says to the disciples, “This is my Son, whom I love! Listen to him!”

Listen to him. Now that’s something I often fail to do. I get caught up in busybody work. Maybe that’s my version on babbling on. Am I scared to really listen, to look upon Jesus and see him for what he is? Will I cry, “Away from me, for I am a sinner?” Will I find having everything I believe confronted to uncomfortable? So, I frantically fill the silence with “helpful work” and, I tell myself, “God’s work”. But really, God tells us what he wants us to do in the light of a resurrected Jesus. God wants us to listen to the Son he loves.

After Jesus returns from the transfiguration, the disciples that were left behind were in a bit of a bind. They were in a crowd and there was a quarrel. The argument centres around a demon possessed boy.

Jesus is able to heal the boy where the disciples could not. Although this transformation of circumstances is miraculous, I find the transformation in the heart of a desperate father more so. The father, just before Jesus heals his son, says, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

How many times have I cried that? I do believe. I want to believe. I want to believe the transfiguration. I want to believe that Jesus indwells in me. I want to believe I can be transformed and transfigured. Help me overcome my unbelief!

Jesus’s belief doesn’t come from nowhere though. Jesus’s power comes from prayer. Not some incantation, but daily, faithful prayer and communion with the Father. That is what overcomes unbelief.

Lord God

Transform me. Change my heart. I want to believe but my faith is as small as a mustard seed. Help me overcome my unbelief. Let me come with childlike wonder at your Word. Help me to listen to your Son, whom you love.

In Jesus’s holy name, Amen.

Mark 8:22-38 – Are you for Jesus or Satan?

In this passage, we continue to see how we can still be ignorant of Jesus’ plans in our lives. We see the motif of blindness and it seems to echo what is happening in Peter.

Jesus heals a blind man, but the revelation of sight is a gradual process. The man can see the figures before him, but can’t truly recognise them for what they really are. Later, we see Peter confess that Jesus is the messiah. He can see the figure before him. He knows who Jesus is. But he cannot really recognise who the Messiah is. Peter’s understanding of who is before him is very limited.

Peter has grown up with this preconceived idea of what a Messiah would do. You couldn’t really blame him; it is based on Scripture. However, as we saw in yesterday’s passage, the disciples (and much of society around them) have an extremely worldly perspective. Their concerns before were bread and hunger. The concerns that shaped the interpretation of Scripture that Peter obviously believes are very human too. They deal with human kingdoms and politics and power. Jesus cam to deal with the cosmic and spiritual realms. Compared to what Jesus was here to do, Peter’s vision is tiny.

Yet, Peter is completely set on this idea. He is so set in fact, that when Jesus suggests that the plan is different, Peter tells Jesus off. Imagine that conversation: in one breath Peter says that Jesus was sent by God and in the next tells Jesus he can’t do what he wants to do. If Peter was right in the first instance, he is definitely overstepping the mark. As a result, Jesus actually says Peter is Satan.

Here, Peter is being used by Satan to get in Jesus’ way. Peter’s perspective actually doesn’t forward God’s plan, but instead promotes Satan’s agenda. The question is, when do we behave like Peter? When do we get in Jesus’s way and when do we act, by accident, on behalf of Satan? Peter loved and followed Jesus, even believed he was the Messiah. And yet, he could still get it so wrong that Jesus would tell him he was doing Satan’s work. We can love and follow Jesus and still do Satan’s work.

The next passage tells us how to avoid this pit fall. We need to be completely submissive to Jesus’s plan in our lives. We need to crucify ourselves and deny ourselves. Now often we turn that into something frankly pathetic. We turn this submission into giving a small sum to charity while we still live in the highest comfort compared to most the world’s population. We turn it into petty sacrifices, like opening our home to a Bible group once a week. We think we deny ourselves when we stand in the rain for street ministry. But the we go back to our flat screen TVs, plush couches, play on our state-of-the-art phones, and live our lives in abundance and comfort. We pursue our dreams and our desires. We plan our lives out according to our or our society’s values.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am no better. Often people will paint my life as one of difficulty and hardship. It is not. It is quite different to the one I was previously used to and the life of those back home. But it is no less comfortable and filled with the trapping of materialism. It is no less determined by my own desires and plans and dreams. I have simply replaced one set of distractions and dreams for another.

