Tag: #belonging

Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)

I have. I’ve felt like a nobody. Have you? Many people have, I think. Life is really hard. You work away and you carry this enormous load and your emotions are stretched like a taut piece of elastic – any tiny hit is jarring. You run on fumes. It feels like it’s just you. Only you to carry these terrible burdens. And you run out. You just run out. You’ve got nothing left. Nothing. No capacity to take any more knocks, even small ones. No resilience left.

Nothing.

At those times in my life I have despaired. I feel like I have nothing left. I have felt like I am nothing. I’m nobody. The world goes on and I just slog away alone. And there’s no end in sight. No solutions. No end. Just me.

In Mark 7:24-30 we see a woman who is at the end of her tether. How do we know that? Because of what she does and what she says.

Jesus has headed up to the area of Tyre and Sidon. These areas were synonymous with pagan worship. In fact the notorious Jezebel was a princess of Sidon and daughter of the king of Tyre. She was married to King Ahab (check out 1 Kings 16) and introduced pagan worship to the Israelites and wanted to have the prophet Elijah killed.

Now we have a woman from the same area, but approaching Jesus in faith. Like Rahab in Joshua 2 being the only one who has faith, so the SyroPhoenician woman comes in faith. Her act of faith is driven by desperation. Her daughter in possessed by an unclean spirit. I have two little boys and I would do anything to keep them safe and well. I would endure any punishment and humiliation I had to, to save them.

This woman tracks Jesus down, who has gone there wanting it to be kept secret. But this woman finds him and essentially breaks in to approach him. And she, a Gentile, throws herself at his feet and begs. Desperate, humiliated, hopeful.

And Jesus says something odd. “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

The gospel (the bread) is for the Israelites (the children), not for Gentiles (the dogs).

Children in Jewish culture are the rightful heirs. They are honoured. Dogs are dirty. In fact in Matthew 6:7, Jesus says not to give to dogs what is holy. Jesus is calling this woman a dog? Not so much. This is a teaching moment.

The Israelites have always been God’s chosen people. They are his children. But Jesus had said “first”. Israel first, others later. This continues the trajectory of the narrative arc of the whole Bible that shows that all the nations are God’s plan. Right from the first promises to Abraham when God had said that “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gen. 22:18), to Rahab being the brought into the chosen people, to Ruth the Moabite who is honoured in the line of David and Jesus, to the prophecies of Isaiah where the suffering servant will be “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6)

This is that moment.

Jesus is also not as harsh as it might first sound also. The word for “dog” he uses is kunarion which is a pup, or a little dog, or a house dog. Not a wild dog but a more affectionately termed animal. A dog that is around the house, that is familiar.

The woman seizes on the imagery and the hope contained in that word “first”. She says “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Verse 28).

She addresses him as Lord. She identifies herself as the dog. And she asks only for crumbs. She has faith and humility. And Jesus grants her request.

That woman must have felt like a nobody. She throws herself at the feet of the one person left in the world who may be able to help her. She literally begs on her knees. I’m a dog, she says. I’m nothing.

No, says Jesus. There’s a plan. Salvation for all. God’s grace extends to all. And there’s an order. But Jesus himself is the turning point. While later Paul’s mission is to the Gentiles, the promise has been there from the beginning and it is Jesus himself who begins the inclusion of the non-Israelites. We see him with Legion in the Gentile region of the Gerasenes of Mark 5, he heals the Roman centurions servant in Luke 7:1-10, he saves the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. And because of the response of this woman, he casts the demon out of her daughter.

Salvation for all. Mercy for all. We are not nobodys. We are somebody. We are somebody to God. We were outsiders. Just like these other people were. But we are not outsiders any more. That was promised right from Abraham – the very first promise included all of us. And if we are not outsiders, we are now his children.

His children. We are not nobody’s. We are his. Even though life is so hard, and we can feel so alone and burdens can feel impossible. We are his. Hold onto that one truth. We are his.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

In the mess of the world, how can I feel clean (Mark 7:1-23)

Sometimes this world can feel so dirty and so grubby that it’s impossible to feel clean. It’s not just the shady politics and the media corruption. It’s the hypocrisy in the people around us, the anger, the envy, the shallowness, the greed, the shameless self-promotion, the arrogance, the lack of empathy, the selfishness. It’s all around us, it invades us, it takes up real estate in our brains. It infects us, it sticks to us and it’s so pervasive that it’s impossible to see or feel anything pure.

