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 8:1-21 – 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 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: 1–6: What are you missing?

If you were to talk to people from different stages of my life, you’d likely get a very different interpretation of my character. These stages don’t have to be particularly far apart. Take two of my friends who I’ll refer to by their initials, K and S. K was a friend during secondary school and college. She knew me at the awkward teenager stage. S was a friend as university. She knew me at the awkward university student stage. (All my life stages are awkward, just at different points and in different ways.) If you asked K and S whether I was organised, the answer would be completely different. K would say not at all: I constantly forget things; I don’t keep deadlines well; I’m a scatter-brain. S would say that I was extremely organised: everything was submitted well in advance; I could handle a wide-range organisational challenges simultaneously; I managed my time well. A part of this is the massive effort I made in my first semester to get systems in place (I had a diary where I wrote everything. The receipts of my book loans were stapled inside. I had a cover-page template for all my reading notes where I kept extensive bibliographical notes so I knew the references to quotation with ease…)

Despite this apparent transformation, I think K would find it hard to believe that I’m considered to be pretty well organised by most people I’ve encountered in my adult life. (I’m still working on the tidy part…) So, when I read the first part of Mark 6, I sort of understand the situation Jesus finds himself in. I also understand the perspectives of those around him. It must be hard for those that knew Jesus as a child and as a carpenter to believe he was indeed the Son of God. In fact, I believe (and may be wrong) that it’s indicated somewhere that his brothers were very hard to convince and only believed after Jesus’ death.

My favourite verse, perhaps, of this part is verse 5: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” The fact that healing a few sick people is seen as unremarkable. Imagine if your complaint was “I only managed to do one miracle today. Yesterday, I could do fifty-six.” (I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether miracles still happen or not. But they do but might not necessarily meet our definition of a miracle—whoops, I got into it.) What is incredible here is that Jesus performing many miracles was the expectation. It just goes to show how incredible he actually was. Also, it makes me think about how Jesus is responsive to the wishes and attitudes of those around him. He doesn’t thrust miracles on people. He graciously allows them to accept them.

The questions it raises for me is what have I been unwilling to accept in my life? How have I stymied Jesus’s untold, unfathomable blessings through a hardness of heart? I am pretty sure that it has happened. Jesus is still good and patient and I am still exceptionally blessed. But, maybe there is more that I could be receiving if only I opened my hands and heart to accept it. I wonder if that’s the same for any of you?

Mark 1: Jesus’ authority

So, I’ve finally read all the New Testament books with fewer than 10 chapters! There are quite a few Old Testament books that are below 10 chapters that I’ve still yet to read (in some cases, ever). However, I thought I would tackle one of the gospels. Mark is the shortest, so I thought I’d start there.


Mark is certainly fast-paced, which probably accounts for why it’s the shortest of the gospels. In the first chapter, you start with John the Baptist, then you have Jesus’s baptism, temptation, some healings and casting out of demons, the proclamation of the good news and the calling of the first disciples (but not in that order). Mark does not linger over each event, and moves quickly from one to the next.

One of the interesting things is how Mark gets straight to Jesus’ identity and his ministry. Luke and John have introduction that come before Jesus is explicitly mentioned. Matthew has a similar introduction, but gives us Jesus’ genealogy and nativity story. Mark begins with the idea that this is about Jesus, then gives us a prophecy to show how Jesus is the fulfilment of scripture. We have John the Baptist proclaim Jesus’ importance, and then the heavenly declaration of Jesus as God’s son. So, in a matter of ten verses we’ve had Isaiah the prophet, John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit and God declare who Jesus was. The temptation in the desert is dealt with in one sentence, but we are told Jesus was attended to by angels, again, showing the readers who he is.

Therefore, when we get to his public ministry in verses 14, we have a good idea that what is going to happen is going to be amazing. He is the son of God, of course. He declares that God’s kingdom his near. The way he shows this is by showing how God’s kingdom has power over sickness and spirits. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s perfect nature and will rules over earth. Therefore, evil, in the form of sickness and unclean spirits, is driven out as Jesus proclaims the kingdom. Furthermore, this just proves Jesus’ authority (the demons recognise it in verse 24, then the people realise it in verse 27).

Mark 1, then, sets up Jesus’ power in authority in two ways: through the testimony of others (including in scripture and from God, himself) and through is powerful deeds. It encourages us to know that Jesus is the fulfilment of scripture and that he does have this power. Especially as believers know we have been given this same authority and Jesus is with us until the end of the age.