Norman Grubb, a famous missionary, would pray each morning, “Good morning, God. What are you up to today? I want to be part of it. May I? Thank you.” He would want to put his own desires and dreams for the day aside each day, and do his will.

“Good morning, God. What are you up to today? I want to be a part of it. May I? Thank you”

Norman Grubb

So let’s live each day by submitting our desires and will to our heavenly Father so that Jesus may work in us and through us. Let’s do Jesus’s work today. Amen.

Mark 8:1-21 – Sourdough and signs

This passage can be obscure in some places, and we perhaps feel a bit like the disciples when reading it. However, there is one thing that is clear in the passage: it is easy to fail to recognise Jesus for who he actually is.

Throughout Mark, Jesus has performed miracles: healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, calmed storms. Here is no exception: he feeds a crowd of at least 4,000. This crowd has been with Jesus for three days. (I often feel like a 90 minute church service drags. Shows how pathetic my thirst for the word is.) Naturally, they are hungry to the point of potentially fainting on the journey back. Now, Jesus hadn’t forced them. They were aware of the risks. When have I ever thought, I feel dizzy and starving, but one more church service? These people obviously did.

So, Jesus feeds them and again multiples bread to a miraculous amount. Another miracle. Then almost immediately, the Pharisees ask for a sign. You can’t help but wonder at their thinking. (One commentary suggests they asked for a particular, apocalyptic sign. But still, Jesus is obviously powerful and has authority, yet they still want to test him.) Jesus does not give them what they are looking for.

Then the disciples get in a boat and they’ve forgotten to bring bread. The disciples squabble and are fixated on this. Jesus tells them something, which although related, is not about the bread. Jesus warns them not to let the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod taint them. This is where a bit of historical context is very helpful.

When we think of making bread and yeast, we often think of the instant yeast packets you get from the baking aisle in supermarkets. That’s not how you made bread in ancient times. It was more like a sourdough. You would keep back a part of the dough, and use it the next day. This process happened pretty much everyday. Take your portion of old day, work it into the new dough, then keep a portion back, and repeat. Therefore, if your dough went bad, it would contaminate all your subsequent doughs. Therefore, Jesus is saying the Pharisees and Herod are a bad batch that have a pernicious potential to contaminate many others, and for a while.

When the disciples hear this, they are still thinking about the lack of bread. In verse 4, they were concerned about the lack of bread too. Previously, they were concerned about the lack of money or food or other resources. The disciples are very concerned about the lack of provision. They have Jesus with them and they still worry about whether they will have enough. Jesus has proven his ability to provide again and again and they still fail to trust that their needs will be met.

They are such bad disciples, aren’t they? We would never doubt or focus on world worries, would we? We are far above that. It’s easy to judge the disciples, especially as they literally have Jesus in front of them. But doesn’t Jesus promise that he will be with us, just like he was with the disciples? Doesn’t he promise to fulfil our needs? Doesn’t scripture reassure us again and again that God cares and provides?

What bad yeast have we been kneading into our lives again and again? What evil, what doubts, what blind spots do we keep back then work into our thinking everyday? What is the source of our bad yeast? We probably can’t blame the Pharisees for this one. Is it consumer culture? Individualist cultures that push self-fulfilment and independence to an unhealthy degree? Old fears? What is your unhealthy yeast?

Mark 7: 31-37: Meeting and healing

Given it was such a short passage at the end of Mark 7, I wondered whether it would have enough to write a blog post about. That was a ridiculous thought, because you could probably write a whole dissertation on a single verse (I’m pretty sure it’s already been done).

In this passage, Jesus is passing through another Gentile area, where a deaf and mute man is brought to Jesus. Jesus takes him away from the crowd. Then he sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, then Jesus touches his own tongue and then touches the man’s. This seems really weird to us. However, one reason that I’ve read about was that the man was deaf, so Jesus had to explain what was about to happen somehow. Jesus was symbolically telling the man that he was about to be healed. Jesus was meeting with the man where he was, responding to his individual condition.