This is not a new phenomena. Would you be surprised to know that Jesus raised against this very thing? In today’s passage (Mark 7:1-23) the Pharisees yet again accuse Jesus of blasphemous behaviour. This time it’s allowing his disciples to eat with unclean hands. We’ve covered this ground before in a previous blog (you can read it here when we looked at nor Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious). But this time it’s different.

This time Jesus hits back in the most personal way possible. He quotes the very scriptures they use to inflate themselves. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites,” Jesus says. Isaiah. The great prophet. The mouthpiece of God, Jesus said prophesied about these Pharisees (and people like them). He prophesied their faithlessness. Their failure was so insidious, it was foretold.

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 29:13. What does Isaiah say after this? Verse 14 says “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

This is quite a signal to the Pharisees, and when Jesus was speaking these words, those hearing him would have known exactly what he meant when he quoted these scriptures. Jesus explains further though. He gives an example of how inherently arrogant and hypocritical they have become.

You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

Corban? Corban is from the Hebrew qorban and relates to setting aside a portion of ones possessions for God. In real terms this meant that in the surface one could be “obedient” in giving (or at least virtue signalling the intention to give). Then, having annexed that money, you could keep it away from the parents, and potentially keep it away from the temple and just keep it for yourself.

This is the epitome of hypocrisy and arrogance and selfishness. It’s using God’s own laws to work the system in favour of avarice and greed and breaking God’s laws.

This is where the world has come to. It’s dirty, grubby and grimy – down to the very core of society. It’s a dirt that won’t wash away.

When Jesus then focuses on food and cleanliness in his parables, he gets to the heart of the issueit’s the heart.

Eating without ritually washed hands does not make them unclean. What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Focus on the outside and the heart suffers. Focus on the heart and everything on the outside improves – starting with ourselves.

The rest of the world will still be dirty and grubby. But we will be improved.

As prophesied in Isaiah, God has astounded us with wonder upon wonder. Jesus. His own son. God in the flesh. Perfect. Pure. Clean. The only place we can feel cleansed and purified is at the feet of Jesus.

Because of him, our hearts can be changed. Because of him we can change our world for the better, starting with us. And if world around us still stinks, we can go back to him to feel that sense of cleanness. We can re-calibrate and rest in his purity.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Inspirational memes I hate: “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Memes can be helpful – quick bites and pick me ups as we scroll through social media, reminders of biblical truths particularly can point us to where our attention should be as we rush though the day.

Some memes sound helpful, but are most definitely not.

One of the inspirational memes I hate is this one:

You may even have seen it like this, as though God himself were speaking to you.

It sounds great doesn’t it? So comforting. So loving. We lean on this when times are tough. When we need to believe we’re going to be OK. When we are desperate to know that things are going to get better.

Except God didn’t say this. This is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:12-14:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

What this doesn’t say is that God will not give us anything that we cannot handle. What it does say is that God is present in our temptation. The context of the passage is warnings from the Israelites history and their fall into idolatry, sexual immorality and revelry (ie drunken partying). This is not a passage about God generally making life OK.

So this is the first reason I hate this meme – because it says something that the Bible doesn’t say. It gives us a false Bible knowledge. It’s certainly the kind of thing that God might say. God our Father is all-loving and all-merciful. But he didn’t actually say this. If this is something God didn’t say, we can’t extrapolate (poorly) from things he did say.

Throwing this meme around is well-meaning, but it promises things God didn’t promise. It implies God will make everything alright. It implies God will raise us out of our problems. It implies he will never let us break.

And that is demonstrably not true.

So this leads to the second reason I hate this meme. It implies things that aren’t true. Recently, American church pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life. This article by Ed Stetzer is beautiful and well worth a read. Jarrid Wilson broke. We all know other people who break. It is tragic and terrible – and true.

Our world breaks people. Things happen to people that they cannot handle. If on one hand we are telling each other that God will never give us things we can’t handle and then see people breaking, what does that say about God? Does it say he wasn’t there? Does it say people’s weakness is stronger than God’s power? Does it say God left them?

What does that do to our confidence in him? If our faith is informed by these memes, then our faith is also eroded by these memes. We need to be more discerning than that. Our faith needs to be in the right thing.

This then leads to the third thing I hate. Because if our faith is informed by these memes, and yet we see people breaking, we must believe less of those people – because we cannot think less of God! People around us are dying inside. People we know are crumbling. We cannot be a people who thinks they just aren’t coping like it’s some kind of weakness. If we believe God doesn’t give people anything they can’t handle, and then people aren’t coping, surely it must be their fault. They aren’t strong enough. They don’t have enough faith. There must be something wrong with them.

And that’s how we end up in little huddles in church talking in hushed tones about people.

So then here is the last thing I hate about this meme. We begin to believe these things about ourselves. We believe we must be not strong enough. We believe that our faith is not big enough. We believe that God must have left us. We believe that God is trying to help us but we just aren’t doing things right. We shouldn’t be bending. We shouldn’t be breaking. We shouldn’t be in the jagged pieces that we are.

Here is something that is true – People bend. People break.

In 2 Corinthians 1:8 Paul says “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,  about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

Paul was crumbling. He nearly broke. And yes, he relied on God, which makes it sound easy, like a self-help moment. But we cannot forget before he got to that, he despaired of life itself. And despair doesn’t just disappear. Even when we resolve to (weakly and brokenly) rely on God, there is healing, there is loneliness, there is fear, there is even trauma to overcome.

In Psalm 34:18 it says God stays close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. This is a promise we can hold in our brokenness. He doesn’t promise to un-break our hearts. He promises to stay close. And he promises save us when we are crushed in spirit. Save us – not make all the bad things disappear, not take away the anxiety or depression or the trauma. He doesn’t even promise to take away the suicidal thoughts or change the abusive husband, or stop the redundancy. He promises he will be with us, and save us.

What we must also notice in this is that God knows when we are broken and crushed. There’s no holy huddle and talk in hushed tones. He knows and he proclaims his promises to us in a voice loud enough for us to hear. This is where we anchor our faith.

We should all pray for wisdom and discernment. Our faith is impacted by these memes so we need to exercise our discernment to know when they are true and helpful and when they are poor paraphrases, when they are not true.

We all know people who are breaking. If we have God’s wisdom, we will have God’s heart for them. We can be a people of true love and compassion, upholding people who are bent so far their backs are breaking. We can hold people’s hands even when they are shattering into jagged pieces. We can walk with them when they are too weak to walk by themselves. We can pray for deliverance and pray for healing and pray for miracles. And we should pray earnestly, hungrily, expectantly. God can do anything. Anything is possible for him. But we don’t know that bit of the plan. All we know is the surety if he promised. That he is there and will save us.

And if you are reading this and you feel you are breaking, hear God’s true promises. He is with you and he will save you. He is with you in the darkness. Don’t believe what the meme tells you. He knows what you are going through and he knows you cannot handle what is happening to you. What is happening to you is real. It is so real it could break you. But he is with you. And he is just as real as the things you are facing. But he is mightier and louder so even though you might not feel like it, he is there.

He is with us. And we must rely on him. Because when we have nothing else, not even our own confidence or mental strength or emotional clarity, he is the only thing we have. When we can’t see anything of hope, when we believe we have no support, when we think we are completely alone, when we can almost feel our spirit cracking under the pressure of our burdens, he is there.

Hear his promises and never let him go.

How can something be a tragedy and a triumph? (Mark 6:14-29)

There’s a lot of women in the Bible who we can admire. Strong women. Smart women. Gentle women. Brave women. There are women who triumph when everyone else crumbles. There are women who save the day. There are women who believe when all hope appears to be gone.

There are other women who are the exact opposite. There are of course plenty of men in the Bible who lead the people into idolatry and death. Here though, we meet one of the women who’s inappropriate authority over her husband, leads them all into wickedness and evil.

Today’s passage deals with the death of John the Baptist.

The story is that Salome, the step daughter of Herod, dances for him and he is so enchanted that he says she can have anything she wishes. Salome, in consultation with her mother Herodias (Herod’s wife) asks for the head of John the Baptist.