Now, here the verses perhaps have an additional layer for the modern reader. We read about these episodes in term of spiritual deafness and spiritual muteness. Surely, it is my prayer that the ears and tongues of those around me are opened so that they may receive and speak of the glory of Jesus? “Ephphatha!” (“Be opened!”) I also pray it for myself. I am aware that I live a lot of my life in a state of spiritual deafness and muteness.

Also, this passage shows how Jesus wishes to make his healing ministry very much unlike the ministries of tele-evangelists and faith healers. Jesus tried to do it away from prying eyes and the crowds. He also looks to heaven for his power, not to himself. Finally, he asks those who did see it not to talk about it (the efforts of which, were very much in vain). Jesus healed the man for the man’s sake, not for his own fame or glory. Jesus did not want the fame of a faith healer. He wanted to show compassion and he wanted his Father’s glory to be known.

Mark 7:24-30 – the anti-Karen

This passage is quite difficult to read, sometimes. A woman comes to Jesus, asking for help for her possessed daughter, and Jesus, who we know is kind and compassionate, calls her a dog. It’s really jarring and hard for us to understand.

There are a few reasons why this happened. First of all is the relationship between oppressed Israel and the wealthy Syrophoenician region of Tyre. Essentially, they hated each other. Furthermore, the region of Galilee often lost a lot of its resources and wealth to the Syrophoenicians. So, usually, it was the Jewish bread being fed to the Syrophoenicians. (Thanks Biblegateway.com for the resources to know this by the way!)

Second, was that Jesus was a Jewish religious leader, serving the Jews. She was a gentle who didn’t even believe in God. It’d be a bit like me going to a busy Imam, asking he stopped everything he was doing for his Muslim community to help me. Aren’t those in his community his priority? Would it be wrong of me to assume I should have preferential treatment?

Jesus is basically pointing out that she isn’t really in the position to be asking for his help. Who is she that she should think Jesus would help her? She is the least of his worries. First, he has work to do for his fellow Jews.

It’s a bit of a slap in the face. So, the woman does what any of us would do, argue, storm off and make a fuss, demanding that she deserves to be helped and that it’s within her rights to be listened to. Actually, she does the opposite. She agrees with Jesus. She a agrees, through her clever and witty response, that she is a dog, but even sometimes, the dogs get something, even if it is just a tiny bit. This takes great humility on her part. She accepts her status; she acknowledges Jesus’s priority. She also testifies to Jesus’s power. Even a crumb would do; just something tiny from someone so powerful would be enough. And, because she is willing to approach with humility, she is blessed.

The NIV Application Commentary you get with a Biblegateway.com subscription (I’m not advertising or sponsored, but if I were… looks at Biblegateway.com) has been really helpful. It asks what would Jesus have said to us to challenge our pride. I think, Jesus would have probably said I was stupid or foolish (often like he says to the disciples). And I would have left. I would not have stayed around and accepted the insult. My pride would have prevented me from accepting Jesus’s blessing.

I think that we often see in Western society an inflated sense of our entitlement and status. The internet meme sensation of the term ‘Karen’ perhaps exhibits this. (I think this term should be used carefully, because it could be used to police well-meaning people’s behaviour and is somewhat misogynistic.) However, the woman in this story is perhaps the opposite. She accepts that she has no entitlement, priority or influence. Yet, she is still persistent in asking for her help and realises that the blessings are actually for those in her position. So, in her humility, she is given what she came for.

Mark 7:1-23 – Rules and Regulations

In this passage, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees. That’s not a surprise. However, the subject of the clash probably is: hand washing. The disciples had not washed their hands before eating. Now, to us (especially in COVID days), that perhaps sounds a bit gross. We perhaps imagine that the reason that there was an issue was because the disciple’s hands were obviously dirty, especially as the word “defiled” is used. This is probably not the case. Let’s be honest, how many of us give our hands anything more than a cursory rinse before eating if they look clean?