There’s a mix of history and theology here that turns this Hollywood-style thriller into a tragedy and triumph at the same time.

Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee and Perea as a Roman client state. He was the ruler of the Jews and was also raised as a Jew. He was married to the daughter of the king of Nabatea – and he divorced her to marry Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother. It’s not clear whether she walked out on the half-brother and married Herod anyway, or divorced him before marrying Herod.

Confused yet? It’s like a plot line from The Bold and the Beautiful isn’t it?

John the Baptist had preached against Herod and Herodias’ marriage, which was against Old Testament law (although it was not against Roman law so they must have snuck it in under that). This is all attested by Jewish historian Josephus who was writing at the time of the events.*

Herod appears to have had a conflicted relationship with John. In Mark 16:19-20, Herodias wants to kill John but can’t because Herod feared him. The original Greek here implies more a reverential fear – which fits with the passage saying “Herod would listen to John” and he would be greatly perplexed but he would like it. Herod knows he is a holy and righteous man and likes listening to him, even though he doesn’t really understand.

Herod had imprisoned John because of what he was saying (6:17). But he also protected him from Herodias who wanted to kill him (6:19).

Josephus says John was imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus where John appears to have been for a while because in the other gospels, John receives visits from his disciples and from Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 11 and Luke 7). It must have been bleak and seeing the fortress reminds us we are dealing with real people and real events.

Source: https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2019/03/jordans-biblical-fortress-of-machaerus.html#OsuYcE2RGpuk130K.97

We are also dealing with a narrative arc of the Bible. Herodias’ murderous hatred of John points us back to Jezebel in the Old Testament and her hatred of Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 19, Jezebel swears to kill Elijah too and he flees.

This echo of Jezebel is deliberate – not because Herodias is equally as wicked (although she is), but because of the association with Elijah. Since the beginning there has been association of John with Elijah and the prophet who prepares the way for the Messiah.

Herod is a weak fool. Herodias and Salome defeat him with their wits. They manipulate him and he walks right into it. Herod doesn’t want to kill John, he knows he is innocent. He is perplexing and maybe a threat to his authority but he’s done nothing wrong. And here we see a foreshadowing of Jesus with Pilate. Pilate sees Jesus as a possible threat but knows he has broken no laws.

When John is executed, John’s disciples come and take the body and lay it in a tomb – as Jesus’ disciples would soon do. Another foreshadowing.

Until this point, John has been the main landmark on Herod’s horizon. After John’s death, Jesus’ ministry really rises to the fore. When Herod hears about Jesus fears that John has been raised from the dead. Some people are even saying this. This is telling on a few fronts. Firstly, that the association between John and Jesus is evident. While people have yet to clearly distinguish them, it shows that at the time, they were not two distinct movements but seen as one a progression of the other. This is certainly what John himself had understood as he prepared the way for Jesus, and that he must become less and Jesus becomes more.

It also shows Herod’s guilt and shame. His fear almost feels as though he thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of this innocent man he has murdered.

It also points forward again the Jesus – who was raised from the dead. It’s interesting there was a rumour that John was raised from the dead, but it never went anywhere because he wasn’t. He demonstrably wasn’t. He didn’t appear anywhere and nobody saw him. When the rumour erupts of Jesus’ resurrection, he is seen in many places by many people. There’s no denying that that really happened. Here, however, it is just a rumour because of the similarity between John’s preaching of baptism and repentance, and Jesus’ preaching of repentance and faith. John baptised with water, but Jesus baptised with the Holy Spirit.

So John’s death was tragic. But it was also a triumph. It pointed us back to Jezebel to re-affirm John as the Elijah figure who prepares the way. It also points forward to what will happen with Jesus – the ultimate triumph.

I find it staggering that God provides these sign posts for us to help us understand and interpret what happened in the past, what is happening at the time and what is to come. Without John, the events around jesus’ ministry and sacrifice would be harder for us to interpret. With these events, God gives us a deeper and profound picture of what is happening and why.

God is gracious in his revelation to us. What he communicates is like a set of keys to unlock scripture. Nothing is in code. It’s not secret knowledge. It’s all there for us to read, understand, think about and look back to him in awe and reverence.

* Josephus Book 18, chapter 5. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
  12. Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)

Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)

Sometimes to me, the concept of “Jesus loves you” can feel a bit impersonal. It’s not an impersonal concept of course, but there can be something in us that stops us from thinking it applies individually and personally to ourselves. We might understand it intellectually – I understand that Jesus loves us as a group, enough to die for us even. But I find it harder to apply the concept to myself personally. Jesus loves me? With all my issues and sins and general losing-at-lifeness?

If this is you too, I feel you. I know it because the Bible tells me. But I find it hard to believe it because I know me.

But what today’s Bible passage shows us, is not someone telling us that Jesus loves us. It’s Jesus showing us he loves us – and specifically seeks people out, even in all their worst kind of mess.

In Mark 4:35, after teaching the crowds on the kingdom of God, Jesus says “Let’s go over to the other side.” That is, he wants them to cross the Sea of Galilee and go to the Decapolis, a series of 10 towns in what was a Gentile area. When a violent storm erupts, the disciples are terrified and Jesus sleeps soundly. They wake him and he calms the storm with a word.

Once he was rebuked the storm, Jesus turns and rebukes the disciples. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?

I find this very challenging. Because I fear a lot. I fear for a million things over my kids. I fear not having enough money to pay all the bills. I fear making mistakes at work.

What Jesus says is that the disciples fear is evidence of a lack of faith. If they understood who he was, they would not fear. The disciples do not yet fully understand who Jesus is, and Mark uses this to great effect as a literary device to bring the reader along the same journey. The way the disciples pose the question “who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” places the reader in their shoes so they too are asking the same question.

Of course only God rules the waves. In Psalm 89:9 it says “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” It’s similar to the the Pharisees having asked “who has the authority to forgive sins but God alone?” when Jesus interacted with the paralysed man. So the reader is starting to get it, even if the disciples are a still a bit slow.

For me though, I need to re-remember who Jesus is – because I do know, and yet I still fear. Fear is very natural, and it’s not as though we’re not supposed to fear. But for us, fear should be a prompt to take things to God. Mental note to self: when I feel the fear, don’t start furiously plotting and planning and organising. Take it to God.

When they get to the other side, they are at a cemetery and a man possessed by demons comes to meet them. This figure is one of the most tragic in the whole Bible. He had been bound hand and foot with chains, but in his demented state had torn them off. Can you imagine? So tormented that he had actually torn iron shackles from himself. He must have been covered in cuts and scratches and blood and dirt. He was so anguished that at night he would cry out and self-harm, cutting himself with stones.

He sounds terrifying and tragic. If I saw him on the street – a drunken crazed man covered in cuts, I would avoid him and get away as quickly as possible. Everything about this man should have made any Jew run a mile – he is demented, he’s a gentile, he lives among the dead and he is covered in blood. Jews are not supposed to associate with Gentiles. Blood and death make Jews ritually unclean. And yet Jesus has specifically gone to find this man. How do we know this? Because they broke away from teaching the crowd to come here, and when Jesus has healed the man, they get back in the boat and go back (5:21). Which means Jesus had done what he went there to do. Which means that Jesus specifically went there to find and heal this man, and then leave again.

This isn’t me being told Jesus seeks out individuals. This shows me.

This shows me he has and will come specifically to find me where I am. It shows me that in all my mess, in all the things in my life that I see as unclean, impure, messy, shameful and embarrassing Jesus will walk through them to save me. To save me.

I need to remember that Jesus is that personal. I need to remember that he is that powerful. I am his and he is mine and when I fear, I am lacking in faith in who he is. When I fear (which I will) I need to remember who he is and the power he has. He has the power to calm the wind and the waves. He has the power to calm me and my fearful heart.

I need to practice this so the trigger to turn to God (instead of relying on my own ability to overcome the fear with planning and organising things) becomes instinctive. This is a part of the process of growing as a disciple of Jesus. It is part of re-visiting who Jesus is and what he came to do through Bible studies like this. I must always keep reminding myself that God is far bigger than I imagine him and far more personal.

Huge and transcendent, and yet close and personal.

Everywhere for eternity and yet close by my side.

Loudly present in our world, and yet quiet and still in my heart.

This is who Jesus is. This is our God. And this is who came to find us, personally and individually. This is the God who specifically sought you out.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)