The disciples hands, if they hadn’t washed them, were probably mostly clean. So, the Pharisees were not questioning the disciple’s hygiene. The Pharisees were questioning the disciples adherence to ritual practices. Before Jews ate, they performed a ceremonial washing of the hands. The worry was that the disciples had come into contact with something that was ritually impure (for example, they could have come into contact with someone that had contact with blood, like a butcher). So, their hands may have been ritually defiled, not literally defiled. This is what they were meant to wash off, the “impurity” of day-to-day life.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. It is not what they have come into contact with that makes them unclean. It is what is in their heart and the outpouring from that which makes them unclean. It is not the purity rituals but their morality that decides what type of person they are. This is why only God can truly judge us; only he can weigh the contents of a person’s heart.

Of course, the church has been so much better at this in recent times, hasn’t it? (We’ve only got to think of the appalling treatment of those on the outside of society by some of the church to realise this is not the case. A particularly harrowing example is the treatment of those born out of wedlock in Ireland, for example.) And although we perhaps don’t have such strong concepts of ritual purity, we’ve perhaps replaced this with social niceties today. These, too, are about the outward but superficial signs of goodness. You can still be malicious but say your please and thank yous.

Here’s a short and interesting video about how the UK church is too middle class. A lot of what we do, without realising, alienates those who don’t know our rules and regulations, our rituals and ways of doing things.

I wonder how then, we go about caring about what Jesus cared about. How do we see people as he saw them and focus on issues of the heart rather than outward and superficial signs of goodness. Truly, I don’t think we can. At least, not without the help of the Holy Spirit in us.

Mark 6:30-56 – Powerful Compassion

There are two evident themes in this part of Mark 6 is Jesus’ power but also his compassion. Jesus’s power reveals itself in a number of ways: his power to provide, his power to control nature, his power to heal. However, his power is always marked by compassion: compassion towards the crowds, compassion towards the disciples, compassion towards the sick. The mix of holy, supernatural power and holy, righteous love here is amazing.

This section comes after the news that Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist has just been killed. This was probably extremely distressing news for Jesus. In the midst of this, huge crowds flocked around him, denying him the chance to rest as Jesus had intended. If I was in that situation, I would be very impatient, grumpy and resentful. Jesus obviously wanted some peace and quiet, but he couldn’t get it. But when he saw the crowd, verse 34 tells us, ‘he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Despite his grief, weariness and own desires being unmet, Jesus still responded with compassion.

In his compassion, he taught them. He met their need for spiritual edification and answers. After this he also provided for their physical needs through the miracle of feeding a huge crowd. Jesus has the power to meet all our needs.

In the next section, Jesus walks on turbulent water, against a strong wind. This is a powerful miracle. He walked into the middle of sea and revealed himself to the disciples. Furthermore, when they were fearful, Jesus had compassion, joined them and reassured them. Jesus can meet us wherever, having the power to overcome every obstacle (including a massive and petulant body of water). In his compassion, he is also able to calm our fears as we encounter the Son of God who was there at the beginning of creation.

Finally, Jesus heals the sick. He has the power to restore the broken in body and spirit. He is so powerful that even the hem of his cloak can restore health. Those that come to him find restoration.

Power and compassion, woven together.

Now, when I read the gospels, I sometimes imagine how I would have reacted if I were there. Or ask, what were the disciples thinking at the time? Surely, they were in joyful, blissful awe. How could you react in any other way than sheer amazement? Well, verse 51 tells us they were indeed amazed. But verse 52 then adds an interesting, startling but also so human twist to it. Mark tells us they do not understand and they harden their hearts to it. It is easy to be confounded at this and ask how could the disciples, witnessing Jesus’ power, harden their hearts. But I know that I am guilty of the same very thing. My cold logic, or my over-familiarity with the stories, means that I am numb to the true power and compassion revealed in this. How often do I not see Jesus for who he is: the compassionate, powerful, Son of God?

Lord God,

I thank you for your son Jesus Christ. He is powerful and compassionate. He has power to provide, to overcome nature, to heal. He is loving and cares for his sheep.

Lord God, I am often like a sheep without a shepherd. I wander, lost and uncertain. May I know Jesus’s guidance and compassion. Lord God, meet with me and calm my fears. May I know your son’s presence in my life. Lord God, there are so many times my heart is hardened to your words and your power. Open my heart so that I may have faith and receive your son.

Lord God, hear my prayer.

Amen

Mark 6:14-29: the Evil of Political Powers

This is perhaps one of the most shocking stories of the gospel. Of course, the crucifixion should be equally shocking, but it’s so familiar to us that sometimes we are numb to it. I think it is also important for setting out a few things.

The time that Jesus lived in was dangerous. First, it was dangerous just in terms of crime. The Good Samaritan story came out of a rather well-known phenomenon of the time; people would get attacked on the roads. A lot of Jesus’s parables in fact made use of some of the violent aspects of his society. Second, it was dangerous in terms of disease and mortality. But in the story of where John the Baptist gets beheaded, we see a third type of danger. Those in power were dangerous. They were capricious, jealous and cruel.

If the partner of a world leader today, let’s say Boris Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds, ask for someone’s head for her birthday, she would be denounced as evil. To actually then receive at a birthday party in front of guests, it would result in a ridiculous amount of scandal, arrests, resignations and global outrage. Moreover, Herod did this because his dancing step-daughter pleased him. That also seems somewhat horrific by today’s standards.

Herod accidentally trapped himself, too. His power did not allow him to escape the political machinery. He did not actually want to kill John the Baptist (out of fear more than anything it seems). But it was fear and shame that made him kill John the Baptist too.

When world leaders are motivated by power, shame, reputation and greed, they are harmful, but especially harmful to those who try to stand for righteousness. Both John the Baptist and many prophets that came before him died this way. Furthermore, it is what ultimately insured that Jesus made it to the cross.

We need to take courage, however, in the fact that we do not actually belong to the kingdoms of this world. Although we may, whilst we are here, end up becoming trapped in its political machinery, we are in fact citizens of heaven. And when the politics of this world seems to be destroying all that is good and right, we need to remember that Jesus never cam for political power. Instead he came to see his kingdom of righteousness, justice and love to transcend and infiltrate through political borders and governments. That is what we pray for and hope for. For God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

If you liked this…

Try reading my post Why democracy will always fail us.

Mark 6:6-11 – Relying on God.

I’ve recently returned to Cambodia. It was definitely a bit of a battle. Furthermore, I have quite a bit of luggage. I’ve brought loads of t-shirts, shirts, trousers, socks, two pairs of shoes, some jumpers and a big winter coat (I had to take it to the airport with me). If I had followed the instructions of 8-9 I would have certainly had less to carry! I would have probably also been very cold. I also had to take $2000 in cash, just to get into the airport, so in this situation, I wouldn’t have even arrived in Cambodia. However, there was a reason for this request. Jesus wanted his disciples to rely on God.

Now, to be honest, I am actually pretty poor at this. I am a relatively competent individual – or at least I’ve become adept at applying the adage “fake it until you make it”. I’m relatively good at coming up with solutions to problems and I will plan and write lists for most situations so I know that I have everything in control.

One thing, however, about moving abroad is that it very much reduces your capacity for being competent. In fact, I read a post on the OMF website which very much describes some of the feelings of being abroad. Simple things you take for granted become far harder. Finding certain ingredients or foods in shops. Getting your laundry done. Finding your way around the city. You suddenly become a bit helpless. Sometimes, you find yourself in situations where you have no idea what is happening, or you don’t know how to solve it. It definitely makes you feel less confident in your own abilities.

Now, the temptation here is for you to reassure me. “You’re doing so well!” “You seem to cope in Cambodia perfectly!” However, I’d rather you didn’t. You see, there’s something actually liberating in letting God take control. I’ve been in so many situations where it was me trying to be in charge that caused the most stress. But, once you realise that actually, God never wanted it to be your burden, it’s a lot easier. God wants us to do things in his strength. This is for his glory and our blessing. We do not have the ability to do everything (and on some days, anything). But God does. God created the universe. He is all powerful. He wants to take the weight of any problems or situations.

““Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30.

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